Getting down ‘n dirty with Ms Debbie Harry

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She’s Atomic

Here in the UK, almost everybody loved Debbie Harry when her group Blondie was at its critical and commercial zenith during the late 1970s and up to 1981. Men and boys looked on in lust, while women and girls either wanted to be her or were so jealous that they just had to ‘Rip Her To Shreds’ such was the mass-appeal of Harry. What’s not to like? Lithe and sleek in a slinky dress (see the album covers for ‘Parallel Lines’ and ‘Plastic Letters’), with a voice so beautiful and clear, and an archly look-but-don’t-touch attitude – Harry simply exuded subzero cool – she literarily was the ‘Sunday Girl,’ “cold as ice cream but still as sweet”.

The best Blondie line-up eventually …

consisted of Harry on vocals, Chris Stein (guitar), Clem Burke (drums), Jimmy Destri (keyboards), Nigel Harrison (bass) and Frank Infante (guitars). And just as good was the fact that the band members (mainly Harry, Stein and Destri) wrote most of the songs. ‘Parallel Lines’ from 1978 is the critically acclaimed album that truly defined Blondie commercially as a pan-continental pop group.

After all it contained the sublime opening track ‘Hanging On A Telephone’ which is a fantastically propulsive piece that can be interpreted either as a punk or pop song – such is its inherently melodic catchiness, I can also imagine the Buzzcocks or even (Kurt Cobain’s) Nirvana during their early ‘Bleach’ years doing abrasive, frenetic versions with great aplomb.
It also has some rather nifty 1950s style guitar sub-melodies intertwined with Harry’s vocals which make for beautiful, dynamic musical contrasts. Punk group, the Ramones, also used this contrasting style on some of their songs to great effect.

Indeed how can anyone argue against the sophisticated songwriting of ‘Picture This,’ or, featuring Robert Fripp on guitar & a reggae-styled end-coda, the wonderful ‘Fade Away And Radiate’? How about the surreal longing of ‘Pretty Baby’? Here some fantasy lyrics about “A neo-nebular under the sun” are mixed in with “La Dolce Vita is a magic dance”! It somehow remains melodically convincing, sounding a bit ‘70s glam rock mixed with ‘mad’ (Jeff Lynne) ELO music structures (really good).

The most commercially memorable track from ‘Parallel Lines’ is of course …

‘Heart Of Glass’ which took Blondie, along with the accompanying music video, pretty far away from the slightly punk-like, New Wave styles of the first two albums; ‘Blondie’ (1976/77) & ‘Plastic Letters’(1977) and into disco territory. As a song ‘Heart Of Glass’ is acceptable, but nothing special lyrically. Musically it isn’t that great either, save for the superbly catchy yet simply constructed electronic rhythm parts, which were later sampled by commercial rap artist Missy Elliott on ‘Work It’ from ‘Under Construction’ (2003). And I really don’t like the over-emphasised ‘cheesy’ bass lines, which turn the music into easy-listening disco rather than the more intriguing experimental crossover that the electronic rhythmic parts suggest.

However, those wonderful electronic sounds, Harry’s beautiful vocals and the glitter-ball music video saved the day by transforming ‘Heart Of Glass’ into a massive international disco-pop crossover hit.

‘Sunday Girl’ is …

the standout track on ‘Parallel Lines’ for me though, and while ostensibly it sounds quite frivolous it’s a song that works on repeated listens as it both dispels and plays-on its outwardly dizzy sounding title. Like ‘Picture This’ it’s a song of longing and desperation, but this time rather cleverly constructed within a sublime vocal rendition by Harry. She pilots this song in a way that the music almost becomes secondary. And it works too; such is the beauty of Harry’s ability to flex, shape and twist her voice so delicately and with sophistication.

It’s resultantly so utterly beautiful, where her vocals (and the minor keyboard melodies) become very important by driving the lilting melodic shifts of the song.

So, with songs like ‘Hanging On The Telephone,’ ‘Picture This,’ ‘Fade Away And Radiate,’ ‘Pretty Baby’ and ‘Sunday Girl,’ ‘Parallel Lines’ has some excellent content and I can see why it’s critically acclaimed as the best Blondie album. But these great songs amount to less than half the twelve tracks on the original album – so the critics can get stuffed because I much prefer the follow up, ‘Eat To The Beat,’ which was recorded between May and June 1979 and released in October of that year.

While ‘Eat To The Beat’ may not …

have quite the same obvious level of sophistication in the lyrics and some song structures to the best tracks on ‘Parallel Lines,’ I still think it is superior, with much better musicianship and recorded interaction between the band. This is instantly recognisable in the excellent Clem Burke, much improved from ‘Parallel Lines,’ he played surging, driving and nicely tuneful drum tracks throughout. The production by Mike Chapman, who also did ‘Parallel Lines,’ is crisp, clear and unreserved in capturing the power chords and structure of the songs. Yet, this is not as commercially motivated an album as it first seems – it was reportedly less successful in America than ‘Parallel Lines’.

Although initially ‘Eat To The Beat’ sounds more direct and accessible to its predecessor, it’s actually more aggressive – which is deliciously at odds with the newer pop image that Blondie had gained from the successful ‘Heart Of Glass’. And thus, the excellent production and sharper musicianship was combined with a familiar Blondie album structure where you would get driving rhythmic numbers like ‘Dreaming’ & ‘The Hardest Part’ mixed with delightfully lyrical songs like ‘Shayla’ & ‘Slow Motion’. Indeed there are reggae structures on ‘Die Young Stay Pretty,’ big epic rock on ‘Union City Blue’ and evergreen pop-punk as on the title track and ‘Living In The Real World’.

What makes this album so special …

is its sheer, almost desperate cohesiveness; each track flows into the next seamlessly, forming a proper, complete album while not dislocating Blondie from their musical roots. What I ultimately found disappointing in the previous ‘Parallel Lines’ was the production and musicianship – not the compositions or the lyrics. Imagine the brilliant ‘Hanging On The Telephone’ from that album but instead sounding even better, like the hyper-energised and better timed ‘Dreaming’ from ‘Eat To The Beat’.

This is because the drum & bass rhythm section is so much better here; being a lot tauter there was more space created within the recordings – and lacking a slower and comparatively lumpen stance – this allowed the rest of the band to be heard more clearly.

‘Atomic’ is my favourite song on the album and while vaguely similar to ‘Heart Of Glass’ simply by having electronic rhythms – it’s actually a more frenetic and experimental piece, which gets rid of the accusations of a cynical commercial slant to ‘Eat To The Beat’.

Ironically …

‘Atomic’ was another smash hit for Blondie, here in the UK charts. On the album version I love its opening which literarily bashes the electronic parts, cymbals, bass and guitar into a pumping, pummelling musical fist for about twelve seconds before a microscopic pause and then into the heroic guitar melody to open the song proper. These rhythmical structures and main melody return during the length of the song, while Harry’s singing is indeed powerful – like a series of vocal crescendos that transform into chanting.

On their own, the lyrics to ‘Atomic’ are minimal, seemingly without structure or meaning – but when combined with the music and Harry – these few words take on a beautifully abstract and poetic edge with their interplay between the dynamic shifts of the instruments and soaring vocals. As a result, ‘Atomic’ dispatches huge swathes of trance-like energy, electric in its intensity, especially when played with volume.

Considering the cohesiveness of the music, there is more irony, where producer Chapman mentions in his notes to the 2001 remastered edition of ‘Eat To The Beat’ that band congeniality was much worse than usual – with even more fighting and arguments – the six members had formed three mini-cliques. Adding to the pressure was the record company demanding another hit record to follow ‘Parallel Lines’ just a year later and according to Chapman lots of drugs were also supplemented to this volatile mix, after many escapades to the infamous Studio 54 nightclub.

Maybe this is where the sense of tense desperation and frenetic tempos comes from? Chapman states that “Debbie and Chris’ relationship with Andy Warhol and the rest of that intense New York artistic social crowd brought something quite strange and wonderful to the project. The music was conspicuously influenced by the era and the Studio 54 vibe.”

3 classes

I have the 1979 LP & cassette and 2001 CD edition of ‘Eat To The Beat’ and can unhesitatingly recommend the LP as the best sounding format, for this album. The cassette was interesting because, as a bonus, it featured the delicious French version of ‘Sunday Girl,’ which by a simple change in language, managed to sound mouth-wateringly less salubrious than the original English iteration – it can be found on compilations such as ‘Blonde & Beyond’ (1993/96) and ‘Singles Box’(2004).

The cover design and photography is unfortunately the second worst in the Blondie discography (the most risible being ‘The Hunter’ from 1982) as it’s trying to convey a more aggressive and punk-like stance with a garishly spiky logo. It’s also quite representative of what Chapman said previously, regarding the fractious and tumultuous time the band were having during the recording of ‘Eat To The Beat’ – here Harry is facing sideways, looking unsure and guarded, close-to and comforted-by then partner Stein who has his arm protectively around her shoulder – it’s quite different to the streamlined image of the ‘Parallel Lines’ cover which had an elegant Harry, gorgeous yet defiant and confidently looking straight-ahead, while the rest of the band were close together and smiling – different people all trying to go in the same direction, parallel lines indeed…

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