Episode 17 – Discussion of Blondie’s Self-titled Debut
Welcome everyone to another episode of New Wave Beat. I am your host, Jason D’Orazio. Today we will talk about new wave band Blondie’s self-titled debut, but first let’s see what is going on currently in the new wave world.
0:00 – New Wave News
4:40 – Discussion of Blondie’s Self-titled Debut
New Wave News
Nick Rhodes’ Oscar Predictions
While not working his synth magic, Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes is a bona fide film buff. In fact, for about a decade he has been putting detailed Oscar predictions right on the band’s website. Rhodes said of films: “It’s part of the fabric of pop culture.” Rhodes thinks that “3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” will snag best picture. As for best film score Rhodes really dug the “Dunkirk” soundtrack by Hans Zimmer”, and believes Mary J Blige’s “Mighty River” from Mudbound will win for best original song. As you are listening to this the awards shows will likely be over, so we will know if Rhodes guesses correctly.
Talking Heads Covers
While David Byrne is embarking on a large tour to support his new album, his previous band Talking Heads has been kaput for about 25 years now. That said, there are a good number of cover bands, including “Start Making Sense” and the Chicago-based “This Must Be The Band”. “This Must Be the Band” performs 3 to 4 hour shows. I have been to a show and they are excellent! Recently the afrobeat band London Astrobeat Orchestra covered songs from some of Talking Heads’ classic albums. This is natural, as Talking Heads including a good amount of afrobeat in their songs.
Marc Almond Honor
Congrats to former Soft Cell singer Marc Almond, who recently collected an OBE from Prince William. The OBE is a British order of chivalry, honoring those in the arts, sciences, and charities. Marc Almond quipped to William, “I told His Royal Highness he has probably heard one of my tracks, Tainted Love, and he will have danced to it at some point!”. The OBE is a good segue for Almond into performing a final show as Soft Cell with David Ball in London. Almond became a patron of brain trauma charity Headway after suffering the same himself after a motorcycle accident in 2004.
Unlikely Devo Fan
New wave band Devo was much more than just “Whip It”, and was indeed quite influential. Indeed, bands like They Might be Giants and artists like Weird Al Yankovic owe something to Devo. But none other than the godfather of grunge Kurt Cobain was also a big Devo fan, as evidenced in some of his interviews. Maybe he appreciated Devo’s irreverence and disdain for authority, as otherwise Devo and Nirvana are quite different in my humble opinion. Recently, Rolling Stone has released footage of Nirvana covering Devo’s “Turn Around” at one of Nirvana’s shows in 1991. “Turn Around” is most known as being the B-side to “Whip It”. Pretty interesting!
Totally ’80s Festival
Huntington State Beach is a popular destination for surfing waves in Orange County, California. But on May 12th some NEW wave bands will be descending on the beach for the Totally ‘80s Festival. I am jealous that some good acts are scheduled, like the Human League and the Motels. It looks like so far the Human League are only doing two other shows in the United States this year. Influential ‘80s DJ Richard Blade will be there, and I am sure he will spin some great new wave hits as well. There will also be ‘80s celebrity impersonators and an ‘80s-themed concert contest. Nice!
New Motels Album
The Motels are releasing a new album at the end of March called “The Last Few Beautiful Days”, their first in a decade. It has been crowned “a creative triumph” by Popmatters. Unfortunately, frontwoman Martha Davis’ eldest daughter lost her battle with opioid addiction in 2016, and the album has some cathartic moments that reflect this. The single “Lucky Stars” has a video to promote it, which was released in late February. It features stills of art work by Martha herself. It is a pretty good song, and I look forward to the full album! The Motels have five concert dates scheduled this year, including an appearance at the aforementioned Totally ‘80s Festival.
Discussion of Blondie’s Self-titled Debut
Today we are going to start a series of episodes about seminal new wave band Blondie. Technically, Blondie started out in the punk era, a little before new wave. Blondie was part of a punk scene in New York City dubbed CBGB, named after a punk club in Manhattan’s then-seedy East Village. However, their pop sensibilities, unfairly maligned in the punk community, strongly foreshadowed new wave. Their self-titled debut album came out in 1976 and is a great example of an early ‘60s, pre-Beatles sound melding with the irreverence, angst and DIY ethic of punk. The band consists of singer and frontwoman Deborah Harry, lead guitarist Chris Stein, drummer Clement Burke, bassist Gary Valentine, and Jimmy Festri on keyboards.
Let’s start our discussion of Blondie’s self-titled debut with the single “X Offender”. It sounds a little like their later song “Dreaming”. You can hear some punk elements, like the repetitive, military-style guitar . But there’s also a early ‘60s pastiche going on, with Jimmy Festri’s farfisa organ and the backup vocal that goes “Ah”. The lead vocal, sung by frontwoman Deborah Harry has a punk energy to it but has early ‘60s girl group influences as well. I like this combo, and it must have sounded fresh as punk was just starting to get its feet wet. There are references throughout the song to the narrator being arrested. The line “We sat in the night with my hands cuffed at my side” I think refers to her and a police officer. I think the narrator is a prostitute because the singer tells the officer “You had to admit you wanted, the love of a sex offender”. I believe the cop is attracted to the narrator. There is a video for “X Offender”, which consists of the band performing live. They are having a lot of fun with the song. Even early on, Deborah Harry has a bit of her stoic, carefree facial expressions that would define her look.
In the Flesh
“In the Flesh” was the second single off of the album “Blondie” . It’s a slower number than “X Offender”, and the punk elements are dialed back quite a bit in favor of an early ‘60s pop sound. Indeed, the guitars and drums are less vigorous with the except for one drum section about halfway through. Harry’s vocals are quite restrained and sound very smooth. The farfisa organ is eschewed in favor of a more gentle keyboard section. The lyrics reflect the melody and vocals in that it is a straight-up love ballad. The narrator misses her ex-boyfriend and wants to rekindle the flame, but unfortunately it appears he is over her and seeing other women. I do like the reference to Manhattan’s Lower East Side as Blondie was New York City-based. “In the Flesh” did not chart in the US or UK, but interestingly almost cracked the top of the Australian charts at #2. The promo video appropriately showcases the band being reflective, as opposed to the enthusiasm of “X Offender”, which granted made sense for that song. Since it was only 1976 when the video was cut, I am not going to give it any flack for not having a narrative. All in all “In the Flesh” is a lovely song which contrasts nicely against “X Offender”, thereby illustrating the band’s range.
Rip Her to Shreds
The 3rd single “Rip Her to Shreds” injects more of the punk irreverence from “X Offender”. Deborah Harry’s vocals have a real cutting edge to them; you can sense the catchy anger. The farfisa organ is back, reminding one that the album was produced by Richard Gottehrer, who produced early ‘60s pop groups. The guitar sounds more like classic rock and roll in many parts. The bass guitar is is powerful and great. Also, I really like the gang vocal on the chorus phrase “She so dull”. On the surface Deborah Harry is verbally eviscerating a woman that she doesn’t care much for. The insults cut like a knife. For instance, “her nose job is pre-atomic” and “she looks like she washes with Comet”. There are too many to list here. But I wonder, could the song be about the insults that were hurled at Debby Harry herself? On Youtube there is a rare copy of a TV appearance they did in support of “Rip Her to Shreds”. I don’t know if this was the official promo video for the song, though. Being it was the pre-MTV era, videos did not play as much of a role for singles anyway.
Little Girl Lies
OK, now let’s dive into the album tracks, starting with “Little Girl Lies”. The clapping track recalls some ‘60s songs and makes it one you can tap to. The organ adds well to the song, particularly in the bridge. The guitar section of early Squeeze songs remind me of that of the section on “Little Girl Lies”. Last but not least are Harry’s vocals which have a moderate amount of energy relative to the rest of the album but are still spot-on. I find the “Boo-hoo” part pretty funny. I think “Little Girl Lies” are about a relationship where both parties are telling some not-so-white lies to each other. In other words, a partnership based on deceit.
Look Good in Blue
Next up is “Look Good In Blue”. The song has this ominous, mystery vibe to it, particularly with the guitar and a certain keyboard section. The bridge has a great guitar section from Chris Stein. Harry delivers the vocals mostly gently, but gives a little edge to some parts for good emphasis. I am going to guess the song is about a guy who has been lied to, and the narrator wants to comfort him. A line that supports this is “I could give some head and shoulders to lie on”. The lyrics are edgy in parts. For instance, “It matches your skin your eyes dripping with pain”.
In the Sun
“In the Sun” is the next song. It has a rip-roaring surf intro, and continues right on with a real-fast tempo, clocking in a little under three minutes. Because of the tempo and repetitive chorus I think that, out of the album, “In the Sun” sounds the most like early punk band the Ramones. Harry’s vocals are enthusiastic while still sounding smooth. I think the song is straightforward lyrics-wise. Harry wants to be at the beach but right now is in the concrete jungle of Manhattan. A subway could take her to Coney Island beach, but perhaps I am thinking too deeply on this one.
A Shark in Jets Clothing
“A Shark in Jets Clothing” stood out as my favorite album track on Blondie’s self-titled debut. Indeed, the organ intro hooked me instantly. The drum and bass are also gets me tapping along to the rhythm. Harry’s vocals show a lot of range in intensity from mellow to histrionic. I believe the song is a close parallel to the play West Side Story. The song even features the iconic finger-snaps from the play. Harry plays the role of an ally to a gang dubbed the Jets, and falls in love with a rival Shark. The lyrics are pretty dark; an example is “Don’t go out DTK you’ll wear your best suit in the ground”.
The 2nd side of the album “Blondie” starts off with “Man Overboard”. Harry’s vocal changes in tempo give the song some flavor. The song has a bit of a tropical feel to it thanks to the lyrics and keyboard, sort of a proto-”The Tide is High”. The first bridge has a real distinctive and good synth section, and the second a guitar counterpoint that is good as well. Finally, the backup vocals shouting the song title is catchy as well. The song is pretty straightforward methinks: A man is overwhelmed by love gone wrong. Harry explains that he is “Sinking in a sea of love”.
“Rifle Range” starts off with a great guitar section that might sound a little like Santana. Indeed, the guitars are more prominent and the keyboard less prominent in “Rifle Range” then the other tracks. The drums are a bit more vigorous than usual as well. Debby Harry’s vocals sound good, but didn’t quite catch me as much as her great performances on the other tracks. That said, I did like the non-verbal vocal parts. I’m not sure what the song is specifically about, but the lyrics are dark with mention of instruments of execution like gallows, noose and of course a rifle.
Kung Fu Girls
The song “Kung Fu Girls” leans a bit more toward punk. Harry yells “One-two-three” in Cantonese which is interesting. The rest of her vocals are among the most intense of the album and match the fast tempo well. The fast farfisa organ is terrific, deftly combining the early ‘60s with mid ‘70s. The guitar has a punk feel to it, again a little like the Ramones. In the song, a woman, described as “kung-fu” helps a bemused man in a Chinese neighborhood. But in the end she kicks him to the floor. At least that was my interpretation of it.
Attack of the Giant Ants
Attack of the Giant Ants is a silly but infectious apocalyptic song. Harry is having a lot of fun with the vocals, singing “la la la” in the chorus and shrieking at times. Clement Burke’s drums are vigorous and add energy to the song. Jimmy Festri’s farfisa organ gives it a ‘60s trashy vibe, but in a good way. The bridge consists of the ants attack. ”Attack of the Giant Ants” sounds similar to an Adam and the Ants or Bow Wow Wow song, but of course Blondie’s self-titled album came first. Harry makes reference to cities and eventually mankind being destroyed.
Around the time of their debut, Blondie was performing quite a few shows at places like the aforementioned CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. They did a little later get to open for Iggy Pop and David Bowie, including 2 nights at the roughly 4000-seat Riviera Theatre in Chicago. However, Blondie’s debut did not fare well commercially, the album and singles not charting in the United States or United Kingdom when it came out. As a result, the band decided to switch record labels. In a future episode I will delve into their sophomore album in 1978 called “Plastic Letters”, which fared somewhat better.