Episode 19 – Discussion of Blondie’s Plastic Letters
Welcome to another episode of New Wave Beat!
0:00 – New Wave News
5:39 – Discussion of Blondie’s Plastic Letters
New Wave News
Jon Solomon of Westword had a chat with OMD frontman Andy McCluskey that was quite interesting. In it, McCluskey talked about their 1st concert 40 years ago. They performed to only about 30 mostly family and friends when opening for Joy Division. OMD came a long way from those humble beginnings, garnering hits in the US and especially the UK. McCluskey went on to discuss the title track off their new album, “The Punishment of Luxury”. It basically deals with non-stop consumerism, and McCluskey explicitly complained of advertisers sowing insecurity in humanity to make them buy products they don’t need. Give it a read!
Tilbrook and Difford Tours
Squeeze is playing some dates in Asia and Australia starting in late April. But Glenn Tilbrook will also be touring solo in the UK. According to songkick.com, he has 14 dates booked this spring and fall, with 2 already in the can. In speaking with online outlet Gazette Live, Tilbrook mentioned that the best concert crowds come from Northeastern England. In fact, that is where Squeeze recorded and filmed their great live album and video “Round And A Bout” back in 1990. Fellow Squeeze member Chris Difford will be doing some tour dates of his own. He will intersperse acoustic songs with career stories taken from his autobiography “Some Fantastic Place”.
New Andy Wickett Album
Andy Wickett, the early lead singer of Duran Duran, has released an album entitled “Creatures of Love” with his backing band World Service. The Birmingham Mercury loved the album, saying that it had “great atmosphere and hook lines at every juncture.” It is kind of under the radar, getting only 2 reviews on Amazon, but hopefully it will get some more listens. The album kind of has an ‘80s vibe to it and has some good hooks, so this new wave podcaster gives it a thumbs-up! As far as I know there are no concert dates by Wickett to support “Creatures of Love”.
New Wave Outdoor Tours
Chicago-area outdoor venue Ravinia just posted their schedule of shows for the summer 2018 season, and there are some new wave acts coming. For instance, Culture Club is teaming up with the B-52s and Tom Bailey from the Thompson Twins for 2 nights. And it looks like they will be doing at least 2 more concerts in Atlanta and New Jersey. Ravinia will also have a Lost ‘80s live with many new wave acts including Flock of Seagulls, Wang Chung, and more.There are some more dates with Flock of Seagulls and other new wave acts on Coney Island’s Boardwalk, among other venues. I wonder how this tour will turn out.
Last Friday at South by Southwest there was a talk entitled “From CBGB to the World – A Downtown Diaspora”, featuring former members of Talking Heads and Television. They talked about the conditions that led to the punk and new wave revolution. For one, Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads mentioned that they were all poor. For instance, the members of Talking Heads all lived in tenements with no heat or hot water. In giving advice for creating a CBGB-like atmosphere, where like-minded individuals flock to create some great art. Television guitarist Richard Lloyd said “Find a dive bar, convince them to let you play live music, make your own scene”.
David Byrne Chart Perfomance
David Byrne’s new album “American Utopia” recently hit #3 on the US charts. This is notable because it marks the 1st time a Talking Heads or David Byrne album has hit the top 10 in the United States. Despite being Rock Hall members, critically acclaimed, and highly influential, the best talking Heads did album-wise was a #15 showing with the New Wave classic “Speaking in Tongues”. They had 3 top tens in the UK though, where David Byrne is born. “American Utopia” is one of Byrne’s more accessible albums, so that likely helped it climb the charts better. For what it’s worth, the Talking Heads only had one top ten single with “Burning Down the House”.
Depeche Mode Kids
There are quite a few Depeche Mode cover bands around, but one is particularly interesting because it is composed of a father and his 2 kids. It is appropriately titled Depeche Mode Kids, or DMK for short. Vice had an interview with this cover band. Dicken Schrader, the dad, explained that the songs they perform are picked democratically, so his kids have a say. He also mentioned that Depeche Mode themselves have heard of DMK, though I am not sure what Gahan and company thin of DMK. Schrader feels Depeche Mode’s sophomore effort “A Broken Frame” is their most underappreciated album, as it was the 1st where Martin Gore wrote most of the songs.
Discussion of Blondie’s Plastic Letters
A couple of weeks ago we talked about Blondie’s self-titled debut. As mentioned, the album did not sell well, and the band changed record labels. They regrouped in early 1978 with the album Plastic Letters. Like the debut, it was produced by early-60s era producer Richard Gottehrer. Would this be Blondie’s breakthrough album, or a sophomore slump? Definitely not a breakthrough, and a little less in caliber than their self-titled debut. Nevertheless, “Plastic Letters” is still an enjoyable early new-wave album.
“Denis” is the 1st single off Plastic Letters. It is very much a girl-group homage, with doo wop lyrics, straightforward lyrics about love, short running time, etc. The original version, performed by Randy and the Rainbows, came right before the Beatles hit it big and was a top 10 hit in its own right. Harry’s vocal delivery is relatively restrained and smooth, and really recalls early ‘60s music, including the original version of the song. A slow 4-note guitar riff kicks off the song. The at-times fast drums and guitars are very good and add a bit of new wave spice to the fray. The lyrics, as you may have figured, are about the strong love that the narrator has for a guy named “Denis”. The metaphors are simple but drive the point home well., For example”, You’re my king and I’m in heaven every time I look at you.” For what it’s worth there are French lyrics, though they do not make grammatical sense. The promo video has Debbie Harry and the rest of Blondie performing. Harry wears what I think is a 1-piece bathing suit. She does a little bit of her trademark sneering to remind the viewer that Blondie has punk and new wave roots. Denis was a big hit in the UK, almost hitting the top of the charts at #2. Strangely it did not chart in the United States, the home of Blondie (and doo wop music for that matter).
(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear
Blondie released a 2nd single, but not in the United States, in “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear”. Debbie Harry keeps an even keel on this song, so it does not have the most dynamic vocals, especially for a single. For what it is worth the delivery is very smooth. The song has a faint clapping track during some of the verses that keeps the rhythm. The early ‘60s groups are dialed back a bit from “Denis” in favor of new wave and later rock and roll. An example is the keyboards. Another is the bridge and choruses do have some vigorous drumming that sounds good.The lyrics are stronger and more clever than “Denis”; they have a bit of a sci-fi element to it, as I think it is about telepathy. For instance, the line “When we play at cards you use an extra sense, it’s not really cheating”. References are made to floating in the stratosphere, psychic frequencies, superpowers, and the like. “Presence, Dear” cracked the top 10 in the UK. There was no video for this song, perhaps because it was not released in the United States. And it was 1978, so videos were not vital at that point.
Let’s now talk about the album tracks in “Plastic Letters”, starting with “Fan Mail”. The guitar and drum riffs are strong and sound more new-wavish. The chorus has a bit of futuristic sound effects which make it sound interesting. My stab at the song is that it is about an obsessive fan of a musician. The narrator is not taking care of herself as a result of this obsession. For example, she says “And I haven’t slept in days and days, days and days”. Harry’s emotional singing reflects the desperation of the fan, and I like. Especially with the long growl at the end.
Bermuda Triangle Blues (Flight 45)
Next up is “Bermuda Triangle Blues (Flight 45)”. It has a slower tempo than “Fan Mail”. The song has a bluesy guitar and mostly-gentle keyboard playing, they take front stage in this song and sound good if you are into the style of playing. I like Harry’s vocals on this one, emphasizing just the right bits. There are not a lot of lyrics because of its short running time, tempo, and long intro. I think the song is, as the song title suggests, about flying into and being trapped in the Bermuda Triangle The lyrics are indeed dark. For instance, “Death was in that poison wave and in its gulf a fitting grave”.
Youth Nabbed As Sniper
The 4th track off of “Plastic Letters” is “Youth Nabbed as Sniper”. The song starts with a strong guitar and drum beat hitting at the same time. This song has more of a punk sound than previous tracks, thanks to the aggressive instrumentation and vocals, along with the fast tempo. The keyboards are more subtle but round out the song. Also, Harry has great vocal dynamics and emotion on “Youth Nabbed as Sniper.” The lyrics, like the instrumentation, is ominous. For example, “I would like to kill for love but I don’t know how.” and “I died in the evening after school.”
Contact in Red Square
Let’s now dive into “Contact in Red Square”. There is a lot going on in this song musically despite the only 2-minute running time. The song starts with a “Mission Impossible”-style guitar which makes sense given the possible spy theme. Also, there is a triumphant-sounding keyboard riff throughout the song. Harry sings fast, and with good inflection. There are song good, aggressive gang vocals in the chorus and such. I think the song is a Cold War tune about being a Russian spy. For example, references are made to the CIA and KGB. Also, lines like “Hid the microfilm in the lining of my shoe”. suggest surreptitiousness.
I’m on E
Rounding out side A of “Plastic Letters is the 2+ minute tune “I’m on E”. It is similar to “Youth Nabbed as Sniper” in terms of the fast tempo and aggression, though a little less so. The repetitive words recall the new wave and punk styles. The guitar sounds kind of surf. It’s ironic because many surf songs talk about cars, and this one might be about being carless. Indeed, Harry says “I used to have a car of my own”, and she complains about walking her feet to the bone. Originally I thought the song was about Ecstasy. Harry’s vocals sound a little like the Ramones, which is not a bad thing.
I Didn’t Have the Nerve to Say No
“I Didn’t Have the Nerve to Say No” kicks off side B of “Plastic Letters”, and does so with lots of energy. The intro and verses have strong single-guitar hits punctuating the song. The instrumentation has good punk/new wave energy to it. Harry’s vocals are full of energy and emotion. The verses are sung fast, much like the album in general. While the chorus is triumphantly sung, I think the song is about the narrator giving in to a sexually aggressive courter. Indeed, according to the lyrics he has ants in his pants and eventually the narrator’s will resigned.
Love at the Pier
“Love at the Pier” continues the new wave and punk energy of side B. This song contains a couple of tempo changes which grab one’s attention. Harrys sounds like she is really having fun with this track; it is full of enthusiasm and humor. The instrumentation has a sort of surf vibe to it, which is somewhat appropriate considering the aquatic song title. The lyrics are kind of racy and funny at the same time. For example, “No more love splinters in my rear end”. It is a story of lust, but the couple don’t work out outside of their encounter at the pier.
“No Imagination” has a little bit of a slower tempo. The keyboards are spot-on, in the intro they are pounding and during the verses add a good, dramatic melody to the song. The guitars add punch in the right spots, especially in the outro. Debbie Harry reigns in the raw energy from the last 2 songs and sings in a tense but melodic way which fits the song well. I think the song is about a one-night stand that did not end in romance. The narrator tells her lover that he has no imagination, and she says “take a walk, kid”.
“Kidnapper” changes it up a bit with a harmonica-driven melody. Harry’s singing on “Kidnapper” is sort of a new wave/blues hybrid. Her vocal inflections are pretty good, giving the song some emotion and grit. The guitars, keyboard and drums follow suit, making “Kidnapper” a simple but catchy song. The chorus consists solely of the song title. I believe the song is about a crazed kidnapper of a teenager. Kind of disturbing, I know. Harry tells the kidnapper ”So you took that girl and put the saddle on her”. But what do you expect from a guy who’s got an unnerving face, and twitching eyes like Norman Bates?”
“Detroit 442” is named after a muscle car. In the lyrics, Harry mentions that she wants to ride with the bad guy in a Detroit 442. From what I read, “Jimmy O” is a reference to Iggy Pop’s real name. It is also interesting that Iggy Pop grew up near Detroit. As far as the music goes, in my opinion “Detroit 442” is the most punk-sounding song of the album. Indeed, Harry’s voice is full of raw vigor, and the melody goes full throttle. It may be a little too punk for me as I like my new wave a little more melodic.
Blondie’s “Plastic Letters” album concludes with “Cautious Lip”. It is a slower number for sure, clocking in at over a minute longer than any of the other tracks on the album. It reminds me a bit of the Cars’ “Moving in Stereo”, which also came out in 1978. Harry’s vocals are menacing, and she ends the song with a cathartic scream. The guitar and keyboard are kind of trippy-sounding. Lyrics-wise there isn’t too much to “Cautious Lip”, as the title is repeated a lot throughout the song. I am unsure of what “Cautious Lip” is about, but I am spitballing that it is about a guy who skips kissing the narrator and goes straight for sex. I would love get your interpretation of the song.
Blondie fared better commercially with “Plastic Letters”. It hit the top 100 in the United States but did even better in the UK with a top 10 showing. They didn’t rest on their laurels, however, and followed up later in 1978 with the smash hit “Parallel Lines”. But more on that in a couple of weeks.