Here comes the 21st century: The best of Blondie

Clem Burke’s drumming on Parallel Lines by itself affirms the nullity of the tagline “Blondie is a Band.” The fills in “Heart of Glass” (when I decide not to change the station it’s thanks to those fills), the fervid pounding accompanying the lead keyboard in “11:59,” the flourishes in “Just Go Away.” Blondie is a Band. How could they be anything else? What on earth could they have been?

Along with Everything But The Girl’s Walking Wounded and Prince’s Dirty Mind, the cassette of Blondie’s third album never left my car in the summer of ’96. I wrote a short story keyed to a lyric in “Will Anything Happen?” I puzzled over Debbie Harry’s performance in “11:59” — is she subject or object? There was the camping in the Bowery boys chorus of “Just Go Away,” the Chris Stein and Frank Infante’s twin-guitar attack in “I Know But I Don’t Know, and in “Heart of Glass” a Harry upper register that like Donna Summer’s in the previous year’s “I Feel Love” conjures a passion so strong that it’s clothed in detachment. For a few weeks music got no better than this.

A few years ago Marcello Carlin did an illuminating job, as usual, of connecting the, well, lines:

Finally, though not the last track on the album, is its most disquieting track; “Fade Away And Radiate.” Even at a time when the word “radiate” had far more sinister connotations than it would now, this remains an exceptional and disturbing piece of work, and an unexpected blood-sister to Walker’s “The Electrician” and direct precedent to Harry’s own performance in Videodrome (as well as less obvious successors like Royksopp’s “The Girl And The Robot”); Burke’s drums sound like the loudest heartbeat ever recorded, while Debbie – there she is, watching her Other (but not “watching you shower” as she does for an hour on “Picture This”) sit there, mindlessly watching television, until eventually, like the girl in Bowie’s “TVC15,” he becomes the television (“Beams become my dream/My dream is on the screen” – and David Thomson this week reminds us that the word “screen” can have two meanings; to show something to us, or to hide something from us). The music is slow, jittery and mournful (even the bizarre closing voyage into cod-reggae cannot dispel the uneasiness) and meanwhile Robert Fripp’s guitar is like the poltergeist on the other side of the screen, trying its best to come through, to be heard, to be noticed (this in turn ties the record in with things like Daryl Hall’s Sacred Songs and Fripp’s own Exposure – both 1979, neither a record you would want to listen to in a dark not of your own making). “Dusty frames that sill arrive/Die in 1955,” sings a numbed Harry – the year James Dean died, but also the year when television made it into the majority of homes, as though these filaments are still transmitting pictures, thoughts and people from the time Harry was ten into a 1979 “now.” The lines merge into closedown, the lights go out, and they tell us something we knew all along.

In The SPIN Alternative Record Guide (also known as The Big Orange SPIN Book) Rob Sheffield called the “Dusty frames” verses the greatest in rock ever. Get in queue behind “leaning in your corner like a candidate for wax” in Jimmy Destri’s “11:59,” buddy.

I included tracks from 1999’s terrific and forgotten No Exit, forgotten because Coolio makes an appearance, and three Debbie Harry solo tracks. You haven’t lived until I’ve serenaded you at karaoke with “I Want That Man.”

And I retract what I wrote above. If there’s a better line than “Your hair is beautiful” in rock, I haven’t heard it.

1. Atomic
2. Dreaming
3. Will Anything Happen?
4. Denis
5. X Offender
6. 11:59
7. Picture This
8. Union City Blue
9. Heart of Glass
10. Just Go Away
11. Under the Gun
12. Hanging on the Telephone
13. The Hardest Part
14. Nothing is Real But the Girl
15. Accidents Never Happen
16. I Want That Man
17. Maria
18. Angels on the Balcony
19. Rush Rush
20. In Love with Love
21. I Know But I Don’t Know

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