“Mike Chapman hammered them into pop shape” is the standard line, and, on the evidence, true. Like any good produce he encouraged his bosses. Debbie Harry improved as a singer and lyricist with each album, guitarist Chris Stein and keyboardist Jimmy Destri’s absorption of pop idioms matched ambition to prowess, and powerhouse drummer Clem Burke and bassists Gary Valentine and Nigel Harrison, along with crucial support from Frank Infante, made it happen.
What has struck me for thirty years is what a novelty Blondie remained in the United States. Four #1 songs is nothing to sneeze at, but every other top forty entry didn’t come close — no follow-up top tens. To think that “Atomic,” “One Way or Another,” or “Dreaming” didn’t come close to matching “Rapture” or the wretched likes of “The Tide is High”!
Finally, read Rolling Stone‘s review of Autoamerican, a coattails album if any existed, to learn about the ire this band provoked, and Autoamerican is an awful album, mind.
1. Eat to the Beat (1979)
At moments dependent on timing and, what do I know, historical necessity, the follow-up to The Breakthrough is the best: Pride and Prejudice, O Pioneers, Give’em Enough Rope, The Low End Theory. Blondie became the punk/New Wave/whatever band with the #1 hit in spring 1979; Talking Heads managed one top ten. Pressured into a follow-up, Blondie entered the studio with frayed nerves. The group’s partying got on even Chapman’s nerves. I had never experienced this kind of emotional roller coaster before, and I have never forgotten the sounds, smells and tastes that came with it,” he said in the reissue liner notes. “I guess that was what they meant: Eat to the Beat.” They even wrote a breathless rocker of a title track with cocaine in its arteries.
Yet the sequencing of Eat to the Beat is the star; credit Chapman if you like for it. Side one is all-time: the manifesto “Dreaming,” in which a dude asks Harry out and she asks for a cup of tea, a stalling tactic that hides the heart of a fabulist looking past the dude but also at his beautiful hair; the rock-disco pulse of the unforgivably underdiscussed flop single “The Hardest Part”; the shimmer duo of “Union City Blue” and “Shayla,” with Frank Infante and Stein’s guitars as clear in their yearning as Harry’s fantastic vocals; and the meaningless rocker “Accidents Will Happen.” Side Two offers less extravagant pleasures, but, boy, “Atomic” proves that Harry, Destri, and motherfucker of a drummer Clem Burke could’ve started their own pop-disco act. The only woman surrounded by ugly men put Harry’s lust in marvelous relief; her dreaming had to be free. Even “Die Young, Stay Pretty” is sassy reggae that embarrassed no one, thanks to Harry’s winking, committed performance. Brittle, ninety percent of a sustained vision, recorded by a and at the peak of its instrumental and compositional powers, Eat to the Beat is like Station to Station: wonderful coke rock whose achievement needed distance from the Blondie is a Group phenomenon.
2. Parallel Lines (1978)
The secret to Blondie is that like Queen everyone was a songwriter (Clem Burke wasn’t; Roger Taylor was), and the way Burke inserted fills and put power into his instrument was a form of songwriting anyway. Stein-Harry we know, Harry too, and she wrote sundry classics with bassist Nigel Harrison (“One Way or Another”), Destri (too many to name), and with recruit Frank Infante (“I Know But I Don’t Know”). Jack Lee contributed “Hanging on the Telephone” and “Will Anything Happen,” which made a few mix tapes in the late nineties. Despite what Chapman said about their shitty instrumental prowess and how many takes he put the band through, Blondie proved themselves up to the task with several glistening examples of how well-read men and women conversant in pop culture could synthesize several strands of rock and roll since its earliest days. “11:59” and “Fade Away and Radiate” would be anyone else’s greatest hits. Over twenty years ago I got a cassette copy and lived with Parallel Lines for a summer; Garbage’s Version 2.0 is the closest approximation to what it achieved.
3. Blondie (1976)
A year and change before Grease capitalized on nostalgia for a pre-Beatles golden era that never receded, Blondie’s debut updated girl group tropes with New York street smarts and attitude. As it did with Elvis Costello, the Farfisa compensates for the shortcomings of guitarists Stein and sometime bassist Gary Valentine. This eponymous album sounds wan compared to future glories; “Man Overboard” and “Rifle Range” don’t go anywhere. But any album with “X Offender” deserves plaudits; over Destri’s sentimental organ peals, Harry sighs over the cop whose heart she won and whose handcuffs she enthusiastically wears.
4. Blondie – No Exit
“I’m a multicellular individual,” Harry burbles in a naff Caribbean accent in opener “Screaming Skin.” Yet this densely mixed reggae-rock hybrid works; “yet” applies to much of Blondie’s first album since the early Reagan administration. No Exit is the successful The Hunter, a miscellany done right. Stein and Clem Burke contribute several solid examples of pop rock (“Nothing is Real But the Girl,” UK #1 “Maria”), Harry flaunts her expanding vocal range on “Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room” and a cover of “Out in the Streets.” Coolio obviously walked into the wrong session, though. And that’s fine — it wouldn’t be a Blondie album without a conceptual misstep.
5. Plastic Letters (1977)
Sophomore album jinx, but “Fan Mail,” “Denis” (French vocals!), “Love at the Pier,” and “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear” (a song written for a novel use of parentheses?) come through.