Blondie Ambition

Desperately Seeking Debbie: Twenty years have not dimmed the creative impulses that make Blondie a musical pathfinder.

Twenty + years have not dimmed the creative impulses that make Blondie a musical pathfinder.

THE OTHER DAY, I took the new Blondie record, No Exit (BMG/Beyond), to my hairdressers’ and begged them to play it during my hour-long dye job. Normally, this type of request is met with the greatest suspicion, but this time, no one was skeptical for a second. Ladies young and old clamored for the album. The hairdressers were ecstatic. Even the swing guys getting their back hairs trimmed were enthusiastic.

In short, it was a far cry from the reception given 20 years ago to Blondie’s first album, Plastic Letters, which I misguidedly brought to a sleep-over and heard booed out of the room. Back then, Blondie was too scary and New Yorky for my little friends to handle, but now you’d have thought it was the Beatles, so gladly was No Exit received–and happily, the record did not disappoint.

Indeed, No Exit is the most popular thing I’ve ever played for strangers, and the finest tribute to Blondie’s music is that not one person listening that afternoon mentioned either the age of the band members or speculated on their motives for getting back together. No one even said, “She really must be getting on,” about singer Deborah Harry–and this was at a beauty parlor!

In fact, Harry is 53 years old, and her original bandmates (Jimmy Destri, Clem Burke and Chris Stein) are only a year or two younger each. But despite the fact that Harry was undoubtedly a sex symbol in the beginning, her age now is irrelevant. This is because, unlike other age-defying beauties like Cher, Stevie Nicks, or the Rolling Stones, her band still has it artistically. Blondie was so far ahead of its time that the world has only just caught up. Blondie is relevant. How many bands can that be said about, old or young?

NOWADAYS, Blondie is remembered as an ’80s band, but in fact, the bulk of its work was done in the ’70s. And considering that rap music has yet to be fully embraced by the mainstream (and certainly not when performed by white women), you can imagine how groundbreaking the song “Rapture”–one of the first rap hits ever heard on radio–was at the time.

That may explain why No Exit is so damn good and why it is a crossover monster that can be played on almost every one of the many radio formats that have blossomed since the days when “The Tide Is High” was an AM radio hit. Eighties format, ’70s, Live-105, KFOG–even rap stations can take Blondie on, since the title cut is a duet with Coolio. The song is a cute and subtle millennium-pop take on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play about endless life; its rapid-fire rapping takes place atop a heavy Led Zeppelin riff played on the accordion. Pure genius.

The rest of the record is equally delightful. The opening track, “Screaming Skin,” is a ska tune that refers to vampires and is sung in a fake German accent, half Marlene Dietrich, half Bela Lugosi. “Maria,” which has already debuted at No. 1 on the charts in Great Britain, is a soaringly positive pop tune about a woman with incredible self-confidence: “She’s like a millionaire/walking on imported air.” The catchiest tune, “Forgive and Forget,” uses a beautiful xylophone opening, a great rhythm track and another whooshy lyric about time and timelessness.

Stylistically, Blondie is still much more eclectic than your average rock band. “Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room” is a sultry jazz-pop number in the vein of Harry’s last band, the Jazz Passengers. “Night Wind Sent” is a ballad, and “The Dream’s Lost on Me” sounds faintly country (Blondie’s very good effort at “y’alternative”–and just about as authentic).

“Dig Up the Conjo” is a heavy dance track about zombies (think “Eat to the Beat”). Cowboy desperadoes figure in “Under the Gun,” a dark, poppy song. Lastly, “Out in the Streets” is a cleaned-up cover of the Shangri-Las song that Blondie covered for its very first single, circa 1974, and it is as infectious as those early-’60s girl-group songs always are. Hard to believe that it’s been longer since Blondie broke up than it was between the band’s original punk incarnation and the Shangri-Las, but the calendar doesn’t lie.

DESPITE THE CONSTANT nods to the past, there is simply nothing nostalgic about No Exit. Blondie is not trying to be a young band but is instead using the strengths that come with age: wisdom, consistency, wit.

Throughout the record, Harry’s singing is marvelous–smooth, sultry and humorous. Her voice is prettier than that of many of today’s divas–more alto, more supple, more full of life. Her work suggests that in the arts, age simply makes one deeper and more accomplished.

Blondie broke up in 1982, partly because of the usual band tensions but also because of the serious illness of guitarist and songwriter Stein. Nevertheless, the image of Debby in a bedraggled wedding dress and black roots singing punk rock at CBGBs is one that has haunted our era, partly because Madonna swallowed the image whole for her character in Desperately Seeking Susan.

Since that time, “women in rock” have mutated into something not nearly as fun. In 1986, Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman led the grand parade of fragile, worried-looking folkie girl singers whose main concerns were social and personal. In the rock vein, Madonna, Gwen Stefani and Courtney Love merely expanded on the idea that women–especially blonde women–were emotionally overwrought victims of love and life.

So I don’t know, maybe progress hasn’t been made on that front. After all, in the five years of her commercial dominance, Harry never once fell prey to such old-fashioned and stereotypical actions.

For all her beauty and suggestiveness, Harry was never physically vulgar or revealing. Her songs were either portraits of other men and women (“Denis,” “Shayla”), New York City-scapes like “Rapture” or the kind of comments on modern life like “Union City Blues” and “Europa” with which No Exit also abounds. There was nothing personal about those songs, and yet Harry was very much a persona–the cutting edge of downtown Manhattan-esque sophistication that has died in the wake of the city’s own gentrification.

But for all Harry’s sex appeal, “Blondie is a group” was the slogan the band plastered on all its early records, and as the years have passed it’s become ever more obvious that they were–or rather are–just that.

As a solo artist, Harry scored a few dance-floor hits in Europe and played various roles in movies, but it is only as the frontwoman of Blondie that one can truly appreciate her artistry and mystique. No Exit is a great pleasure to listen to, not only because it’s a damn good record but because the album demonstrates that people can grow as artists without really changing or pretending to be anything they aren’t. That will be an essential realization if it turns out that Sartre’s right–there is “no exit from this life.”

Debbie Harry of Blondie

Debbie Harry frontwoman of Blondie

Gena Arnold
Original Release Date: February 23, 1999