40 Years Ago: Blondie Melds Punk, Girl-Group Pop on Debut
A combination of new ideas, pop smarts and sex appeal would propel Blondie to the top of the charts. But when they released their debut, Blondie, in December 1976, they were considered simply one of the many bands coming out of the New York scene centered around CBGB.
Blondie were born out of the same crucible as the Ramones, Television and Talking Heads. Singer Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein worked together in a couple of early ’70s New York bands, drawn together by a shared love of the early ’60s girl-group sound, British Invasion songcraft and a back-to-basics approach favored by the Stooges and the New York Dolls. After a couple of years, Stein and Harry formed Blondie – an ironic nod to the catcall yelled by construction workers and truckers at Harry on the street.
Irony would become a big part of Blondie, which was soon joined by drummer Clem Burke, bassist Gary Valentine and keyboardist Jimmy Destri. The quintet gained a following, playing to the small, but fervent crowds at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City.
“CBGB’s was like a workshop, where we were able to make our mistakes in public, influenced by bands like Television, the Ramones, Patti Smith and Talking Heads, who were there at the same time,” Burke told the Nottingham Post years later. “To me, punk rock is a specific kind of music, with very loud guitars and Iggy and the Stooges influences. We loved all that, but that was only one facet of what Blondie was.”
The diversity of Blondie’s influences was also a result of all the members writing material for the band. Lyrics written by either the men, or the lone woman in the group, would get the arch treatment from Harry, who delivered come-ons with winking disaffection.
“We were trying to incorporate whatever a musician or a person brought to us to create a sound,” Harry told Interview in 2014. “And, finally, that jelled. Then we had a specific sound… It was just things that we liked and things that were around us. We were truly a New York City band in that respect. We had ears open to all the influences that were around us.”
As Blondie discovered its sound, record company representatives “discovered” the band. The quintet signed to small New York-based label Private Stock in 1976, quickly recording a batch of tunes at Plaza Sound Studios for a debut album with producer Richard Gottehrer – who had helmed girl-group and rock records in the ’60s. In another tie to the past, Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich (“Be My Baby,” “Leader of the Pack”) sang backup on a couple tracks.
Listen to "Rip Her to Shreds"
The members of Blondie brought some tougher subject material to match the pop-rock melodies. Harry and Stein collaborated on “Rip Her to Shreds,” a song in which Debbie impersonates a gossip columnist absolutely excoriating a woman for her lesser qualities. As a female lead singer, and former Playboy Bunny, Harry knew exactly what it was to suffer under such a gaze.
Blondie’s self-titled debut would kick off with “X Offender,” the result of two different approaches from Harry and Valentine. The bassist originally wrote the song as the organ-fueled “Sex Offender,” about a young man who impregnates his underage girlfriend. When the song’s title and content didn’t pass muster with the powers-that-be, Harry reworked the tune into “X Offender,” a sly song about a prostitute coming on to the policeman who is arresting her.
“When we went in and recorded that, to this day it had a lot with us getting further along,” Burke recalled about the driving “X Offender.” “People could see we could make records. The first time I heard that on the jukebox was a memorable time.”
Burke might remember his thrill of hearing the song on the jukebox, but it’s not likely a lot of other people have that memory. That’s because Blondie’s self-titled debut failed to make much of an impact when it was released. Some of that was due to Private Stock’s limited abilities to promote the record; some of it was because Blondie’s prickly pop was ahead of its time (and would find favor on radio in only a couple of years).
Listen to "In the Flesh"
Actually, it did have a bit of instant success – but only in Australia, where a DJ accidentally played the B-side ballad “In the Flesh” (instead of the more raucous “X Offender”). The song became a No. 2 hit down under and pushed Blondie to No. 14 on the country’s album chart. It was enough of a push for Private Stock to issue “In the Flesh” as a proper single.
It would be the last Private Stock release by Blondie, which bought back its contract to sign with the bigger British label Chrysalis. Blondie was reissued by the band’s new home, and eventually became a hit on the U.K. charts as a result of the group’s growing popularity after 1978’s Parallel Lines LP.
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