Blonde On Blondie: Inside the New Box Set
Against The Odds is the most definitive compendium of the legendary NYC band yet
In the second half of the 1970s, few bands exuded cool the way Blondie did, bringing the New York underground into the global mainstream.
Founded by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, the band’s diverse stylistic interests powered the six albums of their first incarnation before splitting (they reunited at the end of the century. New box set Against the Odds 1974-1982 charts the story of this ear across eight discs: one for early recordings, one for each of the albums, and one for “home tapes.” With an assortment of outtakes, demos and the like, the box gives a full picture of the time. Coupled with extensive and detailed liner notes (including the artists’ notes on their recordings), the set develops a complete narrative of the first phase of one New York City pop’s most iconic bands.
The first disc of the compilation offers the most intriguing music by looking at some of Blondie’s earliest recording sessions in 1974 and 1975. The first versions of “Heart of Glass” – known as both “The Disco Song” and “Once I Had a Love” – show not only a song in transition but also a band finding its way. The first version, despite its placeholder title, leans more toward a soft funk. You could almost hear the Isley Brothers doing it. It’s an interesting sketch, but no one quite knows what to do with it. At this point, Blondie itself was a little rock, a little punk, a little pop. It might have been all NYC art scene, but the band didn’t have its form yet. In later years, that flexibility would serve the group well, but at this point it just means the band can’t land anywhere. The second version of the song makes some adjustments, maybe becoming a little more soulful, but now Harry sounds uncertain. By the time the track would be fully realized for 1978’s Parallel Lines, the group would find its full potential, and Harry’s vocal delivery would come atop a carefully constructed production.
The rest of the disc similarly shows the band finding its way. The girl group influence comes through explicitly with two versions of the Shangri-Las’ “Out in the Streets,” both smooth and relaxed, and a little uncertain. “Platinum Blonde” provides the best performance, and Harry’s songwriting starts to come into focus with its mix of sincerity and irony, commercial desire and pop takedown. Fans of the band will likely find this material to be the most revealing of the disc. Watching a band come to life is its own sort of excitement.
By the opening seconds of the band’s self-titled 1976 debut, both the group and Harry had found a confident expression. What had been a search for a sound had become a synthesis. That the group fell somewhere between punk and pop oddly aided their art, and the inflections of various influences made them distinct even within their own scene. Opener (and carefully titled) “X Offender” shows the sensibility of the Shangri-Las again, but this time more toward “Leader of the Pack.” It’s funny, transgressive, and catchy – elements for a successful template. With cuts like “In the Flesh” and “Rip Her to Shreds,” Blondie mixed commentary, smarts, sexuality and more in a fully developed debut. The bonus cuts on this disc don’t offer a ton of insight – different production or outtakes – but fans will appreciate the archival elements.
Plastic Letters has its moments, but shows the band in a bit of a holding pattern artistically. Some of these tracks had been recorded for but not used on the debut. The album doesn’t quite match its predecessor but, interestingly, Harry remembers that they had enough songs that they considered making a double album. One of the tracks released here is a cover of the Doors’ “Moonlight Drive.” The Doors don’t seem like a natural fit with Blondie’s cool style, but this studio version marks a high point of the new set (if you dig, you can uncover live versions floating around). That the group would take on a Doors cut even as they began their ascent highlights their far-reaching tastes.
With Parallel Lines, the band jumped to its highest performance. Blondie had undergone a lineup change: bassist Gary Valentine left, replaced by Frank Infante on guitar and bassist Nigel Harrison (who wrote the music for “One Way or Another”). Maybe just as important, the group brought in producer Mike Chapman. Blondie overflowed with creativity and Chapman added a precision to the studio that allowed the band to still be expansive and energetic within focused sound. The group launched from CBGB to worldwide fame. In large part, they did so by revisiting that old disco song, now worked into its final version as “Heart of Glass,” which reached #1 in both the US and the UK.
Blondie kept its momentum for its next classic album, 1979’s Eat to the Beat. The group recorded this album quickly, with a loose feel in the studio. They continued to grab any sounds they wanted, which lends the album a more scattershot feel than Parallel Lines, but it coheres around its energy and joy of discovery. Blondie had become a little slicker by the end of the decade, but if they sounded more commercial, they sounded no less curious. Caribbean influences enter the picture (not for the last time) on “Die Young Stay Pretty.” The album does drop off a little but if, as the liner notes suggest, drugs and rivalry were starting to split the band, it doesn’t show on this album.
With Autoamerican the following year, the band begins to stretch too far with synth experiments and spoken word and arch concepts (primarily in the deliberate coverage of a wealth of styles). Looking back, the album feels less like a decline and more like the summation of Blondie’s career arc. It doesn’t hold up as well as the records that came before, but it brings the group’s experimentation and restlessness into a fully conceptualized album. Harry goes back to the big band era for “Here’s Looking at You” and the group reworks rocksteady for “The Tide Is High.” The record has its hits (“Rapture” of course, with “Call Me” standing alone just ahead of the album), but the story of its sounds works better than history has remembered it. It still has a bit of a messy feel to it, but listening to it in the context of the group’s early years makes it into a sort of forgotten triumph in its aggregation of Tin Pan Alley through post-disco and rap (even most listeners will skip a few tracks).
Although Autoamerican went platinum, Blondie’s end was nearing. The group was fighting – Infante even brought a lawsuit against his bandmates – making solo albums, and using too many drugs. 1982’s The Hunter continued the eclecticism, but without the powerful songs to carry it. Experiments like “Dragonfly” were off-putting, and “For Your Eyes Only” feels like soundtrack piece it was meant to be, out of place even on a scattered record. Little from this album compares to the tracks that had come before, but “War Child” and “Orchid Club” show that the band could still find new creative ground within a commercial framework. In a happier story, Blondie would stay together and follow the path pointed to by these tracks. Not surprisingly given the challenging creation of this record, the box set offers little in the way of bonus material here, but the “Yuletide Throwdown” with Fab 5 Freddy is well worth inclusion.
The set does close with some more fascinating recordings on disc eight, “Home Tapes.” Only Stein and Harry contribute to most of these tracks, whether through vocal stretching or working on possible material. “Sunday Girl” sounds almost eerie, and both “Ring of Fire” and “Theme from Topkapi” return the joy to Blondie’s questing nature. Harry’s delivery on the former gives it an angry edge that separates it from Johnny Cash’s typical renditions. The box closes with instrumental “synth mixes” of “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me,” and “War Child” by Stein, Burke, Destri, and Giorgio Moroder. Originally intended for a now-forgotten project, they make for intriguing curiosities.
Eight discs of material from the first era of Blondie may sound like overkill, but the curated albums, outtakes and more puts the story of the group’s music in its proper light. With extensive and wonderful liner notes, the set provides deep insight into the entire recording history of the band.
Although it doesn’t add a proportionate wealth of previously unreleased material, Against the Odds immediately establishes itself as the definitive piece of Blondie scholarship, if a scholarship can be this fun.
- So Young: Suede at 30 - March 29, 2023
- This Is The One: Thin Lizzy’s Thunder and Lightning at 40 - March 28, 2023
- Place In Line: Deep Purple’s Who Do We Think We Are at 50 - January 23, 2023