Blondie's Power Cabaret

Blondie wouldn't be famous without Deborah Harry's face, but that doesn't make them frauds. Suppose Elvis had looked like Roy Orbison? Anyhow, the face we know isn't a pure act of God: on strictly architectural grounds Terre Roche is as pretty, and Nona Hendryx has a better body. Something else made the difference. I picture Debbie running home to tell Chris Stein: "Hey! I bleached my hair more, put on Fire and Ice and a curtain and posed mad and--everybody liked me!" Just a metaphor; Debbie wasn't born yesterday. But I think wanting to be liked has more to do with why they're famous (and the Ramones aren't) than the world's most photogenic lips. I think Harry's a woman who never assumed anyone would like her in her life. Being liked took work, was work, and she was too proud to beg. But she was also too proud to, well, take a day job.

Blondie the group wanted us to like them, but only on their own terms, and if those terms hang on artifice, it's really not cheating. I've always thought Blondie expressed a kind of real if rare and disappearing life, which happened not to be mine, but which I still encountered occasionally, like at David Johansen's magical New Year's Eve 1978 Palladium show, when old Dolls fans showed up with that peculiarly soulful combination of contrived innocence and real scars that marks the glitter crowd.

New York glitter rock formed around the Mercer Arts Center in the months before Watergate but had precedents in the Warhol-influenced pop/camp scene at Max's, where Debbie, then dirty-blond and on smack, had been unhappily and observantly waiting tables. Glitter was a younger and more expressionistic departure from camp that made sexual ambivalence grotesque. It posed a sensibility in which low-class paraphernalia (B-movie, '50s-hood) was both affectation and roots and in which affectation itself was some sort of elaborate discipline.

All the early CBGB bands came out of that minimalist/trash synthesis. But Blondie "were always pop oriented and wanted to have hit singles," as Chris said around the time of Eat to the Beat. As the Raspberries pointed out in "Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)," this wasn't a question of wanting money as such, it was merely an orientation. If the Dolls assummed we would like them, that doesn't mean they craved success less than Blondie, who wanted us to like them. It was just rock versus pop. Okay, Blondie were also pop by way of Warhol. Possibly because of their age, they've had the most McLuhanish media awe of the lot, which means they find intellectual satisfaction in being as hard and bright as a photo or as shallow as commercials, but shallowness itself was a classic glitter discipline. If at their slightest Blondie construct entire songs from the stuff of Dolls' asides, it's still all trash--which I mean in the nicest possible way.

The Blondie story was pretty crazy. Before Debbie's looks sank in, and before we discovered how good she sounded on record (she had "no voice," ha ha), they were a joke. When Oui said she was outstripping Patti, it was sour grapes plus porn chauvinism. They broke in Australia, in England. Then came "Heart of Glass" and suddenly, amazingly, Blondie was everywhere--rock press, straight press, TV, AM radio. The wild thing was that the product was getting not just more professional but more interesting, too. Craziest of all, Debbie gradually learned to sing. From pre-Blondie Wind in the Willows to Blondie: New Yawk tough. By Plastic Letters: loud. By Parallel Lines, with gusto, and on Eat to the Beat, with phrasing. Now, on the fifth Blondie album, with a newly clear high and newly witty low range and unprecedented versatility, she sounds like a real voice stylist, almost. And the album, too--called Autoamerican and packaged like a car concept album, almost--seems to mark some kind of departure.

The opening is 3:32 minutes of movie music by Chris Stein, an ersatz 2001 that crosses the themes from Exodus and From Russia with Love and includes all the goodies--that heroic bass line implying quest, the Porgy and Bess string ripoff implying passion. This clearly goes under the titles but you know the theme will recur during moments of valor and perseverance (of a doomed or brave people) in deserts, mountains, trains, and space. It's an audacious start. It says right off, "We wanted you to like us, you do like us, you'll buy us no matter what, we gotcha gotcha gotcha gotcha, and now that we do--eat this." The string sweep segues into rocketship decompression, then, bang! Debbie intones a sci-fi monologue from the future looking back on today's cars as dinosaurs, dead on the highways--and then suddenly it's all pastiche.

There's a Hoagie Carmichael reference, a Caribbean cover, a torch song, a self-styled rap track, and Lerner-Lowe. Arrangements include funk, disco, bullfight, big production number (bells), circa-Help exoticisms as well as "Dear Prudence"/ "Because" harmonies. Oh, cars do come up. The rapper Martian eats them, the torchsong loser wipes headlights, there's a vaguely highway location to "Go Through It," and there's "T-Birds," the worst song on the album. The arbitrariness, the incompleteness, and the enigma of the concept is typical Blondie. The auto theme may be shallow and perfunctory, but it associates to something more powerful and resonant. They don't care any more about T-Birds than they did about kung fu girls, but they do care about dissolution, destruction, and hypnotic voids, as on other albums they cared about cheapness, commercials and photorealism. This seems to be their eat-lotus move.

I get the feeling that it was supposed to be Sgt. Pepper, and turned out to be the white album. An old lush sings, "Here's looking at you." Judy Garland sits in on "The Tide Is High." Torchy "Faces" is about a Bowery bum, and the rap (now causing controversy by getting the airplay its black models never could) is off-rhythm and beatnik--sounds like a poetry reading. The haunting "Follow Me," by Lerner-Lowe, sounds like drugs. They have their pride.

What they don't have here is a firm foundation. The filler between pastiche nuggets is soft, sometimes simplistic ("Walk Like Me"), hard to hear ("Live It Up"), easy to forget, or just not all that interesting, and Debbie's new vocal grace is finally less durable than her gutsier, thicker voice. "Raptures" notwithstanding, the overall beat is on the lilting side, and the lyrics don't stick. It's not that there aren't great phrases, but you don't find yourself singing "cracked for reasons beyond recognition" like "you look so heavenly," "ooh I can't control myself," "deteriorate in your own time," or "rip her to shreds." Eating lotus or even cars just doesn't getcha like standing-on-the-corner with-a-slice-of-pizza eat-to-the-beat.

But I like the idea of Blondie going from power pop to power cabaret and maybe bringing it straight to Vegas--without selling out. And I'm looking forward to watching Debbie get old. I think she'll really do it right. She'll affect a type incapable of aging gracefully, like a waitress or moll, while keeping her good body till the day she dies. She'll be consistent. Money hasn't ruined her brilliant sense of style. Her Autoamerican cover outfit could probably be bought for less than $16, depending on where she got the shorts and when she got the heels. She uses her money to buy more cheap (or at least trashy) things. Furthermore: I'd rather see her face than Helen Reddy's. I'd rather see her nipples than Andy Gibbs's. And for the record, my friends and I, who all look like crosses between Rita Tushingham and Merce Cunningham, are loved for our great minds, good politics, and fabulous sexual powers. We aren't threatened by ghosts of Marilyn. We miss Marilyn.

Village Voice, Dec. 10, 1980