The story goes that Debbie Harry went from serving steaks downstairs at the famed NYC restaurant/nightclub, Max’s Kansas City, to playing its infamous stages upstairs with her new band Blondie just a few short years later. So too did the punk scene move from the underground – like basements, garages, and venues such as CBGB – to the forefront of the music industry by the mid-1970s, injecting a gritty downtown attitude into the rock scene, which had become increasingly theatrical, and, in the words of Punk magazine founder John Holmstrom, “so tame.” And Blondie was anything but tame.[Originally named Angel & the Snake in 1974 but renamed for Harry’s frequent catcall from strangers, Blondie eschewed any sort of labels, starting with front-woman Debbie Harry. She was (and still is) something of a contradiction: a bleach blonde former Playboy Bunny with razor-sharp cheekbones who always dressed in leather, denim, and other Lower East Side thrift store finds. It’s no wonder Andy Warhol chose her as the subject of one of his iconic pop art silk screens. In fact, you could also say Harry paved the way both aesthetically and sonically for a certain bleach blonde Material Girl who rose to prominence right around the time Blondie took an extended hiatus in 1982. Harry was both the Angel and the Snake; equally as sweet as serpentine.
And these conflicting ideas extended to Blondie’s music too. While most punk bands of the day were focused solely on re-defining rock and roll to its simplest definition and stripping away any perceived “artifice” (aka theatricality), Blondie embraced elements of pop, reggae, disco, and new wave. While they have their fair share of straightforward rock songs like mega-hit “Call Me” and “One Way or Another,” Blondie has always straddled the musical line. Though they have a definite “sound,” you can always hear the influences of other genres in their music. Blondie’s breakthrough hit single, “Heart of Glass” from their third album, Parallel Lines, is shamelessly disco-inspired (which is probably why the band nicknamed it “the Disco Song” in early demos dating back to 1975) while “Sunday Girl” is pure 1960s pop and of course “Rapture” from Autoamerican clearly takes a stab at early rap. For this reason, Blondie might possibly be the most punk band of them all merely for defying most of their contemporaries’ definitions of “punk music” by blending downtown attitude with traditionally more mainstream sounds. Now that’s pretty subversive.
This cross-pollination of genres has kept them sounding fresh in recent years and is perhaps what inspired the band to record their eleventh studio album, the aptly titled Pollinator, which was released May 5th. The album – their first in three years – features collaborations with some of the industry’s most intrepid acts like Dave Sitek of TV On the Radio, Sia, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, Blood Orange, and friend/contemporary Joan Jett. Early singles “Fun” and “Long Time” harken back to the band’s earliest albums with hypnotic sounds, Harry’s purring vocals, and disco-inspired beats. So while Pollinator is definitely a modern album, its roots are pure vintage Blondie, which is sure to please long-time fans.
“We were always open to experimentation, and that’s what gave us an edge in terms of crossing over, and that’s why the music’s stood the test of time,” Harry has said, “we were just doing what we liked and trying to bring what we liked into what we were doing.” Certainly Blondie’s longevity is due in large part to their willingness to try new things and work with newer musical acts like 90s grunge band Garbage, who helped induct Blondie into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. In fact, Blondie and Garbage are set to co-headline The Rage and Rapture Tour this summer, giving both female-led bands a chance to test out new album material (Garbage released their latest, Strange Little Birds, in 2016) in front of fans all over North America and hopefully have some “Fun.” As Harry told Rolling Stone, “We’re very serious about fun. Quoting Emma Goldman, ‘If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.'” Considering Blondie’s musical revolution has kept all of us dancing for 40+ years from Max’s Kansas City to major stages around the world, we have no doubts about their commitment to having a good time until the rapture does, indeed, come.
Photo: Blondie by Hulton Archive/Stringer (courtesy Getty Images)