No one genre of popular music dominated a decade, but the ’70s were arguably more dynamic than most. What is the sound of the seventies? Is it … folk rock? (Neil Young crop He turned 50 last year.) Progressive rock? (A peer prog, yes Tales from Topographic Oceans, was released in 1973 and instantly shattered under its weight.) How about disco? punk? Post-punk? new wave? Reggae? rap music? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. And what are we going to do with it meatloaf Bats from Hell, one of the 10 best-selling albums of the decade? Is the bomb type?
But if you were to scroll down through the decade and pull out a quintessential ’70s sampler, Blondie would come out — and sound, in fact, a lot like the band’s eight-disc box set, Against the Odds: 1974-1982, which was nominated for Best Historical Album at the Grammys this weekend. as the academic and artist Kimbrough MacLeod booksBlondie was a mediator between the experimental music and art scene of downtown New York and the larger pop audience. But more importantly, I would argue, the group has also been a conduit and promoter for a variety of new rock and pop sounds.
A simpler, if less charitable, way of saying this is that Blondie was a musical sponge rather than an innovator. One of the amazing things about David Bowie’s career is the way his antennae were in tune with the latest happenings in music: time and time again, he seemed to hit the scene before it was a scene – whether it be krautrock, disco, ambient, or “plastic soul” – and leave before the party goes bankrupt. Blondie, by contrast, was more reactive than innovative, reflecting rather than leading the music scene in which he immersed himself.
And they were immersed in most of the liveliest music of the 70’s. For example, a track from their first studio sessions is called “The Disco Song”. Although it’s not clear from their Afropop-themed demo that the band yet knew what disco sounded like, they had certainly figured it out by the time of the song’s commercial release, as “Heart of Glass” on their 1978 album parallel lines. When the band was founded, progressive rock was on life support; “Fade Away and Radiation” (also from parallel lines) features guitar work from prog god Robert Fripp and stands as a loving fanart. Indulged and energized by street revolution in pop music out of the Bronx, they recorded the bona fide single “Rapture,” which became the firstWell, let’s not call it a “rap song,” but a song featuring something like rap, to the top of the US charts, in 1981. That same year, they went to No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic with their cover of a rock song (post-ska, pre -reggae) “The Tide Is High.” Across their career, and throughout the ’70s, they were genre chameleons.
As much as they’ve been locked into other people’s coinage, though, Blondie has always managed to look like no one else’s. Usually, that was thanks to Debbie Harry’s versatile voice — sometimes ethereal, sometimes hoarse. The three opening tracks of parallel lines Make a great object lesson. The album opens with the distinct sound of a ringtone (British for a reason). “Hanging on the Telephone” holds its place in pop music’s esteemed catalog of telephone songs dating back at least to Glenn Miller’s “Penn 6-5000,” from the 1940’s, and ever expanding, with the Beatle’s “Any Time at All” by Carly Ray Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and Drake’s “Hotline Bling” and Beyond. (Blondie later contributed another classic of the genre: their theme song to the 1980 movie American Gigolo“talk me.”)
In “Hanging on the Telephone,” Harry is not a pretty teen waiting by the receiver, nor is she asking for a lover’s call, as Aretha Franklin was in to her A song called “Call Me”. Instead, she aggressively uses the telephone as a means of sexual communication in a way that, given the gender mores of the time, belonged almost exclusively to men. The song was first recorded by all-male L.A.-based pop trio The Nerves, and Harry unapologetically appropriates the man role: “I had to cut this conversation off and on / Your voice over the line gives me a weird vibe.” A few years later, Cyndi Lauper suggested that girls just wanted to have fun; Harry’s character here after a little more. “I’d like to talk when I can show you my affection,” she purred, before exclaiming, “Oh, I can’t control myself.”
The next track, “One Way or Another,” continues in this vein: Harry ranges from heartbroken to sexy to menacing as she insists there’s no way to escape her love. If the song wasn’t specifically covered, it would certainly be called out—and if anything, eerily featured—in the Dashboard topping “Every Breath You Take.” Harry’s sexual agency is given a softer focus on the next track, “Picture This,” a love ballad for her bandmate and former partner, Chris Stein. It paints a picture of everyday domestic satisfaction, with sexual desire only one of its components. Harry played a familiar trope, cleverly updating E.M. Forster’s famous headline: “All I want is a room with a view/a sight to behold, and a view of yours.” She explains that a scene includes “watching you bathe”.
There is an argument, then, that Blondie’s songs were just a vehicle for Harry. The band’s name is a quote of sorts, snatched from jerks directed at Harry by truckers: “Hey, Blondie!” And is there another group from the era when everyone but the lead singer worked in anonymity? (Claim for trivia night: Name any other member.) Other bands of the decade shot to more fame, but as we approach the half-century mark, it’s time to get to know, like Unlike He explains that Blondie is the defining sound of the ’70s.