No decade is dominated by a single pop music genre, but the 1970s were arguably more colorful than most. What’s the sound of the 70’s? Is it… folk rock? (Neil Youngs harvest turned 50 last year.) Progressive Rock? (Progs Nadir, Jas Stories from Topographic Oceans, was released in 1973 and promptly crashed under its own weight.) How about Disco? Punk? post punk? New wave? Reggae? Rap? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. And what do we do with meatloaf bat from hell, one of the 10 best-selling albums of the decade? Is bombast a genre?
But if you scoured the decade and pulled out a core sample of ’70s pop, it would yield Blondie – and would actually look very similar to the band’s eight-disc box set, Against the Odds: 1974–1982, which is nominated for the Best Historical Album award at this weekend’s Grammys. As academic and artist Kembrew McLeod wrote, Blondie was an intermediary between downtown New York City’s experimental music and art scene and the larger pop audience. But more fundamentally, I’d say the group was also a channel and popularizer for a variety of new rock and pop sounds.
A simpler, if perhaps less charitable, way of saying this is that Blondie was more of a musical sponge than an innovator. One of the amazing things about David Bowie’s career is the way his antennae were tuned in to the latest in music: time and time again he seemed to arrive on stage before it was a stage – be it krautrock, disco, ambient, or “Plastic soul” – and to leave before the party goes broke. In contrast, Blondie was more reactive than inventive, reflecting rather than leading the music scene they had immersed themselves in.
And they were immersed in almost all of the most vital music of the 1970s. A track from their first studio sessions, for example, is simply called “The Disco Song”. While it’s not clear from the Afropop-influenced demo that the band already knew what disco sounded like, by the time the song was released commercially as “Heart of Glass” on the 1978 album, they certainly had figured it out parallel lines. When the band formed, progressive rock was alive; “Fade Away and Radiate” (also from parallel lines) features guitar work by prog god Robert Fripp and stands as a loving elegy. Attuned and fueled by the street revolution in pop music emerging from the Bronx, they recorded the well-intentioned if ailing “Rapture,” which was the first, well, let’s not call it a rap song, but a song along something like rapping to top the US charts in 1981. That same year they went to #1 on both sides of the Atlantic with their cover of the Rocksteady song “The Tide Is High”. Throughout their career and into the 70’s they were a chameleon of the genre.
However, as often as they were tied to other people’s currencies, Blondie always managed to sound like no other. Usually that was thanks to Debbie Harry’s versatile – sometimes ethereal, sometimes hoarse – voice. The three opening tracks of parallel lines provide a great lesson. The album begins with the unmistakable sound of a (British for some reason) ringtone. “Hanging on the Telephone” has its place in the venerable pop catalog of telephone songs, dating back at least to Glenn Miller’s 1940’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000” and ever expanding with “Any Time at All” by The Beatles, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”, Drake’s “Hotline Bling” and more. (Blondie later contributed another classic to the genre: her theme song for the 1980 film American gigolo“Call me.”)
In “Hanging on the Telephone,” Harry is not a smitten teenager waiting by the phone, nor is she asking for a call from a lover like Aretha Franklin does she Song titled “Call Me”. Instead, she aggressively uses the phone as a medium for erotic connection in a way that, given the gender conventions of the time, was almost exclusively reserved for men. The song was first recorded by all-male LA pop trio The Nerves, and Harry uncompromisingly appropriates the man’s role: “I had to interrupt and end this conversation / Your voice over the line gives me a weird feeling.” few years later, Cyndi Lauper suggested that girls just wanted to have fun; Harry’s character here wants a little more than that. “I’d like to talk if I can show you my affection,” she purrs, before snarling, “Oh, I can’t control myself.”
The next track, “One Way or Another,” continues in that vein: Harry ranges from plaintive to sultry to menacing as she insists there’s no way to escape their love. The song is accurately, if not covered, certainly invoked – and made even scarier, if anything – in The Police’s chart-topping “Every Breath You Take.” Harry’s sexual agency is softer focused in the next track, “Picture This,” a love song for her bandmate and former partner, Chris Stein. It paints a picture of everyday domestic contentment, with sexual desire as just one of its components. Harry plays on a familiar trope, cleverly updating EM Forster’s famous title: “All I want is a room with a view / A sight worth seeing, a vision of you.” A view, she explains, that includes, “watching you shower”.
So it has to be argued that Blondie’s songs were just the vehicle for Harry. The band’s very name is a kind of quote, snatched from the whistles truck drivers gave Harry: “Hey, blondie!” And is there another group from the era when everyone but the lead singer worked almost anonymously? (A challenge for a trivia night: name any other member.) Other bands of the decade made a bigger splash, but as we near the half-century, it’s time to see how Against the odds makes it clear that Blondie is the defining sound of the 70s.