“Punk” is surely one of the most widely abused words in the English language—though I will grant that a lot of that is due to discussions between misanthropic teenagers, barley old enough to draw a line between Good Charlotte and The Clash. But back in the mid-70s, before The Ramones overshadowed the much-maligned word, it became the amorphous title to an entire burgeoning scene. And while it seemed like every band in the five boroughs had its own take on the evolution of rock, the members of Blondie decided to walk the well-tread path of pop.
While the etymology of that last word has left it on par with “punk,” it shouldn’t induce any cringing. There’s nothing wrong with good pop, and Blondie aspired to the best of it. Though their sound would later evolve and crystallize into the well-known, radio-friendly gems on Parallel Lines, their self-titled debut tends to get overlooked as a masterpiece in its own right. The former album guaranteed the band’s commercial success by hopping on the musical bandwagon, adding a slicker bent toward New Wave, and even delving into disco with “Heart of Glass.”
Blondie, however, planted its roots in the all-American rock of yesteryear. Debbie Harry’s mellifluous lament on the intro to “X Offender” harkens back to the days when melodramatic teen dialogue opened songs like “Leader of the Pack.” Just listen to the twangy, surf-guitar solo, or Harry’s lilting sighs—this is what American Bandstand would have played if synthesizers were more popular in the mid-60s and Dick Clark had taste.
Chances are, America’s most elderly teenager would have had an early stroke watching the vampy, pouty-lipped Harry calling herself a “sex offender” or offering “some head and shoulders to lie on,” as she does on the feisty “Look Good in Blue.” A former Playboy bunny, Harry could have been another lovely face waiting to become a marketing tool if not for her actual talent. The difference lies in her personality: She can play the cute poster girl, crooning out doo-wop ballads like “In the Flesh,” the sultry seductress eyeing her prey on “Man Overboard,” or a vicious bitch on “Rip Her to Shreds.”
“Rip Her” ravages the rabid fashion-sense of hipsters in a feast of crunchy guitar and pounding synth notes, but it’s the lyrics that really sting. “Her nose job is real atomic,” Harry spits, “all she needs is an old knife scar.” Even when she’s taking jabs at the shallow, there’s an underlying humor that propels every song, lending a general sense of fun to the whole album.
Two songs probably capture that playfulness perfectly: “In the Sun” and Blondie‘s closer, “The Attack of the Killer Ants.” The first is possibly the greatest song ever written for summer, surf and sand. After opening with a cascade of drum rolls, Chris Stein’s guitar does its best Ventures impersonation, twisting and rushing over James Destri’s synthesizer warblings while Harry calls for her “paka lola luau love.” I’m not exactly sure who or what that is, but I do know this song makes me want to do the Watusi at the beach with Gidget.
“Killer Ants” has a similarly infectious rhythm section, and you’ll find yourself wearing the largest grin an apocalyptic tale about giant insects can inspire (which is pretty damn wide, if you’re like me). “Giant ants from space / waste the human race / then they eat your face / never leave a trace!” Cheerful, no? There’s even an interlude that includes sirens, bombings, and some rather unsettling roaring that could only be issued from the maws of fire-breathing space ants.
The fact is, Blondie does sound a little dated now—and, outside of a few grating keyboard solos, it’s supposed to. It’s a send-up and tribute to everything old-school pop offered us, but modern enough to cut whatever schmaltz was packaged in the genre. It may not be the hardcore thrashings or artsy experimentalism we’ve come to expect from “legitimate” punk, but creating an amalgamation of modern stylings and pop didn’t dilute Blondie’s originality, either. And if that’s not punk, I’m not sure what is.
Similar Albums/Albums Influenced:
The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers
The B-52’s – The B-52’s
Elastica – Elastica