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Platinum Blondie

Page 3 of 5

The musical term New Wave sounds more like the name of a laundry detergent, and if it can be applied to a song like "Heart of Glass," that makes it even more meaningless. Thus far, the single has sold close to a million and a half copies; Parallel Lines has gone platinum. The reason is simple: the hooks are irresistible – a bright, bouncy organ and a bunch of cute triplets. As New York DJ Cousin Brucie used to say, "It's in the grooves."

From the outset, Blondie's sound was built on a driving, compulsive beat and spacey keyboards, with Debbie's dreamy, almost uninflected vocals drifting over it all. Chris and Debbie found their rhythm section in drummer Clem Burke and bassist Gary Valentine, who knew one another from Jersey school days. With the addition of Jimmy Destri on keyboards, the original lineup was complete.

Early in 1976, Richie Gottehrer, formerly of the Strangeloves, coauthor of the 1966 British hit ''Sorrow,'' the man who made the McCoys ("Hang On Sloopy") semihousehold words, discovered Blondie at CBGB's, the sleazy dive on the Bowery that was then in the process of becoming famous. He brought Larry Uttal, the president of the small, New York-based Private Stock label, to their show. They heard the jingling of cash registers. "I was very turned on by the sound of her voice," Larry recalls. "She had that early-Fifties sound that was becoming popular again. She reminded me of Rosie and the Originals, the Tassels."

Blondie's first record, the single "X Offender" backed with "In the Sun," was coproduced by Gottehrer. It didn't sell very well but provoked a lot of interest, at least enough to follow it with the first album. "He was really instrumental in breaking us," says Debbie of Gottehrer. "We got a lot of airplay at a time when New Wave music was totally untouched, and a lot of it had to do with Richard's name on the product."

Meanwhile, Blondie hired a new manager. Gottehrer had been managing them as well as producing, but he didn't think he had time to do both. He and Larry Uttal put their heads together and nominated Peter Leeds. The band hired him. It turned out to be a perfectly symmetrical bit of irony: a year later, both Uttal and Gottehrer were out of the picture.

Blondie made its West Coast debut in February 1977 at Whisky in Los Angeles, where by all accounts the band went over like gangbusters. Rodney Bingenheimer, DJ and professional hanger-out, particularly gave them a boost. While in L.A., they were hired to support Iggy Pop on his American tour with David Bowie that spring.

When I ask Clem Burke what was the high point of Blondie's career, he replies, "Aside from all the success, I'd have to say meeting David Bowie. That was good. We are all Bowie freaks. There have been so many things that have taken us over a hump, but that was definitely the first biggie: getting to Toronto and meeting Bowie and Iggy and having them come into the dressing room and introduce themselves and say, 'We're gonna have fun on this tour.' I called myself a rock & roll virgin, which is really what we all were, because we weren't used to meeting rock stars and all that. But they don't like to hear, 'Oh, I grew up on you.'"

On July 4th, 1977, Gary Valentine, bass player and coauthor of "X Offender," split from the group. He still cites the same reason for the split that he used then, "artistic integrity," but when you talk to him about it, that translates into resentment of the despotic concentration of power in Stein and Harry. "I would write six songs, and they would say, 'Okay, we'll do this one.'"

(Valentine moved to Los Angeles and formed the Know, a three-piece band also managed by Peter Leeds. There are rumors of a record deal, the latest involving Capitol. "But I don't think we'll be signed to Capitol," Valentine tells me. "I had a dream about that, and they didn't offer me enough money. I told them no.")

Blondie then recorded its second album, Plastic Letters, with bassist Frank Infante, an old Jersey chum of the group's. He subsequently joined the band, and moved over to guitar when Nigel Harrison was hired to play bass.

On Labor Day of 1977 came the Big Move, the switch from the small Private Stock label to Chrysalis, an aggressive independent company. Private Stock is one of those tiny independents that seem to luck into a couple of hit records but can't translate the windfall into a coherent company policy. Private Stock had two lucrative flukes in "Fifth of Beethoven" by Walter Murphy and Samantha Sang's "Emotion," but one gets the impression that it didn't quite know how to chart Blondie's course.

When you ask Leeds or the group what was wrong with the way Private Stock handled them, the answer from all sides is "everything." Specifically, the problem was cash, or rather the lack of it. It seems that everyone had intimations of rock immortality for Blondie except the label. The company simply wasn't coming up with the money and commitment that Leeds felt he needed to break the act.

There were also internal group problems with the Blondie image (i.e., Debbie's image) being projected to promote the records. This culminated in the famous poster of Debbie in a black, beaded, see-through top – very trashy-flashy, very sexy. The group was afraid that it was being packaged behind an image of Debbie as a turn-on for dirty old men. Debbie detested the poster; the group was angry. Jody Uttal (Larry's daughter), director of publicity at Private Stock and the original Blondie raver, still defends the promotional campaign. "At the time, it was the only way we had to market them. We had to promote them somehow, and that was all we had."

Clearly, it was a great way to push posters, but not records.

Leeds raised $500,000 to buy out Gottehrer and Private Stock – $400,000 for the label and $100,000 for Richie. Then he took them to Chrysalis, where President Terry Ellis was crazy for the act. Chrysalis Records grew out of a talent agency started in the mid-Sixties by two enterprising young Englishmen, Chris Wright and Ellis. Their first signings were Ten Years After and Jethro Tull. The sensational success of Jethro Tull in the U.K. led to the establishment of Chrysalis there. Tull's importance to Chrysalis hasn't diminished; to this day the act remains the label's bread and butter. In 1972, Ellis and Wright, their roster strengthened with the addition of Procol Harum, launched Chrysalis in America by entering into a joint distribution deal with Warner Bros. Four years later, the label went independent in the U.S.

Since then, Chrysalis has developed a reputation as one of the more adventuresome and well-managed independents, achieving limited success with such acts as the Babys and Rory Gallagher. But it wasn't until last year that they had a Number One hit record in America &ndash Nick Gilder's ''Hot Child in the City'' (also produced by Mike Chapman). Blondie has been almost as important to Chrysalis as Chrysalis has been to Blondie. ''We sort of stumbled together at a certain moment in time and helped each other to progress,'' Ellis says.

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