In the late Seventies, Blondie were the most widely mocked band of CBGB’s first punk wave — too pop, not rigorous enough. But after they hit Number One in early 1979 with “Heart of Glass,” their pasticheurs-and-proud stance not only made their string of hits a rare shot of excitement on early-Eighties radio, they foretold the way hits of the future would be stitched together from different genres. Blondie look increasingly visionary in the rearview.
It helped that Blondie’s songwriting was, early on, a fairly open door: In its first incarnation, from 1974 to 1982, all seven members wrote, with vocalist Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein usually collaborating. But despite that pair’s centrality, they weren’t exclusionary: Nearly half of the second Blondie album, Plastic Letters, was written by keyboardist Jimmy Destri, and covers were core to their repertoire — the reggae chestnut “The Tide Is High” being the most obvious example. The song mattered more than the author, a pop precept more than a rock one.
A new box set, Against the Odds, collects Blondie’s first six studio albums, along with scads of odds and ends and a hefty illustrated history. It opens with a 1974 demo version of “Once I Had a Love,” later “Heart of Glass.” Its proximate model is the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat,” the first true disco record to hit Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. This version is revelatory, if not great — it’s slack; the rhythm and Harry’s singing sliding around rather than nailed in place, the boogie imperatives of the era as ill-fitting on Debbie and Chris and super-drummer Clem Burke as Nehru and bell-bottoms would be.
But Blondie’s songwriting is already tight. Harry’s already figuring out her style; on “Puerto Rico,” a demo produced by local impresario Alan Betrock, she finishes, “Beat it creep — dematerialize.” She plays it cool, but the street-smart sharpie is ready to assert herself.
Blondie (1976) and Plastic Letters (1978) are still engagingly energetic, if a bit underbaked. Harry’s laughing false start to “X Offender,” on the former, has more vocal moxie than the album proper, and the more needling Private Stock mix of their debut’s “Little Girl Lies” whomps the album version.
Parallel Lines closed out 1978 on another foot altogether — skintight and effortless, they were now the diamond-hard candy pop they’d long masqueraded as. Producer Mike Chapman put them through their paces — to which the band responded eagerly, as this set’s notes detail. Harry especially blossoms: Her three iterations, all different, of “I can’t control myself” in “Hanging on the Telephone” are, in fact, a model of control. The finished “Heart of Glass” is the greatest rock-disco détente of the Seventies — the early version here simply sounds slipshod compared to the sleek finished product.
“Heart of Glass” put Blondie in conversation with the present as much as the past, and Eat to the Beat (1979) opens that up: “The Hardest Part” found an echo in David Bowie’s “Fashion” a year later. The extras for 1980’s Autoamerican include “Underground Girl,” a gleeful homage to the L.A. punks X, with Debbie and Frank Infante hollering over each other John and Exene-style.
By the last two albums here, Autoamerican and The Hunter (1982), Blondie were running on fumes. With frayed chemistry and a nonstop recording-touring schedule, the band plain ran out of ideas. Yet the last disc here of archival odds and ends is still brimming — a pulsating, lo-fi cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” nods to the Gun Club. And it ends with a trio of “synth mixes” of “Heart of Glass,” “War Child,” and “Call Me” — no vocals, no drums, just machine throb. Once upon a time, they’d have been curios. In 2022, you’ll be hearing them in DJ sets soon. Blondie: still ahead of their time.
Editor’s Note: Hey, we got rid of the stars on our reviews. If you’re into pop culture in 2022, you’re too sophisticated to let some arbitrary number guide your tastes. So we’ll tell you right away when a new single is an instant classic or an album is an absolute must-hear. After that, our critics will help you make up your own damn mind.