Monday, September 20, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 74 - Blondie

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

I was raised on the idea that music should act as some sort of definitive artistic statement - a timeless message that will inspire and provoke listeners throughout the ages. I'm still sort of keen on that concept, but the past few weeks have got me thinking about how that might not be the only way to approach music. Sometimes, what might appear to be shallow artifice can have just as much depth as the pretensions of art that tries to be thought-provoking and deep.

Just like last week's Michael Jackson, no one is ever going to mistake the musicians of Blondie as some sort of high-art gurus. Coming into fruition during the turmoil of the Punk Revolution, the group aims neither for the High Art of mid-70s prog rock, nor the wild nihilism of punk. Instead, they just put together collections of catchy songs.

If I were listening to Blondie in hopes of achieving some sort of deep, world-changing paradigm shift through their music, I would be disappointed. But I'm starting to warm up to the idea that one can appreciate craft and skill in pop-rock songs just as much as one can in Deep Heartfelt Works of Feeling That Bare The Artist's Soul.

The word "art" commonly provokes such a view - some sort of tortured artist whom the world doesn't understand, laboring to bring their vision to fulfillment through the confines of the medium. It's a hopelessly Romanticized view of the artist, but nonetheless one I have a certain kind of affinity for. Yet I'm beginning to realize that the artist who spends their time crafting catchy songs doesn't necessarily have less skill than the one who tries to bare their feelings. Sometimes, the catchy pop songs might even be more enjoyable.

This is all a very convoluted way of stating that I liked Blondie. The songs might not change my life, and their lyrics will never be mistaken for poetry. But I'll be damned if I can ever get these melodies out of my head.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: The singles "One Way or Another," "Heart of Glass," and "Call Me" all seem to pop up quite a bit, and I'd heard each of them before. But that's about it.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Parallel Lines (1978) every day this week. I also listened to Blondie (1976) three times, and Eat to the Beat (1979) twice.


The fun thing about Blondie is that they have all the makings of a rock outfit, but pursue songs more in a poppy vein. I liked most their tracks that managed to integrate the two, like the upbeat "Accidents Never Happen," or the twangy surf-inspired "Rifle Range."

Blondie also has a great ear for a catchy melody, and though a lot of their hits sound massively different, they all manage to incorporate this strength. This comes through best on their Parallel Lines album, a strange mishmash of all sorts of different genre inspirations that somehow still manages to sound internally consistent. "Hangin' On the Telephone" is a catchy single, as well as the smooth "11:59" and the raucous "I'm Gonna Love You Too." 

Really, nearly all of the tracks on Parallel Lines are catchy enough to hold their own. It's fun to watch Blondie effortlessly skirt from harder rock to bubblegum pop to disco-shaded forms of dance. Like I said, none of these songs are mind-shattering, but they're all memorable through their catchy songcraft and workmanlike approach to the instrumentals. Blondie shows off primarily through not showing off, but rather reigning in their ideas and letting the songs speak for themselves.

Finally, I love Blondie's use of the synthesizer. "Call Me" is perhaps the best example of this, with the rocking synth solo in the middle. But funky synth-bass riff that begins the rocking "I Know But I Don't Know" is another good example. I love myself a good synthesizer, and Blondie knows how to lay on just the right amount without going too far over the top.


First of all, I don't really like what might be Blondie's biggest hit - "Heart of Glass." Maybe it's my dislike of dance music in general, or maybe you just had to grow up in the disco era to understand it. I think it's the worst song by far on Parallel Lines - where the other tracks crackle with catchy melodies and riffs, "Heart of Glass" stagnates on the same boring beat for a disastrously dull five minutes.  It's certainly outside the box for a rock-pop type band like Blondie, but that doesn't mean it's very good. It certainly shouldn't be their legacy.

Most of my other complaints come from Eat to the Beat, which finds the group taking their well-received Parallel Lines, (which itself is a hodgepodge of different kinds of songs), and trying to take it a step further. While I laud the band for experimenting with different styles, the world doesn't need the faux-reggae "Die Young Stay Pretty," and the lullaby-esque "Sound Asleep" is simply dull.

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK: When Blondie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, Debbie Harry refused to let former band members Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison play with the group (Infante and Harrison had sued Harry earlier that decade to try and stop a band reunion). The two men stormed the stage anyway, publicly asking permission to perform.

"Debbie, aren't we allowed?" Infante asked. "I thought the group was being inducted tonight."

"Can't you see my real band is up there?" Harry replied.

Ouch. Public band spats are fun to watch, in a sick sort of way.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's the not-so-well-received sophomore slump of an album Plastic Letters (1978), as well as Autoamerican (1980) and The Hunter (1982). Beyond that, there's Debbie Harry's solo efforts, like Koo Koo (1981), that supposedly stole Blondie's thunder and hastened the band's breakup.