A Feast for the Eyes and Ears
“Eat to the Beat was our fourth album, though it was the first one the American public had been waiting for”.
—Debbie Harry (Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie, 1982)
Twenty-eight years is a peculiar anniversary to commemorate an album but the folks at EMI Music Catalog Marketing decided that 2007 was the best time to bring Eat to the Beat (1979) back into the public’s consciousness. Not that the album was ever out of circulation: this marks the third release of Eat to the Beat in the CD age. Its first appearance—a no-frills, lo-fi package—was in 1987, followed by a 24-bit digitally re-mastered 2001 edition with four bonus tracks (part of a catalog-wide re-issue campaign of Blondie’s six studio albums on Chrysalis). What’s the deal this time? EMI is including the original Eat to the Beat video album on DVD with yet another remastered album, minus any bonus tracks. Most significantly, Blondie was among the first bands to issue commercially available videos on VHS and one of the few acts –- ever –- to film a video for each track on an album. Nearly three decades later and how does Eat to the Beat sound and look? First, a little history.
By 1979, Blondie finally conquered mainstream America with a number one hit, “Heart of Glass”. Their first two albums, Blondie (1977) and Plastic Letters (1978), captivated audiences in the UK and Australia, earning the group a spate of chart-topping singles abroad, but success in their home country was elusive. Not until producer Mike Chapman molded the band’s sound with commercial clay on Parallel Lines (1978) did Blondie make any impact on U.S. radio. (Of course, the sex appeal and attitude projected by their peroxided front woman was a marketing dream for Chrysalis Records, to the point where Debbie Harry was known as “the face”.) While “Heart of Glass”, “One Way or Another”, “Hanging on the Telephone”, and other tracks from Parallel Lines caught fire on the airwaves, Chapman was enlisted again for production duty on their all-important follow-up, Eat to the Beat.
It was the second album to feature the classic, six-member Blondie line-up: Debbie Harry, Chris Stein (guitar), Clem Burke (drums), Jimmy Destri (keyboards), Nigel Harrison (bass), and Frank Infante (guitar). Unlike Parallel Lines, which included three cover songs, all twelve tracks on Eat to the Beat were written by the band (eight co-written by Debbie Harry) and Chrysalis Records expected no less than platinum. In the liner notes for the 2001 re-release, Mike Chapman wrote, “It had to be a hit. That was the call.”
Eat to the Beat announces itself with quitea beat. Scarcely inhibited about his talent on drums, Clem Burke kicks the album off with his kit on “Dreaming”. The tune’s salvo of bright pop sets the tone for the album as does the full-powered vocals of Debbie Harry: “When I met you at the restaurant/ You could tell I was no debutante,” she sings with a vocal power unknown to audiences, at the time, who were only familiar with the synthetic thrills on “Heart of Glass”.
What’s most characteristic about Eat to the Beat, and Blondie albums in general, is the sudden shift in music style from one track to the next. Taking a sharp left turn from the bouncy pop of “Dreaming”, the band dives right into the punk-funk brew of “The Hardest Part”. Our lead singer gives one of her feistiest performances on this puzzling story about an armored car. (Two years later, Harry immersed herself in avant-funk on her Chic-produced solo debut, KooKoo .) Following “The Hardest Part”, the band steers towards anthemic power-pop on “Union City Blue” and “Shayla”. The former track’s vastness is rooted in an industrial “Wall of Sound” while Chris Stein’s shimmering melody on “Shayla” takes the tune up into a sparkling stratosphere, escorted by Harry’s patented cry, “Oh-oo-whoa-oh-oh-whoa-whoa”.
The detour to glistening pop melodies is short-lived, however, as the title tune roars in like a full throttle piece of pop-punk. A jagged pendulum swings the rhythm back and forth, culminating in, of all things, a harmonica solo by Randy Hennes. Written by Debbie Harry and Nigel Harrison, “Eat to the Beat” captures the relentless speed Blondie functioned on at that time, when success was an abundant spread of pleasures.
Originally buried at the end of Side A, “Accidents Never Happen” pre-dates the new wave sound that bands like Duran Duran served up with lip gloss for the ‘80s. Jimmy Destri, who later penned Blondie’s 1999 comeback hit “Maria”, regularly delivered catchy tunes and gave the band one of its most enduring “live” cuts with “Accidents Never Happen”. Harry’s icey delivery suits the cold irony of the song’s mantra—“Accidents never happen/ In a perfect world”. Echoing the manic speed of “Eat to the Beat”, the song ends like a mad sprint towards the finish line.
Bringing the pace to a reggae-lite beat, “Die Young Stay Pretty” opens what was originally Side B of the album. It’s tempting to interpret the tune as a disguised reference to the glamorous high-life of Studio 54, of which Blondie members famously partook, and its fabulous habitués. (Studio darling Lorna Luft even lent back up vocals to “Accidents Never Happen”.) “Slow Motion” furthered invoked the group’s pop aspirations as they melded mid-‘60s Motown rhythms and girl-group vocal ticks. Ellie Greenwich, who co-wrote a slew of hits in the girl-group era (“Chapel of Love”, “River Deep-Mountain High) and appeared on the first Blondie album, lends an authentic retro sensibility to the production with her background vocals.
If “Slow Motion” consciously appropriated the ‘60s influences that informed Blondie’s earlier work, “Atomic” foretold the band’s collaboration with Giorgio Moroder (“Call Me”) and the synth-excercises on Autoamerican (1980). Originally envisioned as “the last disco song”, the tune begins—annoyingly—with what band members called the “three blind mice” bit, an inconsequential piece of music that has little to do with the rest of the song. Except for that grating twelve-second intro, “Atomic” is the highlight of Eat to the Beat. A guitar lick straight out of out of an old western insinuates a kind of impending doom to which Debbie Harry lays down one of her strongest vocal performances. Nigel Harrison humanizes a looped synth track with an improvised bass solo and Destri programs bubbling keyboard currents underneath the track. Without even trying, “Atomic” is the most enthralling cut on the album.
From the climax of “Atomic”, the album loses some momentum with “Sound-A-Sleep”, which is about as exciting as its title suggests. The gut-splattering “Victor” smacks the listener in the face and brings the album back to a charged, if bewildering, intersection of lyrics and music. Harry screams, hysterically, at the top of her lungs, “Ohhh! I want you to go!! Ohhh!!! Will you leave me alone!”, sounding like the final girl in some B-movie flick.
Concluding this rollercoaster ride of musical peaks and valleys is “Living in the Real World”, which, like “Eat to the Beat”, is a frantic take on fame. “Hey, I’m living in a magazine”, exclaims Harry, who, at the time, made the covers of US, Interview, and Rolling Stone. This particular sentiment is layered underneath the whole premise of the Eat to the Beat video, where Debbie Harry is glammed-up, punked-out, and fills every inch of screen.
I wonder if it’s the 350,000-plus views of videos from Eat to the Beat on YouTube that has finally facilitated this DVD release. Did it dawn on the powers at EMI that the viewers who were watching second and third generation clips on YouTube might actually invest in a nicely packaged and mastered set? The video has virtually been out of print since its original release, though a few clips have made it onto Blondie video compilations.
Home video was still in its infancy in the pre-MTV era and a full-length video like Eat to the Beat was an anomaly for the time. For the DVD re-release, EMI has transferred the video to DVD with no bells and whistles –- no band or director commentary, no information on how or where the videos were filmed. Only a basic menu with the album typeface and some looped video clips set against the black boxes from the album cover greets the viewer. Fortunately, the videos compensate for the underwhelming presentation.
An archaic opening credit sequence gives way to the video of the title track, where the band plays under hot white and pink lights for assembled fans. Like many videos of its time, “Eat to the Beat” is a lip-synched stage performance. Debbie Harry jumps and shakes in a blue leotard, headband, and a skirt made out of balloon pants. David Mallet, who directs all the videos, keeps it fairly simple with most of the attention on Harry’s mugging and close-ups of instruments. “Dreaming” and “Living in the Real World” are filmed with the same set-up and, save a few wardrobe changes, there’s little variation between this threesome. (There’s some inconsistency in the shots. In “Dreaming”, for example, Harry is alternately shown with dry and sweaty hair, indicating different takes.)
“The Hardest Part” and “Union City Blue” are a bit more creative: the former depicts the band on a set spray-painted with orange and red graffiti while the latter is on location at the Union Dry Dock facing the Lower Manhattan skyline. The end of “Union City Blue” captures Blondie playfully fighting for the camera’s attention, a tableaux that also appears in the “Die Young Stay Pretty” video where band members don masks and stumble over one another in delirium.
Harry’s deadpan expressions make “Slow Motion” and “Accidents Never Happen” a bit more interesting than the metallic set and Harry’s basic black dress would indicate. Otherwise, the two clips offer little more than the lip-synched performances. “Shayla”, at least, has dramatic lighting to match the introspection of the music.
Like the album, “Atomic” is the highlight on the video. To quote Harry in Making Tracks, the band and its audience are decked out like “after blast freaks”. It’s the most elaborate production, a kind of futuristic ritual dance where people arrive atop horses in their spaciest finery and groove with motorcycle helmets and spring bracelets adorning their body. More threadbare is the video for “Sound-A-Sleep”, which only features Debbie Harry. All red lips and blue eye shadow, she rolls around on pink mattress mouthing the lyrics looking very glamorous… but also very bored. “Victor” is frightfully more compelling, like a short gothic film, and perfectly matches the ominous tone of the song with Destri cast as the villain, Stein as the victim, and Harry as the raging, scorned lover.
Eat to the Beat—both the album and the video—is not the most essential item in the Blondie catalog. Among the non-compilation albums, Blondie and Parallel Lines are less fragmented listening experiences and give a better sense of the band’s strengths for the uninitiated. The Greatest Hits (2002) DVD also combines the best of the band’s videos, offering more variety than the recycled sets on Eat to the Beat. However, the CD/DVD set of Eat to the Beat captures Blondie at a particular time and place in popular music history, when a band’s image began to matter as much as the music. Fortunately, the appeal of the band’s songs and striking visual style has survived three decades relatively untarnished.