In the winter of 1978, Blondie released “Heart of Glass”, which would become the band’s first number one hit single in the United States. Though the band was a creative resultant of the punk movement of the 1970s, “Heart of Glass” was a song of a different genre, one just as identified by its decade: disco. Because of their punk roots, Blondie’s foray into disco was derided as “selling out” or “pandering” to gain a wider audience, in much the same way that other mainstream acts who “went disco” would be accused. But the success – and brilliance – of “Heart of Glass” is the story of Blondie, the band. It perfectly encapsulates their long thesis: They wanted to be commercial and punk at once. Though by the late 1970s, disco had become mainstream, its roots were far from Middle America. It was an art form created and nurtured by Black and queer creatives who would often center Black female voices. But like everything that captures mainstream success, disco for the masses meant tacky, cringy ephemera like The Ethel Merman Disco Album or Donny Osmond’s Disco Train.
But Blondie’s step into dance music wasn’t a crass cash grab. “Heart of Glass” has a history. Before the band’s superstardom, frontwoman Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein wrote the song as a midtempo, funk number, inspired by the soulful urban dance music of the time. Eventually, the song grew and evolved into the cool, sleek synth-banger that adorned the band’s classic album Parallel Lines. “Heart of Glass” gave the band pop superstardom that seemed incongruous with their punk roots.
But simply damning Blondie as a commercial band that ‘sold out’ is reductive and superficial. It ignores the hard work and good art that they produced at their commercial height. But more than that, it also ignores the trajectory of pop music. The greatest pop music narratives are those of struggling musicians who come from humble backgrounds, toiling away at nightclubs and bars before making it big. Blondie’s lore has the hallmarks of a great story: a cracking band with a goddess for a lead singer that creates their legend by building on the Downtown New York art and punk scene, putting in performances at iconic venues like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. Debbie Harry, the enigmatic and gorgeous face of the group, was a Jersey girl who, like many, made her way to New York City. Unsure of just what kind of stardom she was going to seek, she paid her dues like every superstar, waiting tables, and answering phones. The story of rags to riches practically writes itself.
“I had come to [New York City] to be an artist,” Harry writes in her memoir, Face It. She noted that she “experimented with everything imaginable, attempting to figure out who I was as an artist – or if I even was one. I sought out everything that New York had to offer, everything underground and forbidden and everything aboveground, and threw myself into it.” These experiments she writes about included music and Harry joined a folk group, the Wind in the Willows, appearing on the self-titled debut, even soloing on a song. But she summed up her role in the band pithily: “I was like wallpaper, something pretty to stand in the back…”1
It was Harry’s stint as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City that gave her an insight into the kind of celebrity she’d eventually attain with Blondie. The legendary club had a glittery clientele that was an intersection of mainstream and underground celebrity – again, the kind of fame that Harry and Blondie would epitomize. Oscar-winning superstars like Jane Fonda and James Coburn would share the space with Downtown legends like Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling. Andy Warhol, a man who defines that kind of straddling fame also appeared. Years later Harry and Warhol would become social acquaintances, their worlds overlapping, and she’d pose for one of his legendary portraits and grace the cover of the July 1979 issue of his Interview magazine.
As a performer, Harry moved on from the Wind in the Willows to joining the Stillettos, a punk band formed by Elda Gentile (who worked with Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn in a proceeding band, Pure Garbage.) Gentile broke away from Pure Garbage, looking to create a rock band, and recruited Harry. Gentile’s partner brought on a guitarist, Chris Stein, who would become Harry’s musical kindred spirit. Bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy O’Connor would also eventually join the Stillettos. Ultimately, Smith, O’Connor would team with Stein and Harry to form Blondie.
Blondie’s time in the mid-1970s was at a period of a performance art renaissance that saw artists from different mediums in New York creating a vibrant scene. As music critic Lucy O’Brien put it, “legions of painters, photographers, and musicians would coalesce and separate in various permutations of ‘performance art’.”2 The music of Blondie took its cues from power-pop, punk, as well as, girl group pop, particularly the Shangri-Las, who were “proto-punk in their sensibilities, embodying a punk aesthetic.”3 After Blondie was signed to a major label, the band brought this rangy, DIY musical aesthetic to larger audiences and from its sophomore album, Plastic Letters (1977) to the follow-up, 1978’s Parallel Lines, the band scored four top 20 UK hits before hitting number one for the first time on both sides of the Atlantic with “Heart of Glass”.
After “Heart of Glass”, the band enjoyed a string of hit records, including three more number one singles in the States, five more in the UK. The success of the band also led, inevitably, to internal struggles and strife, with members leaving. Eventually, with the release of 1982’s The Hunter, the exhaustion was sonically palpable, and the band broke up, with Harry embarking on a solo career as a singer and actress, whilst the other members moved on to other musical projects. Stein’s career was imperiled by a pemphigus vulgaris diagnosis, but through treatment and Harry’s care, he was able to maintain his career which also included accomplished work with photography. In 1999, members Clem Burke, Jimmy Destri, Harry, and Stein reformed Blondie for a new album No Exit, which launched a second career for the group, though by then, Blondie was no longer a punk band muscling its way into the mainstream: Harry graduated to legendary icon status, with acolytes like Gwen Stefani, Kim Wilde, Patty Smyth, and Madonna praying to the alter of Debbie Harry. Nothing cemented the institutionalizing of Blondie as ‘establishment’ more than the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
When being inducted by Shirley Manson of Garbage, another Debbie Harry disciple, Blondie were cited for bringing together different musical influences into a cohesive sound, specifically their success in bridging the gap between punk rock and hip-hop. When listening to the studio albums of the 1970s and early 1980s, audiences can detect that Blondie’s approach to music was akin to a collagist. Though the punk roots remained firm, there were elements of New Wave, rock, dance, and pop. Pop music is an ongoing exercise in pastiche and Blondie shored up all of those influences into a unified trademark voice. In its assessment of the band, Rolling Stone praised the band, writing, “Surf music, girl groups, Motown, bubblegum, glitter rock, even a touch of heavy metal – everything gets boiled down into sweet little concoctions that release surprisingly complex, lasting pleasure.”4
The other aspect of Blondie that Manson highlighted was the power of having a woman front and center, grabbing the mic, and taking control. Harry herself pointed out, “There were few women in the New York scene – in fact, in the whole music industry in the 1970s – and being a female lead singer in an otherwise all-male rock band was rare.”5 There are scores of feminist literature devoted to the representation of feminine and female power in Debbie Harry, particularly as she was at once punk and glamour. A rock and roll Marilyn Monroe, she looked like a Golden Age of Hollywood movie star even if she recontextualized that old-fashioned glamour in the gritty environs of punk.
But being beautiful and female also meant that Harry was at times, objectified and dismissed. Blondie’s embrace of pop hooks could make them seem like pop camp, particularly in comparison with their peers. But the clash of substance and style highlights both the creativity, plasticity, and artificiality of pop music. Like Andy Warhol, Blondie thrived not only by creating indelible music but by engaging with fame that took the group from the ragged landscape of the punk movement in New York City to the shiny, glossy heights of pop superstardom.
Anthologizing and compiling Blondie has been done before, many times, in that way that legendary bands have been anthologized and compiled. The marketplace has been inundated with collections that purport to tell the storied musical history of Blondie. The band’s proximity to dance music means that there are remixes albums and Harry’s solo career has intersected with her success as Blondie’s frontwoman. The most famous compilation – one that is suggested to anyone who is interested in a succinct overview of the band’s history is Chrysalis Records’ 1981 album, The Best of Blondie. Released a little under a year before The Hunter, the album is a great one-stop pop to hear Blondie’s biggest hits. The two-disc The Platinum Collection (EMI/Chrysalis, 1991) does more excavation of archives, b-sides, and rarities. And in 1991, Chrysalis vowed that it had been able to present the full Blondie story with, The Complete Picture: The Very Best of Deborah Harry and Blondie, which not only celebrates the band’s classic hits but it is sprinkled with some of Harry’s solo recordings, as well.
What these albums achieve is a celebration of the band as a radio-friendly hit machine that transcended its punk roots to achieve mainstream pop success. But the greatness of Blondie’s work is more than just the big hits, some intriguing rarities, and a few dance mixes. To understand just how monumental Blondie’s contribution is, one would have to do an exhaustive study of all of the work during the band’s most creatively fecundate period, which means delving not only into the hits but also the b-sides and album cuts. Though Blondie was a singles act, the studio albums were 1970s power-pop gems and should not be shunted aside to make room for yet another rehash of their top ten triumphs.
That is why Blondie: Against the Odds 1974-1982 is a textbook case on how to properly sum up and assemble what could be an overwhelming amount of material. Clocking in at eight CDs, this compilation works overtime to create a lasting and definitive history of the band and its successes. It also speaks to the state of pop music in the late 1970s. More than any other punk band from the 1970s, Blondie looked to the evolution of pop music and folded in these shifting trends and as a result, the music felt current and accessible.
Mined from a treasure trove of Blondie material that sat in state in a rambling, barn in Woodstock, New York, Ken Shipley, one of the anthology’s producers, proclaimed, “From this chaotic hoard of ephemera and mouse excrement, this long-gestating project was born.”6 Accompanying this remarkable collection are some fantastic liner notes, which include probing and incisive commentary on Blondie’s history and art, including an in-depth analysis of the tracks by the band members. The ambitious and superlative project does a tremendous job of highlighting the dizzying breadth of talent and creativity of the band.
The early music that is included is an interesting origin story for the band. The demos show a band that is still tooling around, searching for a sound. “Out in the Streets” is a great study of some of the musical foundations for Blondie. Written by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry for the Shangri-Las, “Out in the Streets” captures Harry as an astute student of the 1960s female-fronted rock. A comparison of Blondie’s version – which bears the echoes of the Velvet Underground in its interpretation – to the Shangra-Las’ original shows just how integral the girl group would become to Blondie and punk music. It also exposes Harry’s distinct way of playing out “those soap opera scenarios”, as Stein put it, of those teen angst pop tunes of the 1960s.
The ghostly harmonies of the Shangri-Las are replaced by the moody vocals of Harry’s Stillettos compatriots, Elda Gentile, Snooky Bellamo, and Tish Bellomo. (These three women would become vital to the Blondie mythology and sound.) Whilst the 1960s tune sported a Wall-of-Sound-like production by Shadow Morton, Stein’s arrangement of the tune is far leaner. When the tune is revisited by production courtesy of Alan Betrock, the girl group homage is more pronounced and it also points to the smoother, cleaner sounds that would be characteristic of the studio LPs.
The demo sessions also provide listeners with a listen to the skeletons of some of their later hits. “Heart of Glass” is known as the propulsive synth-driven disco hit, but in its infancy, it sounds more akin to the Plastic Soul of 1970s-era David Bowie instead of Studio 54-era disco. The great thing about Against the Odds is that listeners get both an aural and oral history of the band’s creative process and its growth, wonderfully illustrated in the example of “Heart of Glass”. In its primal form, it’s a funky midtempo number with some nods to reggae, but when it came time to include it on Parallel Lines, producer Mike Chapman shaped the record through trial and error.
[A]fter we played it a few times, I said, “Let’s get rid of the reggae.” We then tried to do it as straight rock, but that didn’t work, and I could see Debbie was getting a bit frustrated. So, I asked her, “Debbie, what kind of music that’s happening right now really turns you on?” She said, “Donna Summer.” I said, “OK, then how about us treating this song like it was meant for Donna Summer?” [The band] looked at me as if to say, “What?” I said, “Well, it’s disco, right?” “Yeah, it’s disco” [the band members] mumbled, but when Debbie then said, “I like disco,” the others basically went along with it.7— Mike Chapman (Blondie: Against the Odds)
The anecdote – and the history of the record – does a lot of work. It charts the kind of work and toil that takes place behind seemingly simple, facile pop tunes like “Heart of Glass”. The song, which was originally called “Once I Had a Love” and even “The Disco Song” went through many changes before it emerged as the swirling dance number that became a legendary classic.
But that is the charm and appeal of Against the Odds. The studio work is unimpeachable for the most part (except for The Hunter) but it’s hearing the early demos juxtaposed with their more famous studio-glossy siblings that make the anthology so fascinating. It provides an insight into the growth of a pop song and its journey from a jam session at someone’s house to playing on the radio.
Other demos and home recordings take similar deep dives into the early sounds of Blondie and these rarities are rewarding listens because, despite the roughness in the recordings, they sound pretty fantastic. “Platinum Blonde”, a rocking self-referential tune that Harry wrote as a Stilletto, shows off her deadpan, ironic humor. In the song, she name-checks other blonde divas like Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, Jayne Mansfield, Mae West, and Marlene Dietrich.
On a song like Blondie’s cover of “The Tide Is High”, a reggae-pop confection, we hear the demo that sports some brilliant work by No Wave hero Walter Steding, whose sinewy violin work is featured prominently. One could make the case that the stripped, leaner version is better than the hit version, which is laden down with the brassy horn arrangement by music veteran Jimmie Haskell. (It’s kind of incredible to see the names of the collaborators who worked with Blondie.) Hearing the evolution of the work that Blondie did with disco god Giorgio Moroder is great – the early versions of “Live It Up” and “Angels on the Balcony” sound like straight-up rock songs before they were slathered with Moroder’s signature, ghostly synthesizers and drum machines for their radio-ready studio versions.
Judging from the kind of work that is included in Against the Odds, no track was deemed too niche or esoteric, even if it bore the limitations of inferior sound equipment. Harry and Stein had put their musical musings and minutia on tape, recording from their home on Stein’s TEAC TCA-43 four-track reel-to-reel. These songs prove to be more interesting than pleasing to listen to but are essential when assessing Debbie Harry and Chris Stein as artists. Their take on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, for example, is a curio that recasts the dark country as moody synth-rock. Harry’s gutsy vocals are somewhat marred by reverb but Stein’s guitar work is genius.
The home tape version of “Sunday Girl” sounds rough and ragged with Harry’s vocals particularly ropey and thin, but the song’s solid structure remains potent, even if the version is a bit of a mess. “The Hardest Part” similarly benefits from the fuller, more polished sound of its studio version as opposed to the murky lo-fi home tape version included. But hearing these unfinished, shaggy takes on punchy pop records is important because it brings the listeners to the genesis Blondie’s creative process; it’s almost as if we are invited to a jam session.
The other way Against the Odds historicizes Blondie is by pulling together the six studio albums that were released between 1976 to 1982. The quality of the material on these albums varies with Parallel Lines being a classic and The Hunter being very uneven. (It would have been a sad swansong for the band had Blondie not returned with a series of solid albums starting in 1999.) The self-titled debut from 1976 was a collection of explosive pop-punk songs that combined the band’s love of 1960s pop/rock and their 1970s punk rock sensibility.
The album’s first single, “X Offender” is a punky valentine to 1960s girl group rock (complete with a dramatic spoken word intro). The lyrics by Gary Valentine and Harry tell the story of a prostitute who falls in love with her arresting cop; the dark subject matter proved to be a cynical update on the melodramatic tales of heartache and woe warbled by girl singers in the 1960s. “X Offender” was helmed by Richard Gottehrer, the man behind the Angels’ 1963 ditty “My Boyfriend’s Back”, and he expertly entwined the sounds of 1960s girl group with 1970s punk. The album also includes the deliciously snarky and snotty “Rip Her to Shreds”, which Harry performs with sneering brattiness. The players responsible for the music on Blondie is the classic Blondie lineup that gives the performances on the record vitality and vibrancy. Plastic Letters was a solid follow-up that worked to replicate Blondie’s success.
Of course, the peak of Blondie’s success is the brilliant Parallel Lines. Packed with hit singles that predicted much of the synthpop of the 1980s. Not only did the record include the hallmarks of Blondie’s punk roots, but elements of New Wave, disco, pop, and power-pop. The singles are the height of 1970s pop, but the album tracks are just as good. “I Know but I Don’t Know” is an awesome bit of garage rock that features a rare lead vocal from Frank Infante. Like Harry, Infante’s vocals drip with swagger and attitude, showing that he had the vocal charisma and talent and should have been given more shots at hogging the spotlight. Parallel Lines was Blondie at its best: Harry’s underrated skills as a singer-songwriter are showcased and Mike Chapman’s pop-friendly production gives the spiky tunes a pop burnish.
The brilliance of Parallel Lines meant that anything which would come after would suffer in comparison. Eat to the Beat (1979) would have been a genius album on its own had it not had the misfortune of following a classic. The driving and exhilarating “Dreaming” is easily one of the greatest pop songs of the late 1970s. Clem Burke’s frantic, hyperactive drumming gives the song its stomping urgency and Harry’s yearning vocals are arguably her best with Blondie, unfurling a powerful belt that seemed hidden before. Burke and Harry are also on top form on the rollicking “Union City Blue”. Eat to the Beat also features Blondie’s triumphant return to the disco floor with the excited “Atomic” which is a bonkers dance song that features syncopated basslines, throbbing synths, and weird 1960s surf guitars – it shouldn’t work, but Blondie’s eclectic eccentricity means it all makes sense.
The last full studio albums on Against the Odds represent Blondie at its height and nadir. Autoamerican (1980) would find the band applying its brand of bright, punky pop with hip-hop, the then-emerging musical genre from the Bronx. “Rapture”, sometimes referred to as the first rap record to go number one on the Billboard pop charts, was a loud, funky clash of Blondie’s art pretensions, Downtown New York sensibilities, and producer Mike Chapman’s fascination with rap. Harry’s prowess as a rapper wasn’t really the point of the song – she herself admitted that “It probably would have been better if [Fab 5 Freddy] had done it…I am nowhere close to being a rapper. I’m completely in awe of great rappers.”8 “Rapture” was another high point in Blondie’s career, able to overshadow that Autoamerican was pointed toward a decline that ended meekly with the indifferent The Hunter which was released in 1981, when Harry was embarking on a solo career, having released her solo debut, the Chic-produced KooKoo five months before The Hunter’s December bow.
Casual listeners may balk at the sheer volume of work on Against the Odds, especially since there are more concise collections that are narrowed down to just the hits. And the odds and ends that supplement the commercially-released materials may feel at times redundant or unnecessary, especially since the sound and musicianship of the studio versions of the songs are far better than the demos. But if any pop group’s discography deserves a lavish release like Against the Odds it’s Blondie. No group combined the rebellious, enterprising ambition of the punk movement with the grand and performative nature of major pop superstardom. No matter how famous and successful Blondie got, they never forgot their punk roots nor has it denied them stardom. Blondie’s Against the Odds is a story of many intersections: art and commerce, punk and pop, disco and rock, femininity and masculinity, and underground with the mainstream. Against the Odds tells that story beautifully.
1 Harry, Debbie. Face It. HarperCollins Publishers, 2019.
2 O’Brien, Lucy. She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Popular Music. Jawbone Press, 2020.
3 Wolin, Ada. Golden Hits of the Shangri-Las. Bloomsbury Press, 2019. 33 1/3 Series.
4 Brackett, Nathan and Christian Hoard, eds. The New Rolling Stone Album Guide. Simon & Schuster, 2004.
5 Harry, Debbie. Face It. HarperCollins Publishers, 2019.
6 Shipley, Ken. “DNA 1974-1982.” Liner notes from Blondie: Against the Odds by Erin Osmon. UMG/Numero Group, 2021.
7 Chapman, Mike, qtd. in “Parallel Lines.” Liner notes from Blondie: Against the Odds by Erin Osmon. UMG/Numero Group, 2021.
8 Harry, Debbie, qtd. in “Eat to the Beat.” Liner notes from Blondie Against the Odds by Erin Osmon. UMG/Numero Group, 2021.