Consider the American pop music landscape in 1976. Topping the Billboard Hot 100 was Wings’ facile “Silly Love Songs”. Rounding out the top ten was “A Fifth of Beethoven”, a disco-funk reworking of the composer’s most famous symphony. As for the rest of the list, it’s sprinkled with dance floor mainstays such as Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, and KC and the Sunshine Band. It’s filled out with a hefty dose of the middle-of-the-road ballads, novelty songs, and one-hit wonders associated with the decade.
If the year-end chart was representative of American tastes in the mid-’70s, what can we make of Blondie‘s debut album, released in December 1976? Along with records by New York underground bands such as the Ramones, the New York Dolls, and Patti Smith, Blondie couldn’t have been any further from the mainstream.
Or could it?
More than any of their downtown contemporaries, Blondie absorbed a wide range of influences and synthesized multiple genres, including surf pop, ’60s girl groups, mod rock, and even disco. Their eponymous first LP reflects these motivators in a raucous collection of punk-tinged power pop, defining the sound that would ultimately propel them to stardom.
In the early ’70s, Blondie went through various incarnations and name changes before settling on the five-piece lineup of Debbie Harry (vocals), Chris Stein (guitar), Gary Valentine (bass), Jimmy Destri (keyboards), and Clem Burke (drums). Destri was the last to join in the fall of 1975. After playing regular gigs at CBGB for the better part of a year, the group started work on their debut album in August 1976. They had signed with a production company called Instant Records, co-owned by Richard Gottehrer (who would produce the LP and its 1977 follow-up, Plastic Letters).
But first, Instant decided to test the waters with a single. The band recorded “Sex Offender” (a song initially written by Valentine, with lyrics added by Harry). Around that time, Valentine—born Gary Lachman—had been charged with statutory rape by his girlfriend’s mother. The couple were underage at the time, but the vengeful mother waited until Valentine/Lachman turned 18 to press charges. As Harry writes in her memoir, Face It: “He was playing the music, and as soon as I heard it, I wrote the words on the spot. The lyrics were part commentary on how ludicrous Gary’s rape situation was and part commentary on how preposterous it was to criminalize hookers. I had a cop and a hooker fall for each other.”
The track’s first spoken line is an obvious nod to 1960s teen tragedy songs like “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las. Except in this updated story, the protagonist is a sex-positive adult, not a troubled teen. Destri’s swirling organ at the center of the piece, coupled with Burke’s heavy backbeat and the boys’ kitschy backing vocals, forms a joyous throwback with a modern sensibility.
Instant Records shopped the single around to various labels and it ended up at a small indie called Private Stock. The label agreed to release “Sex Offender,” as long as the band changed the title. “X Offender,” as it was now called, failed to make much impact, but there was enough of a buzz to proceed with an album. But not until Frankie Valli, of all people, signed off, as he owned a controlling stake in Private Stock. Harry tells the story of Valli coming to CBGB’s to watch the band play, while his limo idled outside among the bums and winos on the street. They never got to meet the Four Seasons singer, but now the band was signed to his label.
Blondie was recorded at Plaza Sound, a capacious studio built in the 1930s in the same building as Radio City Music Hall. With Gottehrer at the helm, the band recorded the songs they’d been honing for two years onstage. One day, legendary Brill Building veteran Ellie Greenwich visited the session. Greenwich wrote “Out in the Streets”, a song popularized by the Shangi-Las in 1965 and later recorded by Blondie as a demo. She’d also penned such hits as “Be My Baby” and “River Deep – Mountain High”, so the group were thrilled when her trio sang backup on “In the Flesh”. With the women’s tight harmonies and the ringing chimes in the bridge, the composition emulates the girl group sound so well that it could have been a Shingdig Pick of the Week (if it weren’t for the sexual double entendre).
“In the Flesh” would also prove to be the band’s first number-one single—in Australia anyway—after it was played on Molly Meldrum’s Countdown, a popular music TV show. As for Blondie’s original demo of “Out in the Streets”, it was eventually released on the 2001 Blondie CD re-issue.
In Face It, Harry writes about the subversiveness of Blondie’s music: “We felt that we were Bohemians and performance artists, avant-garde. And when you add to the mix this very New York DIY street-rock attitude that we had, you got punk.” Blondie hardly sounds like a punk record, though. The album is full of catchy, mid-tempo melodies and hooks, but the band’s pop sensibilities are undercut by their lyrics. The wry innuendos of “X Offender”, “In the Flesh”, and “Look Good in Blue” were no doubt partly fueled by adolescent prurience, but they can also be read as an attempt to subvert gender norms.
Harry’s stage presence and persona are part of the stratagem. Fully aware that sex sells, she nevertheless tried to challenge double standards by “being a cartoon fantasy onstage”, as she puts it. “The Blondie character I created was sort of androgynous. Even when I was singing songs that were written from a man’s point of view… I had to be kind of gender-neutral, so it seemed that I wanted (the girl)”. On songs like “Kung Fu Girls”, that neutrality is convincing, as Harry sings: “Kung Fu, Cindy Sue / Oh, I want to get close to you / You’re my Kung Fu girl.”
Unfortunately, much of Harry’s cultural commentary is lost on the listener. “Rip Her to Shreds”, for example, is supposed to be about gossip columnists and their callous criticisms of women in the public eye. Harry’s not singing “rip her to shreds”; she’s saying that’s what the media does. But the nuance is obliterated by the jubilant, sing-along chorus that only seems to encourage mob mentality misogyny. Still, it’s one of the LP’s stand-outs, with a driving beat, raunchy organ, and Harry’s campy delivery.
Speaking of camp, before 1976 disco was still mostly played in underground clubs frequented by gays and minorities. In only a few years, though, it began to infiltrate the establishment, with traditional rock bands incorporating disco elements into their music. In fact, “Silly Love Songs” is an early example (just listen to McCartney’s bass line). Yet, a backlash came quickly, and by 1979, anti-disco sentiment reached a fever pitch with the infamous Comiskey Park “Disco Demolition Night” spectacle.
The conventional narrative, then, is that punk came along and saved music from the wretched pablum of disco. But, that interpretation is rooted in misogyny and homophobia. Punk’s raw energy was seen as earnest and masculine, while disco was perceived as frivolous, pre-fab music enjoyed mostly by women and queer people. The gap between disco and punk wasn’t as wide as it would appear, however, and Blondie managed to embrace both. Each form, in its earliest iteration anyway, bucked convention and promoted inclusion.
Some fans cried foul when Blondie “went disco” in 1978 with “Heart of Glass” (from their third album, Parallel Lines). They didn’t realize that the song actually came out of the group’s first recording session in 1975 (the same one that produced some of the songs on Blondie). The band just referred to it as “The Disco Song”, and the original 1975 demo can be found on the 2001 remastered CD of Plastic Letters. “Heart of Glass” would catapult into the year-end Top 20 in 1979. A year later, “Call Me”, co-written by disco mogul Giorgio Moroder, would claim its spot at the very top.
Blondie were never shy about their pop proclivities, nor were they ashamed to cite disco as one of their influences. By opening themselves to diverse influences, the band, who once may have seemed miles away from the American pop mainstream, came to dominate it.