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Blondie

Blondie is perhaps the quintessential new wave band: an art-pop group who made the leap from punk to the Top 40, polishing their spiky curves while simultaneously broadening their musical purview beyond trashy AM pop to encompass disco, reggae, and hip-hop. They brought underground sounds into the mainstream with a sly, knowing wink and the incandescent star power of Debbie Harry, the lead singer who co-led the group with guitarist Chris Stein. Blondie's blend of girl-group pop and garage rock first took hold in the U.K., when "Denis" and "(I'm Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear" reached the Top Ten in 1978, but when the group collaborated with Mike Chapman -- a producer who was a powerhouse in glam -- they crafted Parallel Lines, a sleek, modernist masterpiece anchored by the glitter-ball pulse of "Heart of Glass." Parallel Lines turned Blondie -- and especially Harry -- into superstars and the number one singles came furiously in the next two years. The Giorgio Moroder collaboration "Call Me" reached the top of the charts, followed by the lilting "The Tide Is High" and "Rapture," which was the first record with a rap to reach number one in 1981. Their fall was sudden as their rise: Blondie split after the dispirited 1982 LP The Hunter. After nearly 20 years apart, however, the group reunited in 1999 for No Exit, a record that revived them commercially and creatively. From that point forward, Blondie steadily toured and frequently recorded, releasing such acclaimed latter-day records as 2011's Panic of Girls and 2017's Pollinator. At the heart of Blondie is the relationship between Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, who first formed a bond while playing in the Stilettoes, a band formed in 1973. Harry previously sang in the Wind and the Willows, a precious folk-rock group that released an eponymous album on Capitol in 1968, but found herself drawn to the arty, edgy rock driving the scene anchored at the Mercer Arts Center. The New York Dolls provided particular inspiration for the fledgling singer, leading her to form the Stilettos with Elda Gentile, stylizing the band as a girl group that revitalized and sent up rock & roll oldies and B-movies. Stein joined the Stilettoes as a bassist and the pair built a friendship that turned romantic. Once the building housing the Mercer Arts Center collapsed on August 3, 1973, the scene gravitated to CBGB's in 1974, with the Stillettoes opening for Television in May of that year. By the end of the summer, Harry and Stein had formed their own group with bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy O'Connor, along with Tish and Snooky Bellomo, playing a couple of shows as Angel and the Snake before settling on the name Blondie. Playing a combination of oldies and originals, Blondie quickly carved out a niche in the nascent New York punk scene, one that was adjacent to the buzzsaw bubblegum of the Ramones. Their lineup swiftly shifted, too, with Clem Burke replacing O'Connor just prior to Smith and the Bellomos leaving the group. Gary Valentine joined as their bassist and Blondie set out to record a demo in June 1975, adding keyboardist Jimmy Destri to the lineup shortly afterward. In 1976, Blondie caught the ear of producer Richard Gottehrer, a veteran of the Brill Building who played a pivotal role in girl group pop; he co-wrote the Angels' "My Boyfriend's Back" and was part of the Strangeloves, co-writing their classic "I Want Candy." Gottehrer produced Blondie's debut single "X-Offender," arranging for the indie Private Stock to release the 45 in June of that year. Convinced that a full-length album would showcase Blondie's range, he brought Private Stock's owner Larry Uttall and Frankie Valli, the label's biggest artist, to CBGB's to see the band. Valli persuaded Uttall to bankroll a full album, leading to the December 1976 release of Blondie. David Bowie and Iggy Pop were early supporters of Blondie, offering the band the opening slot for Pop's 1977 tour. Valentine left the group before the recording of Plastic Letters, a sophomore set that was helmed by Gottehrer; he was replaced after the recording by Frank Infante. During the album's sessions, Blondie signed with Chrysalis Records, which bought out the band's contract with Private Stock and released Plastic Letters in February 1978. "Denis," a cover of the old Randy and the Rainbows song "Denise," became a number two hit in the U.K., with "(I'm Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear" following it into the Top Ten. When Nigel Harrison joined as a bassist, Infante switched to guitar, turning Blondie into a sextet. Chrysalis paired Blondie with Mike Chapman, an Australian producer who cut his teeth with such fizzy glam rockers as the Sweet and Suzi Quatro. Chapman helped push Blondie in a pop direction on Parallel Lines, the album that proved to be their mainstream breakthrough. That success didn't happen suddenly. Initially, the album found an audience in Europe and England, with their cover of the Nerves' "Hanging on the Telephone" making it into the U.K. Top Ten, but it remained a cult attraction in America until "Heart of Glass" turned into a career-making blockbuster. An old song given a sterling disco makeover, "Heart of Glass" topped the charts in both the U.S. and the U.K., turning Blondie into the first new wave superstars in the process. Subsequent Parallel Lines singles also benefitted from "Heart of Glass: "Sunday Girl" reached number one in the U.K., while "One Way or Another" became their second American hit, peaking at 24 (it would later become a pop perennial). Blondie and Chapman reunited for Eat to the Beat, an album rushed out in the wake of Parallel Lines. It performed better in the U.K. than it did in the U.S.: "Dreaming" went to number two, while the LP topped out at 27 on Billboard. Blondie returned to number one with "Call Me," a disco collaboration with producer Giorgio Moroder. Cut quickly while on tour and showcased on the soundtrack to Paul Schrader's 1980 film American Gigolo, "Call Me" became a smash, spending six weeks at the top of the Billboard charts and reaching number one in the U.K. and Canada as well. "Call Me" helped push "Atomic" to number one in the U.K. (it just barely cracked the Billboard Top 40), by which time Blondie was working with Chapman on their next album, Autoamerican. Released at the end of the year, Autoamerican consolidated Blondie's success, with its first two singles, "The Tide Is High" and "Rapture," topping the Billboard charts. "Rapture" in particular helped forge new ground in how it incorporated rap and hip-hop into its new wave pulse. Despite all this success, Blondie was plagued with internal problems that began to boil over during the sessions for Autoamerican. The group decided not to support the record with a tour, a break that allowed Harry to record her solo debut KooKoo with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic; in turn, Stein produced Miami, the second album by the Gun Club, and Destri made a solo album, Heart on a Wall. Blondie reconvened with Chapman to make The Hunter, a scattershot album that failed to generate any hits. Within months of its May 1982 release, Blondie broke up. Over the next decade, Harry pursued a solo career, scoring minor British hits with "French Kissin" in 1986 and "I Want That Man" in 1989. That year, she and Stein ended their romantic partnership; they remained friends. Stein was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease pemphigus vulgaris in 1983. He continued to pursue his interest in photography in the '80s and '90s. During those decades, Burke and Destri were both in-demand session musicians. The original Blondie lineup of Harry, Stein, Burke, Destri, and Valentine reunited in 1997 to play several shows, but by the time they released No Exit in 1999, Valentine was no longer part of the band. Supported by "Maria," an unexpected number one single in the U.K., No Exit performed well, peaking at three in the U.K. and 18 in the U.S. The Curse of Blondie didn't do as well in 2003 but it did generate the modest U.K. hit "Good Boys." Destri left the band in 2004, the same year Sanctuary released Live by Request. Blondie was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. The band toured throughout the 2000s, adding bassist Leigh Foxx, guitarist Paul Carbonara, and keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen to the official lineup along the way; Tommy Kessler joined as a guitarist in 2010. This version of Blondie made its debut with Panic of Girls, a 2011 studio album initially released as an attachment to a collectible magazine in the U.K.; it would later be available on its own. A new album, Ghosts of Download, was released as part of Blondie 4(0) Ever, a 2014 set that also featured a disc of re-recordings of the band's greatest hits. Blondie continued to tour regularly in the 2010s, with the group releasing the full-length Pollinator in 2017; "Fun," its lead single, went to number one on Billboard's dance chart. Vivir en la Habana, a documentary of the band's Cuban residency, appeared in 2021, accompanied by a soundtrack EP to the film. Blondie released the mammoth archival project Against the Odds: 1974-1982, a box set containing everything the group recorded for Private Stock and Chrysalis, on Numero Records in 2022. Stein sat out Blondie's tour that year due to problems with his heart, while Foxx couldn't tour either, due to a back injury; they were replaced by Andee Blacksugar and Glen Matlock, respectively.
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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