Rediscoveries #3: Blondie Against the Odds 1974–1982

Stars live in the evening
But the very young need the sun, uh-huh.
Pretty baby, you look so heavenly,
A neo-nebular from under the sun.
I was forming, some say I had my chance
The boys were falling like an avalanche.

When I discovered Blondie's breakthrough album, Parallel Lines, those lines filled my teenage mind with jealous fantasies. Whoever the object of Deborah Harry's desire was—I knew it was probably Chris Stein, her bandmate and romantic partner—was too lucky to walk the earth. Possibly, Stein wrote the lines for her, and she willingly sung them to him. In a band that contained many songwriting partnerships, the song, "Pretty Baby," was co-written by Stein and Harry.

I preferred to imagine that Harry was singing to herself. In front of the lens, she glowed like the sun: Golden hair, high cheekbones, a smile that could slay—a smile, indeed, that suggested she might kill you out of boredom. Boys and girls fell for her like an avalanche.

Harry's beauty and up-from-the-gutter glamour contributed to the band's success, no doubt. Certainly, her beauty and glamour eclipsed one of the hottest, tightest bands to come out of CBGB. With her platinum-dyed hair, she personified the band so much that in 1979, the year after Parallel Lines came out, they launched a pin campaign (a currency of punk fandom) that declared "Blondie is a Group."

I'd like to think that even back then, my ears were mostly clear of teenage hormones—I bought Parallel Lines a few years after its release—yet, ironically, Harry's looks and glamour led me to underestimate the band. I wrote them off with the same easy hand that relegated the girl groups Blondie emulated—those Shadow Morton and Phil Spector productions—as too cute to rank high as rock'n'roll musicians. There's plenty of good looks and glamour in the world, but a great band is something more.

Among the problems posed by idol worship is the fact that idols are just people—inspired, gifted, talented, hardworking people to be sure, but still just people. To hear Blondie now, at a distance, is to hear the achievement of six people (plus producers and engineers) committed to achieving greatness. That's not something that happens every day.

Released late in 2022, an 8-CD boxed set (Blondie Against the Odds 1974–1982) collects the band's original run of six albums, through the glory years and fall from superstardom, combining them with rarities, demos, and early recordings, affording me the opportunity to indulge again and reassess, hopefully with wizened ears, the group that was Blondie. Blondie Against the Odds is also available in a 3-CD set (with early recordings, outtakes, and rarities only) or in sets of 10 and four LPs.

It's fascinating to hear some of these songs develop, including "Heart of Glass" from Parallel Lines, their first US #1 hit, a song they'd been kicking around since 1974. Back then, they called it "Disco Song"; by 1975 it had become "Once I Had a Love." It's the same song, but it lacks that steady, rhythmic pulse and polish that would characterize the hit single.

Bright, tasteful remastering abets the experiment. The albums' tight, claustrophobic mix is more akin to those of British contemporaries Elvis Costello and the Attractions and XTC than to the openness and expansiveness typical of albums made by fellow New York bands Talking Heads and Television. Blondie, though, wasn't about wide-open spaces. Blondie's vocals, two guitars, bass, and keyboards piled atop one another like an East Village kitchen with a bathtub. Behind it all is the wonder that is Clem Burke.

That's the main lesson I learned from this Blondie deep dive: the central importance of the band's drummer. Burke is the only member of the sextet who never got a songwriting credit, yet his propulsive, tasty fills contributed more to the band's distinctive sound than anything except Harry's voice. Listen to how he leads them into 1979's "Dreaming," one of their biggest hits: It's not a 4-count but 1-2-3-4-5-6; a tight, fast roll on 7 and 8 and we're flying out of the station.

To the degree that Blondie was a punk band, it wasn't because of the songwriting, the melodies, or the instrumentation. It's Burke's drumming, which makes even the ballads seem like an onslaught. But it's never out of place. Listen to "Dreaming" and imagine it with a drummer who thought it should sound dreamy; it becomes something very different. Harry may have been dreaming, but Burke was wide awake.

It was "Dreaming" that kicked off Blondie's fourth album. After the surprise success of Parallel Lines and "Heart of Glass," Eat to the Beat, which was released in 1979, was a surprisingly hard-driving rock album. It was also the first album ever released on LaserDisc, with videos shot for each song. The band stumbled into the '80s, though, with another disco hit ("Atomic") from their first lackluster album, Autoamerican. After 1982's The Hunter, they called it quits, though not forever.

The Hunter turns out to be the final surprise in Against the Odds. I owned it back then, but when I looked over the track listing recently, I didn't recognize a single song title.

It's a weird album, overambitious and overproduced, vaguely conceptual—and kind of wonderful. They're older, willing (and able) to sing about the Beatles and the war in Cambodia and to cover Smokey Robinson. The album even hints at the lounge singing Harry would pursue years later with the Jazz Passengers.

Idol worship has its place, I suppose, as does nostalgia. But the thrill of rediscovery, and to right a decades-old wrong on the mental checklist, is a joy.