Somewhere around 1978 I was co-opted into writing for the first issue of what we fondly imagined was Aberdeen’s first fanzine. I don’t exactly remember how it happened, but suddenly I was spending evenings at the old St Katherine’s Centre – before it reinvented itself as the Lemon Tree – trying to figure out what the youth of Aberdeen wanted to say about anything.
What I wrote has, thankfully, been lost to the mists of time; I’m pretty sure it wasn’t particularly good or even slightly original (I was deep into my ‘terrible poetry’ phase at the time) but I was just happy to have been invited, and to be involved in this as yet unnamed project.
Finding a name for the thing was actually the toughest part of it all. We just couldn’t come up with anything everyone liked, although not for the want of trying – there was, eventually, a list of about thirty potential names, none of which had convinced the majority of us, until someone offered to read them all out and someone suggested doing it from the bottom up.
Therefore, the name of Aberdeen’s first (or not; I’m really not clear on that) fanzine was: In Reverse Order. We were absolutely certain that it was the beginning of a media empire; it actually lasted a whole two editions before everyone went off to do their exams.
However, those weeks of trying to wrestle IRO into shape were huge for my musical education – those meetings were where I first heard so much music - The Ramones were a favourite among the group, for instance – and where I discovered people prepared to discuss music and disagree with each other without falling out about it.
Between the endless discussions about how to secure an interview with Aberdeen’s leading punk frontman, Albie Deedsoon of the Tools, we talked about bands like Wire and whether The Adverts having a hit single (for some definition of ‘hit’, of course) amounted to ‘selling out’. And one evening, someone casually dropped in the astonishing fact that Debbie Harry was 32 years old, and therefore, not exactly part of the youth revolution we fully expected to happen any day now.
(I looked it up, and for once, my memory and timelines are pretty much spot on)
I don't know if we were ever really sure about Blondie. 1978 was the year when everything seemed to be happening at once, and it was getting harder and harder to keep tabs not only on what was going on, but which of the bewildering array of new bands and artists you were supposed to spend time on, and which were probably just another passing phase. Younger readers will have to bear in mind that not only were we doing this at some distance from London, where you at least had the opportunity to go and see some of this stuff for yourself, but realistically the only way you knew anything at all about new music was via the music press. Even hearing singles on the radio didn't always help: were, for example, Yellow Dog just another novelty act, or were they on the brink of a substantial career? It was impossible to tell at times.
In the middle of 1978, we were in the grip of the nebulously-defined 'New Wave'; nobody really seemed to know what that meant - was Ian Dury New Wave despite being basically pub rock with added swearing? How about the Motors? In fact, who the hell were the Motors? If they hadn't had a write-up in your music paper of choice, how were you supposed to know whether you were meant to like them or not? You could pick out the disco stuff; you could pick out the novelty stuff that your parents were buying; you could pick out the MOR / throwback stuff like Mud, Darts and Showaddywaddy, but then you'd get City Boy, and you'd be scratching your head again.
With most New Wave stuff, you could at least identify a sort of British authenticity - The Jam might be channeling The Faces and The Kinks, but you knew where they were coming from. American bands, however, tended to need a bit more study. Blondie were a case in point. The earliest stuff was punk enough to deserve some respect - X Offender and Rip Her To Shreds were particular favourites in that early flurry of female-led bands like the Banshees, X-Ray Spex or The Rezillos (and, yes, the Rezillos were another tricky one - genuine or parody?). Then we got Denis, and it suddenly wasn't as clear - that's not punk; that's not even particularly New Wave; it's just a pop song. But they're from New York - what do they know about our music scene? Are they even trying to fit in to the way we do things here?
Parallel Lines didn't exactly clear things up, but it did change the way everyone looked at Blondie. I don't think there was any inkling just how much better this was going to be than the first two albums; and I definitely know that even if you hadn't given much thought to Blondie before, this made you sit up and take notice. They seduced you; took you in and led you by the hand until you were dancing to a disco song without really knowing how you got there. Of course some of it was image; but a lot of it was sound - this is a real grab-bag of an album, with something for everyone, but in this case, that description is a compliment; they may not themselves have known which direction they were going in, but they gave all of it a fair shot, and most of it they carried off with some style.
If you're coming to this new, you'll be influenced by the fact that there are five songs here which were big enough hit singles to have entered the public consciousness; you aren't likely to be being introduced to Heart of Glass or Sunday Girl, but try to listen to it all the way we did in the summer of 1978 - After we got past the explosive start of Hanging on the Telephone, we were in uncharted territory, and while in retrospect the big singles seem obvious, I'm not sure they were at the time.
So, rather than the start of side one being three familiar songs, try to hear it as the hit single, followed by three songs which offer different views of the way Blondie want you to think of them - the stalkery insistence of One Way or Another; the cheeky familiarity of Picture This (was there ever a song more obviously recorded before the ink was dry on the lyrics? I have no idea how she makes 'and you'd be on the skids / if it weren't for your job at the garage / if you could only...' scan like that; I'm amazed that it didn't get edited again after that, but I can't imagine it any other way, it has a breathless urgency to it which completely sells it). Then it's straight into the weird new sounds of Fade Away and Radiate - it's the most representative of where New Wave was going at the time; moody and sparse, I think it's the high point on the album for Debbie Harry's voice - there's nothing else here which carries the emotion of this.
I Know But I Don't Know sounded then, and still does, like New York punk - a reminder that this isn't like the bands we were hearing every day. It harks back to the punk sound a bit, as does the beginning of 11:59, which is immediately undercut by the melodic joy of the voice. I loved that song then, and it turns out I still do - just listen to Clem Burke's drumming. Will Anything Happen continues down the punk-influenced road, before we make a couple of handbrake turns.
The first time I heard Sunday Girl, I don't know that it jumped out at me; it wasn't until I heard my sister singing along with it that I realised that it was purely and simply a perfect pop song - that, more so even than Heart of Glass turned Blondie into a pop band, and took them away from those of us who hoped to hang on to a cutting edge rock band with a cool girl singer.
Then, as if pop wasn't enough, they keep going right into the heart of disco. Now, this was controversial - while Britain never had the 'Disco Wars', there was a definite dividing line between rock and everything else. I'm almost certain that the original version of Heart of Glass I heard wasn't quite as obviously dancefloor oriented, but of course, all memories have been obliterated by the one everybody knows. I might have bristled at it in 1978, but it's bloody great, isn't it?
As is I'm Gonna Love You Too; the point at which the teenaged me gives up trying to pigeonhole this album, and just goes with the flow. Now, the whole idea of punk and New Wave bands covering songs from before I was born seemed contrary to what this was all supposed to be about - how can there have been a Year Zero if you're going to cover Buddy Holly songs? About thirty seconds in, none of that matters - Holly was obviously a punk like us, and this is just brilliant (whisper it, it's probably my favourite track now). After which, I'm afraid the last song is a bit of a let down - it really, really needs to be as sweary as some of the other songs we'd heard, but I guess if you're on a major label, there are things you cant do in 1978.
So, what do I think now? I have to say, this has been an intensely Proustian experience - listening to this all the way through for the first time in years instantly transported me back to the grubby little office in the St Katherine's Centre and those fumbling attempts to put something in print. We may not have known what we were doing, but we were firm in our convictions. And Parallel Lines was challenging those convictions. Eventually, I think, I came down on the side of it being ‘not New Wave enough’ for us. It would no doubt join all the other albums from 1978 which were about to disappear into a vague, uncategorizeable pile of half-remembered music.
Of course, I was wrong - we all were. 'Parallel Lines' pushed Blondie, and Debbie Harry in particular, out of the bubble of 'New Wave music' into the broader cultural arena. It may have some classic elements of all the great music of its time, but it spoke to the rest of the world - the world outside our little smoke-filled room where we knew everything - and in some ways, began the process whereby pop music started to feature in the mainstream press - I think this album marked the last time that you could only read about bands like Blondie in the NME or Sounds, and I think it was part of the reason that embryonic fanzines like ours foundered – we didn’t really have a clear idea what we wanted to write about, and if bands we liked were going to be putting out albums which you could read about in the Sunday supplements, then what was the point, really?
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
The self-titled debut album features the early songs mentioned above, and is still worth a listen, as is Plastic Letters, although it is a bit dwarfed by Denis. After this, both Eat to the Beat and Autoamerican were popular, but I can’t honestly say I heard much more than the singles. After that, splits and reunions produced a few late-period albums, which diodn’t really reach my consciousness beyond the terrific single Maria, which ought to have prompted me to listen to the album it came from, but somehow didn’t.
Compilations to consider?
The Best of Blondie is the classic one, and I doubt that the later repackaged and expanded albums add anything to it; all the big songs (14 of them unless you’re in the US, when you only get 12) and no filler.
Apparently there are a couple – one from 1978 – the parts of it I’ve heard suggest the sound isn’t all that great, but it’s called Picture This if you feel like tracking it down – and one from 1999, which features much better sound, but a few ‘here’s one from our new album’ moments which may not be to everyone’s taste.
There are whole shelves of books dedicated to how Debbie Harry changed the whole world, but I’d stick to the ones she wrote herself for some real perspective – Face It is on my ‘to read’ list; I’ll report back if I manage to get to it. I’d also love to find the tape I made of the New Year’s Eve concert from the Apollo in Glasgow in 1979 – I suspect the audio of it (I think there was video as well) must be kicking around online somewhere; that would be something to see.