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1977: Plastic Blondes and Fictionheads

The difference between London Punk 1977 and New York City Punk 1977 is the difference between a snarl and a sneer. LP was all attack, NYCP all irony, LP hyper-reality, NYCP saturday morning cartoon, LP the Clash, NYCP the Ramones. And somewhere in NYCP along with the bops and the rockets, the marquee moons and horses, lay a different type of cartoon cut out altogether.

Blondie was a group, guitarist Chris Stein and love of his life Debbie Harry’s sci-fi, mid-50s, rock and roll, day-glo dream of rock on-the -go-go. Both Stein and Harry were denizins of the bankrupt NYC’s Lower East Side met when Stein joined Harry’s band the Stillitoes before falling in love and forming Blondie. In 1978 they released “Heart Is Glass” and Blondie became Debbie Harry: the hottest woman on earth. But before then, between “Denis” and “Picture This,” they took every rock chick cliche and shook it up and shot it down.

The album they did this on was “Plastic Letters”. A hit in England, the States weren’t quite ready for it. And nobody quite grasped what was going on here. The critics weren’t impressed and despite two international hit singles the album is always considered the ugly middle sister with even the should’ve known better Lester Bangs ripping it to shreds.

Here was the problem: the songs could take awhile to sink in which for a pop group is a bit of a no-no but for card carrying members of “the” generation sounds about right. For all its strum and drum it moved more like pop than rock but it was the block of chords not the melodies that reeled you in here. It was difficult to penetrate and so didn’t get the reaction from NYCP it deserved… that of a major album.

Here is why it was so major: Blondie had fashioned a semi-fictional, strange, threatening, bright and dark vision of New York City in the midst of a (manic) panic repression lead by a woman attractive enough to mentioned in the same breath as Monroe. It rocked vicariously and popped sideways with all shading not in Harry’s deeply detached vocals but in James Destri’s keybs.

The first song, “Fanmail” found Harry falling head first into her epitaph. Several years later Bangs would claim that if the teenage boys who fantisized about Harry could get her lone they wouldn’t want to make love to her, they’d want to beat her up. In pop stardom there is always a disconnect between who the person is and who the audience believe she is and with Debbie Harry it was even bigger then that. She was thirty-two and in the midst of a serious relationship with her guitarist, she was (reportedly) heavily into heroine and Blondie was her third band. Two years earlier she had been making ends meet as a waitress.

But her audience thought she was a Barbie Dolls’ Barbie Doll (I didn’t: the few times I ran into her I thought she was a snobby bitch… in retrospect I was just a drunk twenty-two year old nobody and I’m lucky she spoke to me at all), they mistook her sneer for leer and on “Fan Mail”, written by Destri, she stood in for all of us: “Beat on my Fender through my Gemini two, play to the posters on the wall of my room, thought I was crazy when I’d think about you.” Very soon a world of people would be doing this and Harry, edgy, psychotic, ringing like a mobile phone, personified it before it happened.

They follow it with a straight up no chaser cover of the rock and roll 50s oldie “Denis” and that was the end of that. It hit England hard and made her in the smaller, more easily tipped to tipping point, country an immediate icon. One thing punk did in the UK was chuck female sexual stereotypes right back in our faces: with ripped clothes and bondage fashion, safety pins through noses and green hair, members of both sexes were going out of the way to scare their cats and parents. Harry stopped all of it dead. With sunglasses and distant trancelike performances (I never thought Blondie were a good live band even after they reformed -the curse of the cool) the world couldn’t take their eyes off her. It began here.

And because of that the rest of the album gets kinda shuffled away, a good number like “Love At The Pier” with its really funny punchline, “We may have stood a chance if we met in the frost”, smirking all over the drowning that ends it, isn’t really heard. Neither is “Kidnapper” a harmonica fueled number which is about exactly what you think it’s about. And better than both the second greatest subway song (after “Take The ‘A’ Train” of course), “I’m On E”, “I gave my car to a guy named Vinnie” she sings. It’s like a snap shot of a world long gone and still a world today; it’s actually completely post-modern and completely over.

I don’t see how people aren’t in awe of this album, “fear causes some to live others die real cool…” she advises at one point, “Maybe baby I can ride with you?” she asks at another, “You can be bit, I’ll make you it,” “You’re a brain drain, you better beat it,” “I used to have a car of my own”. The words and worlds add up, spikes in red square, airplane crashes, teenage psycho killers and finally psychic superheroes. Yeah Chicago has Batman, but we had Spiderman and Superman and we have whoever is cheating at cards with Debbie on a song pop song so melodic Tracey Ullman covered it next to “Long Live Love” and “Move Over Darling”, “(I”m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear” -Here Blondie is singing it on the long gone English rock show “The Old Grey Whistle Test”…. the boys are all skinny ties and black suits and Debbie is all knee high boots and a chilliness that is frosty. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMtab4n3q_k

Again, I am stupified how so many people who should have known better didn’t. “Plastic Letters” stories and sounds adds up to too strange a world, there are too many mistakes, too many things are going wrong, everything is touched not by a presence but by catastrophy. How many takes can you laugh at plane crashes and murders before you wonder whether there is something you’re missing? “Plastic Letters” is social manifesto from a City in a hopeless mess as mass culture clinique and Buddy Holly and “Parallel Lines” was waiting in the wings. Just picture that.

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