No decade is dominated by popular music genres, but the 1970s are more motlier than most. What was the sound of the ’70s? Is it…folk rock? (Neil Young’s harvest Turn 50 years ago.) Progressive rock? (Prog’s nadir, yes Stories from the ocean landscape, was released in 1973 and immediately crashed under its own water.) How about disco? Punk? Post-punk? New wave? Reggae? Rap? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And what do we do with Meatloaf’s? A bat out of hell, one of the 10 best-selling albums of the decade? Explosives are types?
But if you were to drill down into the decade and pull out a prime example of ’70s pop, it would come out Blondie – and, in fact, like the band’s eight-disc box set, Against the odds: 1974–1982, which is nominated for Best Historical Album at this weekend’s Grammys. As scholar and artist Kembrew McLeod has written, Blondie is a mediator between experimental music and performing arts of downtown New York and a more popular audience. But fundamentally, I would argue, the group is also a conduit and popularizer of a variety of new Rock and Pop sounds.
An easier, perhaps less charitable way to say this is that Blondie was a musical sponge rather than an innovator. One of the amazing things about David Bowie’s work is the way his antenna is tuned to the new things that happen in music: time and again, he seems to arrive on the scene before it is the scene – be it Krautrock, disco, ambient, or “plastic soul” – and leave before the party breaks up. Blondie, on the other hand, was more reactive than innovative, reflecting rather than leading the music scene in which they were immersed.
And they were immersed in almost all of the most important music of the 1970s. For example, a song from their first studio session was called “Disco Song.” Although it’s not clear from the Afropop-inflected demo that the band still knew what disco looked like, they certainly had it figured out by the time of the release of the song, “Heart of Glass” on the 1978 album. Latitude. When the band was formed, progressive rock was life support; “Fade Away and radiate” (also from Latitude) features guitar work from Prog god Robert Fripp and stands as a beloved. Inspired and energized by the street revolution in pop music coming out of the Bronx, they recorded the well-intentioned if “Rapture,” which became the first, well, don’t call it “rap song,” but a song with something like rapping, at the top of the US charts, in 1981. The same year, they went to #1 on both sides of the Atlantic with a cover of the Rocksteady (post-ska, pre-reggae) song “Tide Is High. ” Throughout their career, and throughout the 70s, they were a kind of chameleon.
As often as they were locked into someone else’s currency, though, Blondie always managed to sound like someone else. Usually, that’s because of Debbie Harry’s versatility—sometimes loud, sometimes loud. Three open songs of Latitude Give a great object lesson. The album opens with the distinctive sound of a ringtone (for some reason British). “Hanging on the Telephone” has a place in the list of popular telephone songs that dates back at least to Glenn Miller’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” from 1940, and continues, with “Any Time at All,” by The Beatles. “Call Me Maybe,” by Rae Jepsen, “Hotline Bling” by Drake and more. (Blondie later made a classic contribution to the genre: their theme song for the 1980 film American Gigolo“Call me.”)
In “Hanging on the Telephone,” Harry is not a lovelorn teenager waiting by the receiver, and she is not begging for a call from a lover, as Aretha Franklin was. her The song is called “Call Me.” Instead, she aggressively uses the phone as a medium for erotic connections in a way that, according to the sexual conventions of the time, is almost exclusively for men. This song was first recorded by the all-male LA pop trio the Nerves, and Harry unapologetically fits the male role: “I have to interrupt and stop this conversation / Your voice across the line makes me feel strange.” A few years later, Cyndi Lauper will suggest that girls just want to have fun; Harry’s character here is a little more than that. “I want to say when I can show you my love,” she said, before saying, “Oh, I can’t control myself.”
The next song, “One Way or Another,” continues in this vein: Harry ranges from grief to bullying to threats as she insists there is no way to escape her love. The song is, if not overshadowed, certainly screamed – and, if anything, it makes more frightening – in the chart of the police “every breath you take.” Harry’s sexuality is given a lighter focus on the next song, “Picture This,” a love song for her bandmate and former partner, Chris Stein. It paints a picture of everyday inner satisfaction, with sexual desire only one of its elements. Harry’s toys with a familiar look, updating EM Forster’s famous line: “All I want is a room with a view / A sight worth seeing, your vision.” The views, she explained, included “watching you shower.”
There’s a case to be made, that Blondie’s music was just a vehicle for Harry. The band’s name is a quote of sorts, drawn from catcalls directed at Harry by truck drivers: “Hey, Blondie!” And is there another group of the era where everyone other than the lead singer works closely together? (The prompt for the night didn’t matter: the names of the other members.) Other bands of the decade made bigger breaks, but as we approach the half-century mark, it’s time to recognize, as Against the odds Make it clear, that Blondie is the defining sound of the ’70s.