Blondie, one of the best live acts ever? Come again?
This is a group of people, after all, who share little common ancestry with the great jam bands or the guitar-god gorgonzolas of the monster tour era. Great live bands aren’t supposed to come riding in on a setful of pop-chart singles. They’re not supposed to dole out the ‘tude like they work in some overpriced restaurant, and they’re certainly not supposed to mess with our expectations — not if they plan on being able to play the lucrative corporate-party circuit.
Blondie — these days, the core of Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Clem Burke, plus a rookie outfield of hungry young contenders — bring all this to the table, and then some. They bring the hits, each of them revved up just a pitch-shift past the way it sounded on CD. They bring Chris and Debbie’s cooler, crueler tweak on the Captain and Tennille dynamic. And they bring their perennial secret weapon in drummer Burke, a professor in controlled chaos who, in songs like “Dreaming,” weds the punk-smash ethic of Keith Moon with the wall-of-sound wonder that students of early-60s radio hits have tried to bottle for eons.
They also bring a surprising bag of tricks that allows them to pepper their hit parade with left-field covers from the likes of Roxy Music, the Ramones and the Rolling Stones — keeping you off balance while they triangulate in for the kill. If they were “artists,” you’d say they were challenging you. If they were Springsteen, you’d be texting the set list to your brother-in-law.
Well they’re not Springsteen, but long before Harry set up house on a relatively quiet spread just seconds beyond the borders of Red Bank, this most successful of CBGB’s fabled Class of ’77 were hardly Shore-shy — by some accounts, the band even visited the Stone Pony as early as late 1975/early 1976. And when they take the stage of the Count Basie Theatre Tuesday night, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers will be marking a milestone from their own platinum-plated history, while staking out their own piece of Basie history on the eve of an extended home-improvement hiatus.
This is supposed to be where we insert the dripping-with-hip story of seeing Blondie way back when, at the legendary kennel-slash-urinal that was CBGB. But let’s skip instead to March of ’77, and the first time we saw them in a theater setting, opening for a re-energizedIggy Pop at the old Palladium concert hall.
They didn’t sound anything like The Damned and the other things exploding out of the UK’s infant punk scene (and we’d heard the rumors that their singer was already on the plus side of 30, and a former member of a 60s folkie act), but with Jimmy Destri‘s roller-rink keyboards bouncing off the walls and the young band jumping about the stage, the idea of Blondie really began to make sense — like the rest of the New York bands, their thrilling discoveries were rooted in the city-bred sounds that stretched back to the “oldies” era. FromMurray the K to social decay in one exhilarating swoop.
A couple of years later, the rest of the world had clued into Blondie, with a precious-metal album (Parallel Lines) and an honest-to-goodness Number One hit that was either the first New Wave chart-topper or the first rock-disco hybrid, depending on who you ask. Before the Carter administration had left office, the band would be credited with the first hip-hop hit (the unlikely “Rapture”), the first US reggae hit of sorts (“The Tide is High”) and an entry into the music-video sweepstakes that pre-dated MTV by about three years. For a short time there, it seemed that whatever was going on, they were trendsetting it — or at least making it safe for democracy.
By the time the band headlined Asbury Park’s Convention Hall in summer of 1979, they were touring behind Eat to the Beat, arguably the apogee of their recorded career and a record that included “Atomic,” a song with its own possible Red Bank connection — more on that when the time’s right. It didn’t matter that Debbie derided the seaside concert hall as a “concrete bathtub,” and indeed, the murky mix threatened to bury even a brilliant poptune like “Slow Motion” in a pea-soup fog — Blondie was nevertheless a band at the peak of its powers.
It didn’t last, and by the time the band broke up on a tour behind the forgettable Hunteralbum, it was evident that the aging trendsetters would need to surrender the sidewalk to up-and-comers like Madonna. Next time we’d see the band round these parts was at the PNC Bank Arts Center, in the middle of a reunion tour — normally a call to scale down expectations, but in this case a pleasant surprise. The three original members (Destri had by this point “taken ill” and would be on his way to rehab) drove through a set of hallowed hits and marvelous misses, paying homage to their CBGB heritage with crowd-baffling songs by the Ramones (“Havana Affair”), Television (“See No Evil”), and even the Gun Club. A subsequent PNC encore and an appearance at the now-defunct Trade Winds affirmed that Blondie was back in business, pretty much for keeps.
For Tuesday’s show, the 62-year old Harry and her bandmates will be following a recent trend this time — the one in which elder-statesmen recording artists pay tribute to their own catalog (the Boss revisited Born to Run and Darkness in impromptu fashion at his recent Basie fundraiser). They’ll present a lip-to-label recreation of their classic 1978 albumParallel Lines — a record that’s not coincidentally marking its 30th anniversary with a deluxe re-release (it still doesn’t feature the long-lost title track), and a career-maker that gave us“Heart of Glass,” “One Way or Another” and a bevy of others. It’s a show that should further feature a crowdpleasing round of other milestones — along with, one can only hope, a shocker or two from the punk vault.