When I was about five, my exposure to popular music was slight, but I was aware of Blondie, although I’m not clear if I actually knew them by name, it’s just that ‘Sunday Girl’ had filtered through to my consciousness and its melody was quite addictive.
Childhood nostalgia wouldn’t be enough to keep a band high in my affections though. I really discovered Blondie in my teens. The ‘gateway’ album always seemed to be Parallel Lines (which is a very good album), or the 1981 Best of Blondie. After that, their back catalogue was a fascinating, but short journey from punk wannabes and Ramones mates at CBGBs to MTV pop stars releasing increasingly sanitised and uninspired material (I love some tracks off 1982’s The Hunter, but it’s clear from some of it that the band were on their last legs and Chris Stein clearly wasn’t well). As overjoyed I as I was when they returned in the late ‘90s (quickly scoring a sixth UK number one single in 1999 with ‘Maria’), the band’s defining output was definitely from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. If you’d asked me a few years back I would have cited Plastic Letters as my favourite Blondie album, and if you were round my home you’d probably clock the framed copy of it on my wall, signed by Debbie Harry herself. You’d figure I might like it a bit. But revisiting the band’s fourth album time and time again speaks more about my affections than an album sleeve in a frame. Eat to the Beat is, I reckon, Blondie’s finest hour. Not even Parallel Lines quite comes close to giving me the joy I get from this, and as much as I’ll always have a soft spot for Plastic Letters, it now sounds a bit tinny and unadventurous next to Eat to the Beat, where the album lets loose their most vibrant and confident collection. Sure, Plastic Letters is perhaps the last album where Blondie really sound like a garage band, and that’s a thrilling sound, but by Eat to the Beat they had refined their talent into something else. It’s got ‘Atomic’ on it, for crying out loud, and I’m not even sure if that’s the best track. Yes, ‘Atomic’ not the best track. That good an album!
Blondie were, and are, a far better band than quite a few music fans would have you believe. One criticism I often hear, is that they weren’t really punk. Well, that depends on your definition of punk (and in attitude I’d argue they certainly fitted the bill), but give me a band that can remain true to its own self while successfully experimenting with different styles and crossing genres. Blondie are that band. Who gives a stuff if that’s punk or not? Whatever sound they were making by this point, I’m not sure the band warranted the swelled ranks it had by 1979 with Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison on guitar and bass, and I can grudgingly understand why the Plastic Letters line-up of Harry, Stein, Destri and Burke spearheaded the 1998 reformation. Still, judging from the music, perhaps the extra musicians gave both Parallel Lines and Eat to the Beat their notably ‘bigger’ sound; not quite in a Phil Spector sense, but you wouldn’t be far off the mark. By this point Parallel Lines producer Mike Chapman knew how to get the best out of this occasionally ramshackle band, with its eclectic list of influences. On Eat to the Beat we have what you could call commercial pop, but we also have punk, reggae and funk. Yet, it all sounds full of the passion and irreverent sense of fun that characterise Blondie at their best. A couple of years later and it would all get tired, but here was a pop machine operating at its peak. Everyone brings their ‘A game’ and there isn’t one duff track (so much so that the band even made a video for every track, whether it was released as a single or not). From Burke’s emotive drum intro to ‘Union City Blue’, through the Motown homage of ‘Slow Motion’ and the art-punk of ‘Victor’, this is a cracking album.
I still love Plastic Letters though (and it really does have the better cover. The cover of Eat to the Beat is alright, and I love the cross hatch design, but Frank Infante looks way out of place on that cover and three of the band members got relegated to the back. I felt duty bound to put both sides at the top of the blog). As for the Plastic Letters cover I love it so much I’m going to put it here. It’s New Wave cool personified:
…but you know… it’s great for a lot of different reasons, but Eat to the Beat is the pop behemoth. It makes me happy in the moment and yearn for better days before and ahead, and isn’t that the best thing about good pop music?