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The setting was a far cry from the days more than 20 years before when this band would headline at the punk mecca CBGB's. Members of the recently reconstituted Blondie surely must have been thinking that as they began tuning up their instruments on a stage built especially for them, amid tall office buildings in the heart of New York's Rockefeller Center.
Ostensibly there to promote the No Exit record and upcoming tour by performing on NBC's Today show, the four core members wanted to show reunion-tired skeptics that the band was something more than a nostalgia act -- even though they took the makeshift stage at around the same hour they'd be finishing up at CB's.
"The sound check was at 4:45 a.m. Not exactly the best time to rock and roll," drummer Clem Burke says. "But it's interesting the way that rock and roll music has become ingrained in society. Who would have ever thought we'd be on a television network morning show playing some deranged punk rock?"
Well, it wasn't exactly Richard Hell, but that's not what's expected from the most commercially successful band to come out of the city's punk/new wave era, which has earned a full-length record's worth of hits, including 1981's "Rapture." With singer Deborah (née Debbie) Harry's talking about a man from Mars who ate some cars, the song was also most people's first exposure to rap music.
The band broke up later that next year, but all members felt as if they really hadn't gotten a chance to do all they wanted artistically. And with late-'70s/early-'80s nostalgia at a peak today, they felt it was the right time for No Exit.
"Chris was actually the initial person to get it going," Burke says. "I think he felt that it was just time to do this, and if we didn't, we'd regret it years from now. [Keyboardist Jimmy] Destri and I were interested, but Debbie thought he was completely crazy."
Of prime interest to the foursome was creating a legitimate base of new music. And though there are a number of misses on the record (including the title track, a horror-rap duet between Harry and Coolio, an obvious grasp at a second "Rapture"), there's also a more-than-you'd-think amount of solid material, from the catchy pop appeal of "Maria" and "Nothing Is Real But the Girl" (both written by Destri) to the sensual romp of "Double Take" and the '60s girl-group sound of "Out in the Streets." The band also throws in an Irish-sounding ballad and a jazz tune. No Exit gets better with every listen, but it's worth the time.
"It was clear from when we first started to meet about this four years ago that it wouldn't be just an [oldies] thing. We wanted to become a band again," Burke says. "All of us were extremely cautious about it. But from the first time we got back together in the studio, the chemistry was right, and we sounded like Blondie. Everything started to feel very natural again. We have a musical vocabulary with one another."
Those first vocabulary lessons began to take place in 1974, when then-lovers Harry and Stein formed the band out of the ashes of her previous group, the Stilettos (performing briefly as Angel and the Snake). The Blondie name came from Harry's fondness for the peroxide job.
Burke, Destri and bassist Gary Valentine joined the duo the next year, completing the initial lineup. When asked why Valentine was not included in the 1999 reunion, Burke says diplomatically: "We did work with him briefly but we had a few false starts in the lineup coming together. He's still our friend."
The group had released its self-titled debut in 1976, which bolstered its reputation as one of the bands on the front of the punk/new wave movement that also included the Ramones, Television and the Talking Heads. But unlike those acts, Blondie had a strong commercial pop sensibility.
The next year Valentine was out and bassist Nigel Harrison and second guitarist Frank Infante were in for Plastic Letters. It spawned a UK hit with "Denis," a masculinized version of the 1963 pop hit "Denise." That the band was more popular in Europe than it was in the United States was an interesting side aspect, perhaps because of the fact that much of the band's material does have a Euro-vibe, heavy on the keyboards and dance beats.
" 'Maria' was a No. 1 hit this year in a lot of countries, and we've received a lot of success around the world, but we're still working on the States," Burke says of this year's first No Exit single. "And it's kind of always been that way."
Blondie's first U.S. breakthrough came in the form of its next (and still considered best) record, Parallel Lines, whose hits included the disco throbber "Heart of Glass" (the band's first No. 1) and "One Way or Another." But for most who saw the videos, concerts and album covers, the band's not-hard-to-fathom centerpiece was Debbie Harry. The others in the band were just five anonymous dark-haired guys. Harry's performance persona, equal parts coquettish sex kitten, neighborhood girl-next-door and campy diva pinup, simply overwhelmed the rest of the lineup -- instigating a publicity campaign proclaiming, "Blondie is a group."
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