There’s a scene in that BBC documentary about Blondie, One Way or Another, when the band are being inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Former members Frank Infante and Nigel Harrision have turned up. There’s real tension. The two lads clearly have issues with how it all went down, about how, now that Blondie are back on the radar with the world wide hit, Maria, they haven’t been invited to the party. So pissed off were they, they failed with a law suit trying to stop the group reforming under the Blondie moniker. It’s difficult viewing. Frankie begs, unedifyingly, to be allowed to play with the band. Deborah is truculent throughout. “Can’t you see that’s my band up there?” She says. Chris Stein wields his alabaster award like a bludgeon. “This is for if I bump into those fuckers.” Jimmy Destri admits he misses being the band too, after he was ejected for continued misuse of chemicals, and claims what made Blondie was the tension. “We weren’t friends,” he laments.
Chris and Debbie make the point that Leigh Foxx, their current bassist, has played with them for 20 years, and he’s not getting inducted (quite where Stein gets “twenty years” from is anyone’s guess), whereas Nigel and Frank, the chancers, were only there for five! It’s ridiculous! Five years!
But what a five years. Arguably one the best in pop single history, the most prolific time of the bands career, producing hit after transatlantic hit, albums, tours, hysteria and mythology aplenty. Between 1978 and 1981, Blondie were at their peak. The hits flowed, and many of them are represented on this collection Delux Redux. The golden age’s demise was announced in 1982 by the musically stunted and hit-single bereft The Hunter, though one could argue, hits aside, 1981’s Autoamerican had already signposted the way downward. By the end in 1982, they were riven by disputes, drugs, relationship disintegration and in Chris Stein’s case, debilitating illness. But for a while there, they could have laid claim to being the best band in the world. Debbie’s dismissal of Infante and Harrison as having been in the band for a mere five years, and thus somehow unimportant in the bigger picture, reeks of revisionism.
Now Blondie, that is to say Harry, Stien and evergreen drummer Clem Burke have taken this revisionism to its logical conclusion. This is no mere greatest hits collection, after all here’s a group with about seven of those to their name already. This is the greatest hits re-recorded. That’s right, karaoke hits. Redux, they’re calling it. Reflux, more like. Deborah, bless her auburn locks, can’t quite mix it up the way she could thirty years ago. That’s fine, not many people can. Quite why, therefore, she’d like to draw attention to that fact boggles the mind. It’s tempting to see some kind of churlishness in this; ownership of the band that previous members sought to call their own through litigation. Those lads won’t be receiving any performance royalties. Indeed, despite writing a lot of their early work, there’s no Gary Valentine tunes to be had here, no ‘X Offender’, no ‘Presence, Dear’. Nigel “Five years” Harrison gets co-writing credit on ‘One Way Or Another’, but that, unlike another Harrison co-penned single, ‘Union City Blue’, is a song that couldn’t be omitted, not least because One Direction’s desecration of the track has introduced it to a whole new generation of iTunes vouchers.
In the background, you might not notice that it’s all different, as they haven’t mucked with the structure, or tunes, just the tone and, well, meaning. That is, until it gets to ‘Atomic’, where the many years that have passed are most notable in Harry’s pipes. It’s difficult to be nice about this. Sure, it’s their music and they can do what they want, and this is no doubt the set we can expect at the festivals this summer, but the point of this exercise escapes me. Nothing has been improved, quite the contrary in fact. Everything has been diminished. After 40 million album sales over 40 years, it seems unlikely they’re that desperate for money. If not motivated purely by lucre, or bloodymindedness, the only other conclusion is that Blondie, that is to say Harry, Stein and Burke, thought this was a good idea. That’s sad.
You may initially question the wisdom of releasing a new record, Ghosts of Download, in conjunction with a compendium of some the greatest hit records of all time, but Blondie are a step ahead. By murdering their own offspring, the new shit seems benign by comparison. The problem with it is that there’s nothing here worth writing about. Perhaps if I was feeling more charitable, having just spent an hour singing, badly, along with some of the best songs in punk-pop history, I’d tell you that there’s nothing wrong with this weightless pop music. But there is.
It sounds like the kind of unimportant euro-pop that gets played at campsites in Holland, pumped through tannoys at swimming pools and tinkling in the background of supermarches full of cheap beer and paprika flavoured crisps. There’s collaborations throughout the record that don’t really add anything. Having spent the previous hour in their time machine, Blondie stopped off in 2006 and picked up Beth Ditto, who adds little by way of spice to the limp ‘A Rose By Any Other Name’.
It gets worse. Further to eviscerating their own back catalogue with the surgical precision of knife wielding walrus, Blondie etherise Frankie’s ‘Relax’, and while it’s out on the slab, beat it to death with a stick made of shit. They’re on a roll, unstoppable, in contumelious mood, and there’s nothing among the new songs that’s going to make it all okay.
There’s something charmless and diffident about the Blondie represented in that documentary. A Chris Stein who complains about the drums being too loud on stage, the matriarchal distance of Harry, the unresolved relationships with past members. But it was okay, we could indulge them. They were, after all, Blondie, former purveyors of the finest in pop moments. Their previous good deeds imbued them with near-infinite goodwill. They were free to ride the nostalgia bandwagon and play to the grown-up versions of the kids who were once tickled by the ringing phone at the start of Parallel Lines, and all the promise those tinkles held. Now the best we can hope for is that future generations don’t stumble across the wrong greatest hits package and wonder what the fuss was once all about.