Blondie: “Against All Odds” Review
It’s hard to imagine now, but the term “punk” didn’t refer so much to a sound as it did to a perspective. When the punk movement blossomed in Lower Manhattan in the early 70s, bands as disparate as The Ramones, Television and Patti Smith were all united by a commitment to creative independence. The scene from which they emerged incubated the endeavors of musicians who had little in common with the more stylistically uniform definition of punk we think of today. Most notable among them were bands like Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club and, of course, Blondie, all of whom drew inspiration from art rock, disco, hip-hop, funk and reggae to help to launch the new wave genre.
Blondie, in particular, created such smooth and understated pop hits – “Heart of Glass”, “Rapture”, “The Tide Is High”, etc. – that it is difficult to find a place for the iconic New York outfit within the anti-code of business ethics that their peers would come to represent. We certainly can’t blame anyone (especially people who didn’t live through that period) for putting Blondie right next to bands like The Cars and The Go-Go’s, whose musicality is just as easy to overlook in favor of their sparkling outer surface. But if you sit down with Blondie’s classic-era catalog from start to finish – six albums spanning their formation in 1974 until their breakup in 1982 – you find a restless creative unity that’s not so easy to pin down. rank under the new wave banner.
If the Blondie tubes do not match exactly distort successes don’t tell the whole story either. Additionally, it took Blondie about three albums to gel their sound. Against all oddsBlondie’s very first box set, expands our understanding of the band’s progression through time by giving us access to the first recording Blondie ever made, a basement session hosted by journalist Alan Betrock, founder of the New York rocker magazine (which at one point had Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan as a contributor). In the liner notes, Betrock recalls in hilarious detail how green Blondie was as a live performer: “They just couldn’t play live. They would stop in the middle of a song; the amplifiers would turn off; the guitar would go out; the strings would break and they would have no extra ones.
What a pleasant shock, then, to discover that this ramshackle first session offers a crystal clear overview of all the elements that made Blondie stand out from the start – much clearer, in fact, than the band’s self-titled 1976 debut. first sound we hear is a set of harmony “oohs” from vocalist Debbie Harry on a cover of Shangri-Las’ 1965 single “Out in the Streets.” Guitarist/co-founder Chris Stein, bassist of the Gary Valentine era and drummer Clem Burke soon join them with a reggae-inspired groove. Next, an embryonic version of “Heart of Glass” titled “The Disco Song” still manages to surprise despite its crudeness. (Both of these releases have been available as re-release bonus content for years, but they pack a lot more punch in the proper chronological order.)
Much like the classic Bad Brains Black spots, which was recorded in a similar setting, the vibe of the recording hits you like a breath of fresh air that immediately shines a light on who this band really was. Within seconds, we can hear the courage of young musicians cleverly subverting girl band tropes, with enthusiasm over skill in a way that’s enjoyable to listen to. In other words, we can hear Blondie’s punk roots saved more than ever before. Suddenly, the creative moves that the group would later become more adept at performing make sense. Depending on your perspective, the first half of Blondie’s original catalog is either frustratingly rambling or boldly eclectic, or both. If you’ve never experienced Blondie as an album band, you’re in for a bunch of surprises, for better or worse.
“Little Girl Lies,” for example, fuses classic 50s pop with the kind of psychedelia found on early Grateful Dead albums. And before the band launches into a Springsteen-esque boogie, ‘Love at the Pier’ very briefly alludes to prog with an intro that wouldn’t seem out of place on Yes’ Brittle or even a Frank Zappa record. “No Imagination”, the next track from the same album, recalls the explosive theatrics of early Genesis and Queen. “Hanging on the Telephone” captures quintessential 1980s production values two years early, while “Atomic” merges proto-electronics with garage surf. The examples – new gender reversals, clever musical twists and quirky decisions – are so numerous they could fill this review, not to mention the myriad qualities that made Harry a unique figure in a generation.
Harry had a unique, instantly recognizable voice that was both robust and delicate. She could easily shift from her smoky low register to an angelic falsetto, which gave her voice a three-dimensional quality. And his ability to play with conventional notions of emptiness and shyness was so effective that even the most superficial listener couldn’t miss it. You to know she satirizes glamor, even if she embodies glamor to perfection. And his ferocious intelligence single-handedly destroys the false dichotomy between outer “beauty” and inner substance.
With all that has been said, is Against all odds make the main albums more pleasant to listen to than they already were? Unless you prefer new (and arguably indispensable) mastering work, the answer is: not really. If you’re a casual fan with little interest in putting on your historian hat, or doing archaeological digs, or engaging in the meta-exercise of recontextualizing familiar songs, then Against all odds just isn’t for you. For anyone else, though, this package delivers in spades, especially when it comes to its abundance of photos and commentary. The one-liners here just make for great reading, and one is struck by how gorgeous Blondie was To look at as a band. Meanwhile, a separate book of album covers and memorabilia honors the collector-type fan quite well.
Nearly 50 years later, the art direction behind some of the band’s now-iconic album covers and photoshoots still looks remarkably modern. When music journalists attempted to drape a blanket of mythology around the New York scene of the early 2000s, later chronicled in the book Meet me in the bathroom, they were all, journalists and groups alike, in pursuit of something that Blondie has the undisputed right to claim. The difference, however, is that while Blondie positively oozed, they never sacrificed substance in pursuit of style and, in fact, cultivated a visual aesthetic with great craftsmanship. They are among those rare groups where the image is not really secondary to art, but rather an essential component of it.
Against all odds captures this art in its entirety. The sounds and images included here were carefully selected from Chris Stein’s personal archive (including 100 tape reels), which sat in his barn in Woodstock, New York, for 20 years. Listeners should watch before they jump to see how deep they want to dive into the matter, but the attention to detail here is undeniable. As for the boxes, Against all odds is a classic example of how to do justice to a band’s legacy.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a long-time contributor to Dough. He believes the job of a music journalist is to guide readers to their own impressions of music. You can find it on Twitter and understack to feedbackdef.substack.com
Listen to a 1979 Blondie performance from the Dough archive below.