I first heard of Blondie back in the mid-1970s—long before they were international superastars—and while they were still on the indie label Private Stock. In the early days of their career they were regarded as a punk band, toured with Television, and were part of the New York underground scene, along with the Ramones, Talking Heads and other luminaries. Now, many years after the string of mega pop hits like “Heart of Glass,” “Atomic,” “Rapture,” and so on, it’s a little difficult for some to remember Blondie the way there were. But I do.
I first saw them in London in 1978. It was their initial European solo tour and they headlined at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park—a large and elegant seated venue, a bit like the Rialto only bigger and fancier. I was a young lad with two tickets to see this “unknown” American act, and really, I couldn’t give one away. Nobody wanted to go with me. The kids I went to school with, blissfully unaware of the punk rock revolution fomenting in their own town, were still spacing out to Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes.
I finally convinced a biker friend of mine, John, to take the train with me up to north London. He didn’t much care much for live music but he was always up for an adventure. We arrived early and took our seats—eighth row, right in the center.
After a while, the warm-up band started playing and they were extremely weird. I remember that the house lights were left on, as if Blondie didn’t want to take the chance of being upstaged. There were four guys in this group: the guitarist and bassist both sang, and they had a demented keyboard player who pounded on a bizarre stack of synthesizers that had wires and cables hanging all over the place. Their songs were jangly and dissonant. The show was energetic and mildly interesting, but they were a little too odd for me. When Blondie came on, the theater wasn’t even half full, but I didn’t care. Debbie Harry was only in her thirties then, and as lovely a rock ‘n’ roll deity as I had ever seen float across the stage.
On the way home, I asked John what he thought about the concert. “Well, Blondie were okay, but that warm-up band were amazing! They’re going to be huge.” John really didn’t know a thing about music so I dismissed his prediction as the babblings of an amateur. I later found out that the strange opening act were called XTC.
I’ve seen Blondie many times in the intervening years, and I danced to “Sunday Girl” at my high school prom. Blondie’s supremely talented bassplayer, Gary Valentine, was let go in the late 1970s and they were never quite as good without him, although they still play his wistful song “I Am Always Touched by Your Presence Dear.” From the time they came back to London after the release of Parallel Lines, there were never again empty seats in the theaters and Blondie were instantly adored.
I once saw Debbie and romantic partner/songwriter/Blondie guitarist Chris Stein do a secret show at CBGB’s with a pickup band. I sat in a cozy little VIP section with Matt Dillon on one side of me, and the Talking Heads on the other. It was pretty cool. In the 1990s, my band used to rehearse in a room next to Blondie at an elite studio in New York, and we got to chat and hang out a little. Chris Stein and I both played Steinbergers, and he’d painted out the “berger” on his guitar, so it just read “Stein,” which I found to be very clever.
The Logical Lizard hanging out with Blondie lead guitarist Chris Stein in New York, back in the rock 'n' roll days. Photo by Lach.
Last year, when Blondie set out on their big reunion tour I happened to be in NYC and took my brother and my former 1980s sweetheart to see them at the Sony Theater in Times Square. I assumed that the band would be old and tired, but it was easily the best Blondie show I ever saw: they were tight, extremely well rehearsed, full of energy, better dressed and sharper than ever, and cracked through a set of greatest hits. The song list was predictable, but who doesn’t want to hear “Hanging on the Telephone,” “Dreaming,” and all those other pop classics?
So, not surprisingly, I was expecting something similar at the Desert Diamond show this past Tuesday. Blondie, right here in my adopted home town, at a small venue! I took my dear friend Lisa Marie—a talented local silversmith, a serious music lover, and long-time Blondie fan who had never actually seen them in concert. I was a little concerned when I got my first peek at the venue. It looked more like a hotel ballroom, where you’d hold a wedding reception, than a concert hall.
When Blondie came on at about 8 pm (awfully early for New York rockers) they blasted straight into “Call Me,” which makes for a hell of a good opener. Debbie was in a bright red dress with mismatched Converse sneakers: one red and one blue, just like Clem on the cover of Parallel Lines). Unfortunately, the sound was dreadful, like listening to a transistor radio through two sheets of soggy cardboard. Most of the audience were of retirement age and, despite the very modest volume, I noticed a lady next to me wearing earplugs.
As an original fan, I felt it my duty to show the band some love, so Lisa and I ran to the front and sidled up to the stage, right by Debbie. Periodically we were yelled at, or ordered back to our seats by security, but we made the most of it.
Debbie Harry onstage with Blondie, Desert Diamond Casino, Tucson, September 1, 2009. Photo by Caroline Palmer.
Only Debbie, Chris Stein, and drummer Clem Burke remain from the original lineup. Last June, Jimmy Destri, the keyboard player and one of the key songwriters was still with them, and I really missed his presence here in Tucson. He’s a great performer. So, the sound sucked, the audience were mostly old and confused, and Blondie were finishing off their national tour with a Tuesday night show in a partially-filled casino in Tucson, Arizona. It must have been a bit of a downer for them, but they were troopers and didn’t let it show. They surprised me with “Fade Away And Radiate,” not exactly a conventional pop hit, and a long ska/reggae jam in the middle of “The Tide is High.”
So, I’ve been to better Blondie shows, but in all these years it was the first time I ever got to see them elbows-on-the-stage in a small venue. They may be older, but you know what, so am I, and Blondie still kick the pants off of most contemporary acts. I’ll pony up my cash to see them anytime.