I can’t believe Debbie Harry turned 70 today. Whatever that woman’s diet is, we all need to know for future reference.
But here’s a proper, old-school musical and cultural icon, who first came to fame a few years before I was even born and is still out there, doing her thing with singular style and energy, and pushing her craft even now. Singer, musical icon, counter-culture icon, style icon, actress, activist.
She’s one of the all-time great rock stars, one of the two or three most influential and unforgettable frontwomen of any era, and she also fronted probably one of the greatest and most important bands ever.
I had an argument a couple of times with one of my old band-mates as to whether Blondie is/was the greatest pop act of all time. The problem was that we couldn’t settle on whether the trailblazing New York outfit Debbie Harry fronted could even be *classed* as a ‘pop’ act. They’ve been categorised differently at different times; a punk band, ‘New Wave’, indie, alternative, even reggae and rap, and yes, pop. It’s a tricky one, as probably their most famous song ‘Heart of Glass’ is clearly a pop (even disco) song, but then some of their other more famous tracks are clearly more New Wave or punk. We seemed to agree that if Blondie could be described as ‘pop’, then they would surely be the greatest ‘pop group’ of the ages. We decided that only Abba or the Jackson Five might provide adequate opposition for that crown.
If Blondie was a pop group (and it’s still debatable), then they’re my favorite pop group. You just cannot argue with that catalogue of songs. 1977’s Parallel Lines is both one of the great punk/indie records *and* great pop records of its time – and of any time, for that matter. And singles like ‘One Way or Another’, ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ and ‘Call On Me’ are such perfect, timeless pieces of pop music that they can sound contemporary in any era. Play any Blondie classic on a contemporary playlist and it wouldn’t sound dated in the same way that some of their most famous contemporaries do, like The Clash and the Sex Pistols for example (though The Clash and the Sex Pistols are still glorious, of course).
But as much as I love some of those aforementioned songs (and the kick-arse 90s alternative band L7 might even have improved on ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ when they covered it) I have a personal favorite Blondie track by some distance. So this is also a moment to pay tribute to what I think is not only Blondie’s best song, but one of the greatest pieces of pop music ever released; specifically the 1980 single ‘Atomic’. The accompanying video isn’t particularly great, but the song itself is something special.
I mean, this track is absolute perfection. I don’t get it; I don’t get what Debbie Harry is singing about exactly, but her lucid, flowing vocal on this track is transcendent, almost otherworldly in places, particularly at the climax. What’s extraordinary about ‘Atomic’ is how unusual it is in structure too; for a single (a UK No.1 chart-topping single, for that matter) to have no discernible chorus is unusual to say the least. There are two verses, then a really long instrumental interlude and then finally a gradual, paced build-up bringing Debbie Harry’s vocal back in for what seems to be neither a chorus nor a verse, but just a sort of ‘climax’. Her vocals on this are the best I’ve ever heard them, particularly in this climatic part; her tones just flow beautifully and naturalistically, like riding an almost angelic sonic wave, building and building, until the track starts to fade out with her still singing.
That too is one of the most unusual things about it; the way the music and her vocals build and build like that, becoming slowly more and more intense, you’re expecting it either to keep going and keep building or to end on some sort of immaculate finish. The last thing you’re expecting is a fade-out! On first listen, it’s incredibly frustrating, because the song ends too early and you’re left wanting more. But the more you listen to it, the more you realise that actually this is perfect; the fade-out somehow adds to the mysterious, otherworldly feeling of the song, as you *know she’s still singing* but you’re not going to get to hear the rest of it.
It’s almost as if the track never ended and in some parallel dimension of perception it’s still going on even now and she’s still singing those notes for eternity. It’s both frustrating and genius at the same time.
Fade-outs, for that matter, seem to be a thing of the past, so anything that fades out has a kind of nostalgia value too now. It really is one of the most transcendent songs I’ve ever heard, particularly for a pop song that sat at No.1 on the singles charts in March 1980. Just this one track has so much to it (and with so much more seemingly held back and only implied), and yet this is a song in which I really don’t have any great sense of what the lyrics are about. It also perfectly encapsulates what’s great about Blondie. You sense that the song came about highly spontaneously and that there wasn’t any interest in perfecting it, but rather in letting it take its own shape and form and dictate itself. With a definite discoey element to the instrumental and particularly the bass, mixing with a Spaghetti Western style guitar sound, the inescapable punk/New Wave undercurrent, and the pure bliss of Debbie Harry’s pop vocal, in just this one song we have the different styles, genres and influences all mixing, coming together. ‘Atomic’ really is a stunning, stunning track and an extraordinary single.
And yet it probably isn’t Blondie’s most famous song, nor the vocal for which Harry is most famous. But it probably should be. I was born the year it was released and didn’t actually first hear it until about ten years ago. When I did, I was blown away by it, both by how sonically glorious it is on the basic level, but also by how unpredictable it is. It sort of reminded me how I felt the first time I heard The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’ and that famously endless instrumental stretch of what was also basically a chart-topping pop song; there’s a degree of, not just unusualness but audacity, to both songs.
It’s hard to imagine a song as good as this getting to No.1 on a singles chart anymore, but it did so in 1980, reaching the top of the UK chart. Blondie was in fact one of only two American music acts to have No.1 UK singles in the 70s, 80s and 1990s; the other being Michael Jackson. Other Blondie or Debbie Harry fans might argue as to what the ‘best’ Blondie song is or the best Debbie Harry work; some might also cite her various solo works and other projects (of which there are many).
That she is a truly iconic figure in pop music is indisputable, however. Her influence on a generation or two of female singers/frontpeople is well-attested (Shirley Manson among them) and she also possessed one of the most stand-out, recognisable images/styles in the annals of popular music and counter-culture. She was also one of my first crushes (along with Princess Leia, Carol Danvers and Cheetara from the Thundercats); all I remember is being aged around eight or nine and seeing a clip of her performing ‘Hearts of Glass’ with Blondie on a BBC archive show – it was like watching a woman emerge from another dimension I hadn’t yet heard of. But she’s never produced so gorgeous a vocal as she did on ‘Atomic’. Her vocals riding the wave of the band’s addictive instrumental musicianship, it really is a reminder of how amazing pop music can be in the right circumstances.
And, as I said at the start; it’s really hard to believe she’s just turned 70. And my favorite Debbie Harry quote? “I don’t mind if my skull ends up on a shelf,” she once said, “so long as it’s got my name on it.”