15 songs to prove Blondie only got better with age
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives”. However, the news that tickets are on sale for a 2021 Blondie arena tour ‘Against the Odds’ calls that famous aphorism into question. A band who epitomised the meaning of cool in the eighties, the walking talking definition of ‘new wave’, it can feel odd to recognise them as a legacy act. Their determination to bring the freshest sounds during their original tenure made them icons, but it’s their work following a pre-Millenium reunion which has intrigued us.
Twenty-two years into a reunion that began with sessions to record a couple of new tracks for a greatest hits compilation, and the New York punk icons are poised to make a new album — their sixth collection of new material since ‘Maria’ topped the charts in 1999.
The Blondie reunion has not only outlasted their original incarnation, but a new LP will balance the canon: six ‘new’ ones will match the six original albums. Such work demands a re-evaluation of their 21st Century output, which is often overshadowed by the pulling power of their earlier back catalogue.
Ever the singles band, here we take a look at fifteen bangers that would make a sublime sequel to the original Best of Blondie released in 1981. The fact that the group are just as able to turn out a suitably stupendous single some four decades into their career proves, once and for all, that Blondie are truly one of the best.
15 of Blondie’s best songs:
‘Studio 54’ (1998) – This Is Blondie
When the Iggy Pop tribute We Will Fall came out in 1997, it was no secret that, alongside Joey Ramone, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Joan Jett, Adolph’s Dog were actually Blondie (Hitler having owned a German Shepherd of the same name). Reprising an obscure cut from Iggy’s Chris Stein-produced Zombie Birdhouse, this was a tentative re-emergence for a band famous for adrenaline-shot dance-rock.
Harry had performed ‘Ordinary Bummer’ on her mid-1990s solo tours, but this new cut showcased a lower-pitched vocal, informed by her work with the Jazz Passengers. Far more typical of their rock-pop style was the trashy disco of ‘Studio 54’. Recorded with TV Mania (Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes and Warren Cuccurullo with producer Anthony J Resta), the song was intended to tie-in with the film 54, which loosely fictionalised the story of the legendary New York discotheque.
In the end, the project was shelved with the band deciding to work with producer Craig Leon on a full-length production that would become No Exit. A second track from the sessions ‘Pop Trash Movie’ is also out there on the internet: eventually materialising on the Duran Duran album Pop Trash. What should have been a coda to their legacy — ‘Studio 54’ turned out to be a worthy prelude to the second act.
‘Maria’ (1999) – No Exit
The timing of ‘Maria’ was perfect. It hit the radio just as Blondie had completed a European tour, gently introducing fans to news cuts from their forthcoming album. The compilation Atomic had also been a big seller in the UK (appended with Xenomania and Taul Paul mixes): the title track had seemingly gained a life of its own in the 1990s. A remix topped the US dance chart in 1995, while its use by Coca Cola for the 1998 World Cup helped position Blondie’s music at the centre of popular culture once more.
‘Maria’, however, was very different to ‘Atomic’: redolent of the doo-wop flavour of the band’s earlier recordings like ‘Denis’, ‘Sunday Girl’, ‘Presence Dear’ and more. The secret ingredient, however, was the cathedral bells chiming in the background of the chorus. All over the festive period, the track received extensive airplay in the UK, fitting in neatly with seasonal programming of Christmas songs. As momentum built, the release date was pushed back several times, with the song eventually debuting at number one on 13 February 1999.
Written by keyboardist Jimmy Destri, ‘Maria’ reprised the line “walking on imported air” from ‘Walk Like Me’ off the band’s 1980 album Autoamerican. It set the template for the cool modern rock sheen that would characterise the full band sound of Blondie 2.0. With a rotating cast of seven number ones in their back catalogue, ‘Maria’ has remained a permanent fixture of live shows. In essence, it sounds like what it is: a rebirth.
‘Nothing is Real But The Girl’ (1999) – No Exit
Far Out Magazine’srecent feature on Blondie left them in 1999, with the stellar comeback track ‘Maria’. However, the follow-up single ‘Nothing Is Real But The Girl’ was another gem. Written again by keyboardist Jimmy Destri, but with a futuristic new wave feel, the song truly popped.
Befittingly, it was remixed by New York techno DJ, Danny Tenaglia, making the top 30 in the UK and number 11 in Spain. Like many Blondie songs, its sensibility is defined by the tension created by Harry singing lyrics from a male perspective. That the lyrics were altered slightly for the single release diminished the appeal only marginally: the line “nothing is real but her” replaced with “nothing is real but me”.
The live version, however, was different again: beginning as a stripped-down ballad, with only Destri’s keys accompanying Harry’s vocal, before gaining momentum in the second verse. The effect is a reminder of Destri’s 1981 solo album Heart on the Wall, particularly the Bowie-esque ‘Don’t Look Around’: another surefire smash, had it been recorded by Blondie.
‘Under The Gun’ (1999) – No Exit
When Blondie appeared at the American Music Awards in January 1999, they chose not to play ‘Maria’ but their new albums hip-hop flavoured title track ‘No Exit’ (with members of Wu-Tang and Mobb Deep). The gothic-rock gangster-rap hybrid was a gesture to the group’s legacy with the groundbreaking ‘Rapture’; however, the performance undoubtedly confused audiences expecting to hear the new single.
Eventually released in October 1999, with a video featuring Inspectah Deck, Up God and Prodigy, ‘No Exit’ has since gained a cult following in the hip hop community for its mixes. However, it resonated little with Blondie’s core fanbase. Instead, they should perhaps have released the crystalline perfection of the Chris Stein-penned ‘Under The Gun’ as the third single: a tribute to the late Gun Club founder (and Blondie Fan Club acolyte) Jeffrey Lee Pierce.
‘Under The Gun’ sounds like the lead single from the album Blondie could have made in 1984: a blend of Duran Duran and early U2, with Clem’s pounding drums driving the beat of the song forward. A demo version recorded with Parallel Lines-producer Mike Chapman is rumoured to be out there somewhere, and a live mash-up with ‘Atomic’ would be absolute perfection.
‘Screaming Skin’ (2000) – Livid
‘Screaming Skin’ was the album opener for No Exit, but the live version from the concert album Livid is arguably superior. It captures the energy of the band and Debbie’s more playful lyrical delivery. The song was influenced by her tenure with The Jazz Passengers, and experiments with vocal improvisation.
It echoes her collaboration with the Argentine ska band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs too, on a Hispanic reworking of The Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. The lyrics refer to Stein’s debilitating illness pemphigus, which hastened the band’s demise amidst drug issues and legal problems in the early eighties.
Musically the live version of ‘Screaming Skin’ recalls the hybridised sound of late Seventies new wave: British bands like The Clash, Selecter and The Beat. In the US it was serviced to radio as a promo single, although it never received an official release.
‘Good Boys’ (2003) – The Curse of Blondie
Four years after No Exit, Blondie returned with The Curse of Blondie, lead by the single ‘Good Boys’, co-written by Debbie Harry with Kevin Griffin (from US alt-rock band Better Than Erza). With more than a nod to ‘Heart of Glass’, and the Italo sounds of some of Debbie Harry’s solo hits (‘In Love With Love’/’I Can See Clearly’), it fitted in perfectly with the electroclash sounds of 2003. Harry had recently collaborated with DJs Claudio Camaione and Paolo Cilione (Blow Up) for ‘Uncontrollable Love’ and a similar remix of ‘Goods Boys’ was circulated as a white label (eventually surfacing on a 2005 best-of).
The song made number 12 in the UK and featured a silent movie-themed video by Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund (Debbie had played a Hells Angel in his 2002 film Spun). However, the bands Top of the Pops performance has an alluring simplicity of its own: perhaps because it was to be their final performance on the legendary show. The single also got to number 7 on the US dance chart, propelled by remixes from Scissor Sisters, Arthur Baker and Giorgio Moroder — the German techno-god renowned for his collaboration with Blondie on ‘Call Me’.
‘End To End’ (2003) – The Curse of Blondie
While The Curse of Blondie is one of the band’s most consistent records, with a heavier sound courtesy of producer Steve Thompson and sophisticated songwriting, it is short on pop-bangers. ‘Good Boys’ was the only single, although ‘Undone’ was sent out as a promo.
Buried in the middle of the record is ‘End to End’, co-written by Stein and Harry with New York scenester Romy Ashby. It comes across as a hybrid of ‘Call Me’ and the spaghetti Western cowpunk stylisations of ‘Atomic’. It is also redolent of Harry’s solo version of ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’, recorded with Pray For Rain for the Alex Cox movie Three Businessmen (1998).
‘End to End’ was selected for inclusion on the 2005 compilation Greatest Hits Sound & Vision. The Curse also marked the end of Jimmy Destri’s tenure in the band on keys. Two notable sign-offs from Destri include the raucously metal ‘Last One In The World’ and the towering ballad ‘Rules for Living’.
‘What I Heard’ (2010) – Panic of Girls
When Blondie appeared on the bill for Isle of Wight festival with New York protégés The Strokes, most people had assumed they would be trading on past glories and deliver a greatest hits set. Not a chance. With a new album in the can and a refreshed line-up, Blondie tore into an electric set that showcased both the talents of guitarist Tommy Kesler and the songwriting ability of Matt Katz-Bohen on keys.
An undisputed highlight of the set was new single ‘What I Heard’. The song was a glitzy-pop, new-wave stomper that showcased Harry’s soaring vocal complete with an epic guitar solo. Monster truck cover versions of Taio Cruz ‘Break Your Heart’ and a mash-up of Muse’s ‘Uprising’ were testimony to the vigour with which Blondie had returned.
Never had Blondie 2.0 sounded so effortlessly contemporary, and with a setlist that was relatively light on back catalogue.
‘Mother’ (2011) – Panic of Girls
Debbie Harry claimed the lyrics to ‘Mother’ were a tribute to the 1990s Meatpacking District club night Jackie 60, founded by scenesters Johnny Dynell and Chi Chi Valentini. However, the plaintive refrain in the chorus, in which Harry sings the line ‘mother’s left the building/we’re the missing children’, prompted speculation that it was in fact about the birth mother who gave Harry up for adoption.
The track was co-written with Kato Khandwala who produced the Panic of Girls album, having previously worked with Paramore and My Chemical Romance. The zombie-themed video features cameo appearances by Kate Pierson from The B-52s, Johnny Dynell, Chi-Chi Valentini and Rob Roth. However, the live version from the A&E sessions is the most haunting.
‘Rave’ (2014) – Ghosts of Download
That ‘Rave’ was never released as a single is another of the great inexplicably Blondie mysteries. Ranking alongside ‘Slow Motion’ and ‘Danceway’ as bonafide lost classics that should have been hits, ‘Rave’ is worth a revisit. Produced by Killers producer Jeff Salzman and clocking in at 140BPM, it followed ‘One Way or Another’ in the live set, with the new tune packing quite a punch.
Pulsating synths and a ferocious beat underpins gloriously passionate lyrics and an insanely catchy earworm chorus, with more than a passing nod to CBGBs contemporaries the Ramones, the group have made ‘Rave’ an essential piece of the band’s iconography.
Singles from the EDM flavoured album Ghost of Download included ‘A Rose by Any Name’ (with Beth Ditto), ‘Sugar on the Side’ (with Systema Solar) and ‘I Want to Drag You Around’, but ‘Rave’ is the real keeper.
‘Mile High’ (2014) – Ghosts of Download
Backstage at the 2013 Isle of Wight festival, Chris Stein suggested that the EDM direction of their forthcoming album would shock people: that they intended to ‘sell out all over again’. ‘Mile High’ is the most dance orientated number, bringing elements of Avici and David Guetta to the Blondie sound. The track was created in collaboration with New York house DJ Hector Fonseca.
Like ‘Rave’, ‘Mile High’ was a staple of the live show during this period, being particularly suited to the festival circuit, of which Blondie were now veterans. In the period 2010 to 2014, the band appeared in headline slots at an impressive role call of outdoor pageants including Isle of Wight (twice), Rockness, Optimus Alive, BBK Live, T in the Park, Lovebox, Secret Garden Party, V Festival, Camp Bestival and Latitude.
‘Fun’ (2017) – Pollinator
‘Fun’ was the most successful Blondie single since ‘Maria’. Written by TV on the Radio’s David Sitek and Erik Hassle, it was the lead single from the eleventh Blondie album Pollinator: a project that saw the band collaborate with other musicians including Sia, The Strokes and Johnny Marr.
While ‘Maria’ reprised the power-pop sound of 70s Blondie, ‘Fun’ gestured towards the disco sound of Studio 54 and 1980s AutoAmerican: particularly the extended mixes of ‘Rapture’ and ‘Live It Up’. The video, directed by Dikayl Rimmasch, featured the band performing in a warehouse and a cameo from Drag Race star Raja Gemini.
Remixes by Eric Kupper and Greg Cohen helped the track top the US dance chart, while in the UK it got to number three in the physical sales chart.
’Long Time’ (2017) – Pollinator
The album Pollinator benefitted from the most coherent promo campaign for a Blondie album in years. With ‘Fun’ serviced to Radio 2 and ‘My Monster’ receiving play on Radio 6, no time was wasted following up the success with ‘Long Time’.
Written by Debbie Harry and Dev Hynes from Blood Orange, the shimmering guitar-lead synth-pop single was the closest the band had come to recapturing the sound of ‘Heart of Glass’. Again a high budget video showcased the group within the urban realism of New York, with cutaway shots of Debbie driving a 1970s yellow taxi.
Remixes from Hercules and Love Affair and Eric Kupper made the song a Top 5 hit on the US dance chart, while in the UK it peaked at number 1 on the physical single charts.
‘Too Much’ (2017) – Pollinator
Blondie’s live shows in the Ghosts of Download era always began with a Russian military march. And you can hear this influence on Matt Katz-Bohen’s contribution to Pollinator, released as the third single in the summer of 2017.
Reminiscent of his stand-out compositions for Panic of Girls (‘What I Heard’ and ‘Love Doesn’t Frighten Me’) it sees Blondie 2.0 back in Killers-esque synth-rock territory. Live the song took on a sublime emotional quality, with Deborah frequently lost in yearning lyrics of heartbreak and love lost.
For the 2017 live dates, the pre-show house music was replaced with ‘Tehran 1979’: Harry’s electro-disco collaboration with Shirley Manson on the Brian Reitzell soundtrack to the TV show American Gods. It will be intriguing to see if this Moroder-esque sensibility finds its way into Blondie’s 2021 offering.
‘Doom or Destiny’ (2017) – Pollinator
If Blondie 2.0 never made another record, their most recent single would be a befitting epitaph. Written by Deborah Harry and Chris Stein, and clocking in at under three minutes, it is the perfect piece of power pop. A duet with friend and peer, rocker Joan Jett, the video was directed by long-term collaborator Rob Roth.
Described by Debbie Harry as, “The most openly political video Blondie has ever done” the promo satirised the presidency of Donald Trump and his relationship with women and the media. “In trying times we try harder,” added Chris Stein, “politics have become the new pop culture phenomenon”.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, the pair reprised their relationship with The Gregory Brothers for Songify the news: donating the song ‘One Heartbeat Away’ to an auto-tuned mash-up of Mike Pence and Kamala Harris. How long can Blondie keep up this prodigious creativity? In a November 2020 interview on French TV Debbie Harry had this to say: “I like fun. I’m on the hunt. Watch out! I’m on the hunt for fun!”