Debbie Harry and Blondie have New York in their blood. It pulsed through every release like the hum of activity through the city itself. The group burst out of the punk scene that amassed around the grimy venues of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City and found fame across Europe with their frenetic sheen, furious delivery and unbridled danceability.
Blondie may have been conceived in the bathroom toilet of punk’s grim scene, but, in truth, they were always destined to transcend into the pop charts and reach for the stars. Their debut single ‘X Offender’ proved that the band might be NYC through and through but they were set for global reach as it traversed genre lines and dropped the first stone in the pond, starting ripples that would become the new wave.
A debut single is often a very treacherous thing to release. Will you read the room correctly, will the huge volume of work that has got you to this point count for anything in the end? Though Blondie’s debut, ‘X Offender,’ may not reach beyond the top ten of Blondie’s greatest songs, it did what every debut single should do—offer up a crystalline image of what’s next.
Originally titled ‘Sex Offender’, the song was written by Debbie Harry and Gary Valentine and saw the duo create a genre-traversing single that refused to be held down. “It just came to me one night at Max’s,” Valentine told Billboard. “I was just sitting there and the melody got into my head so I rushed back to our Blondie loft and picked up a guitar and got it down that night.”
Valentine initially wrote the lyrics as the story of an 18-year-old boy who is charged by police for having sex with his underage girlfriend. But when Harry heard the track she said: “OK, I’ll come up with some lyrics.” Harry took the song in a new direction and made the central character a sex worker being attracted to the police officer arresting her. It may have worked as a script for a b-movie porno, but it suited Blondie’s trashy appeal.
“I love to sing about sex,” Harry explained in the book Blondie: Parallel Lives. “It’s the most popular thing, but I think that some of my twists in the theme are good. Like on ‘X Offender,’ the first thing that came out on the record that’s about a legal thing actually is about how you define what a sex crime is. It’s from the woman’s point of view.”
The song became a hit with Blondie’s growing fanbase in NYC. Soon enough, it became a staple of their touring live set, “That’s the song that got the record deal,” said Valentine. “That was sort of our signature then. We closed the shows with it.” The band welcomed Richard Gotterher to produce the song, and he dipped into his past work for the song’s memorable opening riff.
Gotterher had previously worked with ’60s girl group the Angels and on the track ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’ they share a spoken-word intro: “He went away and you hung around / And bothered me every night / And when I wouldn’t go out with you / You said things that weren’t very nice.”
Harry does her best to lift the lyrical structure and sentiment straight from the previous effort singing with a fire inside her: “I saw you standing on the corner, you looked so big and fine / I really wanted to go out with you, so when you smiled / I laid my heart on the line.” It’s something Craig Leon, Gotterher’s co-producer, remembered well. “That was a goof on Richie,” Leon told writer David Brazier. “They did a band called the Angels with a song called ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’, and it’s just a steal from that on a pre-sampling level. In those days, you just stole the riff and had somebody play it. I think Debbie thought it up as a joke on Richie.
“We had a big debate whether it should be ‘X Offender’ or ‘Sex Offender’ on the record, and if it was ‘Sex Offender’ radio certainly wouldn’t play it, so maybe if it’s ‘X Offender’ we’ll get it through.” It was a big step to take, and it didn’t quite sit with the band’s rock and roll values, uncompromising as they were at the time, the group being attached to the punk scene.
“But renaming the song turned out all right,” Harry said in GQ. “It was the first of a big trend of things beginning with the letter X.” It also set a trend for rock music to have the tempo turned up and the dancefloor pointed out to them. Sure rock music had been popular before but now it began to dominate clubs and welcomed the influences of other genres.
Drummer Clem Burke remembers the track very fondly, “I really like ‘X Offender,'” he told Blondie.net in 2003. “It really means a lot to me because it was a song that opened up the door for the band in general and also showed the community we were involved in at the time, which was the whole CBGB New York underground, that we were able to make a record because when we went in and did ‘X Offender,’ it wasn’t a facsimile of our live performance, it was set out to be done as a production.”
It became part of the band’s debut album and convinced Gotterher to sign on to produce it. Sadly, sales were middling-to-poor until the band signed with Chrysalis Records and re-released the album. It’s a record that Harry accurately surmises below. “The concept of that first album was based on the personality Blondie brought to the subject matter,” said Harry. “When you listen to the whole thing you notice a predominant theme of violence and gunfire. I don’t think there’s a song without a reference to someone getting shot, stabbed, degraded, or insulted. It’s prime-time television on record.”
Listen to Blondie’s debut single ‘X Offender’ below, it’s the song that most accurately captures the intensity, pop sensibility, and punk credibility that Blondie took through the entirety of their career.