Today is the birthday of Deborah Harry, better known as Debbie Harry, and sometimes known as Blondie, the group she was lead singer for and which she was sometimes considered synonymous with. The group, with its musical leader Chris Stein, Harry’s sometime partner, was one of those unavoidable cross-over bands of the late Seventies/early Eighties. The band began as a CBGB band on the punk scene but managed to score big with today’s song, a song that made its peace with the dominant disco sound to make the band seem an interesting hybrid of disco and punk, which is a way of saying “New Wave.”
Granted, New Wave didn’t generally court the radio mainstream of disco so openly, but once you’re using drum machines and a mechanized synth sound, you’re mostly there. The key difference, though, is how you program the beats. Blondie’s follow-up LP to Parallel Lines—their third album and the one with “Heart of Glass”—was called Eat to the Beat, a way of showcasing the “beat above all” idea. Including Blondie here is something of a concession to the times, but it's also a way of acknowledging that disco made its forays into most sounds that aimed for popularity. Rock’n’roll, after all, began as dance music and if it let itself get away from that purpose during its folkier and heavier and acidier days (which was fine with me) it would lose its edge if it didn’t keep aligned with the young and the partying and the dating. Blondie’s sound and their very image flirted with the girl-bands that Phil Spector had turned into hit machines back in the Sixties. Some of the band’s tracks from their breakthrough period—like “Sunday Girl” and “In the Flesh”—were notable for updating the Spector-sound for a New Wave audience, which is to say kids in school hitting their teens as the Seventies ended.
I was leaving my teens for my twenties as the Seventies ended, so I tended to think of Blondie as a savvier-than-most form of Bubble Gum. Gradually, I stopped dissing them and grew to like them well enough as radio entities—a favor I never managed to extend to others of that ilk, such as Pat Benatar or Cyndie Lauper. Blondie was OK, but The Pretenders were better because they rocked harder. There was no denying, however, the cool, photogenic look of Debbie Harry. With her two-tone hair, her big even teeth, symmetrical face, and wide-set eyes perfect for make-up, Harry was a walking icon. She looked the kind of girl who simply “made” a party by showing up at it—the coolest girl, not the most popular. In the doting close-ups of the band's videos, Harry seemed always to be too remote to mug but also a little self-conscious in a way that was endearing. She was already in her mid-thirties when the band broke into hitsville, so there was no reason to play the naïve ingenue, even if some of their songs played up the romantic suffering of such. Not simply a good-time girl, Harry took the “blondes have more fun” idea and turned it around—having more fun by making fun of more things. Nothing was sexier, post-punk, than not giving a fuck.
“Heart of Glass” carefully combines real drums with its clicking drum track, and it gives those synth sounds a presence that could almost be a horn-chart. And it rolls through its paces with elan, surrounding Harry’s teasing vocal with a shifting shimmer. And her high notes play off nicely against the more deadpan, “give it to me straight” quality of her singing. Not present on this song, but always good to hear, is the thrilling purr she puts into her more impassioned vocals—as in “One Way or Another.”
I picked Blondie’s first big hit because it’s so cool and superior to the usual “I need you” dramas. “Once I had a love and it was a gas / Soon turned out had a heart of glass.” The shrug is palpable, even if we’re supposed to read vulnerability and crushed hopes in the singer. Love is divine, but it makes you lose your mind—that kind of sentiment is hardly original or said with novelty, but its clipped assurance makes it seem no big deal. An “adorable illusion.”
The “get over it, girls” savvy comes to a head with “It soon turned out to be a pain in the ass”—a line edited out in some versions, but happily retained in the video. This was a rather different spirit about love and men than was sounded by the blues tradition of a Joplin or the mooning crooning of a Ronstadt, to say nothing of the urges of sensitive chick Stevie Nicks or ever-loving Christine McVie. And I swear I used to hear the final line of “If I fear I’m losing you / It’s just no good / You teasing like you do-oo” as “You treat me like a bim-bo.” But that’s giving Stein and Harry (the co-authors of the song) more credit than they deserve.
Anyway, the thing that makes the song, besides the piping lift of the “once I had a love” line, is the repetitions of “woo-oo-oh.” In best girl group tradition, it’s the vocalizing without words that seduces best.