Inductees: Deborah Harry (vocals; born July 1, 1945), Clem Burke (drums; born November 24, 1955), Jimmy Destri (keyboards; born April 13, 1954), Nigel Harrison (bass; born April 24, 1951), Frank Infante (guitar; born November 15, 1951), Chris Stein (guitar; born January 5, 1950), Gary Valentine (bass; born December 24, 1955).
Someone forgot to tell Blondie that New Wave bands weren’t supposed to have hit records. Blondie broke the Top 40 barrier with the Number One hit “Heart of Glass” in 1979. Their conquest was no minor feat, as it meant overcoming music-industry wariness about punk and New Wave, which challenged the established order. Blondie seemed more accessible than some of their radical colleagues because they drew upon Sixties subgenres - girl-group pop and garage rock - that had a still-familiar ring. At the same time, they spiked their songs with New Wave freshness, vibrancy and attitude. In so doing, Blondie helped usher in a changing of the guard.
One of the most popular bands of the New Wave era, Blondie hit the scene with visually arresting frontwoman Debbie Harry. Her bleached-blonde hair and full, pouty lips made her look the part of a new age Marilyn Monroe with a hint of punk hauteur (which paved the way for Madonna’s more risqué approach). “Looks have been one of the most saleable things ever,” Harry told journalist Karen Davis. “When I woke up to that, mine helped a lot.” Blondie’s striking visual image was bolstered by hooky, retro-chic pop tunes and canny art-rock leanings.
During the late Seventies and early Eighties, Blondie had eight Top 40 hits, including four that went to Number One: “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me,” “The Tide Is High” and “Rapture.” No other New Wave group had that many chart-topping singles. Striking a balance between edginess and catchiness, Blondie enjoyed hit records and artistic credibility – a best-of-both-worlds situation that few others (the Police, the Cars and Talking Heads come to mind) pulled off in that era. Blondie could number Robert Fripp and David Bowie among their pals, and they fearlessly dabbled in such genres as reggae, rap, disco and a touch of the avant-garde. Yet they also maintained ties to the tuneful, ear-catching Sixties pop aesthetic.
Blondie’s origins lay in the glam rock era of the early Seventies, when Bowie, the New York Dolls and Lou Reed were jolting the rock scene with sexual ambiguity and campy behavior. In 1973, Harry - who’d worked as a Playboy bunny and tended bar at Max’s Kansas City - joined the Stilettos, a group fronted by three female singers. When Chris Stein joined, the seeds were sown for Blondie, which began performing under that name at CBGB’s in 1975. The lineup stabilized with vocalist Harry, guitarist Stein, keyboardist Jimmy Destri, bassist Gary Valentine and drummer Clem Burke.
They signed with the independent Private Stock label and issued a single (“X-Offender”) and album (Blondie) that were produced by Sixties-rock veteran Richard Gottehrer. Driven by Destri’s Farfisa organ and Burke’s energetic drumming, the album had a Sixties sound and a Seventies sensibility. Although it sold poorly, the Chrysalis label - a more well-established independent - could hear Blondie’s potential and bought out their contract for $500,000. Blondie’s second album, Plastic Letters (1978), attracted attention for such memorably tuneful songs as “Denis” (a remake of the doo-wop hit “Denise,” which Harry partly sang in French) and “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence Dear.” Bassist Valentine left during the recording of Plastic Letters, and guitarist Frank Infante and bassist Nigel Harrison subsequently joined, making Blondie a sextet. At this point, Blondie was more popular abroad than at home, with Plastic Letters entering the U.K. Top 10 while only reaching Number 72 in the U.S.
Parallel Lines was Blondie’s breakthrough and one of the milestone recordings of the era. Produced by Mike Chapman - a pop-loving Englishman who’d previously worked with Sweet, Gary Glitter and Suzy Quatro - the album opened the commercial floodgates for New Wave music. It yielded two hit singles: “Heart of Glass” (whose working titles had been “The Disco Song” and “Once I Had a Love”) and “One Way or Another.” Blondie took the pulse of the age in “Heart of Glass,” which Lester Bangs described as “an anthem for the emotionally attenuated Seventies.” In topping the charts, “Heart of Glass” helped legitimize disco in the rock world (and vice versa).
The bridge they built would again pay dividends when Blondie recorded the title track for the film American Gigilo. Produced by Giorgio Moroder - the top Eurodisco producer - “Call Me” became Blondie’s second Number One single and stayed on top for six weeks.
All of a sudden, a Lower East Side band who’d come up through the ramshackle CBGB’s scene found themselves with two Number One disco hits, which occasioned some backlash. Blondie stuck to their guns.
“We really tried to vary our music and not mimic ourselves,” Harry told Billboard. “We tried to be a little daring.” That venturesome spirit was further evident on Eat to the Beat (1979) and Autoamerican (1980). The latter album took a wide-angle view of popular music, and their fearless cross-pollination earned them two more chart-toppers: “The Tide Is High” (originally by Jamaica’s Paragons) and “Rapture” (which did for rap what “Heart of Glass” had done for disco). The inspiration for Harry’s offbeat rap was the campy science-fiction film Attack of the Giant Ants. Rap had theretofore been an underground phenomenon in and around New York, and Blondie’s hybrid rock-rap gave many listeners their first exposure to the genre.
Blondie subsequently released The Best of Blondie (1981) and their most uncommercial album, The Hunter (1982). Debbie Harry also squeezed in an edgy, dance-oriented solo album, Koo Koo, which was produced by Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers. A planned hiatus turned into a full-fledged disbanding when Chris Stein was diagnosed with a rare skin disease, from which it took several years to recover.
In 1986, Stein cowrote three songs for Harry’s Rockbird solo album. Harry would release a few more solo albums: Def, Dumb and Blonde (1989) and Debravation (1993). A full-fledged Blondie reunion yielded a new album (No Exit) and single (“Maria”) in 1999. The latter entered the British charts at Number One, proving that after all these years, Blondie still had the magic.