The CBGB’s scene has become so mythologised at this point that it’s easy to forget, sometimes, that the bands that came from it were actual, you know, bands. Excellent t-shirts though they all make, The Ramones and Blondie tend to get lumped in these days with “fashion” as much as “music” and that’s a real waste. Both bands, along with Talking Heads, came to define the New York new wave scene but they were acts that were being primarily defined in relation to punk, itself incredibly short-lived and already starting to look like yesterday’s genre. That’s not inappropriate, and there are certainly great punk albums to come post-1978 (not least of which, London Calling) but already bands were being set up in, if not opposition, then at the very least in contrast to the punk scene.
Punk – mostly a UK movement at this point, for all the importance of progenitors like the Stooges – had a global impact but in many ways that impact was how other bands reacted to it, rather than becoming a part of the movement (if indeed it can be called a movement) itself. This reaction to punk leads to the genre splitting of new wave and post-punk. Generally speaking, new wave tends to be poppier – The Cars, for example – and influenced by punk but with a broader fealty to the idea of pop music. Post-punk tends to be darker and have more direct roots to punk – Joy Division is an obvious point of reference, but so is Public Image Limited, a band which can very obviously draw its roots directly back to punk. Blondie are slightly unusual in that they split the difference. Their first album, released in 1976, clearly has punkier influences – “Rip Her To Shreds” is an absolutely phenomenal song, but the band sound noticeably less polished than anyone who’s heard “Atomic” might reasonably expect, and the whole album is spikier and, well, punkier. 1978’s Plastic Letters keeps some of that edge, and that’s where “Denis” comes in.
“Denis” is, of course, a cover version. It shows. Not that the style doesn’t fit the band – it fits them all too well, in fact – but the heavy doo-wop influence isn’t really what anyone thinks of as a classic Blondie sound. It’s not bad, and certainly Debbie Harry has the voice for it, but it sounds like what it is – a pale imitation of something the band can do far better themselves, and indeed already had at this point in their career. Even the follow-up single, “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear”, which retains a faintly 50’s feel to it, feels far more a part of the same spectrum as the band that produced “Rip Her To Shreds” than it does a slightly-more-than-two-minutes-long cover version.
Blondie will face this problem again when they get to the top of the charts in 1980 with their dismal version of “The Tide Is High”, embracing a cod-reggae style that’s achingly wrong for a band that had spent the previous two years proving just how brilliant they could be without having to resort to such short-cuts. Blondie have a run of absolutely stellar, classic singles, but “Denis” (and “The Tide Is High”) always feels slightly apart from it. Or maybe that’s unfair. In the popularity contest that is the singles charts “Denis” got to Number 2 in the UK. It was their first international hit, it was Number 1 in both Belgium and the Netherlands and made it to Number 3 in Ireland. Blondie would release another four singles in 1978, none of which performed as well, and it would take 1979’s unstoppable “Heart Of Glass” before the next chart breakthrough arrived. Faced with those statistics, “Denis” looks like a vanguard rather than a failure – establishing the band commercially while they have a couple of try-this singles before finally hitting it out of the park.
Still, it’s hard to claim qualitatively that “Denis” is on a par with the best of Blondie. Previous singles “X Offender” (also clearly 50’s influenced) and “Rip Her To Shreds” feel like they have the personality of the band shot through them, and the last single Blondie would release in 1978 would be “Hanging On The Telephone”. It’s straightforwardly brilliant and could not be more Blondie if it tried, even though it’s also a cover version. Next to that “Denis” is a bit lost in the shuffle. And, really, it’s not like it’s a bad song, because it isn’t. There’s a bit of energy to it, and it’s perfectly likeable. Debbie Harry does her thing and you know, she does it well, and this time out it appears to include lapsing into pseudo-French for no readily apparent reason, which is not a part of the original. It gives the song somewhere to go, though given how short “Denis” is it might very well flag up the problem that, by the time Debbie Harry gets to the “French” part the song has already run out of ideas.
Still, its fine – a bit “what on Earth are you doing?” but characteristically quirky. Chris Stein is turning in solid work on guitar, there’s some reliably great percussion from Clem Burke… this all sounds like it’s leading up to a criticism, and it’s not really. “It’s fine” isn’t the worst sin a song can commit, not by a long chalk. And, again “Denis” was Blondie’s breakthrough so if for no other reason than giving the band the chance to knock out some stellar singles over the next couple of years it deserves some respect.
But yeah. This isn’t Blondie at their best. In fact, Blondie released two albums in 1978. The first, Plastic Letters, is a good album. The second, Parallel Lines, is fucking great. It’s very easy to see the progression of the band with these two albums. Some might accuse Parallel Lines of selling out – it’s not an entirely unfair criticism and certainly it’s noticeably more polished and poppy that either of their previous albums, but it’s also the album where Blondie become the band we all know – the one that can just knock out hit after hit, perfect single after perfect single, and make it look so effortless it almost hurts.
Both “Denis” and “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear” are solid little singles and Plastic Letters is eminently listenable. But Parallel Lines is going to gift the world “Hanging On The Telephone”, “One Way Or Another”, “Picture This”, the sheer awesomeness of “Fade Away And Radiate”, “Sunday Girl” and, most importantly of all for the future of the band, “Heart Of Glass”. There’s just no comparison. And this is where Blondie split the new wave / post-punk difference. The first two albums, early in the day though they are, feel far more post-punk even as, timing-wise, they’re basically running in tandem with punk. Parallel Lines onwards feels much more new wave. The band are capable of landing anywhere on that spectrum, and with “Denis” we have the spikiness of post-punk with the pop sensibilities of new wave. And, of course, we have pop music, which in any genre is what Blondie excel at. “Denis” encapsulates the band, even as it fails at being representative. But that’s OK. It forged the path. And there’s great things still to come.
What Else Happened in 1978?
Really, it’s hard to overstate how great Parallel Lines is. Blondie’s best album by a country mile, and the moment where they really become something special. But away from Blondie, the Sex Pistols play their final gig and split up – well, Johnny Rotten leaves anyway – and Nancy Spungen dies, leading to Sid Vicious being arrested for her murder. Along similar lines – perhaps a poor choice of phrasing – Keith Moon of The Who dies of an overdose in London. Prince releases his first album – it’s a solo album in every sense, since he does everything on it – and Kate Bush releases her debut, The Kick Inside. The best music mockumentary bar none – The Rutles – is unleashed, alongside its impeccably-observed soundtrack. The Commodores score their first Number 1 with “Three Times A Lady” and Bruce Springsteen gives us Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Kraftwerk continue their unimpeachable run with Die Mensch-Maschine while Talking Heads follow up their debut with More Songs About Buildings And Food. The top five songs of the year are either a nightmare of disco trash or fun from head to toe (depending on where you sit on the “disco sucks” spectrum) being as they are “Stayin’Alive”, “You’re The One That I Want” (not technically disco, I know), “Y.M.C.A.”, “Rivers Of Babylon” and “Night Fever”. Two songs in the Top Five is pretty great for The Bee-Gees but they shouldn’t get too smug – this is the year the movie Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is inflicted upon the world. Well, they can’t all be winners.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
Although it peaked at Number 1, The Bee-Gees “How Deep Is Your Love” – apparently it’s not about anal sex – spent three weeks at Number 2 in the U.S. before (ahem) falling down, so they’d qualify if it weren’t such a dreadful song. And the most anaemic sax solo in history meets the most arthritic bassline of all time which combined give us “Baker Street”, which also got to Number 2 in America. Lots of disco songs in the UK qualify, unsurprisingly, including Boney M’s searing historical documentary “Rasputin” (he was Russia’s greatest love machine, in case you didn’t know). And how we managed to avoid “The Smurf Song” by Father Abraham will, frankly, remain a mystery forever…
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
6. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
7. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
8. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
9. Queen, “Killer Queen”
10. Blondie, “Denis”
11. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
12. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
13. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
14. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
15. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
16. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
17. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
18. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
19. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”