Reunited Blondie rapturous again17 years after their breakup, the groundbreaking band's tide remains high with new album
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By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- They first hit the top of the British pop charts in 1979 with "Heart of Glass." But success may be sweeter the second time around for the members of Blondie, who hit No. 1 in the United Kingdom again with the single "Maria" from "No Exit," their first album of new material since 1982.
Recalling the period leading up to Blondie's 17-year hiatus, guitarist Chris Stein says, "We exploded after a while and made a lot of horrendously stupid mistakes."
Still, the band's trend-setting reputation survived, as did the sultry spell cast by lead singer Deborah Harry.
"No Exit" manages to be vintage Blondie without sounding the least bit dated. Unlike so many other reunions of aging, slightly pathetic bands that inspire only condescension, Blondie interlaces reggae, ska, rap (with rapper Coolio guesting on the title track), juicy pop, updated disco and plain punk into an inventive, experimental album the likes of which endeared Blondie to audiences two decades ago.
"It's a continuation," says Stein of the new album. "It feels like we were in the studio for 16 years. It was bottled up and this album was an outpouring."
Blondie brought punk to the masses via such songs as "One Way or Another," revolutionized disco rock with "Heart of Glass," launched rap into the mainstream with "Rapture" and inaugurated the idea of the video vixen frontwoman.
Formed in 1974 by Stein, an art student, and Harry, a former Playboy bunny, with drummer Clem Burke and keyboard player Jimmy Destri joining a year later, Blondie was one of the most commercially successful groups to emerge from the New York punk rock scene that also spawned bands such as the Ramones and Talking Heads. Their first eponymous album, released in 1977, was well received. But it was "Plastic Letters," released that same year, that launched Blondie's streak of hits, with "Denis Denis" hitting No. 2 in the United Kingdom.
The year 1979 was a watershed for the band as well, with both the albums "Parallel Lines" and "Eat to the Beat" going platinum. Yet despite chart-topping singles and high album sales for the next three years -- "Parallel Lines" sold 20 million copies worldwide -- money (or lack thereof, due to bad contracts) became a problem, and Stein was diagnosed with a rare and often fatal genetic disease called pemphigus.
The band had managed to release "The Hunter," and had its last U.S. hit with "Island of Lost Souls" but following an unsuccessful tour, Blondie fell apart. Harry spent the next several years nursing Stein back to health.
Harry's attention-getting blond bombshell persona also helped drive Blondie apart. To many people, Harry herself was "Blondie," which didn't sit well with other members of the band. Her aggressive, enigmatic and calculated brand of onstage sexuality ruffled other feathers in the male-dominated music industry.
"Debbie was accused of being too overtly sexual and now the standards are different. Times have changed," says Stein.
That's for sure. Consider Madonna, who last week picked up three Grammy awards. Harry paved the way for the likes of the Material Girl-cum-Spiritual Girl, as well as other female performers, including Grammy nominees Shirley Manson of Garbage and Courtney Love of Hole.
"Suddenly, with the advent of women in the music business, they began to realize Debbie's importance," says Burke.
But in their 17-year hiatus, Blondie's star only seemed to soar.
To date, Blondie have sold some 40 million albums worldwide. The band's greatest hits collection, "The Best Of Blondie," has sold 1.1 million units since 1991, according to SoundScan, and the 1994 "Platinum Collection" boxed set won rave reviews. And the current movie "200 Cigarettes" features a remix of "Rapture" as well as current releases "No Exit" and "Maria."
"We have more acceptance and credibility from being away for so long. Our songs have a life of their own," says Burke. "It's like having a career without having a career."
But ultimately, three years ago, Stein felt that it was time for a real resurrection, and contacted Destri, now a producer, and Burke, a session musician. Both were interested. Now, they only had to convince Harry that Blondie's tide was high again.
Harry, meanwhile, who had done some acting ("Hairspray," "Heavy"), released several low-profile solo albums and performed with the Jazz Passengers, finally agreed. Guitarist Paul Carbonara and bassist Leigh Foxx replaced Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison, both of them longtime Blondie performers.
But all the band members didn't want a tired reunion -- an album of rehashed music that generated publicity and made a few bucks by tapping into fans' memories, but didn't break any new ground.
"Most of the bands that have regrouped or reformed didn't ring true for me. It smacks of cashing in. We wanted to become a band again and make a new record," says Stein. "It's unfair to fans and musicians to just release reissues."
'Urban folk music'
After sorting out contractual issues with former label Chrysalis/EMI, which was not interested in releasing Blondie's new material, manager Allen Kovac, who guided the comebacks of Duran Duran and Meatloaf, suggested that his label Beyond issue the album. And Blondie went to work on their seventh album of new material.
"We didn't want a hybrid of the old stuff," explains Stein. "The old records were very dense musically. Now there's a trend towards minimalist sound. That's the main thing."
"We didn't set out to imitate or parody ourselves," adds Burke.
And "No Exit" is both ageless and diverse. It's driven by Harry's sardonically smooth voice, which has matured and ripened like a good cabernet.
The revived Blondie dips into an amalgam of styles, rendering the album almost impossible to categorize. The band dabbles in new wave on the languid "Double Take," rap on "No Exit," stripped-down pop on "Maria," effervescent ska on "Nothing is Real but the Girl," jazzy lounge music on "Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room" and trippy pop on "Happy Dog."
"I would call this urban folk music," says Stein.
"It feels like a continuation of the Blondie sound. It's very eclectic," adds Burke. "Our influences are not all musical. We're influenced by art, culture, camp values and irony. That's what puts us away from the rest of the pack."
The members of Blondie are unabashedly thrilled about their band's rebirth. They've already played Letterman and Leno, and had VH1 film their first New York concert appearance for a special that aired on Sunday, February 28. A national tour is in the works for this spring. And that's just rapturous for a band that has always seen itself as transcending trends.
"We're a pop art band. Not a pop band," says Stein.
Fresh Cuts: Mini-review of Blondie's 'No Exit'
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