Tuesday, 15 March 2016

....and it was a gas

New York of the 1970s was one of those scenes; a thriving, vital hotbed of freaks, dropouts and weirdos getting artistic whilst the Big Apple rotted around them. It started roughly with the kinky subversion of Warhol and the Velvet Underground and would end up manifesting itself in a myriad of forms; Patti Smith’s punk poetry, the geek funk of Talking Heads, the rampant sleaze of the New York Dolls and the heads down ramalama racket of The Ramones. Even the musical forms which ended up being culturally dominant (disco and hip hop) began as the songs of the marginal. Blondie’s Parallel Lines is a document of that scene; a record of how it grew, evolved, splintered and eventually how it was refracted in one of the finest and most stylish pop albums of all time.

Very little of the book focuses on the album itself; perhaps only in terms of what Mike Chapman brought to producing the album and how remarkably the album was broken by the fourth single; a song buried halfway through side two. In modern times it’s insane to think that a song which still sounds like it should be an instant pop smash was almost sneaked out apologetically. It’s a wise move on McLeod’s part; he’s correctly divined that whilst Parallel Lines is a magnificent pop album what really makes it interesting is how it messes with what pop should be; you can enjoy Harry’s femme fatale persona as performance act or simply as an iconic pop star; you can enjoy the ridiculously infectious songs or enjoy the subversively provocative lyrics; you can enjoy the album or marvel at the sources it’s drawing on. It’s a melting pot of New York influences; punk, power pop, disco and they’d even stir in hip hop later on. In many ways they were as magpie as Bowie but playing with a 50s trash aesthetic rather than sci-fi and mysticism (they’re minor strands in Blondie’s music). Further parallels with Bowie come in Harry’s awareness of the power of image; the band’s at its strongest when Harry has control of the visual imagery. Harry and Bowie share an instinctive understanding of the importance of image and presentation in pop; something they were ahead of the game in as they broke through in the pre-MTV era. What’s really treasurable is how the book reminds us that it’s an underdog story; how no-one thought Blondie would make it let alone be the most commercially successful band of the scene.

The whole thing’s laced with the interviews from important people in the story; the band members themselves and those around the scene at the time. It doesn’t shy away from less glamorous aspects of the band’s story (the money troubles, the state of the area they lived in, the sex and drugs, Chris Stein’s illness) but it’s all covered compassionately and with proper context.  And that’s the triumph of the book; to put the band and album in context of the scene it came from; in its importance in the band’s history and the little tricks they were pulling beneath Chapman’s immaculate pop sheen. A sharp enjoyable tribute which fills in the details lost in the dazzle when the spotlight hit the glitterball.

(STANDARD DISCLAIMER – The copy I read was an advance eBook provided gratis by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review).

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