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A Magazine for Sheffield

New Wave & Blondie's punk-in-opposition

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Along with cat ownership, sourdough bread and mid-twentieth century interior design, one of my favourite things about being an insufferable ponce is my record player, and the associated ritual of rooting through record fairs with my husband to find forgotten gems from our parents' collections.

We play them on Sunday mornings, escaping into stylus crackle-flecked, vignette-bordered memories of childhood. I recommend it. Listening to Eurythmics as God and Annie intended can almost have you believe that growing up in a depressed Midlands town during the Thatcher years wasn't all that bad.

I was delighted to rediscover my early teenage obsession with Blondie in this way. My old copy of Parallel Lines came from my stepdad's record collection in the cupboard under the stairs and was unplayable. But their masterpiece 1978 album happily abounds at record fairs, along with the other early Chrysalis numbers, 1977's Plastic Letters and 1979's Eat to the Beat. For most, this trio represents the high watermark of Blondie, the epitome of the new wave sound that grew out of the New York punk scene as the decade ground on.

But when it comes to it, it's hard to separate punk and new wave as separate genres, as the boys' club of rock historians would have us do. The idea that punk was a homogeneous phenomenon is laughably false. It was and still is used as a way of marginalising female and queer voices that were as much a part of the kickback against the bloated excesses of prog rock as angry young men with guitars.

Blondie, their self-titled debut, is a piece of subversive joy. All eleven tracks do what punk is meant to do: dispense with over-production, go back to the basics of rock 'n' roll forms and then twist them with brash, youthful derision. But there's something even more clever about Debbie Harry's perspective-shifting, twangy vocals that is reflected in the genesis of the songs themselves. 'X Offender', the lead track, offers a sly twist on a Motown girl group's unrequited love ballad. But it attains even more punk kudos when you find out that Harry reworked it from a juvenile, on-the-nose number about a boy having sex with his underage girlfriend, written by bandmate Gary Valentine, into a song about female desire as a subversion of male-dominated power.

Blondie were often dismissed as 'mere' pop music

But it's not just about the well-worn critical furrows of 'X Offender' and 'Rip Her To Shreds', a song that apparently passes the punk muster, albeit begrudgingly. Throughout, in songwriting and delivery, Harry turns pop tropes into smirking, transgressively sexual kicks. The protagonist of 'Look Good In Blue' shamelessly moves in on her heartbroken friend ("I could give you some head / And shoulders to lie on"), while 'Little Girl Lies', with its winking guitar lick and bubblegum chorus, plays games with sexual and gendered morality. Gender norms are played with again on 'Kung Fu Girls' and 'Rifle Range', the latter another charged blend of violence and, through Harry's vocals, female (homo)sexuality.

Blondie were often dismissed as 'mere' pop music. Reviews from the time always contained overt or implied condescension and misogyny, something The Ramones never had to deal with. Their 1977 hit, 'Sheena Is A Punk Rocker', a song with zero musical or lyrical complexity, is regularly hailed as a classic of the genre. But as ever, genre is a double-edged sword, used to divide both positively and negatively. The same is true with punk and new wave. But with Blondie, it feels like it's mostly used to conveniently exclude a talented female voice from an aggressively-policed male club.

Simon Satchwell Giles

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