Saturday, July 14, 2007

Blondie Live

It was 30 years ago that Blondie first made waves in punk-era Britain with their self-titled debut album.

Once the overlooked runts of the downtown New York scene, these New Wave icons scored their first big success by hooking up with a British label and producer, becoming platinum-selling pop deities here before conquering their homeland. To judge by their rapturous reception in London, that special transatlantic bond remains as strong as ever.

Not many bands of Blondie’s vintage can still fill venues as large as the Hammersmith Apollo, especially after a messy split and long hiatus for most of the 1980s and 1990s. But these reformed New Yorkers are now eight years and two albums into their second act, their comeback cemented by belated elevation to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.

Even in her sixties, Debbie Harry remains a striking beauty. Sporting a short muddy-blonde crop, this former Bunny Girl and international sex symbol still cuts a shapely and statuesque figure on stage, even if her bizarre dance moves have a whiff of Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous about them.

Several times she clutched at her hair as if it were on fire. She also appeared to mime batting away a persistent wasp, clawing holes in wet cement and stuffing an outsized quilt into a narrow cupboard.

The largest chunk of the set derived from Blondie’s 1979 bestseller Parallel Lines, which spawned half a dozen hit singles. Sunday Girl and Picture This still had the sweetly chiming, bittersweet tang of thwarted teenage romance about them. But Hanging on the Telephone lacked the sulky urgency that once gave it vitality, and the climactic encore version of the former chart-topper Heart of Glass felt graceless and clunky compared with its sleek, timeless studio blueprint. At least the non-single track from the album, Will Anything Happen, packed a little more musical grit and lyrical bite.

Of course, Harry remains the band’s focal point and raison d’etre. Her voice is still strong and distinctive, equal parts aloof sneer and kittenish purr. Without her, Blondie would long ago have been forgotten as catchy but lightweight powerpop plodders.

Indeed, when she was not singing, many of their tunes sounded thin and flat. Chris Stein, the guitarist and Harry’s former boyfriend and chief songwriting partner, also peppered the set with too many dreary blues-rock jams. We expect this kind of blustery self-indulgence from old rockers, but not classic three-minute bubblegum pop icons.

Although they were one of the first groups to incorporate disco and rap into mainstream pop, Blondie displayed surprisingly little rhythmic dexterity in London. Even the reggae lilt of The Tide is High and the choppy funk of Rapture felt rushed and ungainly.

This was rock without the roll, stiff and stodgy where once it was svelte and slinky. While it was heartwarming to see a legend like Harry still on fine form, excitement levels remained low all night. Perhaps inevitably, this was ultimately a New Wave nostalgia night, just a few degrees away from tribute-band cabaret.

*The tour continues: today, Edinburgh Castle; tomorrow, Thetford Forest, Suffolk; Sun 15, Blackpool Opera House; Tue 17, Carlisle Sands Centre; Wed 18, Manchester Apollo; Thu 19, Harrogate International Conference Centre; Sat 21, Lovebox Festival, London E9.



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