If the Bowery apartment became Blondie’s unofficial headquarters during the mid-Seventies, CBGB’s was their de facto clubhouse: a situation they shared with many other bands. “It was a very insular and almost homely scene,” says Lenny Kaye. “I always liken it to going down to your local. It’s like the Queen Vic in EastEnders. Everybody’s there and sometimes they’re on stage and sometimes they’re hanging out outside of the club.”
“CB was right next to the Palace hotel,” remembers Christopher Sorrentino. “If you were in CBs watching a band and the band came offstage and the next band sucked you would leave – because you had your hand stamped so there was no barring you from leaving –and stand in the vestibule of the Palace hotel which was this little area recessed from the street, so you could get out of the wind if it was cold. Then just a flight of stairs going straight up. While you were standing there a lot of the guys who lived in the Palace hotel – which was a hardly a hotel, it was just a flop – these guys would stand and talk to you.”
“I saw Blondie at CBGB quite a lot,” says Jim Jarmusch, who was then enrolled on the graduate film programme at the city’s Tisch School of the Arts. “Debbie Harry was just an amazing creature. She was just so striking and energetic. If Patti Smith was the moon, Debbie Harry was the sun. There was this feminine radiance going on. Debbie was incredible and Chris Stein was an amazing musician. They were a different thing.”
“It was pretty grim,” laughs Stein. “There had been a fire in the back at some point so the ceiling was all scorched.”
Richard Lloyd, then guitarist with Television, remembers watching Harry’s transition from the Stilettoes to Blondie. “The Stilettoes played CBGB’s before us. The next time I heard of them, we were already playing CBGB’s and Blondie was an opening act. Debbie and Chris were really gregarious and generous people. Chris was a little more restrained and wary but Debbie was quite social and engaging; a very down to earth woman, still is. But I’m afraid Blondie weren’t very good! Chris played with his fingers, he was petty sloppy. He was a bit taken with himself. Clem is a solid drummer. When they got him, things changed.”
Craig Leon – then working in A&R at Sire Records – remembers, “A lot of people weren’t interested in Blondie in the beginning of their career. They were pretty shambolic. A lot of their tremendous energy went unnoticed. I really liked them. I just couldn’t get Sire to sign them because they were rough round the edges.”
“How would I describe those early Blondie gigs?” wonders Harry. “I don’t think I would! Well, we were having fun and we were working things out.”
In June, 1975 the band travelled to Queens with Alan Betrock, a local journalist and early champion of the band. Burke remembers they recorded five songs in Betrock’s mother’s basement, including an early version of “Heart Of Glass” and a song called “Platinum Blonde”, which Harry cites as the moment Blondie “coalesced in my head. It was a straight, simple three-chord progression about wanting to be a platinum blonde; yet it was very rocking. It wasn’t a polite female approach.”
The summer provided additional turning points for the band. They recruited Jimmy Destri on keyboards; a crucial element in expanding their sound. Meanwhile, on August 2nd and 3rd, CBGB’s held a ‘summer festival’ that garnered attention in the local press (Stein speaks fondly of “Soho News, which was really terrific, an alternative to The Voice, a little more underground”). The band also re-entered Craig Leon’s orbit. By now, Leon had left Sire with his former boss, Richard Gottehrer, to form a production company, Instant Records, along with former New York Dolls manager, Marty Thau. Gottehrer and Leon were approached by Blondie outside CBGB’s. “We were recording the Live At CBGB’s album, and Blondie came up to the recording truck and asked if we’d produce a record on them,” remembers Leon. “Marty thought they were going to be the greatest thing on earth. In any case, Richie heard their set and said, ‘We should do a single.’ He had a thing that he wanted to do a single on every band in New York, even at Sire.”
The band showcased material they’d been working on at the Bowery. “We would set up in the loft and go through songs the way that isn’t really done anymore,” says Burke. “Contributing arrangement ideas. Chris and Debbie had ‘Little Girl Lies’, Jimmy Destri had ‘Shark In Jets Clothing’, which is kind of West Side Story. Gary was contributing a lot of ideas.”
Gottehrer and Leon took them to Bell Sound – “a great old classic studio in Midtown,” says Leon, “the Shangri-Las recorded a lot there and the Four Seasons” – to rehearse.
“Blondie worked in a totally unique way – one that might seem modern now, but was usual back in the early Seventies,” continues Leon. “We used more studio technique. There were overdubs, there were parts that were worked out that intertwined with each other, there was more arrangement. They were the first sampling band. Instead of grabbing a riff and copying it, they’d mutate it into something that they wanted as part of their own. Being part of the New York scene, they were very used to this cut up method, how Bill Burroughs used to write, and they treated music the same way, especially Chris. Jimmy didn’t, Jimmy wrote pop songs. Clem just ploughed through the songs with brilliant riffs.”
Burke remembers recording sessions at Plaza Sound at the top of Radio City Musical Hall. “It was a massive sound stage studio,” he says. “The Ramones recorded their first two albums there and we recorded our first two albums there. We used to go up and down the elevator with the Rockettes. We were living on the Bowery and then all of the sudden we got the run of Radio City Music Hall.
“Gotterher focussed in on a few songs,” continues Burke. “He did it Brill Building style, where there are two or three songs that are made to stand out. Those other songs are great, but the don’t have the production values that ‘X Offender’ and ‘In the Flesh’ have. ‘In The Flesh’ was like a 6/8 blues, what I would call a doo-wop song, ‘50s influence. Richard embellished that with a lot of things that became Blondie trademarks. He had Ellie Greenwich sing back up on it. ‘X Offender’, is based on a true story of someone who was involved in underage sex. The boy was 18 and the girl was 17. The title was deemed too risqué at the time which is why it was changed to ‘X Offender’.”
“The album, Blondie, was very real to me,” admits Harry. “We don’t do a lot of those songs any more. But I think it really captures some of the essence of the period; certainly what we were walking towards.”
“There were a lot of influences coming together on Blondie,” adds Burke. “I still think we are like a bubble-gum band, like the 1910 Fruitgum Company or Showaddywaddy. There were a lot of uncool elements that we put into Blondie and it kind of made it our own. All of a sudden, it became cool for some reason.”