Blondie and X
815 V St. NW
Washington, DC, 20001
“I remember one night at the Masque, saying to myself at the age of 22… I just paused for a moment in the middle of my drinking and thought, ‘This is an amazing thing, you’re really lucky to be here right now.’ I realized in that moment how special it all was.”
-- Exene Cervenka, Jan. 2008
Three decades after the inception of X, one thing is clear: X was not only one of the most influential bands to crash out of the punk movement of the late ‘70s, but the band’s music continues to be sonically groundbreaking today. Songs written during the group’s inception are as relevant and inventive in 2008 as they were in 1977.
The fact is, no one sounds like X and no one ever will.
It’s not surprising when you consider the group’s unique beginnings, which can only be attributed to fate. On the same day with nearly the exact same wording, two want-ads appear in a local music rag. One was sent in by a guitarist named Billy Zoom, the other by bassist who called himself John Doe. Zoom, a rockabilly rebel who’d performed with Gene Vincent, had read a negative review of a band called the Ramones. It said they only played three chords and they played ‘em too fast. So naturally, he went to see them. The show was at the Golden West Ballroom in the L.A. suburb of Norwalk in early ’77, and as soon as the Ramones started to perform, Zoom realized that, musically, he’d found exactly what he wanted to do with his life. Doe, who was originally from the Baltimore area, was already down with the East Coast CBGB’s scene and by the time the two got in the same room together after responding to each other’s ads, it seemed it was meant to be. They performed a few shows with various drummers before a poet with no ambition of being a singer would enter the picture.
Doe found her in Venice Beach, at a poetry reading. He liked her poems so much he offered to perform them in his band. The poet, Exene Cervenka, had just moved to town from Florida and she told him, no offense, but if anyone was gonna perform her poems, it would be her, and she soon ended up in the band. Zoom was skeptical about someone’s girlfriend being in the band. After they did their first show with Exene, he didn’t know exactly what it was she had, but he knew it was magic.
After a succession of drummers, Doe was at the underground punk club the Masque in Hollywood one night, checking out a band called the Eyes, which featured a pre-Go-Go’s bass player named Charlotte Caffey. He called Zoom immediately and said he’d found their drummer. Doe told him he played with a parade snare and hit it hard as a hammer. Zoom told him to promise him anything. His name was D.J. Bonebrake and he quickly signed on. The band was now complete, and X would soon emerge from the young punk scene as one of its most successful offspring. The band’s early albums, Los Angeles (1980), produced by Ray Manzarek of the Doors, Wild Gift (1981), and Under the Big Black Sun (1982) explored dark love and an even darker L.A. with the unflinching eye of a Raymond Chandler novel. Doe and Cervenka would marry and later divorce, but they’d always remain soulmates. As they released each ensuing album, More Fun in the New World (1983) and Ain’t Love Grand (1985), the band continued to grow sonically and politically, fearlessly mixing genres without ever losing its center. As each member went on to explore diverse careers—careers that included acting, art, writing, producing and multiple side projects—X never really broke up, and by the early ‘90s, the band recorded together again and began playing a series of shows, much to the delight of its hardcore fans.
This spring, X is taking its show back on the road for the upcoming “13x31” tour, and we asked each member to weigh in on the band’s past and present and to explain just how exactly they’ve managed to keep the fire inside.
The cover of Blondie’s Panic Of Girls, the band’s ninth studio album, features the surreal hand-painted imagery of Dutch cult artist Chris Berens, whom guitarist Chris Stein sought out and commissioned to create the work. Its depiction of a kind of warped wonderland metaphorically suits Blondie at this juncture in its remarkable, 37 year-old career. The New York City-based sextet indeed occupies a world all its own, beguiling and just a little twisted, and its sound is more recognizable than ever, burnished by the decades to achieve a timeless pop sheen. On Panic Of Girls, Blondie glances backward but resolutely moves forward, remaining keenly observant of street-level pop culture and continuing to find inspiration in the roiling musical melting pot of New York City. The core trio of vocalist Deborah Harry, guitarist Stein and drummer Clem Burke have embraced younger band-mates, collaborated with up-and-coming producers, and discovered new songwriting partners while never merely chasing trends.
“We’re part of the future as well as the past,” declares Harry. “Making new music is really, really important for me and for the rest of the band. When we first got back together in 1997, one of the stipulations I had was that it not be just a review of Blondie’s greatest hits. I really felt convinced of and dedicated to the idea that we had to move ahead and do new music. I’m really happy that this CD is coming out and represents the Blondie tradition, yet it also has a statement that is part of today.”
Panic Of Girls opens brashly with Burke’s signature drum roll before the band launches into the breathlessly paced “D-Day.” The band maintains this high-energy approach, counterbalancing a break-up tale with bright power pop, on “What I Heard,” penned for the band by new keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen and Laurel Katz-Bohen. There’s a darkness around the edges of some of the new songs, but their tone is just as often heartfelt and humorous – and even the toughest number provides plenty of sonic fun. With the anthemic electro-pop of “Mother,” Harry salutes the fabled West 14th Street nightclub of the same name that, in the late nineties, attracted the most outrageous downtown luminaries and self-made superstars to what was then an evocatively seedy strip of Manhattan.
Blondie has come a long way from CBGB’s and the Bowery, having sold more than 40 million albums globally and repeatedly reaching the top of the charts over the course of four decades with such hits as “One Way Or Another,” “Heart Of Glass,” “Rapture” and “Maria.” In 2006, Blondie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame; at the Cleveland museum, Burke notes, the band’s plaque is situated right below the Beatles. It’s been eight years since the band’s last studio effort, The Curse Of Blondie. Since then, Blondie has continued to be a powerhouse live act, attracting audiences literally around the world, becoming the most successful band to reunite from the class of ’77.
For a time, songwriting took a backseat to touring, with Stein devoting whatever moments he had off to raise a new family and Harry concentrating on solo work. But now, says Harry, “Chris has gotten really prolific; he practically writes a song every day. It’s kind of amazing. And I’m really enjoying writing now more than ever. I think – I hope – I’m getting better.” Asserts Stein, “She’s at the top of her game.”
Along with co-writing much of Blondie’s catalog, Harry and Stein have been historically adept at spotting just the right songs to cover, and they have always offered the more industrious fan the chance to embark upon some crate-digging, musical detective work. Here they are especially inspired with their choices: a rendition of the playfully scolding 1985 U.K. reggae hit, “Girlie Girlie,” first popularized by Jamaican singer Sophia George, and a lilting, reggae-tempo reworking of Brooklyn-based septet Beirut’s wistful “Sunday Smile,” which in its original form had an Eastern European feel. “Wipe Off My Sweat,” co-written with Cuban artist Paradise N. Efecto, mines a Latin groove – and features a guest turn on trumpet by Beirut bandleader Zach Condon -- while “Le Bleu,” sung entirely in French, pays homage to Brel and Gainsbourg. Stein co-wrote it with his old friend, the French musician Gilles Roberilles, whose disco-inflected, late-seventies group, Casino Music, was produced by Stein for the now legendary Ze Records label.
Regarding the wide range of ideas and influences that distinguish Panic Of Girls – and, for that matter, all the work Blondie has produced since its inception in 1974 -- Harry explains, “Because Blondie has always been an urban band, we’ve always been surrounded with all these ethnicities and different kinds of music, so it all comes pretty naturally. I can’t explain why Chris and I have always been really comfortable with that, but maybe it’s just a spirit of adventure. That’s one of the reasons Chris and I were originally drawn together.”
Elaborates Stein, who’s always had the most outré taste in the group (as evidenced by his choice of album cover artist), ”We’ve always been keyed into what the other was thinking –maybe it’s some past life experience or something. Stuff goes between us that can very easily remain unsaid. We don’t have to talk a lot, we know what the other is thinking, and that’s always been going on.”
As for Burke, who met Harry and Stein at CBGB’s after they’d admired his shoes, “Chris is really the guy who thinks outside the box in the context of Blondie. And, to his credit, that’s how he came up with something like ‘Rapture.’ I’m a fan of rock and roll and that’s never going to go away for me. I’m the glue in the middle of Chris and Debbie’s aesthetic, where I’m a bit more interested in rock and roll as a musical expression. We create a balance among the three of us and create the Blondie sound.”
Panic Of Girls was mostly recorded at a Woodstock, New York studio and produced by Jeff Saltzman, best known for his work with the Killers. They also tapped young KatoKhandwala, who co-wrote the propulsive “Mother,” to produce two tracks; he comes from a more hard-edged emo/metal background – having worked with such acts as Paramore, Breaking Benjamin and Papa Roach – but fit seamlessly into the Blondie mix. The production team of Super Buddha, the duo behind Harry’s 2007’s Necessary Evil, cut “D-Day.” Says Stein, “Making a record is an interesting process. It’s always a little different. Jeff was great. He’s totally crazy. And Kato was also a lot of fun. Jeff was a little looser to work with but I liked Kato’s precision.”
Blondie plans to hit the road again in support of Panic Of Girls, accompanied by bassist Leigh Fox, whose been with the group since it reunited in ’97; new guitarist Tommy Kessler; and keyboardist Katz-Bohen, who joined in ‘08.
Looking back at the band’s trajectory since Blondie reformed after a 15-year hiatus and released its chart-topping comeback CD No Exit, Burke concludes, “No Exit, the title, was a play on words, besides being the name of a Sartre play. It’s about the fact that Blondie never really went away, that it would always be a part of us. We’re all really excited about the new record, the fact that we’ve created new music to continue the Blondie story.”
-- Michael Hill