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The Rock Pit - Hard rock, Metal and Blues Interviews, news & reviews from Australia and around the world
BOOK REVIEW BLONDIE PARALLEL LIVES

BLONDIE

 

PARALLEL LIVES

 

DICK PORTER AND CHRIS NEEDS

 

THE BEST BLONDIE BIO YET?

 

 

Blondie was the first band I discovered on my own as a kid. I remember like it was yesterday the first time I ever heard them. It was just after ‘Plastic Letters’ had been released and saving up four weeks pocket money to buy that album along with the New York Dolls first and Alice Cooper’s ‘Love It To Death’: three albums that burnt their mark indelibly in my consciousness and shaped my love of music at an early age (Oddly enough in the last few years I've been able to talk to both Sylvain Sylian from the Dolls and Alice himself but never anyone from Blondie, though I had a near miss with Clem!). All three of those albums of course stand up remarkably well to this day.

 

 

The first time I saw Blondie was on The Old Grey Whistle Test a year and a half later in 1978 and I remember wondering where Gary Valentine was who had written my favourite song ‘(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear’ as when the picture came in Clem hit those drums and it was Nigel Harrison who stood there with the bass in hand. In those days of course it was only the music press of the day where you could get your information from. You had to make a concerted effort to learn about bands and while my Dad championed the rather dreary New Yorkers ‘Television’ to me then there was only Blondie and the legacy of The Dolls.

 

 

Over the years of course Debbie graced my walls and while looking back I loved Parallel Lines to me it was ‘Plastic Letter’ the first album and ‘Eat to the Beat’ that stood head and shoulders above the rest. By Autoamerican I was beginning to sense the end and ‘The Hunter’ did nothing for me.

 

 

It’s was years of reading bad and downright wrong biographies before Cathay Che managed to capture anything of worth with ‘Deborah Harry Platinum Blonde’ in 2005 but it of course only told half the story. Before that ‘Making Tracks: The Rise of Blondie’ had done a great job visually in 1982 but was too close to the break-up of the band for any real perspective. Other books on the band pretty much sucked to varying degrees.

 

 

‘Parallel Lives’ promised so much more and does deliver to some extent but it does have a couple of major flaws, but hey it’s the best we have so far.

 

 

To me Blondie was always about more than the Harry/Stein partnership, now back in my pre-teen days the walls were of course full of pictures of Debbie because that was all there was available, posters were of her and the book chronicles that struggle well – having such a marketable asset front and centre (for right or wrong) was the stance that the label and management took. It obviously led to discontent amongst the ranks and its interesting to read the input from Destri (who wrote some of my favourite songs like ‘Presence’; ’11.59’ (Still my favourite song on Parallel Lines along with ‘Picture this’ that he co-wrote with Harry and Stein and later ‘Accidents Never Happen’ and ‘Living in the Real World’ from ‘Eat to the Beat’ and the sublime ‘Angels on the Balcony’ the best song on Autoamerican) Burke and Nigel Harrison.

 

 

Where the book fills the void is in the diligent reconstruction of the band’s early days in the Bowery, the rise, the relationships and the struggle. It’s an eye-opening account of a band that few saw a future in but one that managed to capture completely the British public. Of course the struggle had its consequences as the drugs kicked in and while you can imagine that even after these years those details may be hard to recount (or maybe even remember?) the book probably understandably tends to focus on the ‘artistic struggle’ of Harry and Stein. And while it makes plain that chemically-charged, deep and at times indefinable nature of that crucial relationship it glosses over to a degree the bands internal turmoil especially post-Parallel Lines.

 

 

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Stein’s insistence that he is first and foremost an artist and his desire to explore and expose some of his more esoteric influences seems genuine enough, but I found myself not entirely convinced by Harry’s input on the subject on all occasions. Now whether that is down to wanton illusiveness or real conviction is hard to call.

 

 

Certainly the end for Blondie in their first period seems to have been set in motion by the aftermath of their most successful album ‘Parallel Lines’. It certainly fueled resentment on both the Stein/Harry axis and the other side of the band. Harry and Stein’s dabblings with Harry’s acting (my God something that would be seen as so necessary these days) compounded those divisions and added to the distractions that fueled the other member’s resentment. It’s the age old curse of popularity opening doors and presenting too many opportunities (and certainly management struggles can’t have helped) but from a distance you feel that the core that created all of this was the band and what they created together.

 

 

At this point the band oddly appears to take second place to almost everything else thrust in Harry and Stein’s path and to underline this, at points in the book, Stein bemoans the desertion of the more ‘hardline’ elements of the fan base to the notion of ‘selling out’ the commerciality of ‘Parallel Lines’ achieved. It misses the point to an extent when you consider that most people love music because of the emotional connection to the sound and the emotion it extracts and not necessarily the performers and their own personal artistic journey. Pleasing everyone is never an option.

 

 

Mike Chapman’s involvement with the band is one of the book’s most interesting sub-plots and his contributions offer a remarkable subjectivity considering. Reading about what he had to work with for what I still consider Blondie’s best work ‘Eat to the Beat’ is one of my favorite passages. Distracted by management issues that came to a fore (as you might expect considering Parallel Lines sales)  and commercial expectations he appears to have borne the brunt of the pressure while the band were in varying stages of disarray for various reasons. The fact that Chris at this point seems so distracted by other pursuits adds to the complexity of the situation though you can’t help but feel some of that might be down to the pressure to deliver. It’s human nature after all to (even subconsciously) set up an excuse to under-deliver. Drugs at this point also appear to be an issue on all sides. Here the band, according to Chapman dissolves into three camps: ‘Harry/Stein’; ‘Burke/Destri’ and the unbackable ‘Infante/Harrison’. As he says ‘This was beginning to get really unhealthy’.

 

 

With less than 80 pages given to the period immediately after the band’s 1981 dissolution, and the years leading to their second period and its three second-phase albums you can’t help but feel there is a huge story left untold; especially as the content that follows is a largely perfunctionary chronicle of events. Chris and Debbie’s relationship split  for example barely warrants a page – an event you feel sets up the expectation of the entire book, titled as it is ‘Parallel Lives’.  Some things remain private and in today’s world it is perhaps gratifying that they should be so.

 

 

To me where this book excels is the recounting of the early years and Kris Needs’ input is obviously invaluable in some respects. In others it is the most annoying aspect of the book: with more mentions of his ‘legendary’ magazine ‘Zigzag’ than are warranted and to be blunt some of the verbatim articles produced, while at times adding a certain depth of insight could easily have been more telling had they been paraphrased or summarised. I can of course imagine that someone who feels such a connection, especially with Chris and Debbie, feels the need to perhaps overstress a little their importance in the scheme of things (we all appreciate human nature).

 

 

Where Needs’ contribution grates is in his seeming desire for overstatement in the story but not in a way that adds in any way to the book. At one point the book recounts a drunken clinch with Harry ‘…Needs joining in enthusiastically and getting caught in a drunken clinch with Debbie by his missus – who he wouldn’t be married to much longer.’ before adding that ‘… it has to be stressed that, I always had the utmost respect for Chris and their relationship’.  Judge for yourself really. Jeez I mean I might even be the person that Debbie refers to on page 282 when she recounts fans coming up to her after the reformation… “Now all those kids are adults and they come up to me with tears in their eyes and say things like “Oh when I was eight years old.” It’s funny and I laugh it off, but we’ve all been there. I find it very, very flattering.”  Now what I actually said the one time I met her was “I’ve loved you since I was eight years old” before my mouth froze up and I could say no more and she shook my hand and disappeared into the night, just before the sheer embarrasment of it all gripped me! On second thoughts maybe I understand! (Please look up irony)...

 

 

You do end up feeling though, at the end of it all, that if Blondie had been a construct of the modern day that we may not have had half the drama that this book details but we may well have had just as much, if not more, fun. I find it kind of sad that I’m saying this but when the second act after the reformation hinges on a number of songs by outside (or new) writers that manage to capture so well all that was joyous and essential about the Blondie sound, even though you stop to wonder what an alternate Universe might have thrown up in the early eighties, you can’t help but feel that Blondie’s steadfast refusal to ‘toe the line’ adds more to the legacy than a band that were dictated to.

 

 

Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed this book and until something better comes along if it ever does this is a book full of nostalgia and great memories for anyone that ever loved the band and like me is was reduced to tears the first time they saw the band second time around and was reduced to tears at the opening notes of ‘Dreaming’.

 

 

 

By Mark Diggins