Blondie Paperback – 1 May 1980
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, 96 pages with numerous photographs in black & white and colour
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Lester Bangs was in fact an acute example of rock critic as rock star wannabe. With his rock critic duties he was also the lead singer of his own band, Birdland, playing the same circuit of NYC clubs that Blondie had graduated from. He knew Debbie Harry and Chris Stein by being part of the scene. They were even present when his band made its debut at CBGB. It was for this reason that they commissioned him to do what was intended to be an authorized biography of the band. Of course Blondie being Blondie, this seemingly innocuous choice misfired, and the authorized band biography became an attack on the band itself. In the end the band was no worse for wear. Bangs, upon analysis, was not so lucky.
Legend has it that Bangs wrote this book in a weekend. In fact, the book has an incoherent, sometimes ranting tone that makes this seem all too likely. To say the book is incoherent barely does this production justice. It is schizophrenic, changing in tone with great abruptness. In keeping with the purported rushed nature of the book, Bangs writes in a manner that is almost a form of stream-of-consciousness; rather than a direct narrative Bangs digresses into topics that interest him or that he feels are significant.
The book starts with a "chronologue", a brief introduction that appears to have been written after the rest of the book. In this brief introduction Bangs repeatedly states that he was jealous of Blondie's success. Having repeated this, he then states that at some point he was no longer jealous, and helpfully notes that his own band had broken up. This is in fact an argumentative tactic called "removing the sting," where someone, recognizing a vulnerability, mentions it right off the bat in an effort to deflect it. It is easy to see that someone read the manuscript, told Bangs how embittered he sounded, which prompted Bangs to discuss his jealousy at the onset to induce readers to disregard the point. But ultimately it stands instead as an admission.
From there, Bangs presents a superficial history of the band that draws primarily from magazine interviews. That Bangs, having gravitated to the NYC scene could potentially provide insight into the band's early history and the scene itself was the primary reason I purchased the book, so I found the lightness of his discussion of the band's history as it rose from the NYC rock circuit to be disappointing. Bangs does interview a few former members, airing some sour grapes, which is keeping with the somewhat snide to negative tone of the book in general. He also makes a factual error, claiming that the band was called Angel and the Snake for a year when this name lasted two gigs. I found that some of the early magazine articles I have read were more informative, although he did interview those involved in the production of the demos and first two albums, and their insights are useful. Bangs later complained of lack of participation by the band members, so maybe there were mitigating circumstances.
Musically, Bangs was a fan of the 1975 demos and the first Blondie album, which, it is noteworthy, he praises for being fun and inventive with its references to pop culture, comic books, prime time television, etc. He did not like Plastic Letters as much, believing the album to be more disjointed. In interviewing the producer of that album the point was made that there seemed to be an effort to deemphasize Debbie Harry (as much as a lead singer could be) on Plastic Letters, and that the song choice reflected this. As it is true that she had less songwriting involvement on this album than on the other Blondie albums of the time, it is again a useful insight.
Up to this point the book is not great, but it's not so bad either. However when the book reaches the discussion of Parallel Lines, Blondie's great commercial breakthrough, Bangs begins to fly off the rails. At that precise point, Bangs's jealousy seems to overwhelm him, and he seems fixated on the need to explain away the success of this album, looking for an explanation of this success that circumvents the simplest explanation: maybe it was just a very good album. Even with no coy admissions nor any background information about Bangs's personal musical aspirations, the timing of this fulmination is too exact to miss. The band is attacked as being "cold," light weight, as comparing unfavorably to the comic book band, The Archies. Blondie is also called a "non-entity."
Continuing in this vein, Bangs believes that he has found the skeleton key to the album's success in some type of Warholian trick where the lyrics on the album are ultimately about nothing at all. I must say that Bangs's point is not very compelling. Does a song need to be about something to be a good song? Bangs at an earlier point in the book even praised "Louie, Louie" as being more enduring than Sgt. Pepper, and what was that song about exactly?
It is, however, still a potentially interesting point, and one that another rock critic I once read had seemed impressed with by the authority of Bangs's name alone. But a point is not valid simply because a person writes it; it has to be demonstrated. As a bare minimum of this type of exegesis, Bangs, far from getting by on his name, should have been expected to engage in an actual analysis of song lyrics. Yet beyond expressing his opinion Bangs does not analyze song lyrics at all. And not unexpectedly in light of this, the argument itself does not stand much scrutiny. For some reason millions of people seem to know what Heart of Glass is about ("once I had love and it was a gas, soon turned out to be a pain in the ass"), so much so that it was recently used in a high profile ad campaign. One Way or Another is likewise easily understood as a song about stalking and obsession. Fade Away and Radiate simply about falling asleep in front of the television. Just Go Away too is not exactly obscure. Pretty Baby. Sunday Girl. Picture this. All of these songs seem to be about something readily discernible. And were the songs Bangs thought were inventive and fun, X-Offender, In the Sun, In the Flesh, Rip Her To Shreds, Man Overboard, etc., also against all appearances about nothing? Somehow I don't think the appearance of these songs being about something is an illusion. Bangs was of course free to prove otherwise, but beyond declamation he doesn't bother.
This discussion also becomes a matter of embarrassment for Bangs. In his desire to attack Blondie for lyrical meaninglessness, Bangs overlooks the fact that Hanging On the Telephone and Will Anything Happen?, which he cites as examples of the band's supposed Warholian outlook, were written not by Blondie but by Jack Lee of the Nerves, who no one I'm aware of ever accused of being a Warholian acolyte. The failure of Bangs, while engaged in criticism centered on a band's alleged idiosyncratic motivations in song composition, to know the songwriting credits listed on the album is not a testament to his credibility.
Even less so is the fact that having spent several pages attempting to criticize the band for lack of lyrical meaning, Bangs then in self-contradictory terms admits that yes, songs like Dreaming and Union City Blue and Shayla are earnest and meaningful songs. This can only undermine his argument further.
However all of this was really a preliminary to what becomes Bangs's main criticism: that Blondie's music allegedly lacks strong emotion. That music is supposedly all about the expression of passion is something Bangs is so emphatic about that he places this claim in capital letters. It is again a questionable point; does a song have to express strong emotions to be a worthwhile song? And what type of emotion? In performance? In lyrics? Isn't having fun or being ironic just as genuine an emotional expression?
Nor does this assertion seem to fit Blondie songs like In the Flesh or Heart of Glass or One Way or Another or Dreaming, Union City Blue, Shayla, etc.
Yet applicable or not, it is a criticism that is highly suggestive. After all, how many songs by Buddy Holly or the Beatles or Stones or Kinks or Doors or Cream or Bowie or Ramones or Talking Heads, et. al. truly express strong emotions no matter how intensely they are performed? Are there instances in all of Bangs's writings about rock music where he made a similar criticism of another band? Which of course leads to the elephant in the room; that all of these and other examples are male-led bands while the one band Bangs intently applies this criticism to is fronted by a woman.
In considering whether this is mere coincidence, it is interesting to note that early on in the journalistic reports about Blondie, Debbie Harry's attitude towards writing and performing as a woman lead singer was a prominent feature. Debbie talked about her belief that a woman lead singer did not have to "bleed for her audience" like Joplin. Nor did she have to write songs in the traditional pining role of women in songs like Leader of the Pack. Debbie Harry penned songs like Man Overboard or Just Go Away and especially Heart of Glass approach love from the totally opposite, non-traditional point of refusing to be victimized by it, from a point of view that is independent. Love is desired but she can live without it too. She also approached songs with humor and irony. Such an attitude was definitely viewed as a departure from the more traditional role of women as singers and songwriters in rock music.
All of which makes it impossible to overlook the emphaticness in which Bangs tries to press his point about the alleged need for music to express "strong emotions," and his repeated harping on Debbie's alleged coldness and detachment. Her performances were neither, but what Bangs sees as coldness is precisely the quality of emotional independence and self-assuredness that was a direct progression beyond the traditional role of women in rock music. That Bangs sees this as something profoundly disquieting, even if he does not know precisely what he is threatened by, is a remarkable Freudian slip that boomerangs back on itself; what is intended as a criticism is an expression of one of the very things that made Debbie Harry so important, and is at the same time something that speaks volumes about the repressed emotions of the critic. Indeed it is obvious from the text that Bangs wanted Debbie Harry to play the role of singers in bands like the Shangri-La's or the Crystals, bands that Bangs expressly offers as counterpoints to Debbie's supposed lack of passion, and bands where the traditional role of women in rock music was established. The latent meaning is so strong that it erupts to the surface.
Is this reading too much into things? Perhaps. But when a critic, and especially one as seemingly neurotic as Bangs, feels so intensely about a point that he is compelled to write it in blazing capital letters, it is perfectly fair to wonder what exactly is going on inside his head. Somehow I do not see the intensity of feeling behind this expression if the issue of gender had nothing to do with it. It cannot be merely coincidental that Bangs fixates on the very element that makes Debbie Harry seem so modern; that image of a beautiful female singer comfortable with her own sex appeal approaching songs with irony and wit and without the emotional vulnerability that Bangs so unquestioningly associates with traditional "passion".
Come to think of it, maybe the biggest deflection Bangs attempts is not the question of jealousy but something much more deep-seated. Going back to the "chronologue," Bangs does not get two paragraphs into the very beginning of the book without feeling compelled to insist that he did not find Debbie Harry attractive while admitting that early on he had a poster of Debbie Harry on his wall. If photographs of Bangs with Debbie Harry in "Making Tracks" are an indication, it is doubtful that he is being honest. But the more immediate question is why he feels the need to so quickly deny what would otherwise seem a harmless admission. A definite sense is created (especially when coupled with his later comments about Debbie Harry's supposed detachment) that Bangs had a profound discomfort with female sexuality, something Debbie Harry exemplified. He even goes so far as to claim that the majority of men, if given the chance to be with a sex symbol like Debbie Harry, would physically assault her before anything else. It is a fascinating projection of unease and hostility.
This unease is manifest again when he subsequently discusses the role of sexuality in Blondie's success. Bangs is critical of the role of Debbie's sex appeal in Blondie's marketing and success. And yet when anyone thinks of the profound role that sex appeal played in the careers of Elvis and the Beatles and the Doors and Kiss and the NY Dolls and Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart and how many other examples, such criticism is strangely myopic. Again, what is it about the use of sex appeal for Blondie, and for Debbie Harry specifically, that for Bangs sets it apart from the routine use of sex appeal in the marketing and selling of rock music that dates from its very origins? What else could it be for Bangs than Debbie's gender? The double standard Bangs expresses on the issue seems reflective of his general discomfort with the subject.
All in all, as noted, the story of Blondie by Lester Bangs is invariably about Bangs himself. As a book about Blondie it is a poor effort. Yet as a window into how a major rock critic saw the band, and reflected attitudes in the wider culture about Blondie, it is an interesting historical document. It is all too ironic that in reflecting Bangs's own demons, the book inadvertently says something important about Blondie. Beyond that, the work is so inept and the negative attitude so off putting that the book has little else in redeeming value. Reading this book taught me something about Blondie, but that didn't come from anything Bangs consciously presented, but from Bangs as a subject of analysis himself. On the other hand, the photographs are good. It must be said that as a Blondie fan there are worse reasons to buy a book.
That was always the reason I loved the band so much. If Debbie had done the old bump-n-grind, she would have just been a musical Farrah Fawcett and we wouldn't remember her today as anything but a flash in the pan. She remains an icon because of the very duality that scared Lester so much. Luckily, he was a good enough writer that even his ranting is interesting, and as I've said before, the book is fabulously illustrated. Although it's strange to read a book on Blondie that cautions the reader against listening to their records! "If the point of music is to hear passion expressed, what harm are we doing ourselves by listening to this?" Calm down, Lester.
Lots of great photos you've never seen, too.
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