PUNK ROCKERS discovered long ago that the pose of violent self-loathing is a quick ticket to media coverage and record sales. Everyone loves to read about mutilation, self-inflicted or otherwise: and if sham turns to reality, so much the better--as in the case of Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, now whiling away the hours at Bellevue. After all, if rocks stars can't enact the fantasies of a lobotomized generation, who can? The problem with punk rock--the genuine, mind-rotting type--is that when it's insincere, everyone can tell; but when it's honest, it ends up like Sid, in an institution.
Fortunately, not all the energy that has flowed into popular music in the past two years has spent itself on spectacles like the Dead Boys' lead singer hanging himself after a show. The welter of bands that rock critics have labeled "new wave" includes musicians as well as media manipulators, geniuses as well as hypocrites.
Those with genuine talents stand out by maintaining unique musical personalities. They don't have much in common with the true three-riff, blast-their-ears-off punks except that they came along at about the same time. But the middle-aged record company executives, deafened by all the high-volume distortion, just signed them all on together--the execs think it's all the same to the kids, anyway.
But those kids stare at artists like Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Nick Lowe and Blondie, and at least they can tell that these groups have as little to do with the Sex Pistols as the Beatles had to do with the Partridge Family. These artists have almost nothing in common among themselves, though, except vitality, inspiration, and devotion to the short rock song.
Blondie has accepted the "new wave" label and used it for its own ends. The alluring lead singer, Deborah Harry, has been accompanied by a different number of male musicians on each of the three albums the group has put together in the last 18 months. From the very beginning Blondie didn't sound at all like a punk band. Those rhythm guitar chords stolen from the New York Dolls and half-spoken Lou Reed vocals weren't where they should have been. Instead Blondie propelled its music with a style from late-'50s and early-'60s rock and roll, most noticeably with a cheap, thin organ sound which will remind those with long memories of Question Mark and the Mysterions' "96 Tears."
Blondie's biggest asset, though, is Harry herself. On the first album, her voice sounds like it is always just about to go flat. You'd expect to be annoyed at such amateurism; Harry turns it into a winning quality--she sounds cute.
Harry's obvious talent has carried Blondie through a musical identity crisis. The tension between the elements of '50s pop and '70s experimentalism which the group tried to fuse made its second album, Plastic Letters, an unsatisfying anomaly. Harry's too-coy but lovable cover of the oldie "Denise" just didn't sound right next to the empty, brutal "Detroit 442" or "Cautious Lip."
Parallel Lines, Blondie's latest, exhibits a new security and ease the group has developed in the last six months. Every song on it shows that Harry and her musicians aren't confused anymore. They drop any connection they had with the stream of deranged, safety-pin punk; and the band no longer seems self-conscious about borrowing from the '50s. One song on the album, "11:59," is perfect: a wonderful mix of lyrics that sound like they have meaning and a hard-driving pop tune that doesn't wear out after three hearings.
In fact the entire album stands up to repeated listening much better than most popular music, probably because six or seven different people wrote the songs. Harry tries out a variety of vocal styles; they're not all successful, but they are exciting, and you never know how she'll sound next.
THE MOST UNUSUAL cut on Parallel Lines is Blondie's experimental fling into the progressive electronic music of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, an expansive song called "Fade Away and Radiate." After an eerie flourish on the synthesizer, Harry coos some surrealistic lyrics; with no instruments backing her--only the thud of a bass drum--she toys with the tune, which seems to be in no key at all. Within a minute, though, the band is behind her; and Fripp (formerly of King Crimson) nearly steals the song with a wild, electronically treated guest guitar solo.
Nothing should prevent a group that can produce brilliant music like this from making it. If anything does stop Blondie, it will be rotten lyrics. "Just Go Away" sets some great music to the following words:
Ya got a big mouth and I'm happy to see
Your foot is firmly entrenched where a molar should be
If you talk much louder you could get an award
From the federal communications board.
Even a cute blonde like Debby Harry can't get away with that. Aside from a few embarrassing verses like these, Parallel Lines is excellent--each of its 12 songs is backboned but not offensive, catchy but not insipid.
Don't let the "new wave" label fool you into expecting leather-jacket nihilism. You won't find members of this band stabbing their girlfriends and slitting their wrists with crushed light bulbs. Anyone who listens to Blondie will see that the group is closer to the Ronettes than to the Ramones. In fact, if Eno had produced the Ronettes, the result would probably have sounded like Parallel Lines.