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Blondie are back

By Gary Susman

MARCH 1, 1999:  Everything you need to know about the Blondie reunion you can learn from watching the current film Still Crazy. It's a satire about a popular, vaguely artsy rock band from the late '70s who broke up acrimoniously and who reunite two decades later to see whether they can still cut it in middle age without succumbing to the old hazards: egos, drugs, and sheer rotten luck. At the story's emotional core are the band's talented guitarist, long missing and presumed dead, and its flamboyant lead singer, who has continued to release the odd, ignored solo album and who still smarts from the resentment of the other players for making them feel underappreciated.

Make the band American instead of British, change the singer's gender, and you'd have Blondie, or at least the official biography of Blondie, as promulgated in numerous magazine articles and on VH-1's Behind the Music in preparation for the band's re-emergence after 17 years and their inevitable anschluss of our airwaves and concert halls. In this version, singer Deborah Harry, guitarist Chris Stein, keyboardist Jimmy Destri, and drummer Clem Burke found punk rock at New York's CBGB's (with help from the Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, et al.), invent the use of blond sex appeal and fetish fashion to sell records (thus anticipating Madonna), introduce white America to reggae via "The Tide Is High" (albeit six years after Eric Clapton hit #1 with Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff"), introduce white America to rap via "Rapture" (apparently no one noticed the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight"), and serve as role models to such current female-fronted groups as the Courtney Love Band and Gwen Stefani and Those Three or Four Other Guys.

Although Blondie were one of the biggest-selling acts of the late '70s and early '80s, the story says that they were underappreciated, at least by critics, not because their music was lightweight (which might have been a fair charge) but because sexism prevented the rock press from listening beyond Harry's coy persona. The rest of the band felt ignored, bitterness simmered, and after one last disastrous album (The Hunter) and tour in 1982, Blondie broke up. Meanwhile, Stein had been so stoned that he didn't notice he'd come down with a horrible disease, a rare genetic ailment called pemphigus that made him lose weight and break out in blisters all over his body and inside his mouth. Stein dropped out of sight, as did then-girlfriend Harry, who spent two years nursing him back to health and fending off rumors that he was dying of AIDS. But now, Stein, Harry, Burke, and Destri are living happily ever after (bassist Nigel Harrison and guitarist Frank Infante, who are not part of the reunion and have been written out of the group's history, Soviet-style, are suing the others) and have recorded an all-new album called No Exit (Beyond).

No Exit really does mark the return of the Blondie of old, with all the good and bad that implies. As before, they are willing to experiment with all kinds of genres -- ska ("Screaming Skin," an oddly peppy ditty about Stein's illness), cocktail jazz ("Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room," a reminder that Harry was scatting with the Jazz Passengers long before the current swing/lounge movement), rap/metal (the title track, which awkwardly shoehorns classical-music quotations, a gangsta-like narrative, and a duet with Coolio), even a country waltz ("The Dream's Lost on Me") -- without mastering any of them. As before, they couple an obsessive, brooding romanticism ("Forgive and Forget," "Night Wind Sent") with a silly sense of humor (the dog's-eye-view, double-entendre-laden "Happy Dog (For Caggy)," the zombie tale "Dig Up the Conjo"). They still turn out better singles than albums; amid the hour of hit-and-miss ideas that make up No Exit are such mini-gems of pure, analog-synth, skinny-tie-guitar 1979-ness as the soaring, chiming "Maria" (the first single), "Nothing Is Real But the Girl," "Under the Gun," and "Out in the Streets."

Best of all is Harry, who really did have an underrated instrument then and shows it off now hardly the worse for the wear. At 53, she has a trace of the curdled huskiness of her contemporary Marianne Faithfull, but otherwise, she retains all her old range, clarity, and power. She seems to be having the time of her life, as if she recognized what her official biographers deny: that all Blondie ever were or will be is merely smart fun.

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