It is sixteen years since I first saw Blondie live, when they had returned after a long silence with the stunning “No Exit” album. Tonight is different; Blondie have been more then active since 1998, almost to a point of over saturation, and to some degree much of their mystery has dissipated.
At the other end of the pop hall of fame, just stepping throughâ€¨its door is the support band, newcomers The Carnabys, whoseâ€¨enthusiasm for performance cannot be questioned. Their initial youthful passion appears like arrogance at first, but the audience quickly warm to them and their brand of harmless pop rock. They hail from Richmond, London and look and sound like a band who have graduated from Pop/Rock School (which they have by the way); they use all of a rock band’s arsenal of gig cliches. Somehow it looks wrong for such a young band to be incorporating drum solos, exaggerated hand clapping, guitar bunny hops and windmilling arms – can no one think of other things to do on stage? Well their bass player did at least, he just stood there and did a perfect job – great guitar player too.
Their music is pretty standard fair – radio friendly and catchy, so they are likely to go far. Some interesting rhythmic ideas show they are fully qualified in songwriting techniques, but it does feel a little like pop music by numbers. By the end of the set, despite their technical excellence, I had heard it all and did not feel the need to rush out and buy their album (due out in October), but maybe I was tired of being referred to as ‘Birmminum’ by their lead singer, who incidentally had an uncanny resemblance to Robin Askwith.
Blondie are now reduced to just three of the original members, the spine of the group: Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Clem Burke. Despite their mature years they are still more than capable of running through their huge catalogue of hits with more then enough energy. Clem Burke in particular is like a kid with a new toy, and as he invented the cliche, does not look wrong twirling and throwing his sticks during every song. He is a blur of waving arms even from behind his soundproof perspex screen – have Chris and Debbie got tired of his deafening noise after all these years I wonder.
In stark contrast is the statuesque Chris Stein who barely moves all night and there are many times I doubted he was even playing his guitar at all, as his hands were either still, or seemed not to be moving in time with the chord changes (maybe he is content to leave Tommy Kessler to do all the work, which he does admirably). Who knows what was going on behind Stein’s ever present dark glasses, but he still looks effortlessly cool whatever he is actually doing, or not doing.
Debbie Harry’s vocals have not aged and are still as instantly recognisable as ever. Never a technically brilliant singer, Harry has a style and a tone that is distinct and sits perfectly within their songs and often I feel tingles down my spine remembering the first time I heard these songs over 30 years ago: in particular, ‘Atomic’, ‘Hanging on the Telephone’, ‘Dreaming’ and ‘Heart of Glass’. T
here is a brave mix of new and old songs in the set, with tracks from their new album ‘Ghosts of Download’ not sounding out of place next to their more established hits. ‘A Rose By Any Name’ and ‘Mile High’ could have easily been mistaken for undiscovered gems from the band’s golden era.
They choose, somewhat oddly, to shoehorn a couple of covers into their own songs, as extended middle sections of ‘Rapture’ and ‘The Tide is High’, which for me didn’t come off. ‘Groove Is in the Heart’ and ‘Fight For Your Right to Party’ just sounded misplaced and I would rather have heard, Detroit 442, or Pretty Baby, or Presence Dear, or 11:59, or Picture This, or Contact In Red Square, in their place.
This tour is a celebration of 40 years since the band started and when you stand at the back of the venue, you can believe it is the 1970s again. The closer you move to the stage, the more obvious it is that time has passed, but you don’t mind a few wrinkles, a bit of grey hair, the use of hair dye, when the band are so excellent.
Highlight of the set is a powerful version of ‘Union City Blue’ and the mile wide smile on Debbie Harry’s face.
Review – Al Neilson
Photos – John Mason