It’s a deliciously warm summer evening in my hometown; the kind that makes it seem that the sun won’t ever go down. In Belfast for the first time in about five years; I’m arguing with a taxi driver as we do about seventy miles per hour along the carriageway. He foolishly but stubbornly reckons Blondie were the first band to release a rap record, while I’m certain ‘Rapper’s Delight’ at least came before, even if it wasn’t the first. And weren’t Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five knocking around before either of them? I’m not sure on that one, so decide to keep it in my back pocket in the event of this debate heating up.
A dismissive “nah,” is all he’s got when I repeatedly make my argument that 1979 demonstrably came before 1981, and that elements of rap have been seen throughout reggae, jazz, and other forms of music well before front-woman Debbie Harry was even thought of, and also who-fucking-cares-anyway-can’t-we-all-just-enjoy-the-fucking-tunes. So, it’s with this sense of infuriation that I arrive at the Waterfront Hall to catch the classic new-wave band, now in their thirty-ninth year. Cheers, cabbie.
Thankfully, Blondie are way too much of a class act to let a smartass taxi driver spoil the vibe. The 2500-seater venue is full to capacity, and although the age-range of the audience is generally in the ballpark of those old enough to have enjoyed the band in their heyday, the energy level and atmosphere are high and buzzing, in that order. With an act that is obviously honed to perfection, the sextet take to the stage exactly on time, with Harry stealing the limelight with her trademark platinum blonde hair and an interesting red catsuit type number. It’s only about halfway through opener ‘One Way Or Another’ that surely every member of this – by now bouncing – crowd is reminded of what an original, and classic band this is.
Harry, from the off, is immeasurably infectious, and at 68 has lost none of the sex appeal that was such a trademark of the band in the late ’70s and early ’80s. She is a front-woman who is never boring, always visually engaging, and still has the pipes to fill out a venue of this size. Maybe it was her years spent working as a Playboy bunny, or simply a naturally engaging personality that taught her the need to not simply stand, but to always have a stance. Look up the ‘Heart of Glass’ video for example, and she’s not just standing behind the mic, but she’s there, hand on hip, one knee pushed forward, gently swaying her hips in an almost hypnotic motion. She also knows when to take a back seat and let guitarist Chris Stein or drummer Clem Burke’s sounds come to the fore. Did I mention that word class, already? Or the fact she influenced just about every white female vocalist who came after her?
Newer songs mix with old dependables, with ‘Hanging on the Telephone’, ‘A Rose By Any Name’, and ‘The Tide Is High’ following in quick succession, with the Waterfront audience now looking like unwilling participants in a mass epileptic fit in a retirement village, before Harry announces “there’s something here that’s big, wet, and wild: Mr. Chris Stein on the guitar!” Oh Debbie, you’re a tease and you know it.
A couple of unannounced new tracks are fired off to a relatively muted response, as token youngster Tommy Kessler engages in some impressive axe shredding, with the predictable result of several hundred middle-aged women now hanging on his every move, and the scene being set nicely for the biggest cheer of the night, which comes during the first few notes of ‘Atomic’.
Closer ‘Heart of Glass’ is perhaps Blondie’s best-known song, and at the time of writing was considered to be nothing more than another album track by the band, hence its position tucked three-quarters of the way down the track-list of Parallel Lines. Clem Burke proves himself to still be a hard-hitting drum machine during the final tracks, as the Belfast crowd loses its collective marbles, and Harry and co. strut off-stage for a towel down and a cold drink.
An energetic encore featuring new song ‘Take Me In The Night’, ‘Call Me’, a cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’, and finale ‘Dreaming’ brings a fine night of entertainment to a close, and the band leave the stage for the last time to the sounds of near-deafening appreciation.
For those seeing the band for the first time, it’s a glorious moment, and for those seeing them for a second or maybe third time, it’s probably even more so. While the hits get the biggest response, this is a band with plenty of mileage remaining, and with new songs being written constantly, they aren’t happy to rely on their past. While songs like ‘Atomic’ probably won’t ever be bettered, it’s exciting to think that Blondie are going to give it a damn good try.