I really dig these late-era Blondie albums, particularly this one and its predecessor, Autoamerican. They don’t sound too much like classic-era Blondie – well, Debbie Harry’s vocals do – but in terms of instrumentation and songwriting, they’re much closer to the emerging trend of New Wave bands than their pop-punk past.
The highlight of this record – aside from the cover photo, where Debbie Harry is wearing the craziest wig this side of Tina Turner’s appearance in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome – is the inclusion of the ‘lost’ Bond theme, For Your Eyes Only, originally recorded for the 1981 film of the same name. As far as Blondie songs go, it isn’t the worst thing they’ve recorded, but like Alice Cooper’s version of The Man With The Golden Gun, it’s definitely not Bond-worthy. You can understand why they were turned down by the Bond producers. Blondie were then asked to record the Bill Conti composition that was ultimately recorded by Sheena Easton, but declined the offer. That, to me, sounds like a much more exciting prospect, but unfortunately I can only imagine what it would sound like.
This was the final Blondie record until 1999’s No Exit. You can hear the band coming to the end of their natural life-cycle on The Hunter. A Debbie Harry solo career was dawning, with her first record, KooKoo, appearing a year prior in 1981. But more than anything, the split of the group was caused by Chris Stein’s illness with the rare auto-immune disease, pemphigus – which he would ultimately overcome before their late-‘90s comeback.
Plastic Letters is album number two for Blondie, and starts to see them move towards more of a pop sound after their grittier debut. Their choice of covering Randy & The Rainbow’s 1963 hit Denis points to the direction which the band was going in from this point forward. I can’t help but think that early fans of the band in and around New York City would have felt a little disappointed in this gradual shift in direction.
It would be the equivalent in the UK of the Pistols or the Clash recording a cover by Gerry & The Pacemakers for their second album. Now, while I could imagine Johnny Rotten and company doing something like this, it would be too much like selling out for Strummer’s band. Some punk bands remained true to their original manifesto, while others like Blondie made a shortcut straight past post-Punk and New Wave, seemingly straight into the pop mainstream.
Isn’t this just what successful bands do though? The Beatles very quickly turned their backs on their rock and roll roots, opting to magpie the best parts of Motown, folk and R&B to produce their own “original” pop sound (one gets the impression that the rock and roll covers on the first couple of Beatles albums would have sounded old-hat at the time, whereas looking back they appear to come from the same era). Perhaps Debbie Harry and Chris Stein always had their eyes on the pop charts when they put Blondie together. Maybe when they were writing their early two-minute punk songs, they were really writing two-minute pop songs.
Alongside Denis, the album’s other big hit (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear features the couplet Stay awake at night and count your R.E.M.s / When you’re talking with your super friends. While Michael Stipe claims to have chosen the name of his band at random from a dictionary, could he have subconsciously heard these lyrics on the radio?