One night in 1977, a band was playing a surprise one-off show at CBGB, the East Village music venue that gave rise to The Ramones and Patti Smith. The club was filled with familiar faces from the scene — Lou Reed was there, and so was Lester Bangs — but instead of the usual punk fare that filled CBGB nightly, they were hearing the sound of '60s pop, as The Shangri-Las played a few of their big hits for a crowd of adoring fans.
Also in the audience that night was Blondie singer Debbie Harry, who just a year earlier had taken inspiration from The Shangri-Las for much of her band's self-titled debut. "I saw you standing on the corner, you looked so big and fine," she sings, girlishly, in the opening of the band's first single, "X Offender." "I really wanted to go out with you, so when you smiled, I laid my heart on the line." It's a line that could have been ripped straight from the girl-group classics on the CBGB jukebox — exaggerated tales of romantic drama from the previous decade like The Shangri-Las' "I Can Never Go Home Anymore" or The Crystals' "He's a Rebel." But a second later, Blondie picks up the pace; the band's jangly tambourine-and-organ groove provides a modified wall-of-sound flavor as Harry reveals she's a sex worker who's propositioning the police officer who has arrested her. "You read me my rights, and then you said 'Let's go' and nothing more!" she sings, a hint of her soon-to-be-iconic snarl in her voice.
When Blondie came out 40 years ago, it wasn't an immediate hit. At the time, the band, who'd been toiling on the margins of that Downtown, CBGB-centric scene for awhile, were signed to a short-lived label called Private Stock Records, which didn't know how to market Blondie beyond cheaply pushing Harry's sex appeal. The band was an underdog of the scene, losing musicians who'd rather play with Patti Smith and trailing behind rising acts like Iggy Pop and Television. And as a pretty, blonde frontwoman, Debbie Harry ran into unique challenges finding her place among the mostly male DIY art-rockers and poets who moved through the Downtown scene. "Hardly anyone took Blondie seriously,” Television co-founder Richard Hell wrote in his memoir I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.
Another thing that set Blondie apart was their sense of humor, which helped them straddle the line between '60s pop and '70s punk. "Met you with a girlfriend, you were so divine," Harry croons on the song "In the Flesh," yet another dreamy, girl-group-style pop song sung from the perspective of a sex worker. "She said, 'Hands off this one sweetie, this boy is mine.'" Harry echoes cheery Beach Boys–style surf rock on "In the Sun," does a too literal West Side Story–inspired number over heavy synthesizers on "A Shark in Jets Clothing," and plays with B-movie tropes on the corny "The Attack of the Giant Ants." They were fun, ironic takes on a traditionally stiff subset of pop, and there was something novel about reimagining this bright music within NYC's dingy punk scene.
Blondie's use of '60s musical pastiche, at the time, wasn't exactly new. NYC peers The Ramones were heavily inspired by Phil Spector's pop production and would later go on to actually record with him. Down in Athens, Georgia, The B-52s were wearing beehives on stage and playing Petula Clark covers. (Around the same time, John Waters was mining the depths of made-for-TV schoolgirl movies and suburban-housewife aesthetics for trash films like Desperate Living and Pink Flamingos.) In Jacqueline Warwick's book Girl Groups, Girl Culture, she writes that because many of these punk artists were born in the '40s and '50s and came of age in the '60s, they were old enough by the '70s to look back fondly on the music of their formative decade. "Their efforts to recapture the effervescence of that sound indicate a longing for a hazily remembered time when life, like rock'n'roll, seemed to be simpler," Warwick writes.
But the nostalgia on Blondie wasn't so simple. "It was very much about irony at that time. It was about a sophisticated sort of put-down, antisocial but witty," Harry said in a recent interview. "We were always trying for that play on words, for the double entendre.” The band never played their pop influences straight, spinning oldie tropes of pining for boys into depictions of sex crimes or singing about surfing waves from the stage of some Downtown dive bar in concrete-covered Manhattan. Harry could sing as glamorously as Ronnie Spector one second, then growl like her punk counterparts on a song like the mean-girl mantra "Rip Her to Shreds."
What resonates about Blondie's debut 40 years later is not just the duality of its early new wave sound, but the duality of its femininity — the way that Harry took '60s pop music's rendering of feminine desire and gave it punk's teeth, as she'd continue to do throughout her career. There was always a winking, mouthy quality to Harry's performances. She was always an artist well aware of the visual and lyrical conventions of being a pop star, strutting on stage in ripped t-shirts to sing about how glamorous it would be to look like Marilyn Monroe. Later in the '70s, Harry would reincarnate herself as a disco star, seducing listeners with the romance of the band's big hit "Heart of Glass," but not without complaining about how love was a "pain in the ass" (much to the chagrin of radio DJs); at the dawn of the '80s, she pushed against that glossy image again with her cheeky, unexpected rap on Autoamerican's "Rapture."
With Blondie, the band was creating the blueprint for the future of American pop in a way that confused their peers. Before Madonna writhed sexily around on video, before Cyndi Lauper led a conga line of girls into empowerment, before Pat Benatar asked listeners to hit her with their best shot, Debbie Harry was paving the way for those women and for future stars whose wit and sarcasm have a place in mainstream music. You can hear her kitschy, eye-rolling sass in the music of contemporary artists like Charli XCX, Sleigh Bells, and Sky Ferreira — all of whom embrace pop archetypes but not always in a way that's perfectly pretty. Today, pop music is a more fluid landscape for women musicians who want to dissect or subvert the bubblegum that keeps the genre rolling. And 40 years later, Blondie isn't just a revealing relic of a punk band who would go on to make it big in the '80s — it's a prophetic exploration of the ways women continue to reinvent the role of being a pop star.