Friday, 6 September 2013

Classic Albums No.10: Plastic Letters

Generally, THE Blondie LP to name check is “Parallel Lines”. It spawned hits left right and centre in the UK, US and worldwide, and in “Heart Of Glass”, represented the fully realised transition of Blondie from CBGB’s inhabiting punk rockers, to Studio 54 style disco groovers. My wife has always stated a preference for it’s follow up, the band’s fourth LP “Eat To The Beat”, 1979’s hit filled New Wave classic, you know, the one with “Dreaming”, “Union City Blue” and “Atomic” on it.

But my favourite predates both of these. It’s not a cool one to admit liking, indeed, it’s been the subject of some indifferent reviews over the years, but I have listened to 1978’s “Plastic Letters” time and time again in the near-20 years I have had this record in my life. For me, it’s a crucial record, because it seems to reflect perfectly both the punky DIY aesthetic of the band’s early years, and the more streamlined, pop sounds that followed on “Parallel Lines”. I love it so much, words can’t really explain just HOW MUCH I worship at the altar of this LP.

The band’s self titled debut LP from 1976 is generally considered a superior record - indeed, although “Plastic Letters” was issued on Chrysalis, material for the LP was being worked on whilst the band were still signed to the struggling Private Stock, and some claim the album was pieced together using “leftovers”. But for me, the debut LP doesn’t fully do justice to the sophisticated sound that Blondie turned to during the late 70’s and early 80’s - it’s a pretty good record, snarling perfectly on the likes of “Rip Her To Shreds”, and wearing it’s 60’s Girl Groups influences on it’s sleeve quite proudly on “In The Flesh”, but it all feels, for much of it’s duration, a bit lo-fi - not a criticism, but it’s just that “Plastic Letters” was the sign of a group starting to outgrow their origins.

I first heard “Plastic Letters” in 1994. I recall getting hold of CD editions of “Parallel Lines” and “ETTB” quite easily at the same time, they had been released on CD in the mid 80s, and were simply being repressed on occasions to meet demand. But “Plastic Letters”, as the unloved baby of the Blondie family, was not so easy to come by. My CD copy I bought that year was a US import, as the 1985 UK CD edition had been deleted (the expanded reissue turned up some months later), and I guess there was a feeling of personal triumph, at being able to get a record that seemed a bit more obscure because I had had to pay over the odds for it. Maybe I automatically wanted to love it that much more for that reason. I don’t know, but I do know that I fell head over heels in love with the record from the moment I first heard it.

It makes sense, before looking at the LP, to rewind a bit. Harry was originally a member of The Stilettos, who were joined at some point by guitarist Chris Stein. In 1974, Harry and Stein left to form their own group, eventually named after the shade of Harry’s hair colour at the time, Blondie. Various members came and went, but by 1975, the line up that would record their debut LP was in place - Harry and Stein joined by Jimmy Destri, Clem Burke and Gary Valentine.

They signed to Private Stock, a relatively small label whose most famous other signing in the UK would be “Starsky And Hutch” actor David Soul. Both “X Offender” and “In The Flesh” were planned to be singles in various territories, and promo videos were made for each. Blondie’s breakthrough came at different times in different countries, and much has been made of their Australian breakthrough, which occurred in 1977 when a TV show played the incorrect one of the two videos sent to them, and the general public fell in love with the sweet harmonies of “In The Flesh” as it appeared on screen.

In the USA, the far more energetic “X Offender” was issued as the band’s debut 45, with “In The Sun” on the flip. Both tracks would appear, in remixed form, on the first album. A UK release was also planned (catalogue number PVT 90), but for reasons that I have never fully understood, it was pulled from the release schedules and copies of this single can now sell for anywhere between £500 and £1000. Back in the States, the spring of 77 saw the release of “In The Flesh”, whilst Private Stock prepared a “new” UK debut single, when the pairing of “In The Flesh” and “X Offender” was issued as PVT 105 in May of that year.

Although some reports suggest Private Stock went bust the same year, this was not the case. Blondie, dissatisfied with how the label were handling them, bought back their contract and signed instead to Chrysalis. In the UK at least, this was almost a sideways move as Private Stock records were being distributed by EMI, who actually also owned Chrysalis. “Blondie” re-emerged in late 77 on Chrysalis, and was re-promoted by a single combining “Rip Her To Shreds”, “X Offender” and “In The Flesh”. The 2001 CD repressing includes both sides of the original PVT 90 release.

By this point, work on “Plastic Letters” had begun, but as recording commenced, Valentine decided to leave the band. Photoshoots conducted for the album thus featured a brief 4-piece line up, but Frank Infante joined in time for at least some of the recording sessions, and by the time the band toured later in 1978, the group had expanded to the classic six piece line up with the addition of Nigel Harrison. As mentioned in my previous Blondie blog, promo clips for the singles from this LP exist with all six band members in situ.

The album surfaced in the UK in February 78, and hit the top 10. It became the first Blondie album to chart in their native USA, but America was slow to catch up with Britain, and their real success in the US came much later, when “Parallel Lines” finally broke them just about everywhere else as well. “Plastic Letters” has long been dismissed by some as a patchy mess, whilst others claim it as the band’s masterpiece. I am firmly in the latter camp.

The opening “Fan Mail” does a good job of explaining why this is. On the one hand, it’s pop at it’s best - Harry’s vocals are beautiful, and the song is driven along by some vibrant and insistent keyboard work by Destri. There are no choruses as such, just a nice noisy keyboard solo, which sounds like it has come out of an old Space Invaders arcade game. Then in the middle it stops, and here you get the other side of the coin - as the song restarts with Destri bashing out a regal sounding “bah bah bah bah-bah bah bah-bah-bah-bah” pattern, it all feels slightly shambolic, like he’s hammering it out on one finger and the song feels like it’s on the verge of collapse. It isn’t, and it doesn’t, it just feels that way. But then a big “whoosh” of keyboard noise rushes past, and Stein emerges with a stunning guitar solo, and it suddenly feels near perfect and utterly faultless. By the end, Harry’s beautiful vocals have become more urgent, and she almost shouts the final few lines with an air of anguish and desperation. And all within two and a half perfect minutes.

“Denis”, a gender swapping cover of the old Randy And The Rainbows hit “Denise” follows, and the first signs of how glorious Blondie’s attempts at pure pop could be are heard for the first time. You know how good it is - all thumping drums, sky scraping key changes, Harry’s seductive - but untranslatable - French vocals in the final half, it sounds like a hybrid of The Ramones and The Ronettes, which was probably the point.

“Bermuda Triangle Blues” starts off as a simple sounding tune, but soon starts to soar, the beautiful guitar lines, the oddball time signature changes, more “to die for” keyboard flourishes as the song speeds up for the first chorus, it’s an absolute stunner, one of the all time Blondie gems. “Youth Nabbed As Sniper” opens by sounding like a menacing Bond Theme, then snarls and growls along, the punky energy of the first LP focused into something more compact, snappy, more controlled, but utterly thrilling. “Contact In Red Square”, once the Duane Eddy style guitar intro has ended, as the title suggests, sounds like a Russian dance band, all high kicking energy madness that seems to get faster and faster the longer it goes on.

“Presence Dear” is the absolute stand out. It’s just so brilliant, words almost cannot describe. The Rickenbacker-esque sound that runs throughout the song, the moment when Harry delivers the classic line “when you play at cards you use an extra set”, only to follow it with the immortal whisper of “it’s really not cheating”’s enough to make you feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven. And then, once the middle eight is done and dusted, the song starts to pick up pace, and the final verse is delivered with near perfection - Burke’s complex pounding drum rhythms, Harry’s crystal clear voice, the glorious subtle key change when she sings the “levitating lovers in the secret stratosphere” line, and then the final section, with everyone playing at full pelt, she sings, in the most angelic voice, “I am still in touch with your presence dear, dear, dear, dear, dear...” - the song starts to slow down as it glides to a halt, and a single acoustic guitar chord brings it to a close. By far, one of the greatest singles of all time. Pure pop and utterly sublime.

Despite what you might think “I’m On E” is not a drug reference, but “E” as in “Empty” - you know, in a car where the gas tank shows “F” for full. It’s probably the most throwaway moment on the record, but it still cackles with a vitality and energy sorely lacking in so many other records. And so side 1 comes to an end.

Side 2 of the record sometimes struggles to match the genius of side 1, it’s less immediate overall, but there are still some moments of staggering brilliance. “I Didn’t Have The Nerve To Say No” sounds a bit like The Supremes covering The Doors, all double tracked vocals in the choruses, “no no, no no” refrains, and Destri’s keyboards a permanent feature throughout. It‘s catchy as hell - Harry‘s vocals again, are utterly beautiful at times, and gloriously ragged at others. Totally pop, then totally punk, I guess. “Love At The Pier” sounds like a cross between the 2-Tone strut of Madness and the girl group rush of The Crystals, before slowly down at the end in order to finish with a glorious, “Hey Big Spender”-style romp.

“No Imagination” is probably the one song on the record that struggles to get into the brain easily, but repeated listens reveal it to be no slouch. It’s one of the slower numbers, driven along by some lovely piano pieces, a “duh duh duh duh” rhythm, occasional (typically) manic drum rolls from Burke, whilst Harry’s voice again just glides over the top like fairy dust. Whenever I listen to it again, I always think - “christ, I remember this one now - and it is actually the work of pure genius”.

“Kidnapper” is a weird, sort of doo-wop style stab at new wave, with a harmonica piping away in the background, more girl group style “do do do” vocals, and Harry’s voice given a slightly echoey feel, giving the song a strange vibe, it sounds like it’s bouncing around your living room when you listen to it. “Detroit 442” is generally regarded as the biggest throwback to the band’s punk rock past - all hyper energy, ferocious guitars, and a slightly warped, frantic piece of new wave.

“Cautious Lip” is fascinating, because it’s probably the first sign of just how varied Blondie would become in later years. It starts off at a snails pace, with a Kraftwerk style keyboard intro, but slowly starts to build, helped along by - yep - slide guitars. Blondie go country, who’d have thought (although they did cover Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” at least once on stage in later years). During it’s final stages, it starts to gallop along, getting faster and faster, as it approaches the end of it’s four minutes - the longest song on the record, making it seem totally epic in comparison to everything that has preceded it. It’s the perfect album closer, as the sense of urgency that it conveys in the final stretch is absolutely stunning, probably the most ambitious Blondie song had recorded thus far.

In the UK, “Denis” and “I’m Always Touched By Your Presence Dear” were issued as singles, appearing as 3-track releases on both 7” and 12”. The former was housed in a red tinted sleeve featuring a stunning image of Ms Harry, later reissues changed the sleeve colour to blue. It came backed with two album tracks, “Contact In Red Square” and “Kung Fu Girls” from the first LP. “Presence Dear” included “Detroit 442” on the flip, for which a video was made even though it was never officially released as an A-side, and a non-album track called “Poets Problem”. In Italy, the image of Debbie from the front of the UK edition of “Presence Dear” (a picture of her holding her finger to her lips) was used on the front of their edition of the “Denis” 45.

Although numerous countries issued both of these singles, most used standard Chrysalis company bags to house the singles, rather than put them into picture sleeves. There were some notable exceptions. In Japan, the “Denis”/”No Imagination” single (WWR 20436) was issued in a unique sleeve featuring the newly created six piece version of the group, with Debbie decked out in red jumpsuit and Barbarella style kinky boots. In Germany, “Denis” came backed with “Bermuda Triangle Blues” (6155 213), and featured a quite stunning monochrome (but blue tinted) sleeve of Miss Harry, leather jacket hanging off of her shoulder, looking every inch the smouldering sex kitten. As was quite common with European releases at the time, the same basic image was used on the rear cover as well. Small reprints of both these 45’s are included in the booklet of the 2001 reissue of the LP.

The French edition of the single used an image that originally featured the whole band, but which had been cropped and zoomed in so nobody really apart from Debbie got a look in. It was one of several images from the shoot that were published, and a number of compilation albums in recent years have used similar images from the session as their front cover, with all of the band in shot as well, such as the relatively recent “Platinum Blondie” set. As I don’t own a copy of this single, I can only go by scans I have seen on the net, but the French 45 does look as though a bit of “retouching” has been done to it - it looks a bit more like a really good oil painting than an original photo, but that could just be my eyesight.

In Holland, both “Denis” and “Presence Dear” were issued in different sleeves. “Denis”/”In The Flesh” (11 821) came in another “Debbie only” sleeve, a picture of her wearing a sleeveless denim jacket, with the band name and title in red, top right. Some copies were printed with title spelt incorrectly as “Dennis”. “Presence Dear”, which featured the same B-sides as the UK edition (11 993) used the same logo as per “Denis”, again printed top right, and featured a close up image of Debbie smiling into the camera. Sales were brisk, so quite a few copies are in existence, and prices seem to vary from anything starting at a fiver each, up well into double figures, for any of these 45’s. Meanwhile, Japan was the only country to issue "Kidnapper" as a single, B/W "Cautious Lip" (WWR-20373), housed in a slightly bizarre sleeve of Debbie flashing open her fur coat to reveal her "monkey around" boxershorts!

Slightly outside of the remit of this article, but there were some later reissues. Holland again was the home of a 2-on-1 style reissue in the early 80’s which had “Denis” on one side, and “Presence Dear” on the other, whilst my last Blondie blog in Jan 2011 referred to the “Denis 88” remix single that was issued to coincide with the “Once More Into The Bleach” set.

Following the original 1978 release, the album started appearing on CD in the mid 1980’s. My US CD (F2 21166) does a fairly good job of replicating the original packaging - the original rear cover of the LP is faithfully represented on the rear of the CD, only tarnished by the usual “CD Era” style additions, such as a barcode and new catalogue numbers.

The 1994 edition (CDCHR 6085) added two bonus tracks, the one proper B-side from the period - “Poets Problem” - and an alternate take of “Denis”. Although you might have assumed the former was making it’s debut on CD, it was not, as it had appeared the year before on the “hits and rarities” set, “Blonde And Beyond”. Strangely, it was only the three ugly ducklings of the Blondie LP family (this, along with “The Hunter” and “Autoamerican”) that appeared in expanded form that year.

With the reformed four piece line up in situ again in 1998, Blondie’s entire back catalogue was reissued in newly expanded form in 2001 (although “The Hunter” mirrored it’s 1994 track listing note for note). The 2001 edition of “Plastic Letters“ (533 5982) used an altered rear cover - whilst the original back cover now adorned the back of the CD booklet only, the rear cover featured the interim five piece line up that actually recorded most of the LP - the original back cover had, like the front cover, just featured the Harry/Stein/Destri/Burke line up. “Poets Problem” was still here as a bonus track, as was one of numerous early versions of “Heart Of Glass” that had surfaced in the intervening years, along with another rarity from the period, “Scenery”, previously only available on “Blonde And Beyond”. The big selling point was a previously unreleased live version of “Detroit 442”, taped at the same 1978 show that was sourced for the 1997 “Picture This Live” US album. The alternate “Denis” was now missing, a strange decision, given that it is - AFAIK - unavailable anywhere else other than on the (now deleted) 1994 version of this LP.

There have been several reissues since - usually in the form of “2 in 1” releases, coupling (mostly) the 2001 version of the record with either the debut or “Parallel Lines”, either with the two discs coupled in a single case, or reissues of the records in their original cases housed inside a boxset. Unless I am very much mistaken, no such reissues have used the 1994 version of the LP, unless you know otherwise.

So why do I love this record so much? I sometimes find it difficult to put things like this into words. It’s sometimes difficult to describe how a song like “Presence Dear” has the ability to bring me to tears, how the sheer thrill of the keyboards in “Fan Mail” causes me to listen in sheer wonderment at how they committed something so gloriously upbeat on vinyl, or how the big roaring finish in “Love At The Pier” never ceases to amaze in the way it just pulls the song in a completely different direction, and at a completely different pace.

In many respects, it’s simply that the whole LP is so damn catchy. The songs seem to pull their influences from different sources, but each song manages to convey either a real feeling of boundless energy, or one of pure heartbreaking beauty, whilst still sounding unlike anything else on the LP. At times, the band are really allowed to come to the fore - there are some magnificent guitar solos on here and plenty of anthemic, glowing keyboard runs - as good as later records like “Heart Of Glass” or “Rapture” were, they sounded like the work of a different band. A good thing to do, in terms of keeping it fresh, but it’s nice to listen to a band sounding like they did on stage without all the studio trickery. And “Plastic Letters” really captures the band’s early period spirit in a quite brilliant way.

I really don’t care that the Allmusic review linked to on Wikipedia dismisses it as second rate. I just love this record so much. It never ceases to thrill, the fast, upbeat feel combined with Harry’s faultless voice creating something that sounds so beautiful and magical, even when it’s channelling that punky CBGB’s vibe to excess. “Parallel Lines”, technically, is probably better, but it lacks the slightly unhinged madness that lurks throughout this record. “Parallel Lines” was the sound of a punk band subverting the mainstream, but “Plastic Letters” was the sound of a punk band simply hitting it’s slightly raggedy stride with both an air of wanton abandon and an air of sheer pop nous. 35 years on, and it is still as heart stoppingly glorious as ever. Probably 1978’s finest album, and possibly Blondie’s finest (half) hour.

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