Wednesday 28 November 2012

BLONDIE: Eat To The Beat

(#216: 13 October 1979, 1 week; tied with entry #217)

Track listing: Dreaming/The Hardest Part/Union City Blue/Shayla/Eat To The Beat/Accidents Never Happen/Die Young Stay Pretty/Slow Motion/Atomic/Sound-A-Sleep/Victor/Living In The Real World

Mike Chapman again provided the sleevenote for the 2001 CD edition, and makes it clear that the follow-up to Parallel Lines was markedly less fun to make than its predecessor. It was a predictable path; taken aback by sudden stardom, the group fell under pressure to come up with another hit, were swamped by external yes-men and maybe-men, fell in with Studio 54, Andy Warhol and drugs. In addition, the existing tensions within the group itself were widening out; Debbie and Chris, Clem and Jimmy, Frank and Nigel – three cliques who only communicated with each other when they needed to.

Chapman felt the songs were forced and rushed – “Dreaming” and “The Hardest Part” were the only ones finished and ready to run once the recording sessions started. Eat To The Beat; was this a concept? Chapman asked Harry, only to be answered in her characteristically evasive manner; and it is noticeable that several songs on the album lyrically hedge their bets - is “Shayla” about suicide, or abduction by UFO, or drugs, or all or none? The group were trying to reach out to their audience, but all they had to give were crossword puzzles.

If the album does have a unifying theme, it is one of stress and the desire to escape from it. “The Hardest Part” retraces the plot of The Wages Of Fear; a job so dangerous and stressful that one mistake might mean death. In addition to the drug and scene-infused late spring of 1979 when the album was recorded, by the time it came out, nuclear Armageddon was again a pressing issue; there is the feeling, listening to the record, that it seems to have been recorded as quickly and frantically as possible, for fear that there might be no time left to record the next one.

There is an air of drive fuelled by desperation throughout these dozen songs, and a less-than-firm grip on what the group perceived around them. The record begins with the question: “Pleasure’s real, or is it fantasy?” and ends with the answer: “I’m invisible and I’m twenty feet tall.” Starting and ending with dreams, with a will to self-destruction palpable in between; the irony, presumably intended, is that the nihilism of “Die Young Stay Pretty” is cast as a jolly reggae communal singalong, not that far removed from early 2-Tone (the Specials’ second album, 1980’s More Specials, is the real answer record to Eat To The Beat, marching stridently into Muzak-soundtracked apocalypse; the “Enjoy Yourself” bookends, the pilot-less ‘plane falling from the skies, to the accompaniment of sundry screaming Go-Go’s, on “International Jet Set,” and “Do Nothing” which sounds like the first reggae record one might hear after World War III – more so in its 45 rpm “Ice Rink String Sounds” manifestation, wherein it also turns into one of many elegies for Ian Curtis).

In terms of performance, Eat To The Beat is far more dynamic and committed than Parallel Lines; unsurprisingly, the group sound as though they are playing for their lives (they sound far more “punk” than “new wave” here), and Debbie Harry in particular produces some extraordinary vocal work, especially on the final two tracks. This is balanced, however, by the knowledge that the songs are by and large not from the top drawer; four Jimmy Destri writes or co-writes should have given that away (although one of them is “Atomic”).

“Dreaming” relies almost entirely for its effect of power on Clem Burke’s hyperactive drumming, sounding as he does not unlike Joy Division’s Stephen Morris, a stark contrast to the rest of the song, which is essentially performed at half the drummer’s tempo. Buried deep in the middle eight are the words “Fade away, radiate.” Despite the presence of Ellie Greenwich on backing vocals, this sounds a little too frantic, a tad too discomforting, to be standard Blondie pop; a suspicious British public thereupon stopped the single at #2. Is Debbie in love or just imagining love – the answer, as ever, is in the mind of the listener.

“The Hardest Part” sounds remarkably like Talking Heads (who at the time were dealing with their own brand of paranoia on Fear Of Music) covering “Trampled Underfoot,” with Harry giving the lyric more gravitas and guts than it would normally merit. “Union City Blue” musically again sounds like Joy Division – Peter Hook could have come up with that high-tuned bass riff – with Burke again joining some drumming dots; he reproduces Ringo’s fills from “The End” in the instrumental break, though overall his work looks forward to that of Max Weinberg on “Born In The U.S.A.” The lyric reads like a movie plot synopsis, which is effectively what it became; as a single it was their first to miss the UK top ten since “Picture This.” Harry’s calmly determined lead vocal points a clear path to Madonna.

If “Shayla” muses about what happens to those who don’t escape the piss factory, Harry does a great Patti Smith impression on the cartwheeling punk of the title track (“I remember sitting in the bathroom drinking Alka-Seltzer”). Harry sings “Accidents Never Happen” as though delivering a manifesto (“I never lied, I never cried”) and the group rises to her level of commitment (Harrison’s lovely downhill bass slalom after Harry’s “And you, you knew so well”); it’s one of the album’s more successful songs, as is the enigmatic bubblegum of “Slow Motion” which does indeed predicate the Go-Go’s.

“Atomic,” not a single in the USA, was the only song from the album to make number one in Britain – in an early 1980 which really did feel like The End, Russians in Afghanistan, etc. – and if Eat To The Beat is construed as a kind of post-Armageddon girl group record, then this is the sort of pop heard in the first five minutes following death. The video was pretty scary – the partly disfigured band performing in a sort of post-holocaust nightclub – and the Morricone guitar ricochets and the return of Ellie Greenwich at the back suggest that, if the Cuban thing really had blown everything to bits in 1962, this would have been the first thing heard after the fallout sirens died; what do the words mean? Was the song just the result of an improvisatory jam session? It doesn’t matter; the sixties minor-over-major echoes are timed to perfection with a major hint of the context of its actual times (including bass solo and percussion break) – it sounds like a steelier, far less friendly “Heart Of Glass,” and it still sounds like The End Of Pop. One only notices much later how dependent the song is on a suggested, but never explicitly stated, reggae framework; listen to Harrison’s bass in particular (and then hear its blood brother, “Life During Wartime,” to get the full perspectival picture; Byrne worries and frets – and cites CBGBs while doing so - but always finds a way through; the Fripp of “Fade Away And Radiate” turns up again, more cheerfully, on “I Zimbra”).

“Sound-A-Sleep,” with its strong hints of Pachelbel’s Canon, revisits “Fade Away And Radiate,” but with Robert Fripp replaced by insomnia and with more meander than impact. But “Victor” is frantically exceptional, a Volga boatmen chorus alternating with Harry’s screeching lead vocal, somewhere between Lydon and Lydia Lunch, and with a musical backdrop that somehow manages to unite Emerson, Lake and Palmer with Adam and the Ants; strong and fairly (and, to my ears, pleasingly) extreme stuff to be putting on a follow-up to a multi-million selling album. You can’t fault Blondie for not trying. “Living In The Real World” is the same story, Harry barking and screaming about her detachment from reality, as all the ghosts of girl groups past – all those Marys and Cindys flashing by, like one’s life while falling from the top of a skyscraper - while the singer welcomes her imminent extinction.

It was that kind of time; the urge, the need to get your thoughts down on record while life remained. That Eat To The Beat is also almost certainly an album about drugs (never more than suggested, but on songs like “Shayla,” “Sound-A-Sleep” and “Living In The Real World” the spectre does lurk, like an unpaid dealer) probably does not need to be emphasised, but more than that it represents the standard scenario of sudden star unable fully to cope with their stardom. The world did survive into the eighties, and so would Blondie, coming back towards the end of 1980 with a markedly calmer fifth album. But Eat To The Beat still sounds a little too agitated to provide the relatively straightforward comforts that Parallel Lines had done; hence it became the first album here since Love Is The Thing, twenty-two-and-a-half years previously, not to be an outright number one. The record with which it tied comes up next, with its own perspective on what it is like to be living in a world filled with uncertainty yet not be paralysed by fear; sometimes the pop star requires a certain degree of innate confidence; rather like, one might say, a sleeping bee.