Live Concert Photography: Blondie with Liz Phair and Sasami at House of Vans 7/20/18
Currently comprised of founding members Debbie Harry (vocals) and Chris Stein (guitar) with Clem Burke, Leigh Foxx, Matt Katz-Bohen and Tommy Kessler, Blondie is largely considered one of the pioneering acts of the mid and late 70s New Wave and punk scene of the 1970s. Interestingly, the band can trace its origins to the early 1970s when Chris Stein, inspired by the burgeoning music scene at the Mercer Arts Center, sough to join a similar band. In 1973, Stein joined The Stilettoes as their guitarist and started a romantic relationship with one of the band’s vocalists, Debbie Harry, a former waitress and Playboy Bunny, who’s musical career went back to the late 1960s, when she was a member of a folk-rock band The Wind in the Willows.
By July 1974, Stein and Harry had left The Stilettoes, forming a new band with former Stilettoes bandmate Billy O’Connor (drums) and Fred Smith. For their first two shows in August, they went by Angel and the Snake but by October they had renamed themselves Blondie, deriving the name from the truck drivers, who used to catcall “Hey Blondie” to Harry as she drove past.
By the spring of 1975, the band had gone through a series of lineup changes that included Ivan Kral (guitar) Tish and Snooky Bellomo (backing vocals), Clem Burke (drums) and Gary Valentine (bass) joining the band — and with that lineup, the band became regular acts at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s. They recorded a Alan Betrock-produced demo in June 1975 but by November, they recruited Jimmy Destri (keys) to flesh out their sound and then signed with Private Stock Records, who released their self-titled debut in December 1976. The album wasn’t a commercial success and by September 1977, the band bought back its contract with Private Stock and signed with Chrysalis Records.
Their self-titled debut was re-released in October 1977 and caught the attention of Rolling Stone, who praised the album’s eclectic nature, Richard Gottehrer‘s production and of course, their frontperson Debbie Harry. Interestingly, the band received their commercial success in Australia — and as the story goes, the TV program Countdown mistakenly played the video for “In the Flesh,” which was the B-side of their then-current single “X-Offender.” “In the Flesh,” reached number 2 in Australia, with the album reaching the Australian top 20 in November 1977.
February 1978 saw the release of Blondie’s sophomore album Plastic Letters, an album that was recorded as a quartet, as Gary Valentine had left the band in mid-1977. Chrysalis Records had extensively promoted the album throughout Europe and Asia; in fact, the album’s first single “Denis,” a cover of the Randy and the Rainbows 1963 song hit reached number 2 on the British charts, and its second single “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear” reached the British top ten. Chart success and a successful UK tour made the band one of the first American New Wave bands to achieve mainstream success in the UK.
September 1978 saw the release of the band’s breakthrough Mike Chapman-produced third album Parallel Lines, arguably one of the band’s most successful albums, thanks in part to the smash hit “Heart of Glass,” one of the biggest selling singles of 1979. Interestingly, the song was a reworking of a rock and reggae-influenced song the band had performed since the mid 70s but with elements of disco, inspired partly by Kraftwerk and The Bee Gees‘ “Stayin’ Alive.” With the release of the video, Harry began to attain a celebrity status that set her apart from the other band members, who were largely ignored by the media. The album also featured “One Way or Another,” which landed at number 24 in the US — although in the UK, “Sunday Girl” was a number 1 hit. (Eventually, the album was ranked at number 140 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.)
October 1979 saw the release of the band’s fourth full-length Eat to the Beat and although it was well-received critically, the album and its singles didn’t achieve the same level of success in the US; however, in the UK, the album had three, top 20 hits including the band’s third UK number one “Atomic,” “Dreaming,” and “Union City Blue.”
The band’s next single was the Grammy-nominated “Call Me,” the result of Debbie Harry’s collaboration with Giorgio Moroder. Initially recorded as part of the soundtrack of American Gigolo starting Richard Gere, the track was released in North America in February 1980, where the track spent six consecutive weeks at number 1 in the US and Canada. After its release in the UK that April, the track reached number 1 before eventually become a world wide, smash hit. The single was also landed at Number 1 on Billboard‘s year end charts.
November 1980 saw the release of the band’s fifth full-length album Autoamerican, which featured two more Number 1 US hits — the reggae-influenced “The Tide Is High,” a cover of a song written by The Paragons’ John Holt in 1967 and “Rapture,” one of the first songs to feature an element of rapping to reach Number 1 in the US. With shoutouts to Fab 5 Freddy and Grandmaster Flash, the song makes references the connections between the Lower East Side art and music scenes to early hip-hop. While the album found the band pushing their sound in much further sonic directions with songs like “Europa,” “Faces” and “Follow Me” (from the Broadway show Camelot), the album went platinum in the UK and the US largely because of the success of “Rapture.”
After the release of their sixth album, 1982’s The Hunter, the band broke up with Debbie Harry pursuing a solo career wth varied results before taking several years off to care for her partner Chris Stein, who was diagnosed with pemphigus, a rare autoimmune disease of the skin. The band reunited in 1997 and achieved commercial success with “Maria,” a track that landed at Number 1 in the UK, 20 years after their first UK Number 1. Since then the band has toured across the world, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 and has been releasing albums, including 2014’s Ghosts of Download and 2017’s Pollinator.
Blondie played a headlining set at House of Vans that primarily featured their beloved, chart topping hits, some material off their last album and some really interesting covers that included a cover of Beastie Boys‘ “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party).” The show also featured the influence indie rock singer/songwriter Liz Phair and Los Angeles-based act Sasami. Check out photos from the show below.
Liz Phair is a New Haven, Connecticut-born singer/songwriter, guitarist, composer and actress. Adopted at birth, Phair was raised in the Chicago area and after graduating from Oberlin College in 1990, she attempted to start a music career in San Francisco before returning to Chicago, where she began self-recording and self-releasing cassette tapes under the name Girly Sound. The Girly Sound tapes led to Phair eventually signing a recording contract with Matador Records.
Phair’s 1993 full-length debut, the Phair and Brad Wood-produced Exile in Guyville was released to critical acclaim for music that meshed indie rock and pop and for its bluntly honest, sexually charged lyrics. Since its release, the album has been included on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Phair’s sophomore album, 1994’s Grammy-nominated Whip-Smart debuted number 27 with “Supernova” becoming a Top 10 modern rock hit, with frequent airplay on MTV. And with a growing profile, she made appearances on 120 Minutes, Late Night with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Good Morning America to promote Exile in Guyville and Whip-Smart. Although Whip-Smart was certified Gold, the album received mixed reviews and ultimately didn’t sell as well as it was hoped.
Following Whip-Smart, Phair released Juvenilia, a collection of early Girly Sound tracks and B-sides, including a cover of The Vapors‘ “Turning Japanese.” Interestingly, with the release of 2003’s self-titled album, Phair’s sound began to move in a much more pop-leaning direction, which earned her a mainstream audience; in fact, “Why Can’t I?” peaked at number 32 on the Billboard Hot 100.
After the release of her fifth album’s 2005’s Somebody’s Miracle, Phair left Capitol Records and released her sixth album 2010’s Funstyle independently. Interestingly, Matador Records released a retrospective set, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Exile in Guyville, which included remastered recordings from the original Girly Sound demo tapes. Phair’s House of Vans set centered around the material on Exile in Guyville and included “Supernova,” one of my favorite Liz Phair songs.
Sasami Ashworth is a Los Angeles-based multi-instrumentalist, who has been a vital member of her hometown’s music scene for the past decade, playing French horn as a studio musician and in orchestras, playing keys and guitar in Dirt Dress and Cherry Glazerr, contributing vocal, string and horn arrangements on the studio albums of Avi Buffalo, Wild Nothing, Hand Habits and others. Ashworth has also produced tracks for a number of artists including Soko. After spending several years with Cherry Glazerr, Ashworth left the band to focus on her own musical endeavors, including her solo recording project Sasami. Opening the night, Ashworth, accompanied by her brother played a set of synth-led dream pop.