Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Sound of the City

Best of Blondie

It is no longer a sentimentalist heresy to observe that, on the right night with the right matchup, a good veteran rock band's good old songs can add more newness to the world than a feckless young rock band's half-formed ones. It just depends. At Joey Ramone's seven-act Cyberbash at Tramps last Friday, the Dictators played a committed set that merited an album deal, while Ronnie Spector was a long-winded ham with her heart in the right place. But "special surprise guest" Blondie blew such mundane considerations away. I've never seen them better.

The hedge is that Blondie was not a great live band. They were too pop and too ragtag in their CBGB phase, too cold and too gawky when they symbolized rock disco, and while Debbie Harry always flashed winning wisecrack and 'tude, she had serious physical limitations as both singer and dancer. After market forces and Chris Stein's near-fatal illness did them in, however, Harry kept adding skills--check the solo Def, Dumb and Blonde, see her blowzy waitress in Heavy, or hear her deep projection and knowing microtones on the Jazz Passengers' Individually Twisted. And with Stein writing new songs, a reunited Blondie--including drummer Clem Burke and keyb man Jimmy Destri--is revved up to exploit the legend with a new album.

But that exploitation wasn't in place at Tramps, where Luscious Jackson's Kate Schellenbach killed on drums and Destri was replaced by a second guitar. Wrong launch timing, apparently; rumors of MTV meddling are circulating. Perhaps as a result, Blondie's half-hour, six-song set was pure punk, including a raucously hooked "Rapture" with extra verses and two from the debut: the disgracefully unsisterly "Rip Her to Shreds" and an "X Offender" that led with a revamped intro: "I saw you sitting on my face you looked so big and strong." Everything was played for raunch, and Harry, down a few pounds with her mane streaked silver, was the sexiest 53-year-old rock goddess ever seen on the planet.

Maybe it was an accident, a what-the-fuck one-off. But it happened--one of those timeless moments people haunt clubs for. And it consisted entirely of songs two decades old.

Village Voice, 1998