Photos by Marissa G. Muller
"I'm glad you like hearing the old songs. I'll tell you the truth is I’d much rather play the new songs but I'll do what you want!"
In music, there are two kinds of living legends: those who shy away from their past on stage, refusing to play songs from their glory days and, often, force-feeding fans their lesser, more recent material; and those who give the crowd exactly what they want, a mostly non-stop stream of hits. The latter seems preferable but sometimes it can be less of a party and more of a reminder that the musicians you grew up listening to aren’t the infallible idols you made them out to be. Their spark has faded. They’re a lot older now and so are you.
When I flew to Sacramento to see Blondie at the inaugural TBD Fest, held in the city’s emerging Bridge District—which is so emerging that it took place on top of a dirt and gravel field, alongside the river—I wasn’t nervous to see Debbie Harry and co., a band that was never a phase for me but more of an ongoing soundtrack that I took away different things from at different points in life. In the past few years, I’ve see other mega artists whose music played as important of a role in my life—Sade, Prince, Paul McCartney—and I was pleasantly surprised by all of their performances. But, a few hours before the show I felt a sense of dread.
While walking around backstage, I saw an elderly woman with penciled-on eyebrows, wearing what looked like a swim cap, who I didn’t think twice of until I saw her again in my Instagram feed posted by Sky Ferreira with the caption, “I have my best friend/bf, favorite photographer & idol in one photo. I'm hanging this above my bed.” It was Debbie Harry—and it’s crazy how much her platinum hair makes her. A couple of hours later, everyone near her trailer had to clear out to make way for an astroturf carpet that would be laid down so the band didn’t have to walk through the dirt; another sign of their seniority.
Of course Blondie are entitled to wear wigs and have green carpet laid out for them. Forty years into their career—an anniversary that was glaring, as the audience sang happy birthday to the band before they walked out—they’ve earned the right. Ultimately those quirks quickly escaped my memory once they took the stage and I saw Debbie back in her platinum (wig) glory, dressed in a thigh-grazing black pleated dress, layered coin belt, gold Chanel creepers, and a jacket painted with “WTF” and “LMAO” graphics. In case her attire didn’t show she’s kept up with pop culture, her dancing—a mix of shimmying and twerking—did. She held her own, even in front of footage from their early 80s heyday.
Aesthetics aside, Blondie’s disco punk hasn’t lost any of its edge live, even when performing at a 10,000-people festival instead at of their once-home venue CBGB. Fights broke out, blunts were smoked, and guitarist Tommy Kessler, who peacocked around the stage playing his guitar behind his back, cut right through the dusty sky with his high-velocity riffs. When it came time for “Rapture”—the first No. 1 rap song (process that)—Debbie didn’t miss a word, proving that she’s still the best rapper from her generation. Just to reinforce that, she also tried her hand, successfully, at Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party),” as the screens behind her played X-Ray footage of mosh pits and fence-hoppers, perfectly timed with the tornado brewing behind me in the crowd.
Blondie also delivered covers of The Nerves’ 1976 “Hanging on the Telephone,” which was first released as the second single off the band’s 1978 album Parallel Lines, and a mash-up of “The Tide Is High” (a Paragons song they made their own on 1980’s Autoamerican) with Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart.” Their ace renditions were all reminders of the band’s breadth of expertise. Now it’s much more common for artists, especially indie ones, to bend genres, underground and mainstream. (Just think of all the alt-pop that’s been trending over the past few years, the existence of chillwave, or, earlier, the aughts’ electroclash revival.) But back when Blondie started, it was punk as fuck to merge different sounds. And they’re still doing it today, not just in their covers but also in the synthpop-meets-cumbia track “Sugar on the Side,” the second single from this year’s Ghosts of Download. Their grabbag sound was just another thing that made them the perfect festival closer, uniting all of the different acts on a bill.
And wig or no wig, they’re still Blondie.
“One Way or Another”
“Hanging on the Telephone” (The Nerves cover)
“A Rose by Any Name”
“(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” (Beastie Boys cover)
“The Tide Is High” (The Paragons cover)
“Groove Is in the Heart” (Deee-Lite cover)
“Sugar on the Side”
“Heart of Glass”
Marissa G. Muller is on Twitter - @marissagmuller.