Monday, February 27, 2017
Review of Blondie's "Plastic Letters"
Welcome to another entry in my continuing series, "I Can't Believe This Album Didn't Have a Review on Sputnik". Today's entry is the sophomore album by the chic New York punk/new wave band Blondie, 1978's Plastic Letters. This album demonstrated that the band had grown considerably since their 1976 debut album Blondie, both artistically and commercially; landed Blondie on the album charts for the first time, coming in at #72 on the U.S. Billboard charts and at an impressive #10 on the British charts; and set the stage for the band's third album released later in the year, Parallel Lines, which would launch Blondie into the upper strata of pop rock bands. All of which is why ... say it with me ... "I can't believe this album didn't have a review on the Sputnik!" Well now it does.
Plastic Letters is a historically important album. It was Blondie's first original release on Chrysalis Records (who had also re-released the Blondie album when the band first signed to the label), and it's the album that really broke the band in Europe (although they were still mostly a cult favorite in the U.S.). More importantly, though, it's a truly excellent album. It shows Blondie and their charismatic lead singer Deborah Harry, if not quite at the height of their powers, at least heading in that direction very swiftly. It's creative. It has energy. It has a sense of fun. It has a terrific mix of styles, and includes fast, slow and mid-tempo songs, almost all of which are three minutes or shorter (so they hit you and they're gone and on to next one before you even know what happened). In particular, the album has the youthful exuberance of a band on the way up. If I compare it to Eat to the Beat or Autoamerican, the two albums that Blondie released directly after Parallel Lines changed their (and our) world, I'd say that while both of those are good albums, there's a self-consciousness on them that doesn't exist on Plastic Letters. If you listen to each of those LPs, you get the sense that Blondie was very aware they had something big to live up to after the mind-bending success of Parallel Lines and its monster hit single "Heart of Glass". On Plastic Letters, they were just having fun.
There were two singles released from the Plastic Letters album. The first, "Denis", was a cover of a 1963 single by Randy and the Rainbows called "Denise", and unsurprisingly, it sounds like an old-style pop song. The song didn't chart in the U.S., but it hit #2 in the UK. (It's worth noting here that with the exception of the "Heart of Glass" single, throughout their career, Blondie has always had more success on the British charts than they have in their native America). Blondie followed this up by releasing the musical tale of a girl and her supernatural boyfriend "(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear", written by bass player Gary Valentine, who had left the band before Plastic Letters was recorded (Chris Stein plays guitar and bass on the album). "Presence" wasn't even released as a single in the U.S., but it hit #10 in the UK and charted in a few other European countries as well. Both singles have remained popular with Blondie fans over the years, and have been re-released on a number of the band's Greatest Hits LPs. (In fact, a remix of "Denis" was released as a single ten years later from the group's Once More Into the Bleach compilation, and it charted again in Britain and a few other countries).
As a whole, Plastic Letters is a much more consistent album than Blondie's previous effort, which had some excellent tracks but also had its share of throwaway songs. There's precious little filler here, as the record jumps from one amusing number to another. So we hear Harry play a spy (''Contact in Red Square"), a sniper victim ("Youth Nabbed as Sniper"), and the victim of a plane crash in the Bermuda Triangle ("Bermuda Triangle Blues (Flight 45)"). We also hear her as a woman picking up a pretty boy-toy for a one-night stand ("No Imagination"), and a woman who finds a new lover at a pier, only to abandon him when his excessive sun-tan oil causes him to slide into the water and drown ("Love at the Pier"). We have fast numbers ("I'm on E" and "I Didn't Have the Nerve to Say No") and slow numbers ("Cautious Lip"), and all shades in between. We even have an ode to a maniac who kidnaps a bratty 13-year-old rich girl for the ransom money ("Kidnapper"). The album takes us so many places, it's a little dizzying. And with the possible exception of the two singles, these are all songs that haven't been played to death on the radio, so that Plastic Letters still feels fresh today.
As you might expect, given the varied subject matter of the songs, Harry's vocals are playful throughout. She doesn't so much sing songs as she acts out a breathtaking array of roles, sometimes talking as much as singing, sometimes "doo-be-do-ing" in the manner of a '60s girl-group singer, and even breaking into French for a couple of verses of "Denis". She's a star in the making here, and listening to her performance, you can hear how she became a cultural icon.
Plastic Letters was the first Blondie album I ever bought. It has always been and remains one of my favorite Blondie albums, with Blondie being one of my favorite bands. Which is why I couldn't believe it didn't have a review on Sputnik.
Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Posted by Long Island Music Guy at 12:15 AM