Blondie’s New York (Smithsonian Channel, NR)

dvd blondies-new-yorkHarry’s good looks didn’t hurt their success, either, particularly when paired with her forthright sexuality and unique fashion sense.

 

New York City was a tough place in the 1970s. The subway was always breaking down, Times Square was full of prostitutes, crime was rampant, the police force was notoriously corrupt, and the city was going broke.

But tough times can also facilitate artistic creation, as was true of the downtown scene in New York at the time. Low rents and squats were a magnet for the young and creative, and much of their work incorporated the city’s toughness, its grime and grit. One product of that environment was Blondie, a band that burst to fame in 1978 with its third album, Parallel Lines.

Blondie’s New York, a 48-minute Smithsonian Channel documentary, places the band in historical and geographical context, with particular focus on Parallel Lines. They were New Yorkers by birth or adoption: Jimmy Destry, Chris Stein, and Frank Infante were natives of the five boroughs, while Deborah Harry and Clem Burke, although born in New Jersey, had discovered the Greenwich Village scene in their early teens. The final band member, Nigel Harrison, was a Brit who fell in love with the city.

Blondie began performing in 1974, where they were one among many bands trying to make it in the punk and new wave scene, centered at the music club CBGB; their competition included the Ramones, the Patti Smith Group, the Talking Heads, and Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. Initially, Blondie didn’t make much of an impression, but came up with a winning formula by incorporating elements of disco into their punk sound (of course, that made them traitors by the judgment of many in the punk scene).

Harry’s good looks (she was a former Playboy model) didn’t hurt their success, either, particularly when paired with her forthright sexuality and unique fashion sense. Terry Ellis was sufficiently impressed by the band to buy out their contract and pair them up with Australian record producer Mike Chapman, who helped them develop more of a pop sound, with touches of jazz, British invasion, and reggae (which only made them more New York—the city is a crossroads of world culture, after all). The result was Parallel Lines, which went to #1 on the U.K. charts and #6 in the U.S.

Blondie’s New York is a conventional but well-made documentary composed of archival footage (including lots of performance clips) and contemporary interviews held together with voiceover narration. You’ll learn the story behind songs like “One Way or Another” and “Pretty Baby,” and hear the band talk about their creative process. It’s equally interesting whether Blondie is new to you or your favorite band, and also a good reminder what New York was like before it got Disneyfied. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

Blondie’s New York will air at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on the Smithsonian Channel this Friday (March 21). More information is available from the Smithsonian Channel web site.

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