Blondie opens the vaults for a massive box set commemorating cool.
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A New Wave treasure trove sat in a converted barn for decades. It was the equivalent of the Ark of the Covenant tucked away in a rickety storage space for Blondie fans.
There were 100 reel-to-reel tapes, half a dozen cassettes, a few storage tubs crammed with records, flyers, and even a stray Andy Warhol print inside the building just outside Woodstock, New York.
The collection followed Debbie Harry and her band as they experimented with various styles, including reggae, rap, rock, punk, 1960s girl group pop, and disco. The cache was in rough shape, but it looked promising.
“When we first walked in, I knew something was going to come out of it,” said Ken Shipley, a producer with the Numero Group who specialises in unearthing valuable lost sounds. “It just seemed like there would be an abundance of materials for us to sort through.”
The result is the 17-pound box set “Blondie: Against the Odds, 1974-1982,” which contains 124 tracks and 36 previously unreleased recordings, demos, outtakes, and remixed versions of Blondie’s first six studio albums. There’s also a 144-page commentary by all seven original band members, as well as an illustrated discography.
Early versions of what would become the hit “Heart of Glass” — originally titled “The Disco Song” — and “I Love You Honey, Give Me a Beer,” an original demo for the song that became the country-inflected “Go Through It” can be heard.
There are cool covers of The Doors’ “Moonlight Drive,” Ike and Tina Turner’s “Sexy Ida,” and The Shangri-Las’ “Out in the Streets.” There’s also a one-of-a-kind home recording of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” which was originally recorded at a slow speed to save money, and the previously unreleased song “Mr. Sightseer.”
The collection is the heart of a band that had eight Top 40 hits in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including four No. 1s: “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me,” “The Tide Is High,” and “Rapture,” which is regarded as the first No. 1 hit to feature rap. There’s also a five-track 1975 album demo, “Platinum Blonde,” which serves as a sort of band mission statement.
The tapes and tubs were kept in guitarist Chris Stein’s converted barn, but finding them was only the first step. They were mold-infested and waterlogged as a result of a flood. They’d been subjected to years of sweltering heat and bitter cold. Then there were the uninvited visitors: rats and mice who had made the material their home.
But Shipley and co-producer Steve Rosenthal didn’t freak out: they knew analogue audio tapes are tough, so they put on masks, vacuumed, and baked the cache. They then began mastering and mixing.
“Ken and I work a lot with analogue tapes, and it’s a very resilient format,” Rosenthal said. “If you flood a hard drive, it’s gone.” That is not the case with analogue tapes.”
Shipley and Rosenthal combed through the vast Universal archives, looking for lost Blondie assets in New York, Los Angeles, and London, in addition to the Woodstock cache. The final set, released by The Numero Group and UMe, is the culmination of six years of work.
“The real joy of making this thing was discovering things that no one had ever heard,” Shipley said. “The most revealing moments for me are when you hear the DNA of a song coming together.”
The box set is the first time the band — Harry, Stein, drummer Clem Burke, bassist Leigh Foxx, guitarist Tommy Kessler, and keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen — has authorised and participated in a collection.
“I think they were very gracious in allowing their histories to be examined, allowing all seven members of the band to be included in one book.” “That had never happened before,” Shipley explained. “There were a few instances where they didn’t want things in, but we persuaded them that we made them sound really good.”
The album was titled “Against the Odds” because of the band’s unlikely rise to the top of cool — an unusual group with a rare female singer and a mix of styles that was too pop for many punk fans.
Shipley rediscovered Blondie’s eclecticism while revisiting her six studio albums for Chrysalis — “Blondie,” “Plastic Letters,” “Parallel Lines,” “Eat to the Beat,” “Autoamerican,” and “The Hunter.”
“They were very diverse,” he said. “Listening to an album like ‘Autoamerican’ is like listening to everything but the kitchen sink. There’s a reggae song, a rap song, and mariachi horns. There’s all these different sort of elements to that record that I think are really, really unexpected.”
Burke, the drummer, described the material and songs as “memorabilia” of a bygone era that his bandmates took for granted at the time. He’s glad the set is coming out while the band is still working on a new album, which is due out this fall.
“I think it’s an interesting look into the creative process of how certain songs evolve,” he said. “We never imagined that we would still be here today.” It’s pretty amazing looking back through our archives.”
A section of the collection simply titled “Home Tapes” contains tunes recorded on a four track reel-to-reel in Stein and Harry’s home between 1978 and 1979. It includes a demo for “Sunday Girl,” which was inspired by Stein’s missing Harry and one of her cats, Sunday Man, as well as a languid, airy rendition of “The Hardest Part.”
All of this was extracted from a cache of mouldy, mice-chewed material left to rot — a cache luckily rescued from a group of musicians who claimed to have no interest in their past.
“I don’t think this is a band that looks back.” They’re not known for being overly concerned once the job is done. It’s as if they’re saying, ‘We’ve already done the work.’ ‘It is your responsibility to evaluate the work,’ said Shipley.