Seeing Chrissie Hynde open for Blondie at London’s Roundhouse last night offered an opportunity to contrast and compare two of rock’s most enduring performers, both of whom paved the way for members of their sex to benefit from their pioneering efforts, almost all of whom – and I’m including Madonna in this – profited more significantly than them without really meriting the rewards that came their way. The history of rock is tarnished by forerunners penalised by economics that favour subsequent generations, but it is heartening to note that both Hynde and Blondie seem now to be banking their just rewards along with their pensions.
Hynde is tough, self-assured, defiant, wielding a blue Telecaster like chain saw, striking down hard on open-string chords, in command of her stage and her band, and she says fuck a lot between songs which attracts a Pavlovian response every time. She is thin and angular, in knee-high black boots, tight blue ripped jeans and a white t-shirt that reveals plenty of sinewy arm, and she carries herself like a born rocker, like Cochran, Strummer or Springsteen. Even when she sings without her guitar, as she did on ‘Brass In Pocket’, she moves around the stage with the confidence of a woman who’s fought hard for her ‘place in this world’ and woe betide she, let alone he, who might forget it.
Debbie Harry, on the other hand, is playful, at times seeming almost vulnerable. Effecting an endearing humility, she is soft and round and cuddly now, all smiles, and her greater celebrity allows her to perform with more modesty, frequently allowing the others in this latest edition of Blondie to step forward and demonstrate their individual skills. She doesn’t have to work quite as hard as Hynde but, amazingly, she is still as pretty as a picture, her straight blonde hair – oh your hair is beautiful – falling down past her shoulders, shimmering in the spotlights. As with Hynde – heaven forbid! – Harry disdains overt displays of sexuality; there’s no gratuitous female flesh on display tonight. Cryus and Co take note.
Experience has taught both performers the tricks of the trade and, though both were promoting relatively recent new albums, in Blondie’s case Ghost Of Download, released in May, and Hynde with the her first solo offering Stockholm, in June, they both chose to devote most of their sets to well-tried hits of yesteryear. This was wise. A packed, sweltering Roundhouse responded in kind, granting both acts warm and deserved ovations.
Of the new songs in Hynde’s set, the most impressive was ‘You Or No One’, with a resounding, tumbling chorus that certainly wouldn’t be out of place in a Pretenders set, and ‘Dark Sunglasses’, which rocked up a storm. Indeed, I was hard pressed to detect much difference between solo Hynde and Pretender Hynde when it came to the delivery of their hits, ‘Talk Of The Town’, ‘Back On The Chain Gang’, ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’, and the like. She closed with a fierce ‘Middle Of The Road’, gracefully declining to encore though the response certainly warranted it.
The last time I saw Blondie – at Guildford in 2008 – I was dismayed by their rather hesitant manner but this time around all that was in the past. Charging in with a full-tilt ‘One Way Or Another’, they delivered a well-paced, confident 90-minute set that intermingled crowd favourites with four or five new songs and it is to their immense credit that the pace never flagged when the crowd was confronted with a song they probably hadn’t heard before. The visuals helped. Behind them, on five screens, there appeared images of Blondie from days gone by or footage that complimented the newer songs, some of which veer into house territory and the tribal rhythms that seem always to have fascinated Harry, Chris Stein and drummer Clem Burke.
Harry chose to wear a monochrome stripy outfit, a touch of parallel lines, and, weirdly, unmatching shoes, dressing down in fact, and the removal of her black and white jacket solicited a cheer. The message seemed to be that you don’t have to dress sexy to be sexy and the reality was that she trumps girls a third of her age in this department. Her voice never faltered, though at times the sound up in the back circle seemed a bit slushy, the vocals lost in the mid-range boom until a piercing guitar found its way through. Guitarist Tommy Kessler excelled, pulling the anguished guitar hero pose as he stalked the stage, lifting ‘Rapture’ into a tour de force as it morphed into The Beastie Boys ‘Fight For The Right To Party’. The same song incorporated Harry’s rapping section, a reminder of how Blondie pioneered this style of music in 1981, long before it exploded almost a decade later.
Meanwhile, drumming from the left side, Burke gave a dynamo display, his sticks a blur as he rolled around his kit, tireless from start to finish. He has made no secret of his fondness for Keith Moon’s style of drumming, not least in the way he grandstands, twiddling his sticks around his fingers and tossing them into the air and – unlike Moon – always catching them. The set offers him opportunities to solo, always concisely in short sharp bursts, and when he does he leaves no doubt as to his importance to the show. Stein, cool as ice in a Reed/Cale/VU kind of way, modestly permitted Kessler to take the lion’s share of the guitar spotlight but now and again stepped forward to improvise around the lines of a well-known riff, a knowing presence with a ‘seen it all before’ countenance behind ever-present shades.
As the set drew on the hits came thick and fast. ‘Tide Is High’ inspired a melodic sing-along, ‘Atomic’ was greeted like an old friend, climaxing with a Kessler solo that threatened to go into double time if Burke was game, and ‘Heart Of Glass’, which closed the pre-encore set, was punchier, more turbo-charged, than the disco-style studio hit. They came back on for ‘Union City Blue’ and ‘War Child’, which Harry introduced with a nod towards issues in Iraq, and closed the evening with ‘Dreaming’, all rolling drums and practiced panache, always my favourite Blondie song.
After three months on the road this summer Blondie will be taking a well-earned rest in the coming weeks. I hope we see them again soon.