Shriek of the Week: Blondie, “One Way or Another”
I’ve been reading a lot about the mid-late 1970s punk scene lately, starting in January with Will Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever, followed by Rayya Elias’ memoir Harley Loco, and in the last two weeks Alan Parker’s biography of Sid Vicious and the punk bible Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. Other than the Vicious book, the focus has been specifically on the New York City punk scene. I learned more about CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City, and the artists that played those two venerable locations than I could have possibly imagined. Obviously some artists are discussed in more detail than others, but I still feel like I got to know all of the prominent players – Iggy Pop, Johnny Thunders, Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Rotten, Stiv Bators, etc. – pretty well. As you can easily tell, the only woman on that list is Patti Smith, and she used her androgyny to her advantage. Beyond Patti though, many women of the scene were important characters in the books, such as photographer Eileen Polk, model Bebe Buell, groupie Sable Starr, and of course, Nancy Spungen. Which leads me to wonder – why is it that Debbie Harry and her band Blondie – by all reasonable accounts an integral part of the New York City punk scene – given so little coverage in these comprehensive studies of the scene?
The answer probably lies somewhere deep within Blondie’s third album, their breakthrough commercial success Parallel Lines. First, let’s take a step back – there is no question that Debbie Harry was a fixture in the NYC punk scene (she was at one time a waitress at Max’s) and that Blondie, as an entity, was one of the leading punk bands of the late ’70s, touring with Iggy Pop and David Bowie right from the start. Harry is repeatedly referred to as a “punk icon.” It seems to me, in reading between the lines, that while she was part of the scene she may not have been part of the clique. Patti is the only other female musician that was at the forefront of punk – you literally don’t find them anywhere – not just as lead singers but as guitarists, bassists, or drummers either. And the boys clearly worshiped Patti. She wasn’t seen as a threat to them, she was their goddess. In a 2008 interview with SPIN, Smith said “I never thought about gender. I never felt oppressed because of my gender. When I’m writing a poem or drawing, I’m not a female; I’m an artist.” Harry on the other hand was a former Playboy Bunny. Not surprisingly then, Smith was not a fan of Harry’s. In Please Kill Me, Harry tells of how dismissive and unfriendly Smith was to her during this time. In very simple terms, punk was a boys club, and the girl who acted like a boy was allowed in and the girl who flaunted her femininity wasn’t.
Which brings me to Parallel Lines. By 1978 Debbie Harry probably didn’t give a sh*t anymore who liked her and who didn’t. Her band was a moderate success and on the come while other punk bands were falling by the wayside. Blondie was going to show the world what a mainstream, crossover success a punk band could be. With Parallel Lines the band would invent a new genre that would lead them to a #1 album in the UK, #6 in the US, and ultimately sell over 20 million copies in the 30+ years since it’s been released. Parallel Lines is really the first – and probably the best – pop-punk album. Six of the album’s 12 songs were released as singles, including my Shriek of the Week, the pop-punk anthem “One Way or Another”. The album is often mischaracterized as NewWave, which is a shame. There is nothing NewWave about “One Way or Another”. I think the problem is that people don’t know how to characterize a punk album that was so popular with a mass audience (and that wasn’t about politics, anarchy, violence or drugs). The default is to assume that it was the early precursor to NewWave. Listen to Parallel Lines again today – when pop-punk is a recognized sub-genre – and you can see that Blondie was actually the ancestor to bands like Sleigh Bells, not Human League.
In 2000 there was a sort of terrible romantic comedy called Coyote Ugly about a girl from New Jersey (played by Piper Perabo) who moves to NYC to chase her dream of being a musician but ends up working at a bar where the waitresses flirt with the customers, dance on the bar, and generally act naughty in a PG-13 kind of way. To the extent that a movie whose sole purpose is to tease you about unattainable girls in their low 20’s (while simultaneously demeaning them terribly as objects who can do no better than dance on a bar) can have a memorable scene, it is the one where the girls sing along with the jukebox to “One Way or Another”. The totality of this song is summed up in this scene – it is sexy, proactive, well-known, and has a catchy hook that’s easy to sing along to. It’s just daring and frantic enough to be the punk rallying song of this relatively sleazy movie, while tame enough to easily remain PG-13.
I’d already decided this morning before I left my house that “One Way or Another” would be my Shriek of the Week, taking photos of the front and back of the Parallel Lines record sleeve before I walked out the door. As I sat on the subway listening to the album, what transpired must be considered a remarkable coincidence. A woman walked onto my subway car and stood only a few feet away from me wearing the shoes shown to the right. I surreptitiously snapped a photo to share with you, dear readers, all the while thinking about what happened to most of the boys club while Debbie Harry – still going strong at age 68 – has gotten the last laugh.
Watch a video of Blondie performing “One Way or Another” here: