Blondie co-founder and guitarist Chris Stein sounds tired and cranky on the phone. He's calling from New York early on a Monday morning. And due to a staticky connection coupled with the fact that Stein's just a quiet talker, most of the recorded conversation sounds like an interview with the teacher from Peanuts.
He should be cranky, truth be told. Stein and his bandmates are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees who have sold more than 40 million albums — in the '70s they made New Wave safe for New York, and in the '80s they made it safe for the world. Shouldn't that be legacy enough to galvanize demand for the band's Ryman appearance? At least enough to keep its members from having to endure early-morning phoners with music writers at weekly rags in secondary markets? You'd think so. Especially when said band hasn't played in said secondary market since ... well, let's just say it's been so long since Blondie's played Nashville that Stein himself can't recall whether or not he's ever performed at the Ryman. "I was hoping you could tell me," he tells the Scene.
Better late than never.
In July, singer Debbie Harry hinted — through a spokesperson — that she's weighing the option of retiring when Blondie's current touring commitments wrap in 2014, citing her age. She's 68 — 11 years her oldest bandmate's senior. Drummer Clem Burke (aka Elvis Ramone) sort of backed up that claim, telling England's The Daily Mail, "We've tried to keep it going for as long as possible." Early next year, Blondie's efforts will yield the full-length Ghosts of Download — the band's 10th record and first since 2011's similarly independently released Panic of Girls.
Despite Harry and Burke's ominous claims, Stein says it's bullshit. "It's just a marketing fuckin' thing," he says, though he doesn't totally deny the potential farewell tour and retirement reports. "Even back in the old days everything was very much in the moment."
But when Blondie takes the Mother Church's stage this week, for most Music City fans the moment will be all about looking back. Even so, "A Rose by Any Name," the synth-heavy, sleazed-out lead-off single from Ghosts of Download, sounds every bit at home next to the band's contemporary, fresh-faced and uber-chic Brooklyn-dwelling footstep-followers. Not only that, but Blondie is still self-releasing records at a time when audiences fill seats to hear the hits, thus indicating that they probably still mean it.
"We're doing stuff that we like," Stein says, noting that the newer material fits well among the classics, generally garnering a satisfying crowd response. Speaking for himself, Stein goes on to explain how modern music inspires him to live in the present. "I may be listening to more radio now than I was at the height of the Blondie period. ... I'm a big fan of the modern-pop genre." He offers Swedish DJ AVICII as an example of current pop he blasts in the car.
Come to think of it, when it comes to a Blondie Ryman sellout being something less than inevitable, it's probably we who are to blame, not them. In a just world, openers X would handily pack the Mother Church all on their own. But both bands were defiantly cutting-edge cosmopolitan at time when Robert Altman's depiction of Nashville still resonated and the Ryman's doors were sealed. One band is a total sonic embodiment of The Big Apple, from the Summer of Sam to the daze of disco, first-generation hip-hop and beyond (though "New York City isn't what it was in the '70s and '80s," Stein muses). The other is the splitting, yearning wail of Los Angeles during the decline of Western civilization and the myopic reign of Ronald Reagan.
The real question: Does landing this miss-it-if-you're-an-idiot double-bill mean Music City has finally arrived as a culturally vital metropolitan mecca? Or does it just mean we've hit the sweet spot where the rise of our collective cool factor intersects with the point where the punk-nostalgia circuit is forced to tap land-locked secondary markets? Probably the latter.
One way or another, Nashville wins. Blondie will bust out "Call Me," "Heart of Glass" (swoon) and "Dreaming" (double swoon), and those hits are timeless. And in spite of their age, X will punk shit up with "Johny Hit and Run Pauline," "The New World" and "We're Desperate." And those songs still matter: One is about rape, an evil that will always persist; another coined the lyric "kiss or kill" (which never gets old); and the other, a simultaneous indictment of political apathy and idealism, bears the tragically prescient line "Don't forget the Motor City."
The rest of X's set-list staples tell dark, ever-relevant tales. In other words, the band's set will be a blast. Anyone who's seen X in recent years will you the band nails its numbers with the reverence and fury they deserve. Likewise, Blondie has more to offer than a greatest-hits rehash. Give the new jams a chance, but brace yourself (in a good way) for (spoiler alert!) covers of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" and Ellie Goulding's "Lights," both of which are in regular rotation on this tour.
"I just get passionate about some fucking thing I've been listening to and present it to the band," Stein says. "I was listening to 'Relax' endlessly in the car — I always liked the song."