23
Oct 08

BLONDIE – “Atomic”

FT + Popular74 comments • 6,219 views

#452, 1st March 1980

At some point in the early 1980s – after this, but not long after – I realised we were all going to die, rather horribly and rather soon. I acquired the conviction before I picked up the geopolitical knowledge to put names to it – Reagan, Afghanistan, Cruise. Maybe I picked up the information at school, or watched the wrong five minutes of the news. Once I became aware of the imminent nuclear doomsday, I avoided fresh information on it, but when some did break through my filter it was like overproof liquor for the imagination. How bad would it be? Infinitely. How would we know the hour of its coming? You wouldn’t. What on Earth would you do when they dropped the bomb?

If I’d been born a few years earlier, maybe Blondie would have given me an answer. “Atomic” stares down Armageddon with contempt and desire and then dances in the ruins. There are, broadly, only two strands of nuclear pop – songs protesting about the bomb and lamenting its consequences, and songs which take its nihilising presence as an opportunity, a challenge. We’ll be meeting great examples of both in the future, but it’s the second type that’s more thrilling and fascinating: “If Ronnie’s got a bomb we could all die anyday! But before I let that happen, I’ll dance my life away.” This kind of song, now I think about it, opened me up to the possibilities of pop more than anything else. Question authority? I was too well brought up. Question sexuality? Save it for later. But for pop to be able to question – no, to flout – something as huge as The Bomb? Now that was power.

But all that came later. I didn’t register “Atomic” at the time, and didn’t return to it until years later, when nuclear war had slipped down my list of concerns. It still seemed exciting, but inscrutable too: in “Atomic” the bomb is in the background, something for Debbie Harry to pose against on the sleeve like a pin-up girl from the dawn of the nuclear age. And that’s the song all over: striking a pose against the end (or after the end, in the hilarious video – 25 UNITS!).

It’s a shame that Mike Chapman cut the album version of “Atomic” down to a four-minute-warning friendly length, as what the single loses is priceless: the sense of event of those “Three Blind Mice” intro chords, and the sense of width and dynamics that bass-driven breakdown gives the song. But what remains is still magnificent. Next to “Atomic”, “Heart Of Glass” sounds tentative, a band experimenting with disco but still half-ready to discard it. As a fusion of rock, disco and pop this is far more full-blooded – indeed it’s one of the band’s most passionate singles. Debbie Harry sounds possessed by the moment, and the climax – “Oh, atomic, oh”, when she fades into her own enraptured backing vocals – is extraordinary.

Blondie, of course, were a group, and never more so than here. The sound of “Atomic” is unbeatable – those surf guitars, the surges of synth under Harry’s verses, Clem Burke’s rocket-fuel drum fills; all interweaving to make the single sound as vast and modern and hot as it does. And as lean: nothing is wasted, nothing is overdone. In the end, “Atomic”’s abstraction is what makes it one of the greatest Number Ones. You could hear the song as making love one last time as doomsday comes, but I prefer a more metaphysical reading: that wanting to come up with something that would match the absolute of nuclear war, Harry simply reached for the perfect gesture of glamour. “Oh, your hair is beautiful. Oh, oh, oh tonight.” Sex beats death.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 24 Oct 2008 #

    as everyone knows*, UCB was the themetune** to “union city”, a film deborah harry starred in (released in 1980) set in a grim 50s industrial american town — so the word “union” DID have secret/sketchy political content (heh, just like atomic!), esp. if you actually saw the film (it’s based on a short story by cornel woolrich)

    (to be honest the only thing i can remember in it is that DH and her husband had one of those beds that fold into the wall)

    *is this true? the internet seems strangely quiet about it, so maybe it’s become a widely forgotten or never-known fact
    **actually i dimly remember that the song wasn’t used in the film, tho chris stein wrote the music — but might be wrong about this

  2. 52
    wichita lineman on 24 Oct 2008 #

    I remember reading about Union City in Smash Hits, with a b+w pic of Debbie sat in her kitchen with a cup of coffee, looking stunning with short dark hair. Was it set in the 60s, Tarkus? It certainly never made it to Purley Astoria.

    I dimly remember reading that the song wasn’t in the film.

    In my mind Union City is season 2 of The Wire, only in black and white, and starring Debbie Harry. Clearly this film would rival The Third Man, so it can’t be true, but if anyone has a copy I’d LOVE to see it.

  3. 53
    Mark M on 24 Oct 2008 #

    “only in black and white”… Meanwhile, in back in the world of film criticism, Union City is apparently “noted for its use of color”. But I’ve never seen it, and I must say that – prompted by the video of the song? – I also imagined it had something to do with the docks. Which it doesn’t, or at least as far as I gather.

  4. 54
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 24 Oct 2008 #

    no it’s set in the 50s, in union city, new jersey — i saw it (i think on video, possibly on tv) in the early 80s… i’d forgotten she had dark hair (and i wonder if this worked against the film’s success?)

    i actually remember it as bein in black and white but this may just be the passage of time — i suspect it ain’t very good or we’d all know more about it! (deb’s next big role would be in cronenberg’s videodrome)

  5. 55
    wichita lineman on 24 Oct 2008 #

    Well, I’ve just found out it’s on dvd, so I’ll let you know! The cover shot looks like tinted monochrome, and features her rugged beau Everett McGill (later in Twin Peaks) and a BLONDE Debs (!) with a fine Atomic Age ‘do – something which may have been playing on hers and Chris Stein’s minds when they wrote the 45 we’re meant to be gassing about.

  6. 56
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 24 Oct 2008 #

    also it features cch pounder, an actress i have always liked

  7. 57
    Glue Factory on 24 Oct 2008 #

    #54, I like her a lot in The Shield. Although I’ve never worked out how to pronounce her name, beyond “see-see-aitch” which I suspect it isn’t.

  8. 58
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 24 Oct 2008 #

    it’s just her initials so i think it is exactly that (i only know because i read it on imdb)

  9. 59
    Tracer Hand on 24 Oct 2008 #

    On New Year’s Eve, 1999, I was in a kitchen in Glasgow, getting ready for a night out at Optimo, which was on upstairs at the Art School.

    I didn’t realize it yet, but a lot of my friends that night were already turning into the intransigent stay-at-homers that would later become, with one in particular refusing to even come out at all until he was literally picked up and carried to a cab.

    But before all this, we got ready, me and a ginger-haired Edinburghian, by chatting nonsense and listening to the Top Singles of the Millenium on Radio 1. This song beat them all. It was the first time I, an American, had even heard it, but my friend was bouncing around the room, hair dryer as microphone, deadpan poses struck.

    I would have been happy to just stay in that night with her, listening to that tinny countdown, striking poses in her kitchen, taking stock of everything pop had accomplished. But eventually it ended and it was time to go.

  10. 60

    […] 3) Popular: Blondie – “Atomic” […]

  11. 61
    H. on 25 Oct 2008 #

    I loved this song at the time (and still love it), and I definitely remember latching onto the atomic = nuclear = end of the world theme, and that this was part of its appeal. I think I associated it more generally with the alienation/nihilism of a lot of the “new wave” music I was listening to at the time (Gary Numan, Berlin Bowie, Joy Division etc). The hedonism-in-the-face-of-apocalypse is a theme that comes up often enough in pop.

  12. 62
    SteveIson on 26 Oct 2008 #

    Much as i enjoy reading all the posts of these songs dissecting meanings n trends-above ALL those kinda things in importance for the best pop music-beneath the great futuristic production here even, is the intuitive ‘rightness’ of the tune-something rarely (ever?) mentioned…Here,the joy of those long sun-drenched tonights on the verse into the open arms rush of the ‘oh your hair is beautiful’ chorus..Its a quality of magic n spirit that defies analysis-but everyone understands it when they hear it-and if this song didn’t have it in spades it wouldn’t’ve reached #1-and no one here would be talking about it at all….
    Blondie lost touch with that spirit imo after Eat To The Beat..The Police lost it when The Police turned into Sting .Bolan had lost it by the end of ’73.All pop n rock artists seem to lose touch with it in the end.Its like they take their eye off the ball and forget what made their music brilliant n special in the first place or something…..9

  13. 63
    LondonLee on 26 Oct 2008 #

    This is similar to my theory about a band following up a mega success after a long absence with something that’s, if not overblown exactly, but lacking in the ease and lightness of touch they once had. It happened to Duran Duran after ‘Rio’ and The Police after their third album (I’d even say they lost “it” after the second). It could be as simple as money changing everything, but those moments when a band has “it” are usually fleeting and only the really special ones keep hold of it for very long.

  14. 64
    Ariel on 26 Oct 2008 #

    Reading this, some song lyrics popped into my head about “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy”… ‘Russians’ by Sting had exactly the same effect on me as Blondie had on you, and the power of pop on young impressionable minds should never be under-estimated.

  15. 65
    peter goodlaws on 26 Oct 2008 #

    I think 63 has it right. The shelf life of many bands (not all) is never very long once vast success is reached. It’s not that the eye is taken off the ball as 62 suggests, it is imho a case of the ball in question changing from a soccer ball to a rugby ball and Bolan and Sting and company don’t notice and end up slicing their kick. Then there’s someone like five star who in the same analagy didn’t even have any boots and someone had nicked the ball as well so that’s them fucked.

  16. 66
    jeff w on 27 Oct 2008 #

    Surprised (but v. pleased) to see the 10 score here, I was expecting to have to react to another ‘underwhelmed’ review. ;)

    I can at least quibble with the comment about the single edit, which I think improves the song.

    More later. I’m sure I wibbled on about “Atomic” on an ILM thread once. I’ll see if I can find the post…

  17. 67
    Doctor Casino on 29 Dec 2008 #

    I think I just don’t “get” Blondie, and probably never will – “Atomic” bores me more than anything else I’ve heard by them and clearly if I were going to be a fan I wouldn’t feel that way! This just feels empty, thin and wimpy to me, and whatever attitude might be embodied in the nuclear ambivalence just doesn’t crystallize for me. Different strokes, I guess.

  18. 68
    Cowboyrob on 18 Feb 2009 #

    Hello. And Bye.

  19. 69
    punctum on 13 Oct 2009 #

    “Atomic” scared the shit out of me when I first heard it; its luridly lucid music and its livid, primary-coloured video shot straight to videotape, full of gashed yellow and bleeding red, suggested the last three minutes before the Apocalypse, the end of everything. Debbie’s urgent-verging-on-frantic vocal performance (is she singing “Uh huh, make me tonight” or “Atomic me tonight”?) is sung as though the radiation is already seeping in, as though this is absolutely our last chance to “make it right.” If we have to die, then let it be with screams of ecstasy to blank out terror: “Uh huh make it magnificent/Tonight.” The perilously precious security blanket of Romanticism is clung to even as it shreds up: “Oh your hair is beautiful” is proclaimed as the Last Trump.

    The music, with its heavily echoed lead guitars and deliberately backward-looking chord changes, via the Shadows/Barry/Morricone, also drags me back to my earliest memory; the sonorous and vaguely ominous clang recapturing the nocturnal taxi, conveying me back home from the Glasgow Royal Infirmary in December 1964, having just clung onto life following a near-fatal bout of pneumonia – it may have originated from Billy J Kramer’s “Little Children,” of all unlikely candidates. Moreover, the song demonstrates that its parent album, Eat To The Beat, was Blondie’s real masterpiece, ahead of the undeniably great, but a touch too clinical, Parallel Lines; “Dreaming” roars off its leash, ecstatically running downhill, and in particular Clem Burke’s drumming defines liberation, the return to punk power pop, with added Spectorian hauntology, is simultaneously intimate and epic. “Union City Blue” is perhaps Burke’s finest moment, as he lets rip with torrents of fourths and eighths fills and rolls, like thunderclaps over the leaking roof of CBGBs. But “Atomic” just edges out “Rapture” as the group’s greatest single (as in 45) achievement; it is a panoramic, scared and bold declaration of renewed love and permanence of spirit, just as the soul of the planet is being ripped to shreds.

  20. 70
    Brooksie on 14 Feb 2010 #

    Love this. Favourite Blondie song.

    @Doctor Casino # 67:

    What you say pretty much sums up what the bulk of the ‘credible’ music press were saying back in ’80 when this came out. Blondie were dismissed as a corporate rock band, with some decent studio craft, who appealed to kids that didn’t know better.

    Remember, Blondie records were nestled in the same charts that held The Specials and The Jam. Credibility would not have been so generously dished out as today. Think on that.

    Clem Burke was, and is, one of the greatest drummers around.

  21. 71
    Paytes on 1 Jul 2010 #

    Few people have mentioned Shads/Morricone influence on the guitar line here, but I reckon Stein & Co had been listening to Dean Parrish’s Northern Soul Classic (and famed Final 3 at the Wigan Casino tune)I’m On My Way …

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DFqNOfYvJQ&feature=related

  22. 72
    DanielS on 29 Dec 2010 #

    One thing that never seems to get mentioned about this song is the really fine bass work by Nigel Harrison. I don’t know, maybe someone did mention it.

    The song is really propulsive, which sort of makes up for the underwritten middle part. I mean, it’s 4 min. 45 secs. and the sheer driving forward of it is what keeps you interested. Of course what there is of Deb’s vocals is pop heaven.

  23. 73
    hectorthebat on 20 Aug 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Pitchfork (USA) – The Pitchfork 500 (2008)
    Slant (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s (2012) 59
    Dave Thompson (UK) – 1000 Songs that Rock Your World (2011) 731
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1980s (2012) 87
    NME (UK) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2014) 144
    New Musical Express (UK) – NME Rock Years, Single of the Year 1963-99 (2000)
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 112
    XFM (UK) – The Top 1000 Songs of All Time (2010)
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 14
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 611
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  24. 74
    Patrick Mexico on 7 Nov 2014 #

    A cracking little bit of Atomic found its way into a cracking little song by some local heroes round my way – featuring Bernie Calvert from the Hollies’ son on bass, no less:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RURReEqnPO4

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