14
Sep 14

BLONDIE – “Maria”

Popular83 comments • 4,893 views

#815, 13th February 1999

blondmaria Whatever Jimmy Destri meant when he wrote “Maria”, it isn’t a song about a woman: it’s a song about men’s reaction to women – lust, fantasy, resentment, projection and ultimately psychosis. Debbie Harry – the most gazed-upon pop star of her era – diagnoses the problem as succinctly as anyone has: “Don’t you want to break her? Don’t you want to take her home?” She sounds suitably withering, singing as someone who well knows that the two impulses are not often separable.

A song of experience, then, turning a spotlight onto the moment where their sense of entitlement drives men mad. Not a bad idea for a Blondie comeback, and reaction to the record proved the point. Blondie was – still – a group, but much of the commentary began with lip-smacking judgements on whether Harry had stayed hot.

A more rewarding question: how well had the sound aged? “Maria” took the group back to its new wave roots – a mild disappointment from the start, as Blondie had been one of the bands who most startlingly worked out how a group could sustain an identity through consistent attitude, not consistent sound, and jump from style to style while still being themselves. But perhaps that was unfair criticism: “Maria”’s parent album, No Exit, had plenty of experiments in genre, and revival itself was still an unusual move for a band of Blondie’s era. “Maria” was one of the surprise hits of its time just for existing – people didn’t seem to mind that the music played it a little safe.

New wave had been an economical music – trimming instrumental fat to better put a spotlight on its crisply defined personalities. That kind of economy can segue naturally into classicism – “Maria” feels not so much a throwback as an attempted escape into a kind of CBGBs theme park, where the guitars and cheekbones and put-downs are all as sharp as each other. In the 00s, that kind of cool would make a deliberate comeback in the hands of younger groups. For now, “Maria” can’t quite get there. It feels heavy, both effortful and prone to making sloppy errors (for instance – the unnecessary double-up of “Go insane and out of your mind”, which grates just as much as when I first heard it). And it’s long: three minutes of taut ideas puffed into five. For all the stiletto twists of Harry’s performance, Blondie sound a little ring-rusty, a touch flabby. It hobbles “Maria”, never letting it break away from the easy condescension of “nice to have you back”.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    Tom on 17 Sep 2014 #

    I think the accent makes the song too – but (from memory!) I don’t think her voice was that much appreciated beyond “she’s Welsh”. And yes, I take Wichita’s point about the song titles though I find them more endearing than forced. The duet with Space is the line I can’t cross, though (even if Cerys is good on it).

    Elastica are a massive blindspot for me – “Connection”, “Car Song”, er… that’s it, sorry. Better than Sleeper? I’ll give you that. Better than the Strokes? Less annoying, about equal musically, but high point for high point I’d take “Hard To Explain” over anything Elastica did. In terms of style, attitude, presence though they were the purest Britpop thing (OK maybe Menswear, but even I would grant they were easily better than Menswear) – all the other bands involved, even the very famous ones, adopted Britpop after other ideas had tanked (or in Oasis’ case had it thrust upon them). If I’d had more liking for Britpop I’d have loved them for that, I think.

  2. 52
    Tom on 17 Sep 2014 #

    & there’s a Strokes-related record which is as good a New Wave track as any we’ve mentioned here, but it’s half-bunnied.

  3. 53
    JLucas on 17 Sep 2014 #

    I’ve always felt that Dead From The Waist Down by Catatonia was a lovely thing. Not every singer can make a lyric like “Make hay not war” work, but Cerys had warmth and humour in spades.

  4. 54
    JLucas on 17 Sep 2014 #

    The Ballad of Tom Jones is a great idea for a novelty single, but the execution doesn’t really come off. The verses are great, but the chorus feels half-hearted, as if they’re embarrassed by their own joke. It probably would’ve worked better by professional comedians who could really take it over the top without worrying about damaging their credibility.

  5. 55
    Tommy Mack on 17 Sep 2014 #

    #48: I’d rate Cerys best as a singer, Louise Wener as a songwriter (in the Mojo ‘can you whistle it’ sense) and Elastica as a band (in terms of concept and to borrow a phrase from Patrick Bateman, ensemble playing.)

    I also enjoyed Space: never sure why they used to get panned so much. Although TBOTJ may go some way to explaining it. Tommy Space sounded like he wanted the ground to open up and swallow him.

  6. 56
    tm on 17 Sep 2014 #

    Not least because Cerys is out singing him in the ratio Cher:Sonny

  7. 57
    Paulito on 17 Sep 2014 #

    @49: I assume you’re referring to the “faggot” line in ‘Money For Nothing’. Did you miss the whole “singing in character” bit?

    As for “Les Boys”, that’s a bit harder to defend. However, while I’ll accept that it’s a rather mean-spirited song, the fact that it disparages a particular type of gay scene doesn’t automatically mean it’s homophobic. Gays who sneer at the lifestyles of monogamous, vanilla straights don’t get called “heterophobic”.

  8. 58
    Ed on 18 Sep 2014 #

    @57 Veering wildly off-topic here, but although I think the use of “faggot” is unpleasant, it’s not the worst thing about ‘Money For Nothing’, by a long chalk.

    For one thing, there is also the line about “banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee”, although again I guess you could say that it’s not Knopfler being racist, it’s him depicting racism.

    What there is no getting round, though, is the fact that Knopfler is, as you say, “singing in character”. The condescension towards people who have jobs moving TVs and installing microwave ovens – even if it is supposedly based on some real overheard dialogue – is nauseating. The sight of Knopfler and Sting sniggering over these poor dumb clucks, who don’t realise how tough it is to be a millionaire rock star, is one of the least edifying spectacles in the history of pop.

    To be fair, I know nothing at all about Knopfler or his ethical and political views, and I am sure he’s a perfectly decent guy in real life, but that song is an ugly piece of work. And for it to have come after ‘Les Boys’…. well, you could see a pattern emerging.

  9. 59
    Ed on 18 Sep 2014 #

    @55 Patrick Bateman puts his finger on it again! “Ensemble playing” is exactly what makes Elastica great: they sound like they are actually listening to each other. That plus a few great tunes will get you a long way. Plus the fact that in Justine Frischmann they had the most, erm, charismatic front-person of the entire Britpop era.

  10. 60
    tm on 18 Sep 2014 #

    #57, #58. Les Boys is pretty homophobic: I don’t think Knopf ever meant it as such and he’d prob have got away with it but for the ‘glad to be gay’ line but it’s patronizing and clumsy: The (straight or at least straight acting) Sultans Of Swing’s struggle against indifference is framed as heroic whereas glad to be gay Les Boys are just rubbish.

    As for Money for Nothing, I don’t see why a rock star shouldn’t take the piss out of a man spewing racist and homophobic bile in public just because he has a blue collar job. Taken as a whole, Dire Straits’ body of work (Christ that sounds like something Alan Partridge would say) is hardly unsympathetic to the working classes. Let’s not go the ‘Happy Mondays can’t help being misogynist, homophobic arseholes because that’s what working class lads are like’ route.

  11. 61
    tm on 18 Sep 2014 #

    #59: ‘Patrick Bateman nails it again’ would be more apt!

    Elastica sound like a band whereas Sleeper and Catatonia sound like backing groups and fairly undistinguished ones at that: it’s the singer you’re listening to, the band are just providing a competent noise in the background from most of what I’ve heard. Admittedly, I’ve only heard Catatonia’s singles: their albums could sound like Napalm Death for all I know.

  12. 62
    tm on 18 Sep 2014 #
  13. 63
    glue_factory on 18 Sep 2014 #

    I suppose I have less of a problem with the use of “faggot” in Money For Nothing, than I do with it in The Fairytale of New York, where it still gets a freepass on account of it being in character and, basically, because too many people like the song. The problem being that some of Shane’s behaviour towards women and non-white-people in James Fearnley’s Here Comes Everybody makes me think Shane is the character.

  14. 64
    Tommy Mack on 18 Sep 2014 #

    My disappeared comments: suppressed because the ideas they contain are so explosive they threaten the very fabric of society…

    • tm † on 18 Sep 2014 #
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    #57, #58. Les Boys is pretty homophobic: I don’t think Knopf ever meant it as such and he’d prob have got away with it but for the ‘glad to be gay’ line but it’s patronizing and clumsy: The (straight or at least straight acting) Sultans Of Swing’s struggle against indifference is framed as heroic whereas glad to be gay Les Boys are just rubbish.
    As for Money for Nothing, I don’t see why a rock star shouldn’t take the piss out of a man spewing racist and homophobic bile in public just because he has a blue collar job. Taken as a whole, Dire Straits’ body of work (Christ that sounds like something Alan Partridge would say) is hardly unsympathetic to the working classes. Let’s not go the ‘Happy Mondays can’t help being misogynist, homophobic arseholes because that’s what working class lads are like’ route.
    • 61
    tm † on 18 Sep 2014 #
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    #59: ‘Patrick Bateman nails it again’ would be more apt!
    Elastica sound like a band whereas Sleeper and Catatonia sound like backing groups and fairly undistinguished ones at that: it’s the singer you’re listening to, the band are just providing a competent noise in the background from most of what I’ve heard. Admittedly, I’ve only heard Catatonia’s singles: their albums could sound like Napalm Death for all I know.

  15. 65
    Ed on 18 Sep 2014 #

    #60 OK, you have actually forced me to reassess my opinion of MFN a bit. Perhaps it is a subtler piece of work than I had realised. Maybe I don’t hate it quite so much now.

    Still in no rush to listen to it, again, though….

  16. 66
    tm on 18 Sep 2014 #

    #65 it’s all about the guitar break at the start, downhill after that.

    #63: It’s a lazy rhyme for maggot, innit? Just as well there isn’t a dementedly homophobic pop star on the Popular horizon to upset y’all. Oh, wait…

  17. 67
    iconoclast on 19 Sep 2014 #

    #65 #66: plus the fact that it’s about eight and a half minutes long, and the guitar riff appears nearly two dozen times, both of which are overkill.

  18. 68
    Tommy Mack on 20 Sep 2014 #

    Is it really that long? That is overkill.

  19. 69
    enitharmon on 20 Sep 2014 #

    #67 #68 The fact that you didn’t notice rather suggests that it might not be overkill! I note that Won’t Get Fooled Again (much on my mind after the Scotland debacle) runs in at 7 seconds longer and I’ve never heard anybody calling that overkill.

    May I put in a word for the beleagured Mark Knopfler amidst all the hate? I won’t be so crass as to say I knew him well but he was part of the Notting Hill community when I lived there in the 80s. There’s no reason to suppose that there was a shred of homophobia about him.

  20. 70
    Alfred on 20 Sep 2014 #

    #57: Gays don’t get “heterophobic” because they’re not the ones in power. Besides, lots of gays want the family and home in 2014, remember?

  21. 71
    Patrick Mexico on 21 Sep 2014 #

    #66 – More than one on the horizon, sadly. One half of 2003 Creepy Russian Bunny came over all “foot in mouth”, this week, to say the least.

  22. 72
    Tommy Mack on 21 Sep 2014 #

    #69 – don’t think he meant it as homophobic. The majority of Dire Straits’ songs seem to champion or at least sympathise with the underdog. MFN aside because the narrator of the song’s being a prick and having his prickishness mocked in the very rock music he despises. It’s just unfortunate that in Les Boys, the first (only?) time gay characters appear in DS’ work, it’s in the a position of pity and ridicule.

  23. 73
    Tom on 23 Sep 2014 #

    Just a quick update on updates – I have been busy last week and this with the day job, going to see Kate Bush, minor parenting nightmares and working on a Secret Thing which is pop related but not for public consumption. So the next entry will be up sometime this week, perhaps even tomorrow, sorry for the delay.

  24. 74
    Ed on 25 Sep 2014 #

    @69 Going back to what I was saying @58, I wasn’t trying to impugn Knopfler’s character. It doesn’t surprise me at all that he seemed a decent guy.

    It’s the songs I was objecting too, not the man.

    Does it work the other way, too? In other words, can good or merely unexceptionable songs be separated from the reprehensible attitudes or behavior of their creators? I still don’t know what I think about this one, in spite of having been given plenty of opportunities to think about it in recent years.

    I guess, as others have suggested, we’ll get some more chances to chew it over before we’re done here. I’ve worked out who one of the forthcoming homophobes is, but I’ve no idea about the other.

  25. 75
    Tommy Mack on 25 Sep 2014 #

    #74: “can good or merely unexceptionable songs be separated from the reprehensible attitudes or behavior of their creators?” – Depends on the degree and nature of their malevolence. If you were only going to listen to records by decent people, you’d probably have a much smaller record collection. In popular terms, there are massive double standards here: no-one listens to Gary Glitter any more but plenty are happy to listen to records made by murderers like Phil Spector and Joe Meek and wife-beaters like James Brown and John Lennon. Actually, reprehensible behaviour is probably easier to separate from the music than reprehensible attitudes and historic crimes more so than ongoing abuse etc.

    Re: Les Boys, I don’t think there’s any homophobic intent behind it: Knopf seems to be on Les Boys’ side but what he feels for them is pity rather than admiration which feels casually homophobic when compared to the stoic dignity of the straight outsider stereotypes in Sultans of Swing, The Gallery, Single-Handed Sailor (not, sadly, a song about wanking). It’s plausible that, like SoS or MFN, Les Boys is based on a real-life encounter and the real life Les Boys were rubbish but as I’ve said up thread, it still feels clumsy and patronising. I never thought in 2014 I’d be dissecting the sexual politics of Dire Straits album fillers…

  26. 76
    Ed on 25 Sep 2014 #

    Dire Straits album tracks are the real secret history of the 20th Century.

  27. 77
    Cumbrian on 25 Sep 2014 #

    I suppose I’d better chime in here again, given I dropped that Les Boys pebble into the water some way back up this thread and managed to turn this into a referendum on whether Knopfler is a homophobe or not. I agree with the contrast against Sultans of Swing as being a pointer towards it being casual rather than outright homphobia and I think it likely that Knopfler isn’t homophobic himself. Still, it’s not a very pleasant song and can be very easily misinterpreted, especially as musically it’s so bad that I would imagine that very few people get to the end where it’s revealed that though “they’re bad for business” (and why might that be?) they dream of Jean Genet and are probably on a different intellectual level to the people that are throwing brickbats at them or dismissing them as useless. They’d have turned off before then, either mentally or physically, I’d imagine.

    I’ve said elsewhere that I think Dire Straits are due a reappraisal. I like them – not all their stuff but a good proportion of it. They’re not going to get one, I would imagine, but there’s loads of their stuff which I would happily stick up for (Telegraph Road, Tunnel Of Love, etc). When they’re epic (proper usage), they’re epic (youth usage).

  28. 78
    flahr on 25 Sep 2014 #

    #77 – I think that gives me some sort of legal obligation to link to Punctum’s piece on the rather wonderful Love Over Gold.

  29. 79
    SimonS on 28 Sep 2014 #

    #77 “They get nervous and they make mistakes
    They’re bad for business”. Mistakes, not les boys.

    It’s an observational song, but far from his best. Is Private Dancer misogynistic?

  30. 80
    ciaran on 20 Oct 2014 #

    Although I wasn’t really all that familiar with Blondie’s heyday I thought their comeback was a good thing for some reason.

    This was around the time the 80s revival was underway so Maria came at exactly the right time. Madness were also on the comeback trail by the summer of 99 aswell.

    It isnt quite up to the heights of Heart of Glass or Atomic as they sound more like a pub rock act than than uber cool futuristic early 80s group but bonus points for the chorus.

    6.

  31. 81
    anto on 20 Oct 2014 #

    I’m picking up on a Catholic theme in this one. All those ‘ave Marias’ and ‘a million and one candlelights’. It’s unmistakably Blondie but somehow more streamlined and professional than in their heyday. The comeback like so many others seemed interesting for a few days, but then maybe you don’t want it as much as you think you did.
    What really struck me about ‘One Way or Another’ which is a casually savage documentary even stealthier than Molly Dineen’s film about Geri Haliwell was how the individuals in Blondie came across. Harry and Stein seemed jaded but basically cool, Clem Burke was a bit clueless but harmless but the others came across as a shower of embittered wankers – Nigel Harrison in particular. It’s a film that tells you a lot about people who refuse to grow up.

  32. 82
    Cumbrian on 11 Apr 2016 #

    66-69: I’ve suddenly realised, after quite some time, why I have felt something wrong with Money For Nothing every time I hear it on Spotify or on a shuffled play through my iPod. The version I remember from my childhood felt much, much shorter and got to the main riff far quicker at the intro. On review, it’s because my Dad had it on vinyl way back in the mid-80s, recorded it to tape and stuck it in the car. After hitting wiki, I’ve discovered that the album’s run time is about 7 and a half minutes shorter than the CD, all of which is trimmed out of Side A – so it’s really jarring to hear these longer versions whenever they come on.

    MFN is still 7 mins long on vinyl, mind, and Brothers In Arms is probably Dire Straits’ worst album. I certainly prefer the first 4 studio albums far ahead of what turned out to be the “big one”.

    As you were, anyway. I can’t imagine anyone cares too much about this…

  33. 83
    John R on 29 Jul 2016 #

    This is a great tune from a fuggin great band.

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