14
Sep 14

BLONDIE – “Maria”

Popular85 comments • 9,657 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”.

5

Comments

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  1. 1
    AMZ1981 on 14 Sep 2014 #

    Firstly the stats – with Maria Blondie set a new record that (I think) holds to this day. It was eighteen years since their last chart topper, marking the longest gap by an act who returned to the top with a newly recorded song (although I hasten to add that after duetting with her husband Cher had to wait twenty five years to do so in her own right).

    I thought Maria was a great pop song at the time and, now fifteen years old itself and seperated from its context, it holds up well. Interestingly the comeback album No Exit was patchy but the far superior follow ups (The Curse Of Blondie in 2002 and Panic Of Girls in 2011) failed to interest the record buying public. While the four chart toppers that preceded this were very much of their era I think it’s safe to say Maria could and would have been a hit anytime prior to the start of the download era. It’s not quite up there with Blondie’s best but given that, remixes aside, their last significant hit was Island Of Lost Souls – hardly their worst either.

  2. 2
    Andrew Farrell on 14 Sep 2014 #

    I don’t think of this sound as particularly new-wavish (or indeed Blondieish), though that may well be just ignorance on my part: it seems to be very rockish, with something contrary to new wave’s sterility – possibly country (or the countriest bits of rock)? Something about the shuffle of the drums, or that guitar piece (again ignorance prevents me from specifying) that first appears beneath the first “insane and out of your mind”.

    “Walking on imported air” is still a great line, though.

  3. 3
    Tom on 14 Sep 2014 #

    It is a great line, so great he had apparently used it already on a 1980 album track and recycled it :)

  4. 4
    Tom on 14 Sep 2014 #

    I see your point about rock – I think perhaps its close proximity to the next entry leads me to downweight the rock elements, comparatively speaking. But new wave wasn’t really NOT rock music.

  5. 5
    sukrat unlogged and w/o qualification on 14 Sep 2014 #

    Dispatch from the taste-barriers of long ago: I think the only thing I’d say was a lot uncharacteristic of “new wave” (in the US sense) is the actual real longform (non-Fripp) guitar solo at c.3.20? The neo-rockabilly crack of the beat and the Duane-Eddy-as-a-krautrock-robot riffing prior to that were not uncommon — not enough to mark it out as out of step anyway — and while the sound-layering was by now also being introduced into 80s rock, this didn’t stop it being a new wave thing. Boston and Foreigner aren’t NOT “new wavey” :D

  6. 6
    punctum on 14 Sep 2014 #

    Watching the BBC’s Omnibus documentary on Blondie a few years ago was a sobering and slightly dispiriting experience since Debbie Harry made absolutely no bones about the group’s less than neat dissolution in 1982 and the awful afterlife. The initial split coincided with, and may have been partially provoked by, Chris Stein’s prolonged and debilitating illness; when Harry checked the group’s accounts as preparation for taking a long-term sabbatical to look after him she was horrified to find that she and Stein were close to broke; ripped off by a manager they were too scared/couldn’t afford to fire, practically none of the royalties due them had come their way or had been siphoned off elsewhere. Thus began a long and weary course of legal action and concomitant penury; in the documentary Harry betrays nuances of years unspeakable in their quietened horror. Upon Stein’s recovery in 1985 Harry essentially worked to assignment for the best part of the following decade, quietly building up a parallel reputation as a film actress, issuing occasional, modestly successful solo records (Rockbird, Def Dumb And Blonde) with an eye on the bills and a heart not in it, and venturing out to do what she really wanted, as long-term vocalist with the Jazz Passengers.

    Eventually the legal battles were won and the royalties finally reached their intended pockets; furthermore, regular compilations and reissues kept the Blondie name buoyant, not to mention the band and Harry in particular being repeatedly cited as an inspiration by seemingly every indie group with a feisty female lead singer. Towards the end of the nineties Harry, Stein, Clem Burke and Jimmy Destri, now feeling up for it again, opted to regroup under the Blondie name and a new album was recorded. “Maria” was its lead single, and if there were ever more uncomplicated and genuine goodwill bestowed on any pop artist’s comeback record I must have missed it. Twenty years after “Heart Of Glass” and just over eighteen years after their last number one, they were back – and the magic and relief are evident in every second of the single.

    Debbie was by now fifty-three, and so Cher ’s record as the oldest female artist to reach number one was very shortlived indeed – but both triumphs were richly deserved. Her voice was now slightly deeper and more lived in but its fluidity and flexibility were as evident as ever; note the six different meanings she can produce from the expression “ooh” throughout the song – her “ooh, it makes you wanna die” bears an innate sensuality which is more than merely admirable and her fainting “fool” in the phrase “Fool for love” is the kind of element which defies any art of timing. Although some of the song refers back to previous Blondie works – it wasn’t the first time she’d used the expression “walking on imported air” for instance – its undiminished rush is irresistible; the old parable of sex magnet as object of worship (“Latina! Ave Maria!/A million and one candlelights!”) is beautifully wrought (the counterbalancing “Go insane and out of your mind”) with all their best elements intact; the descending peal of bells on the second chorus onwards, the fancy drum fill which Clem can’t resist inserting into the fadeout. The girl had reclaimed her power. Eight candlelights, more yellow than blue

  7. 7
    Ed on 14 Sep 2014 #

    Sukrat is right that by 1980-ish all rock was New Wave(y), even Rush and Yes.

    But I know what Andrew means about Maria not quite capturing the Spirit of 1978. It may be the acoustic guitar low in the mix, or the unnecessary (synth?) harmonica, but mostly it’s just a hard-to-define lack of urgency, in the rhythm section, the guitar and the vocals.

    Regardless of what teenagers might think, the gap between 33 and 28 (Harry’s and Stein’s ages at the time of Parallel Lines) and 53 and 49 is quite a big one. Particularly given the harrowing experiences in the intervening years detailed by Punctum.

  8. 8
    lonepilgrim on 14 Sep 2014 #

    Debbie Harry sounds a lot (more) like Patti Smith (from Gone Again) on this song – partly the texture of her voice, partly the denser production. The song falls between two stools – not as poppy as previous hits but not as rock-y as, for instance, Patti. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. At times, in memory, I like this – but when I’m actually listening to it I drift off a bit

  9. 9
    Shiny Dave on 14 Sep 2014 #

    Always heard Debbie’s voice in this as oddly androgynous – half of me is wondering if that actually works for the best, making it oddly possible to imagine her own voice as representing the gazer rather than the object of gaze.

    Tom’s right to point out the lyrical clunker in the chorus, but it’s a heck of a hook nonetheless, and with those descending bells it frankly surprises me this didn’t come out a couple of months earlier. Might it have deprived the Spices of a third straight Crimbo chart-topper if it had?

    A whole lot more memorable than “Goodbye,” and while the review tempts me down, gut instinct wins out – this is a song I genuinely enjoy returning to. 8.

  10. 10
    23 Daves on 14 Sep 2014 #

    I clearly remember a few of my friends loudly celebrating the fact that this got to number one, but that was all their conversations consisted of. There was no “Blondie are back at number one! And it’s with an amazing track! And here’s why it’s amazing!” It was more like: “Blondie are back at number one! And this is just and right and proper, and why would anyone ask for anything else?” The song itself barely got mentioned.

    And I don’t dislike “Maria”, I just felt then – and feel now – that it’s not the comeback single dreams are made of. It’s slightly overworked and weary sounding, and while the weariness helps certain parts of the lyrics, there’s something faintly dispiriting about it all. What should have been a great moment, or at least a close scrape towards one, sounds largely ordinary instead. It’s a good enough pop song, but had Sleeper or any of the other Blondie-inspired Britpoppers released it a year-and-a-half before, you can’t help but think that it wouldn’t have prevented their labels from dropping them (and that’s not such a silly comparison, as Sleeper were already attempting to take a more adult orientated pop-rock direction at that point in a bid to survive).

    A probable 6 from me. Annoying, as it’s one of those tracks that, with a bit more spice or grit inside it, I could easily imagine having turned out a lot better.

  11. 11
    swanstep on 14 Sep 2014 #

    Hate the bells in the 2nd Chorus and after. The accordion/keyboard (?) part that enters in the Middle 8 isn’t much chop either. Minor points perhaps but for me they’re emblematic of the whole feeling undercooked writing-, production-, and performance-wise. E.g. 3., Clem Burke’s one of my favourite drummers but here he’s just time-keeping and occupying a lot of space on the record without anything to say (‘Dreaming’ it ain’t). Lyrics are pretty bad – ‘Cool as air’ (the air in NYC is anything but refreshing a lot of the time!), ‘She’s oceans running down the drain/Blue as ice and desire’ (What? And this is a Latina? Really? And this water imagery fights with the fire and candlelights imagery in the song… ). Anyhow, if the melodies were stronger and the arrangement better I probably wouldn’t notice the underdone lyrics so much, but as it stands, for me ‘Maria’ is a puzzling #1 and only deserving of a:
    3 or 4

  12. 12
    thefatgit on 14 Sep 2014 #

    Yay! Blondie are back. And I guess if you wanted to believe they had stayed true to their roots, then “Maria” sounds a little like “Sunday Girl” albeit squeezed through a Travelling Willburys sponge. However, it’s an rock song with a killer hook that you can hum along to, so little wonder it got to the top. Not necessarily a song that’s only propelled to the top on a wave of goodwill, but a decent song with a subtle critique on male gaze, as Tom pointed out. It had nothing at all to do with anything I was listening to in 1999, but that didn’t matter because it felt like meeting an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. “No Exit” was something of a disappointment though.(6)

  13. 13
    Tom on 14 Sep 2014 #

    #10 I think it’s absolutely true to say this is a record where the idea of it being number one helped it get to number one – in a soft sales season too, as we’ve pointed out of other records in this run. But that’s true of an awful lot of songs – many worse than “Maria”, some better.

    I think there was something resonant about Blondie specifically coming back, too (not necessarily positively resonant). From their own perspective, as Punctum’s excellent comment points out, it was a case of unfinished business. But externally it seemed like the latest evolution of pop’s relationship with its own past. The boomer contribution to pop was the idea that it would last (“It will stand”), that being into rock music was a lifelong calling. And subsequent to that there’s been a sequence of comings-to-terms with the idea that this is something every generation now does – a proportion of them are stuck forever to the music of their youth (and a little pre- and post-). That accounts for the sense among some fans – which 23 Daves noticed and which I noticed too – of rightness restored to the world with Blondie back at the top.

    Subsequent inter-generational tensions over rock have been about boomer exceptionalism, mainly – do they still like 60s music because 60s music was better, or were they simply the first generation whose sense that this stuff was NOT in fact ephemeral was fully serviced by technology and the market? Each layer of new adults tips the balance more towards the latter. Recurrent minor or major “victory moments” for a particular strata – like Blondie at #1, or the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony – are further confirmation.

  14. 14
    Tommy Mack on 14 Sep 2014 #

    5 is bang on. Nothing objectionable but it’d never make it onto a Blondie mix tape.

    Terrible video too.

  15. 15
    23 Daves on 14 Sep 2014 #

    #14 Yes, I had another look at the video earlier and couldn’t help but think it was poor. Parts of it look like the shaky, low-budget “single dubbed over live performance footage” vids unsigned or very minor league bands put together for YouTube. Somebody could surely have paid for something better than that? Or maybe video expenses were coming out of the band’s pockets, and they were extremely keen not to get stung again…

  16. 16
    Cumbrian on 14 Sep 2014 #

    As the last thrashings of Britpop played out and bands started losing record deals, along come Blondie to show everyone how it is done, without seemingly putting loads of effort in either. I’d agree with 23 Daves that Maria done by Sleeper would not have saved their record deal – but that would be because one swallow does not a summer make. Blondie are a better proposition in all respects and something tossed off as a half remembrance of their heyday knocks everything Sleeper ever released into a cocked hat, I would say. Releasing something like this might have given them a short stay of execution until everyone twigged on that they had nothing else of this quality in their locker.

    This is a touch too long, could definitely do with a bit of flab cut out of it – but otherwise has a load of decent hooks. I remember this getting to #1 and being really happy about it (I’d have been 17) not because of it being Blondie – I didn’t own a record by them at this point and only really knew Heart of Glass – but because it was better than most of the other rock records that had graced the upper reaches of the charts for a while. For me, it was not about what it was up against in Blondie’s history but what it was up against from the guitar rock scene in the UK at this time – which was, frankly, grim.

    #7: Careful with the absolute statements there. By 1980 all rock was New Wave(y)? Back In Black? Blizzard of Ozz? Making Movies? Hawks and Doves? (though Neil Young would eventually go new wave enough to be sued by Geffen, so this is a timing thing rather than an attitude thing). Not hearing too many (i.e. any) new wave elements in The River either (mostly built on 60s garage rock and soul/Motown ideas – with some pointers towards the sad sack stuff on Nebraska).

  17. 17
    mapman132 on 14 Sep 2014 #

    I believe it’s been mentioned in distant past threads, but Blondie has a very strange chart history in the US: four number ones, no other Top 20 hits (next biggest: “One Way or Another” at #24). I thought “Maria” might be the record to break the “curse”, but alas, it got no further than #82 on the Hot 100.

    A bit surprised Tom graded this so low. It’s not as good as their heyday, but certainly better to me than most of what else was around in 1999. So I’m probably grading on a curve here but 8/10 from me. A lot of good points though about the success of this record being more about the idea of a comeback rather than a true comeback. Notable the comeback appeared to fizzle out pretty quickly on the UK chart, let alone the US where it never really got going in the first place.

  18. 18
    chelovek na lune on 14 Sep 2014 #

    Rather less than the sum of its parts if you ask me. The goodwill towards Blondie’s return was understandable and welcome, but really the song – despite a couple of soaring lines – really doesn’t cut it. In places it sounds tired – more tired that it really ought (lest one starts thinking of “Union City Blue” with a free bus pass), and doesn’t excite or develop as it could or should. It seems a bit half-formed, even.

    Yeah. there’s something there, for sure – but what is equally sure is that, as well as not being a patch on most of Blondie’s earlier material (I am well prepared to defend “Island Of Lost Souls” btw), it’s also not a patch on a fair bit of Debbie (Deborah) Harry’s solo stuff – “I Want That Man” puts this completely in the shade. “Here comes the 21st century. It’s gonna be a lot better for a girl like me”. Well, perhaps…

    4 would a be a bit mean, but going higher than 5 would be too generous. Unfortunately.

  19. 19
    James BC on 14 Sep 2014 #

    It’s quite instructive to imagine this performed by one of the Britpop lot. In particular it drives home how strong Debbie Harry’s vocal is – she’s on imperious form here and the only Britpop-era singer who could touch her is, I suppose, Liam Gallagher, though his talent is a very different one. The guitar playing and drumming are pretty good too; I saw Blondie live a few years ago and that really drove home what a great *band* they are. Sometimes musicianship and vocal talent are important after all.

  20. 20
    iconoclast on 14 Sep 2014 #

    And nobody’s yet noticed that the tritone leap in the title was pinched from the song of the same name in “West Side Story”? Young people today, I don’t know. Grumble, grumble. Anyway, isn’t it great to hear something which actually sounds like it was made by actual human beings? It’s not Blondie’s best, for sure – it sounds like they’re going through the motions in some places – but it’s a hell of a lot better than most of the chart-toppers we’ve had for a very long time. With a bit more care it could have earned one or two extra marks, but most welcome all the same. SEVEN.

  21. 21
    Hugh on 14 Sep 2014 #

    Maria is a really bad song, it’s really really corny: the keyboard; “you gotta see her”; the guitar refrain in the chorus; all the “ooohs” and pun on the “ooohs” (“blooooue as ice, and desire” bleurgh).

    It was played every morning on the school bus for about a month, on Chiltern FM by Andy Gelder and The Morning Crew.

    2/10

  22. 22
    Alfred on 14 Sep 2014 #

    I loved this song. After several years of binging on Eat to the Beat and Parallel lines, Blondie returned with a Debbie Harry performance worthy of them. I do agree it sounds underwritten: it needs another verse — at any rate a better second verse — and more imagination with the arrangements, but still, an easy 7/10.

    How do y’all rate No Exit? A couple of grisly moments aside, it sounds to my ears damn vital. “Nothing is Real But the Girl,” “Double Take,” and “Under the Gun” would’ve made the top ten in the seventies.

  23. 23
    Alfred on 14 Sep 2014 #

    btw if you want to see a ripping live performance watch me perform “I Want That Man” at karaoke.

  24. 24
    Alan on 15 Sep 2014 #

    I think I must have been supremely grumpy with chart #1s at this point (tho I loved Praise You, hmm). As a kid whose first pop love was around 78-79, and nearer this time, very much into ver dancing’ music, oddly I wasn’t keen on either the previous Van Helden or this, what could have been an amazing, come back. (Has nobody really mentioned French Kissin’ in the USA yet?*). Obviously there was wider goodwill being had here, taking it to the top, but I wasn’t including myself in it. Nor could it have lived up to my atavistic proto-pop fan memory. 4 on a good day.

    * Not technically “Blondie”, obv

  25. 25
    Phil on 15 Sep 2014 #

    I’m a solid 6 on this one – your 5 seems stingy, but 7 would be generous and 8 would be absurd.

    Other than that, I’m still struggling to comprehend that Blondie’s comeback album was fifteen years ago. Something like the trouble I have (although this may just be me) reconciling the grownup-but-stylish cover images on ‘recent’ albums by Peter Blegvad and Anthony Moore with contemporary pictures of the guys (still distinguished in both cases, but greyer-haired, fuller-figured and, basically, old).

    15-20 years isn’t that long, is it? Feels like yesterday when I was listening to the Charlatans…

  26. 26
    sid on 15 Sep 2014 #

    I might be the only person here more familiar with the Korean version of this. It was the on-screen ‘debut single’ for the central character in a fat-girl-gets-thin music business comedy called 200 Pounds Beauty. Those who find the original ‘Maria’ a bit stodgy and middle-aged may enjoy the cover, although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend watching the whole film unless you have a particular liking for weight-based humour. Kim Ah Joong is the actress/singer.

    Living in Seoul at the time (2006) I can tell you that the film was a big hit and the song absolutely inescapable for months, so when I hear the Blondie original now it has the not unpleasant feel of a country-rock band covering a chart pop song. 7.

  27. 27
    MikeMCSG on 15 Sep 2014 #

    It should be mentioned that this “Blondie” was only two-thirds of the classic line-up, missing bassist Nigel Harrison who was too comfortable in his A & R role and erratic guitarist Frank Infante who remained beyond the pale, so it’s not too surprising it doesn’t quite get there. Later records would be made with only three of them when Destri’s continued drug use became too much of a problem.

  28. 28
    JLucas on 15 Sep 2014 #

    I think the difference between this as a Blondie record as opposed to one by an act like Sleeper, or even someone like Bryan Adams – who I could imagine having a hit with the song – is that it’s a real Star Performance by Deborah Harry. It’s not just nostalgia, I had only the faintest awareness of Blondie’s legacy in 1999 but what I picked up on was how imperious and commanding her vocal was. There’s a certain insouciance to her delivery on the classic Blondie hits that’s hardened into a lived-in, faintly cynical middle age, lending gravitas to what could have been a fairly trifling song.

    That said, it’s not a depressing performance by any means. She’s more teasing than contemptuous on the verse. She sees through the subject’s bullshit, but there’s affection there too. I interpret it as being addressed at a middle-aged man on the cusp of a possibly ill-advised love affair, probably with someone a fair bit younger. In any event it’s a great contrast to the chorus, which she really throws herself into. The overall effect may not be as iconic as Heart of Glass or Rapture, but it’s quite euphoric.

    9

  29. 29
    Patrick Mexico on 15 Sep 2014 #

    My first experience of Blondie topping the charts, rather than many Popular regulars’ last. In a horrible nuclear winter of having to finally leave Bowland High and weeks of limbo trying to get into a new school (and at times it was unlikely to be a mainstream one), discovering perhaps the most iconic and commanding frontwoman of all time from an infinitely more vital, exotic era was most welcome.

    Though on Top of the Pops, my dad said she “looked like someone’s mum”, whatever that means. Sigh. Those country guitar licks are straight outta Footloose, and the title track on No Exit, featuring Coolio, is too close to this for my liking:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jwsE_jeh3k

    Still, that chorus. 7.

  30. 30
    Andrew Farrell on 15 Sep 2014 #

    Footloose, yes! That’s what I was poorly trying to describe.

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