Sep 14

BLONDIE – “Maria”

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#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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  1. 31
    Patrick Mexico on 15 Sep 2014 #

    Footloose is still a big tune at a thousand student “cheese” nights.

    But imagine a 1990 where people talked more about Cop Rock than the Simpsons or Goodfellas.

  2. 32
    Alfred on 15 Sep 2014 #

    JLUCAS otm about Harry’s vocal.

  3. 33
    23 Daves on 15 Sep 2014 #

    It’s a funny one, this. Ever since we’ve started talking about it I’ve had the chorus stuck in my head, but when I revisit the song itself it always sounds flabbier and less urgent than the version I’ve got in my mind. The last time this happened was when we discussed “Sleeping Satellite” (although I think that’s probably all both songs have in common). I’ll concede that Harry’s vocal is on form, but the band sound as if they’re tired and going through the hundredth take that day.

    As I brought up Sleeper and this thread seems to be dying down (so I can’t be accused of diverting it) I may as well say that I thought their rather more adult orientated comeback single “She’s A Good Girl” was actually a treat. Far too subtle to work as the first single out of the traps after some time spent away, but it slowly unravels its charms across a number of listens. Of course, the follow-up “Romeo Me” was by-numbers rubbish so I never did investigate their final album “Pleased To Meet You”.

    A strange band, Sleeper. Mostly not worth the bother, but every so often they did surprise you.

  4. 34
    Martin F. on 15 Sep 2014 #

    Verses always remind me of Martina McBride’s “Wild Angels”. Cracking chorus, obviously.

  5. 35
    tm on 16 Sep 2014 #

    #2, #4, #5: wasn’t it the co-opting of punk aesthetics by new wave and the co-opting of new wave by the rock mainstream that gave rise to hardcore in the US: a new punker-than-punk punk that Huey Lewis and Tom Petty couldn’t get their mitts on? That and straight edge reacting against the macho drinking culture creeping into punk?

  6. 36
    tm on 16 Sep 2014 #

    #32: I had the NME free tape with She’s A Good Girl on it. I must say I was pretty disappointed even after a dozen or so plays. Mind you, I liked the Embrace and Travis songs on it at the time so I’m not going to say my judgement was infallible!

    Generally agree with you on Sleeper. Louise Wener was a great songwriter on her day but for the most part, the band were only competent: the Sleeperbloke tag was undoubtedly sexist but the truth is they were mediocre, uncharismatic musicians behind a talented singer/writer, the gender divide merely served to highlight this. Only occasionally, like on Statuesque do they shine as a band rather than just a backing group.

  7. 37
    will on 16 Sep 2014 #

    I know a few people who rate this highly but it’s never done it for me.

    The obvious rhymes..the accordian…the bells in the chorus. For a band that always had an assured sense of their own cool, it’s a very uncool record and that reason alone – whilst it was pleasing to see them back at Number One – I’ve always felt slightly irked by its presence.

  8. 38
    Ed on 16 Sep 2014 #

    @16 I was going to concede the point, given your examples, but then I thought about it….

    Making Movies is totally New Wave, for a start. I always thought of Dire Straits as starting out like a mild-mannered English Television. Knopfler is post-Dylan, in the same way that Tom Petty is, and we count Tom Petty as New Wave, surely? Knopfler also has a massive Lou Reed thing going on, and it doesn’t get much more New Wave than that.

    Hawks and Doves I don’t know, but as you say, Young was about to make the greatest “Old Wave into New Wave” move of all time. So if he wasn’t quite there yet, he was definitely on his way. (If you haven’t seen it, BTW, you must check out the fantastic 1982 ‘Computer Age’ clip on YouTube. It’s a cracker.)

    Springsteen is a marginal case, I admit, but I always think of his rock classicism as being similar to the Ramones’. And he was big on the New Wave scene, working with Patti Smith and Lou Reed (again). ‘Darkness’ is a totally New Wave album, I think.

    As for Blizzard of Ozz, I don’t know this for a fact, but I would guess that band was influenced by the New Wave (of British Heavy Metal.) I can hear Judas Priest, and probably Motörhead, in the faster tempos and some of the riffs. And NWOBHM was definitely post-punk.

    As for AC/DC, I admit they are sui generis, but I always thought there was something punk rock about them, right from ‘Dirty Deeds’ onwards. Their virtues of concision, aggression and rhythmic attack are certainly more post-punk than they are prog. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that the late 70s were when they started to become huge. Someone (Punctum?) has a great line about Van Halen being what suburban America had instead of punk. In my part of suburban England, AC/DC was what we had instead of punk.

  9. 39
    James BC on 16 Sep 2014 #

    I think it’s a harmonica, not an accordion. If it is an accordion, it must be one of very few number 1s to use one.

  10. 40
    enitharmon on 16 Sep 2014 #

    #35 Is there a barbed-wire fence separating Punk from New Wave from Rock from all the other little musical niches? I’d have thought they all influenced each other. But then the whole idea of ghettoising subtly differing musical styles seems bizarre to me, growing up as I did in the 60s/early 70s when such distinctions were vague and fuzzy where they existed before.

  11. 41
    weej on 16 Sep 2014 #

    Not sure whether to pigeonhole this as a fanbase single or a successful appeal to radio 2 listeners, either way it seems inoffensive enough, just not for me. Debbie’s voice has dropped a full octave, but she’s still got it in her to put in a performance that reminds you why she got here in the first place – something valuable in that of course, and in stark contract to (for example) Love Can Build A Bridge. However, the production just sounds like they’ve set the controls for mainstream rock and left it on autopilot, and there’s consequently little for me to get my teeth into.

    On sleeper: Yes, of course Wener was the one with the talent there, but their fatal flaw was more that they imagined themselves as the wrong kind of group – after a couple of nice, odd little singles they created an anthem with ‘Inbetweener’ and then spent the rest of their career trying to make these upbeat indie-pop songs which sounded increasingly forulaic and which tested her voice’s very narrow range way past its breaking point. They also did this very odd thing of putting all their interesting new ideas into ten-second intros for their singles, then plodding through the same old mulch for the rest of the four minutes.

  12. 42
    tm on 16 Sep 2014 #

    No there isn’t as the influence of one on the other demonstrates but the punks who broke away to birth hardcore clearly thought there should have been. Or at least that there should be a barbed wire fence protecting punk’s purity from trad rock’s commerce and hedonism. Not my opinion at all but clearly it rankled enough with enough people for them to develop their music into harder faster forms, set in opposition to the pop classicism of Blondie or The Ramones.

    Add to this also that a lot of the early hardcore bands were 10+ years younger than the first punks and you can see why they might see trad punk as old hat along with trad rock.

    I think I’m right in saying this was a US thing: that in the UK, Oi was more of a reaction against what was seen as the over-intellectualisation of post-punk music. Obv. I wasn’t there at the time so just what I’ve read and heard really.

  13. 43
    Tom on 16 Sep 2014 #

    If this is the thread where we talk about Britpop’s female-fronted bands (TM), one of the things I realised listening back over 90s NOW albums is how good Catatonia’s stuff was, especially from the POV of vocal performances carrying so-so bands – even the very corny “Mulder & Scully” seems about 100 times more ambitious than anything Sleeper managed. Britpop’s most underrated vocalist? Never taken seriously because a) the accent and b) a late arrival.

  14. 44
    Cumbrian on 16 Sep 2014 #

    #38: Obviously I disagree – I doubt I will be able to change your mind but, hey, this whole thing is nitpicking so what’s to lose by wasting a few more words on such ephemera?

    Leaving to one side whether Lou Reed is new wave or not (and I think it seriously stretches the usefulness of the genre label to say that he is) and whether Tom Petty is post-Dylan in the same way as Mark Knopfler is, I’d say the question is not whether Dire Straits were somehow New Wave. The question is – referring to the idea that all rock is new wave by 1980 – “Does Making Movies (1980) sound New Wave?”. I don’t think it does – at all. It sounds like Born To Run era Springsteen in its best moments (Tunnel of Love, Romeo & Juliet, Skateaway), lumpen pub rock when mediocre (Solid Rock) and terrible homophobic country/folk at its absolute nadir (Les Boys). But not really new wavey – more trad rock classicism I would say.

    Hawks and Doves is, I admit now, a total fucking cheat of an album to chuck in there (I’m sorry, I’m a bad man), as it’s releases of stuff that was meant to come out in 1975 and is totally Neil Young in Laurel Canyon country-mode. Still, big rock artist, released in 1980, not New Wave.

    I don’t think hanging around with different artists and being big in a particular scene equates to being of that scene. If it were, I’d have to concede that The Stone Roses were some sort of acid house band, when the vast majority of that album is late-60s jangle and psychedelia, even if ravers loved it when it came out and there’s a freak out section in I Am The Resurrection. So, for Springsteen, I again come back to what the album sounds like – and I’m still on the side of it not sounding new wavey, even if he was going to give Hungry Heart to The Ramones and thought better of it (and HH is a basically a 4 Seasons record – not New Wave as far as I can see).

    AC/DC sound now like they did in 1974 (sui generis is a good phrase) – they seem utterly resistant to any outside influence. If anything post-punk would be influenced by them, not the other way around.

    The one you’ve got the most point with for me is Blizzard of Ozz – even then, whilst I imagine punk must have had an influence on the fast riffing style of NWOBHM, Budgie were there well earlier than New Wave (Breadfan in particular) and there’s doubtless others of that ilk knocking around in the early 70s doing that sort of thing. I’d be intrigued to know what Randy Rhodes was listening to though.

    Yeah, you’re not convinced are you? Never mind. Just my ears, I guess.

  15. 45
    wichitalineman on 16 Sep 2014 #

    Re 43: Most likely Catatonia were never taken seriously because they were advised by their record company to write hits with contemporary titles – the titles of Road Rage and Mulder & Scully as far as I can remember, were suggested to them and then they wrote the songs around them. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does a) suggest a slight desperation and b) sound rather forced. “You give me road rage” – really?? That’s probably why it grated with me, as I’m all for a Welsh accent in song.

  16. 46
    Rory on 16 Sep 2014 #

    Tom @43: My complete collection of Catatonia and Cerys Matthews albums agrees with you. (Yes, even Paid Edrych I Lawr.) The title track of International Velvet is one of those songs where I feel ridiculous singing along, but can’t help myself: “Ev-er-y day when I wake up/I thank the Lord I’m Welsh”. (See also: “No Man’s Woman” by Sinéad O’Connor.)

    Re Blondie: This one passed me by, and in fact I think this was the first time I’d heard it. Which surprises me, because I’ve got a fairly recent best-of… (checks: not recent enough – released 1998). Anyway, good vocal, reasonable backing, and I’d like it more if not for the bells. Hovering between 5 and 6.

  17. 47
    chelovek na lune on 16 Sep 2014 #

    Agreeing about Catatonia being heads and shoulders above Sleeper, Elastica, etc. “I come alive, outside the M25”: I know that feeling…

  18. 48
    weej on 17 Sep 2014 #

    Re #47 I’d say Elastica>>>>>>>>>>Catatonia>Sleeper. Cerys has a good voice, they have nice snatches of melody from time to time, but they never did anything remotely memorable, and Wichita is right about the silly zeitgeist-y song titles.

  19. 49
    Ed on 17 Sep 2014 #

    @44 Well I agree with you on one thing: ‘Les Boys’ is vile homophobic garbage. Even as a not particularly aware, Dire Straits-loving teenager, I could tell it was a horrible song.

    Still, at least they learned their lesson and never again produced anything as stupid and sneering and mean-spirited as that… Oh, wait: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ITnUpVhvTM&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    (Worth watching just for the beyond Alan Partridge intro.)

  20. 50
    Ed on 17 Sep 2014 #

    Weej @48 is absolutely right, of course. The first Elastica album is the only Britpop record I would ever choose to play these days, and that includes your Blurs and your Oases.

    It still rankles with me that The Strokes were able to pull the same “new wave of new wave” move and be acclaimed as geniuses only seven years later, while Elastica faced nothing but griping about plagiarism.

    Echobelly had their moments, too, actually, although most of them were on ‘King of the Kerb’ and the others were on ‘Insomniac’, with Sonia Madan doing her best Morrissey pastiche. Oh, and ‘Dark Therapy’ was pretty great, too.

    Tom is right, too, @43 about Cerys Matthews’ great voice carrying some pretty lacklustre tunes and arrangements in Catatonia. But I think her accent was an asset rather than a disadvantage. The way she rolls her “R”s in ‘Road Rage’, for example, is totally Welsh, and totally makes the song.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 56
    tm on 17 Sep 2014 #

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

  27. 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”.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

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