It’s a long way from CBGB.
Blondie performs on Tuesday, July 18 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the gleaming, hyper-modern southern anchor of Kansas City’s downtown renaissance. The Kauffman Center — clean, pristine and perfectly calibrated for the optimum acoustic experience — shares precious little with CBGB, the legendary club in New York’s Bowery, notable for its decadence, its notoriously squalid bathroom, and for being the place where punk rock took root and changed the world. But both spaces have a stage — or in the case of the now-defunct CB’s, had — and that’s all that really matters for a rock and roll band.
More than 40 years after CBGB incubated a musical revolution, Blondie is the last band standing, with its contemporaries either deceased (The Ramones), estranged (Talking Heads) or semi-retired (Television). It might seem like Blondie’s triumph is complete, and that playing KC’s shining venue on the hill is an easy metaphor.
But the story is much more complicated than that.
Most bands from the 1970s American underground stayed there. Some popped their heads above the surface for a brief moment in the sun. But Blondie, more than any other, strode the earth like a colossus and became one of the most successful bands of its generation.
Formed in 1974 around the musical and personal relationship of singer Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein, Blondie, like the Ramones, took their cues from the garage rock and girl-group and bubblegum pop of the then-recent past. But where the Ramones deployed brute force, Blondie approached that music with finesse, imbuing it with the retro cool that would serve as a foundational element of new wave.
And at a time when music was entering a visual age, Harry gave Blondie something that most of their peers lacked. Beautiful and possessed of a magnetic nonchalance, Debbie Harry contrasted perfectly with her more diffident bandmates, radiating light while they hung in the shadows.
Propelled by the 4/4 beat of powerhouse drummer Clem Burke — always the band’s secret weapon — “Heart of Glass” topped charts around the globe and opened the door to a four-year run that saw Blondie become one of the world’s biggest bands.
But after three platinum albums and four No. 1 U.S. singles, Stein developed a debilitating autoimmune disorder. That, combined with tensions within the band and the disappointing sales of the 1982 album “The Hunter,” led them to split.
The band reunited in 1998 around a core of Harry, Stein and Burke, and has remained active ever since, releasing five albums of original material in that span. “Pollinator,” released in May of this year, shows Blondie retaining their original essence while refusing to trade in nostalgia. This is modern, danceable rock. The single “Long Time” (a direct descendent of “Heart of Glass”) has been a staple on The Bridge for weeks.
At the same time that punk rock was rising at CBGB, power pop — punk’s less-heralded cousin — was bubbling to the surface in hotbeds across the country, places like Cleveland, Memphis, Chicago and Los Angeles. The Raspberries, Cheap Trick and The Knack had their share of hits, while bands like Big Star and Shoes exerted an influence that far exceeded their sales. Consider, for instance, The Nerves, whose song “Hanging on the Telephone” wallowed in relative obscurity until Blondie covered it and made it the opening track on “Parallel Lines,” the most successful album of their career.
That mixture of high-wire melodies and full-on rock dynamics never dominated the landscape, but it never went away, either. Artists including Marshall Crenshaw and the dB’s became underground heroes, and alt-rock icons R.E.M., the Replacements and Nirvana all acknowledged debts to power pop pioneers.
Two of the finest second-generation power pop artists — Matthew Sweet and Tommy Keene — visit Kansas City on July 18 for a show at Knuckleheads.
Keene came first. After bouncing between bands in the late 1970s, Keene went solo in the 1980s, and the title track to his 1984 EP “Places That Are Gone” became an instant power pop classic and earned him a contract with Geffen Records, which hired Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick to produce his major-label debut.
It was a grand gesture (and a good record) met with a shrug by the music-consuming public. After another excellent release (1989’s “Based on Happy Times”) failed to crack the charts, Keene parted with Geffen but kept on cranking out excellent albums full of big hooks and crunchy guitars. For the uninitiated, the compilation “Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009” is a sparkling introduction that will make you wonder how he never became a star.
Part of it may have been timing. He may have come along just a bit too early. When Nirvana obliterated the barrier between alternative and mainstream in 1991, Matthew Sweet was right behind them with a sound similar to Keene’s, but scuffed up by Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd, two of punk rock’s most notable guitarists, whose slashing and squalling styles ratcheted up the drama of Sweet’s songs. His album “Girlfriend” stands as one of the seminal recordings of the time.
Like Keene, Sweet has worked consistently even as commercial tastes have changed, and his most recent album, “Tomorrow Forever” (released just last month), is vintage, vibrant stuff. The native (and recently repatriated) Nebraskan delivers a set of supercharged pop tunes fueled by a lean two-guitars-bass-drum attack. If you were a fan in the 1990s but lost him along the way, “Tomorrow Forever” is a chance to reconnect with Matthew Sweet as if no time had passed.
Blondie plays at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on July 18 with Garbage and John Doe & Exene Cervenka. Matthew Sweet and Tommy Keene play that same night at Knuckleheads.
—Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the novel “Mellow Submarine,” which Publishers Weekly calls “a fast-paced delight.” He’s on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.