In 1976, Blondie drummer Clem Burke, an Anglophile with a Mod haircut, returned to the East Village after a trip checking out the music scene in the U.K. with the debut album by Dr. Feelgood, the leading band of the so-called pub-rock scene, in tow. That record energized the punk scene centered around CBGBs with its attitude that musical virtuosity was less important than energy and style. Liverpool and New York rank among the world’s most iconic musical cities: Photographs from the debut 1977 U.K. tour by Blondie show vocalist Debbie Harry and bassist Gary Valentine looking across the River Mersey and visiting the ruins of the mystical Cavern Club, where the Beatles started out. A highlight of Blondie’s lackluster final record (until re-forming, in the late 1990s), 1982s The Hunter, was “English Boys,” a plaintive tune about the 1960s British Invasion, written in the aftermath of John Lennon’s assassination.
With his drum kit raised high at the back of a low stage, Burke returned to Liverpool earlier this month to play at the reconstructed (in 1984) New Cavern Club, as part of the Lust For Life all-star group, an homage to Iggy Pop’s classic album of the same name. Iggy, who was born James Newell Osterberg Jr., in 1947, released Lust For Life in 1977, following a period in the wilderness after the dissolution of The Stooges in 1974. Iggy had been rescued from obscurity by David Bowie, who always had a knack for spotting underutilized talent. The albums they made together in Berlin in the late 1970s, The Idiot and Lust For Life, rank highly on both of their resumes, confirming Iggy as the godfather of punk in both the U.K. and the U.S.
The encore at the final concert by the Sex Pistols, in San Francisco in January 1978, as they were splintering apart, was a cover of the Stooges’ “No Fun.” Lead singer Johnny Rotten had pointedly avoided New York on the tour, as he disliked the self-appointed custodians of cool: “I thought it would have been silly to go play New York. It was pointless. They had already decided that they hated us…” Later that same year, bandmate Sid Vicious was arrested for murdering girlfriend Nancy Spungen at the Chelsea Hotel — he died shortly afterward of an overdose. And less than a week before the Manchester band Joy Division was due to make their New York debut, in May 1980 at the Hurrah nightclub, lead singer Ian Curtis died by suicide. The record on the turntable as he hung himself at home was Iggy’s The Idiot.
An invitation to appear as the opening act on Iggy’s 1977 North American “The Idiot” tour (for which Bowie played keyboards) constituted Blondie’s first live nationwide exposure. The band destined to become CBGB’s biggest global export was initially dismissed as novelty runts of the cliquey New York scene, but Iggy and Bowie saw something in Blondie, the self-titled 1976 debut album. Blondie guitarist Chris Stein later produced Iggy’s experimental 1982 Zombie Birdhouse album, often setting freeform poetry against electronic- and Afro-beats; Burke played drums, then decamped to the U.K. to play with the yet-to-be-famous Eurythmics. In 1990, Debbie Harry and Iggy released a duet of Cole Porter’s “Well Did You Evah!” for an AIDS fundraiser. Now, more than three decades later, a 76-year-old Iggy will play his largest-ever headline show in the U.K., at the 30,000-plus capacity Crystal Palace Sports Stadium, with Blondie and Generation Sex (featuring Billy Idol and Tony James, of Generation X, alongside Steve Jones and Paul Cook, of the Sex Pistols) as opening acts. The British-born Idol (whose pop sensibility and chiseled cheekbones limited his street cred in London) became a superstar on moving to New York, in 1981. Conversely, many of the bands from CBGBs found more appreciative audiences in England. Blondie was shocked to discover on that first U.K. tour that half the bands they played alongside in New York had also crossed the Atlantic.
In the third decade of the 21st century, the line between original and tribute band is more fluid than ever. Burke, the youngest and most energetic member of the reunited New York hitmakers, and Valentine have both independently played gigs with U.K. tribute band Bootleg Blondie. The current touring outfit for the official Blondie features just two original members (Burke and Harry), the same number to appear in the singer’s solo touring band of the late 1980s and early ’90s. When my dad took me to my first concert, to see Harry’s “Def, Dumb and Blonde” tour, the repertoire and musicianship set a high bar, but it was something of a bummer to think that, aged 9, I’d arrived late to the party. (I can still recall Harry delivering the elegy for times past at CBGBs with “End of the Run” — sample lyrics: “Now the days are much shorter and the people from the good part of town all come around, but the something is missing even though there’s more there now. I shrug off my attempts to explain how a torn T-shirt made it all danger again.”) The CBGBs songbook outliving the scene is perhaps grounds for celebration. But is heritage punk an oxymoron?
When he isn’t touring with Harry, Burke keeps busy with side projects like Lust For Life, also featuring former Bowie and Iggy guitarist Kevin Armstrong. Tony Sales, the original bassist from the classic album (and son of comedian Soupy Sales) was meant to appear, but had to pull out at the last minute, to be replaced by former Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock (who also doubles as part of the current touring Blondie line-up). For Iggy aficionados, the unknown quantity was Katie Puckrik on vocals. The daughter of a U.S. air force colonel, Puckrik spent time living in Berlin and Moscow as a child. According to her autobiography, she became a punk at age 16, in 1978, and was seriously impressed by a 1979 headline concert by Blondie in Washington, D.C.: “Debbie Harry was supernaturally beautiful, as well as being the last word on stupid dances. On her, stupid looked smart.” After losing her virginity to a touring New Romantic guitarist, Puckrik moved back with him to London to marry and try her hand as a pop star. Neither venture worked out, and she separated from her alcoholic husband shortly after he returned from an ill-fated tour of Spain accompanying Bowie’s ex-wife, Angie. Puckrik found work as a dancer for the Pet Shop Boys, and was later hired as a presenter for the 1990s U.K. television show The Word. On this early-’90s youth program, whose shock tactics included a man in a kilt pulling a girl in a chair with a rope attached to his penis, Puckrik wrestling an indignant Johnny Rotten to the floor was just another day at the office.
In Liverpool earlier this month, initial omens for the Lust For Life crew were not good. The route to the Cavern was dotted with half-empty theme bars, with the occasional drunk singing along to Beatles songs or, somewhat incongruously, “Sweet Caroline,” by Neil Diamond, the Bard of Brooklyn. There was confusion at the entrance to the Cavern about where to go: five pounds got you into the Beatles tribute night in the front room while those wanting to witness the homage to Iggy had to pay 20 and head behind a curtain to the back room. Liverpudlian accents were as pervasive among those heading to Lust For Life as they were absent from the other room.
In keeping with the New York theme, the first opening act was an acoustic set from Walker Hornung, accompanied by a single guitarist as opposed to the full line-up of the Manhattan-based band Walker and the Brotherhood of the Grape. Musically, there was nothing hugely original about the set of requests of songs apparently requested online by their fans back home, but the audience responded positively to Walker’s amiable tough-guy manner, as he delivered songs that mixed social commentary with streetwise urban dramas. Following a more aggressive set from father and sons U.K. outfit Ladies, whose style and delivery were reminiscent of the feral poetry of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, a multi-generational audience was primed for the headline act. In line with the vogue for legacy bands to perform classic albums (Blondie did so with Parallel Lines a few years back), Act One consisted of Lust For Life played in its entirety. The principal criterion for great punk music is not great musicianship, but that is not to say that punks are necessarily bad musicians. Back in the day, Matlock was Rotten’s whipping boy for being middle-class and liking the Beatles, and “Pretty Vacant” (credited to all members of the Sex Pistols, but very much Matlock’s baby) may well be a rip-off of Abba’s “SOS,” but an ear for melody and talent for songcraft served him well.
Matlock has played with two drummers — Burke and the Pistols’ Paul Cook — who could more than give Ringo a run for his money. And in Liverpool, a tight rhythm section gave Puckrik space to shine and shimmer. At 60, she is a late bloomer, a world-class frontwoman and seasoned professional able to perform with the verve and sass of a teenager discovering punk for the very first time. Her ability to inhabit, not just imitate, musical narratives came in handy for “Turn Blue,” a song on which Bowie had harmonized with Iggy’s ruminations about seducing and satisfying a Black woman in a limousine. With a lightness of touch, a lascivious tale from the last century was refashioned from a female perspective.
Lust For Life covers the gamut of human emotions. Unlike Bowie and Tina Turner’s 1984 cover of “Tonight” (which turned a lament for the overdose of a young lover into a traditional love song aimed at conquering Middle America), the darkness of the music was not eschewed. It was, however, counterbalanced by the pathos and wit which characterize Iggy’s best work. Taking tips from the Debbie Harry school of stagecraft, Puckrik imitated actions described in the lyrics to “Success” — “I’m gonna do the twist (I’m gonna do the twist), I’m gonna hop like a frog (I’m gonna hop like a frog)” — complementing the irreverence of Iggy’s take on the trappings of fame, which he was never really in a position to enjoy until he began earning serious royalties, in the mid-to-late ’90s. The band was not, however, averse to vicarious celebrity patronage, with archive footage of Bowie and Harry presenting Burke and Armstrong projected on the screen at the rear of the stage, in lieu of traditional band introductions. Once the classic album had been played, the band performed choice cuts from the collective songbook, on which they had played live and in the studio. Homage was paid to the recently deceased guitarist Tom Verlaine, with a version of his band Television’s “Kingdom Come” (which David Bowie later covered on Scary Monsters). The sole incursion into the Blondie oeuvre was the debut U.K. single and set-closer for their concerts opening for Iggy, “Rip Her to Shreds,” a campy, ironic, Warhol-esque ditty on gossip columns.
Matlock is a great songwriter and player, but he’s no frontman. The energy in the room took a nosedive when Puckrik took a break and the former Sex Pistol sang “Head on the Stick,” the lead single from his forthcoming solo album, which earnestly denounces the scourge of populist right-wing politicians in post-Brexit Britain. Pious punk rarely works, and this was no exception. Unusually late stage times for the headline band resulted in a sizeable portion of the audience, with last buses to catch or work to get up for in the morning, making an early exit. But those of us who stayed the course were rewarded with a euphoric end to a triumphant night, with a mass sing-along and retro-pogoing to the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” and Iggy and the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy.” As the Liverpudlian crowd poured out into the night, I foolishly went in search of more music by buying a beer in the other room. I found a space near the stage behind a Chinese couple glued to their phones; watching a local singer make ham-fisted attempts to charm a group of Mexican tourists by introducing Spanish into a rhythmically challenged rendition of “Hello, Goodbye” is an experience I’d rather forget. No fun, as Iggy might say. Heritage punk, on the other hand, might be rife with contradictions, but frankly, who gives a damn, when it can be this joyful and — whisper it quietly — professional. ❖
Duncan Wheeler is a professor and chair of Spanish Studies at the University of Leeds. His latest book is Following Franco: Spanish Culture and Politics in Transition.