Blondie Chaplin is a rock n roll utility player. Originally from South Africa, he and friend (the now infamous session drummer) Ricky Fataar founded the Flames. Discovered by Carl Wilson in the early 70’s during a gig in London they were signed to the Beach Boys own label. Soon thereafter they became members of the Boys when Dennis Wilson went on injured reserve for two years and couldn’t hold down duties behind the kit. Chaplin has long said that their moment of entry, eleven years into the Beach Boys history, found the band in a period defined by a premature lack of relevance. During their short run so much had changed musically and the band was soon left behind trying to catch up. The boys from South Africa added some sonic muscle but that didn’t help advance bookings beyond college gymnasiums. Later, over a dispute with Mike Love’s brother Blondie left and briefly joined The Band helping out on a variety of instruments. It was during this period that he became known for being the gap filler in any outfit he was part of – the guy who could step in and tackle any musical role at the drop of a hat. It was also then that he was signed to Elektra records and released his first album, a self-titled affair that may be one of the best rock records of the late seventies if not the most overlooked.
Produced by Rob Fraboni (who Blondie had worked with on Rick Danko’s first solo record), the album was made and mixed at The Village Recorder in West LA. The record is a bright, classic LA late 70’s sounding affair set apart by what at first glance you might consider NY inspired muscle but is most likely South African flair. While the entire album can be anchored to the LA rock sounds harvested by Warren Zevon and others at the time, it delivers much more grit and broader more enticing melodic mechanisms. It’ just about as perfect a rock record as there has ever been.
Vocally, Blondie resides somewhere between Boz Scaggs and Lindsey Buckingham. The comparison moves within the continuum depending upon the song. With The ballad Crazy Love, the delicate frailty found in songs like We’re All Alone shows up front and center. On the album opener Bye Bye Baby it’s all out Lindsey.
While a number of contributors make appearances on the album like Little Feat’s Kenny Gradney on bass, this is largely a Blondie affair (with old friend Ricky Fataar on drums). His guitar work reminds me a great deal of George Harrison because his range is so wide. Like George he is capable of simple melodic solos that pack a punch like that on Crazy Love, and then turning the tables and offering Townsend like windmill jamming on Can You Hear Me.
Outside of Blondie, the one musical element that really stands out across the record is the organ play. Largely contributed by Richard Tee the contributions are incredibly tasty – perhaps best showcased on the song Lonely Traveler. Even the Laguna horns find a way to make an almost unnoticed entry and exit that is so clever that you’ll pick up the needle and head back three grooves a dozen times or so to bear witness to this genius a few more times.
In the end Blondie here made a record that somehow wrapped up the best of what draws us to music of that period. It’s just slick enough to be professional, and just raw enough to be real. How the record didn’t surface to heavy FM radio rotation is beyond me. In the 70’s lexicon, it remains one of my all-time favorite records, a go to at any moment – especially when you can’t think of one thing to spin. Too bad others either didn’t discover the record, or just didn’t hear what I heard. He would only release two more solo records across the span of these forty years. A musical loss, a miss, of large proportion.
Blondie later joined the Rolling Stones on tour and spent a decade moving around the stage picking up the slack that age quickly presented to each band member. Comfortable in the shadows of a live production, Blondie has always made some of our favorite musician’s sound better. This solo debut puts forth evidence of why. At the end of the day, Blondie is one of the most talented people to emerge from 70’s rock n roll. A guy who could do it all – especially when it came to writing solid rock songs. His catalog is narrow but it begins and ends brilliantly.