by Joe Jamnitzky
Sophomore albums can be a fickle thing. Sometimes they improve upon the debut. Other times, they fall flat and can stall a career. And then there are the ones that somehow manage to just slip through the cracks for whatever reason. Plastic Letters, Blondie’s second release, actually pulls a hat trick by doing all three of those things in one go.
Having had overseas success with their debut album (particularly in Australia), the band reconvened in the summer of 1977 to record their second album. Problem number one occurred when original bassist Gary Valentine had decided he no longer wished to be in the band (there were no hard feelings to the split at least). This would lead the band to record the majority of the album as a four-piece, with guitarist Chris Stein handling both guitar and bass duties (future Blondie guitarist Frank Infante would contribute some bass parts, but was not yet a member of the band). This could’ve caused things to stall, but they still pushed ahead.
They did retain the same producer, Richard Gottehrer, from their first album. This allowed for a consistent sound between albums while improving upon the sonic details that had already been present, and his casual approach allowed for some variation in the styles of each song. This actually would combine as both an improvement and falling flat (though this writer still feels this is a better album than the first, but I never was all there to begin with…).
As for promotion, it was quite extensively promoted through Asia and Europe, and resulted in two Top 10 hit singles in the UK alone, making the band one of the first American New Wave acts to have true mainstream success there. Unfortunately, in the States, promotion was slim; add to that the fact that their follow up album Parallel Lines, which would contain “Heart of Glass”, “One Way Or Another”, and “Hanging On The Telephone”, among others, would break them through here with massive success, and Plastic Letters ends up slipping through the cracks.
Now, despite public opinion, I personally find this album more enjoyable than their debut. A big reason for this is that their is a darkness to it, an almost paranoid edge in some songs, that had not been there before. While those feelings would creep into songs on future albums, the key difference would be the production; Gottehrer’s production style allowed for things to be played loose, which brings forth the vibe of the songs much more. While no one can fault Mike Chapman’s production on their future, more successful albums, his style was one of going for perfection. The “playing for emotion instead of perfection” vibe of Plastic Letters allows for rough edges to be present. “Detroit 442”, (shown below with what would become the classic lineup), with it’s non-stop pounding drums, feedback squeals, hyper piano playing, and growling vocals, would show the punk side of Blondie that would soon be lost in the tight-pop production of the following album. Meanwhile, “Youth Nabbed As Sniper”, another highlight, manages to convey the feeling of paranoia that it’s title suggests. Closing track, “Cautious Lip”, almost brings forth a psychedelic feel, with it’s slow burning buildup combined with weird beeps and sounds in the background courtesy of keyboardist Jimmy Destri, until speeding up as if becoming an out of control nightmare that never ends.
Their pop side is still present here, no better than on “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear”. Written by former bass player Gary Valentine, it’s a straightforward upbeat love song, albeit with some rather heavy drum fills. As one of the calmer moments, it’s a definite highlight, and would prove that the band had the pop sensibility.
So, is it on par with their future successful albums? Like anything else, that’s a matter of opinion. What it lacks in the tight structure and mainstream appeal of their future sound, it makes up for with raw emotion, loose playing, and a darker vibe that wouldn’t be present until things really started going bad for the band. Either way, it’s an album that has certainly been undervalued, and hearing it when only being familiar with their later stuff makes it sound like a much different band.
Believe me, that’s never a bad thing.gdlr_rp