Debbie and Patti in a Tale of Two Dieties
Blondie and her session men plus Clem Burke (obscured). Dean Ertl photo
I come at this review as a fan. Since 1976 (earlier if you count the Dolls and the Velvets), I have been enamoured of that New York New Wave sound. It's a broad church. Suicide could thrash synthesizers and Television could probe the stratosphere with spiralling lead guitar lines. The Ramones could make dumb look smart.
The Talking Heads sounded nothing like the Heartbreakers. The Fast sounded nothing link Mink DeVille. But the scene was still recognisable as a whole.
Blondie lived in the spotlight of eternal summer despite spending a lifetime dodging sun rays. You could be walking through the Lower East Side, see a boy you liked and say hello. Even if you found yourself charged with solicitation, everything would be all right because you are young, beautiful and in love.
Sydney International Convention Centre
April 4, 2017
Patti Smith and her band
State Theatre, Sydney
Sunday, April 9 2017
Sonja Braidner photos
There’s a poem by Shelley about explorers finding a statue destroyed by time. Nothing remains but stone feet in the sand. On the statue’s base is the legend: “Look at my works ye mighty and weep.”
We have come to Sydney’s International Convention Centre to bear witness to one of the great icons of the 20th century. But, as in the poem, time can be cruel to the best laid plans of mice and men and great beauty is the least of possible defences.
Alas. This idol has fallen.
Debbie Harry can no longer sing. Let me be one hundred percent clear about this. I am not saying she’s lost her looks. I am saying she can no longer sing - or at least not adequately perform the material she is famous for. She has no top end range. No amount of pre-recorded back-up or effects could disguise this.
Lyrics were delivered in the style of William Shatner. Maybe the first note was sung but any note chromatically above the first was going to be spoken. She’d smile and we'd forgive her because we always forgive the beautiful. But that voice is gone.
Opening song “One Way Or Another” is particularly weird. It sounds like pre-recorded vocals are being pumped through the foldback.
Debbie misses the first line but, despite her mouth not being anywhere near the mic, we can clearly hear her voice.
Now, I know we all get old. We lose our faculties. We slow and dim. I don't even mind performers enhancing themselves but I expect the effect to be seamless. A glorious magic trick. This was less performance and more like slowly driving past a motorway car crash.
I have watched Kraftwerk mime their way through a two hour set and I loved every minute. A row of slippered old men pretending to play the hits.
Debbie may have been better going full on Madonna and miming her way through, maybe chucking in a few live shoutouts to make it look convincing. It’s not like the plebs would have noticed or cared.
But let me be clear. If I wanted to slag off aging musicians, the Buzzcocks and the Undertones are far more offensive than Blondie. Their perfect teenage songs have been transformed by time. They now sound like raincoat wearing perverts stalking school bus stops.
Debbie’s new songs are better than her old because they are written in an achievable key. She'd be better crooning jazz, something she's been known to do. But no-one wants to pay to see that shit.
Chris Stein and Debbie. DEan Ertl photo
There’s no show without business. She is left in the unenviable position where she can't change and her voice can no longer replicate the past.
In the modern world, a piss poor version of “Dreaming” is equally preferable to an audience challenging moment.
Before I continue, can I mention what a diabolical venue the International Convention Centre is. If you’ve ever got on a bus and found yourself sitting on the seat above the rear wheel, you will understand what an unpleasant venue this is. I spent the night with my knees on my chest expecting an alien anal probe.
If you are over five feet in height, the Convention Centre is a sure fire way to ensure an overly priced session with a chiropractor. It should be nuked from orbit.
As previously stated, when I say Debbie Harry cannot sing, I refer to the material that made her famous. Newer songs are in a more achievable key.
Unfortunately, these newer songs were substandard and politically on the nose. It was if a seventy year old had suddenly decided they were punk and wrote lyrics accordingly. The cringe was high. By comparison, Iggy Pop looked like he can still write a lyric.
The sales for the next (digital) single will go to saving the bees. The bees better not hold their breath.
One of the night's highlights was an abbreviated version of the Beastie Boys' “Fight For Your Right To Party” with the band slamming out the chords in the style of the Stooge's “Loose”.
There were senior moments where Debbie wandered off to the side of the stage when she forgot where they were up to. Religious readers might blame the rapture.
She stood awkwardly in apparent orthopedic shoes. She appeared pained. I am embarrassed by the indignity she must suffer.
There once was a joke and a badge and a T-shirt that suggested Blondie was a band. This is more apparent now as Debbie takes less time at the centre of the stage.
Clem Burke was the only person on said stage who seemed to know what he was doing. He outshone everyone and was the major point of interest. Some drummers are mere timekeepers. Some drummers tell a story with every thump. Clem Burke is that rare individual who does both. He is without doubt the greatest living drummer performing today.
He led the band with a cracking snare roll here and a cymbal flurry there. Everyone else tried to keep up.
Chris Stein almost gets a pass for transforming into Andy Warhol. He’s got the hair. He’s got the glasses. He looks cool.
Most of the time, he satisfied himself with a chord slash here and an understated run there. However, in the course of the whole gig, he had one job. Get the solo of Atomic right. He hit the main riff but fumbled the end line. You had one job and you stuffed it.
The session bassist, looking and sounding like a refugee from a fourth rate speed core band, should have been put up against the wall for his finger strummed 16th notes. He played the bass note of the chord over an hour and a quarter set. It was kind of like a doubly fast Dee Dee Ramone with no definition, a rumble of confusion.
His only run was in Heart of Glass and that was hardly rocket science. It vanished into a kind of backward rumble. I personally felt like jumping the stage and stealing his place to save the show.
The hack session lead guitarist and dumb arse keyboard player made me want to projectile vomit. Debbie vanished side-of-stage to let these arseholes take the spotlight.
There is no justice.
The audience was largely wrapped in nostalgia. But Debbie’s performance was tragic rather than nostalgic.
At the back of the stage, huge video projectors blurted clips from the eighties, over saturated with colour until they became a grizzled pop art cartoon. Everywhere, both visually and sonically, Blondie attempted to prove more is more to cover the glaring hole in the centre. This will be the last time I go to see them.
Blondie appeared on a double bill with Cyndi Lauper. Whilst Ms Lauper has had some catchy pop singles, I had absolutely no interest in seeing her.
Apparently, Boy George joined her on stage to do “Girls Just Want To have Fun”. Oddly, I feel no sense of loss having pissed off before that happened.
Five days later, we're at the State Theatre for Patti Smith. Back in the day, Patti made it clear she didn't like Debbie Harry, apparently threatened by Ms Harry’s good looks. (But that could have been a media beat up).
Patti was accused by some of looking androgynous in 1976. Her accusers were either deaf, dumb of dead below the waist.
She is still every bit the icon.
Tonight, most of the set is taken up by playing Horses go to whoa. Tonight's version of that classic 40-minute album comes in at around an hour and ten.
There is a bit of talking about the songs. There’s a bit of added verbal improvisation. There's a Gloria coda. But the biggest explanation for the added time is a deliberately slower pace and a less frantic attack.
If anyone in the band gets a little too excited, Patti hand gestures them to take it down. Take it way down. Take it all the way down. Because it ain't going to work unless you take it right down.
And you on the drums: Use brushes.
Now you may think I'm being critical. This actually becomes an effective tool in cracking the Gordian knot of aging gracefully on stage.
Patti makes the words the major part of the performance. They have always been a strong suit but they have often been lost in the clutter of New York noise. You may have heard the words but the kinetic thrust of guitar thrash may have carried the adrenaline surge elsewhere.
The wider aural space allows her the opportunity to turn each song into a theatre piece, using her body to wring added meaning. Her performance is stunning.
This approach allows missed notes to become bombshells of emotion. Lenny Kaye is there to fill in some of the gaps where the vocal line may stretch a little high.
The band's laid back approach works well and Patti’s charm and good grace are enhanced but not without peril. The band plays a song. They end. Applause. The applause subsides giving the first audience member to yell: “I love you Patti.”
Patti responds kindly and things don't get too far out of hand until the second half of the set. By this stage all the village fruitcakes have come out to play, each wanting their own little conversation from afar. Their moment in the sunshine of their own stupidity.
At one point, after five minutes of such meaningless conversation, a clearly bemused Patti asks: “Is this really what you paid all that money for?” Christ. We could have had another two songs if semi-reformed mental patients could keep their poorly-strung sentence structures firmly in the back of their heads.
And speaking of Christ… I know it was Palm Sunday and all but did Patti actually really need to tell the story about Jesus getting a donkey? A long story about the miracle of finding a donkey.
It was an amusingly told story but let's call an ass an ass.
Yes folks. Patti does remain a little nutty herself. But it's a familiar kind of nutty for us older folk who remember a counter culture before punk which, shall we say, was a little more flowery.
Not that Patti has entirely abandoned claims to punk priestesshood. She breaks off mid song to abuse an overly intrusive photographer. She also has a cute pair of army boots.
Second half of the show draws on later hits. An encore of My Generation ends with Patti on feedback guitar screaming “This is my weapon, there are many like it but this is my weapon.”
Or some such tosh. But it was wonderful tosh. For a moment you could almost look at a world tumbling into a new dark age and think people really did have the power to do something just by loving each other.
Patti Smith. Well, I'll be delighted to see her again. Actually, I’m already going to see her next month. Good old Patti.