Blondie’s Gary Valentine: An Appreciation

❉ Paul Matts profiles Gary Valentine’s significant contribution to the Blondie success story.

“Their boy wonder bassist wrote some of their classic early songs, X Offender and (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear – before quitting just as they were becoming a well-oiled hit machine.” – Little Village, August, 2014.

‘Blondie’ album cover ‎– Private Stock PVLP 101, 1977

There are not many more iconic figures in late twentieth century music than Debbie Harry. She is at the top of any Punk and New wave A-list.

The band she has fronted since the early 1970s, Blondie (like you didn’t know…), are one of the most successful acts of all. That includes acts from any genre; punk, new wave, pop, or whatever you wanna call it. Millions of records sold, still performing to this day to sold out venues. They have a back catalogue littered with classic after classic and they are known even to the most casual of music observers.

Blondie © Shig Ikeda. Gary Valentine far left.

Photographs of the band show a group comfortable in front of the camera. Some pictures of Blondie rank among the most famous in pop archives. Always looking cool. The role of Chris Stein is (quite rightly) eulogised over and over, and Clem Burke is as about as well-known and identifiable as any drummer can be. Both in the way he plays (hit ‘em hard…) and looks.

However, very early in their career, one individual made a huge impact no other member succeeded in doing. And in doing so opened a door through which Blondie walked, and never looked back.

Gary Valentine penned the band’s debut single. X-Offender. The track that got them through radio station doors. They were no longer just another band playing to sparse, indifferent crowds. They were getting exposure.

He is a hugely significant figure.

“Debbie was like the Shirelles and the Ronettes rolled into one and Sex Offender had ‘AM Hit’ written all over it. I wanted to write a song like the ones I had grown up listening to, and I did.” – Gary Valentine, New York Rocker, My Life in the Blank Generation

However, this was far from his only contribution to the Blondie success story.

Blondie, 127 John Street, NYC, 1976 © Bob Gruen

Gary Lachman (later Valentine) was born on Christmas Eve 1955 in Bayonne, New Jersey. By 1974, he was out and about in New York City just as the New York Dolls were gaining notoriety. They were like a ‘good Rolling Stones,’ according to Lachman in his autobiography. By 1974 he had discovered decadence and individuality, courtesy of literature, music and the Dolls in particular. He had become a Glitter-kid.

Similarly, a local ‘celebrity’ from Bayonne at the time was Clem Burke, the future powerhouse drummer in Blondie. The two seemed drawn to each other and began hanging out in the East Village, Manhattan, also in 1974. Lachman uncovered a seedy haunt on The Bowery, and Burke began playing drums for a band in the city.

“I twigged that CBGB was the place to be…When Clem first told us he was playing in a band in the city Darby Crash (a close acquaintance) was conspicuously uninterested. Not me. I wanted to know more about it. Who were they? What were they like? What kind of music did they play?” – Gary Valentine, New York Rocker

The band in question were fronted by Debbie Harry, a sexy, blond singer and had a dark haired, uncomfortable guitar player who didn’t use a pick. Chris Stein. Bassist Fred Smith was a proper, capable musician. Other members, including Ivan Kral, came and went. Collectively the were called Blondie. Their set was primarily cover versions, with one or two originals littered across their set. Their drummer described their sound thus: “The music’s sorta like what the Shangri-Las would sound like if they were drag-queens” (Clem Burke, Village of the Damned)

It was Shangri-Las influenced, with a slab of trashy disco thrown in. Cover tunes included Lady Mamalade and an original, Platinum Blonde, was becoming Debbie’s signature tune at the time. However, the music scene in New York City was creeping up on the band and Lachman, despite having no bass guitar and no idea how to play one, was asked to audition once Fred Smith left the band. Smith went to replace Richard Hell in Television, who had just left Verlaine and co. The New York Punk Scene was setting its stall. The jumbo jet punk of The Ramones was already established and had already used one of Debbie’s previous incarnations, Angel and the Snake, as support. The art punk of Television and Patti Smith was evolving. Richard Hell was strutting the streets with a constant sneer on his face.

However, the general view was that Blondie were ‘going nowhere’ and their music was “more pastiche than pop” (Clinton Heylin, Velvets to the Voivoids).

Indeed prior to Smith’s departure in early 1975, Patti Smith had lured Ivan Kral away from Blondie, and furthermore, possibly with his ‘best interests’ at heart, convinced Smith his future was with Television. Debbie dug her heels in and her determination for the band to continue led to Lachman ultimately joining Blondie.  Even this was following, allegedly, an invitation for Clem Burke to audition with…. the Patti Smith Group.

The determination within Blondie to succeed following the loss and potential further loss of band members must have been at record level at this point. So, the new bassist knuckled down and learnt the band’s set both in the rehearsal space and in the Blondie Loft: the apartment Lachman now shared with Harry and Stein in the East Village.

“Although Chris, Debbie and Clem had played CBGB, the Television/Smith mafia had decided to block Blondie’s immediate return.” – New York Rocker

The band’s early gigs were therefore at other venues in NYC, such as Mothers, a gay bar near the Chelsea Hotel. Max’s Kansas City also re-opened around this time. Playing in such a variety of places undoubtedly helped Blondie create their sound – mixing trashy lightweight punk (though ‘punk’ was just the name of a fanzine in 1975) with disco and pop. A unique mix was developing. Included in their set was a tune called Once I Had Love (Disco Song)Heart of Glass, in its original, embryonic form.

The shows got progressively better and the band were combining crowd pleasing cover tunes with an increasing catalogue of originals. What was required was a way of linking crowd pleasers with credible original music, a song that satisfied both pop music fans without being totally dismissed by all the cool dudes who were part of the Patti Smith and Television entourage. And if such a song did not yet exist, then something that would hint at what might be possible.

Lachman himself had written songs on piano prior to joining Blondie. The band were aware of this and had been impressed upon hearing them.

At this point Gary Lachman became Gary Valentine. He didn’t want a name which suggested anger, such as Johnny Thunders, Richard Hell etc.

“I didn’t feel particularly angry or violent. I was living in New York, was playing in a band and was becoming what I wanted to be, a pop star, all at nineteen. What was there to angry about? Valentine seemed an appropriate name for a teen idol, and I had fantasies of having my face covered in red lipstick from all the kisses I’d receive from my frenzied nymphet fans.” – New York Rocker

The inspiration for X-Offender came from an incident in Gary’s past which led to him being put on the sex offender’s register. Aged eighteen, he had a relationship with girl called Zelda.  She became pregnant at sixteen years old. Young Gary himself was a first-year university student at the time. The subsequent fall out led to Gary getting reported to the police by Zelda’s parents. It also led to Gary’s already strained relationship with his own parents being stretched further and consequently, he left home.

X-Offender, originally called Sex-Offender, came to Gary following this episode. Talk about taking something positive from a bad situation.

“It just came to me one night at Max’s. I was just sitting there and the melody got into my head so I rushed back to our Blondie loft and picked up a guitar and got it down just right.”- Gary Valentine, Billboard magazine, March 2003

Gary initially wrote the lyrics. They told the tale of an eighteen-year-old boy having sex with his under-age girlfriend. Debbie loved the tune but re-wrote the lyrics, telling the story of a prostitute infatuated with the police officer who arrested her. Risque lyrics either way. But very Blondie.

Valentine played guitar on Sex-Offender, as it was called as Blondie started playing the track live. It quickly became the band’s best received live track, closing the set: “Sex Offender was the last number in the set, and people waited for it.” (Gary Valentine, New York Rocker.)

Bands from the scene in New York City had begun to get signed to record labels. Seymour Stein was snapping up bands to Sire Records (notably, of course, The Ramones). His ex-Sire partner Richard Gottehrer wanted some action for his new label, Instant Records, which he’d just started with Marty Thau. “Gottehrer loved it (Sex Offender). He told Marty Thau. Thau met with Debbie and Blondie had a recording contract.” (New York Rocker)

The song itself is basically a blueprint for the future. It has a real, proper hook, like Springsteen’s Born to Run. Energetic, sexy lyrics, a highly melodious backing. New wave before the term was even thought up. But with a distinct, sixties retro feel. Almost Spector-esq, with a big, full sound. Trashy, with a driving, strummed guitar part and staccato breakdown sections. Lots of good bits in it. Retro sounding guitar break and washed with keyboards. The spoken intro is classic ‘pop pastiche’, to once again quote Clinton Heylin. Valentine never really liked that part:

“(Gottehrer) added Debbie’s spoken intro, which I have to admit, I never liked. No matter.” – New York Rocker

No matter indeed. The track was recorded in June 1976 in Plaza Sound Studios, in Radio City Music Hall, near the Rockefeller Centre. In downtown Manhattan, amidst shiny glass skyscrapers and open plazas with fountains. A big step up for a band used to hanging out on the Bowery, stepping over drunks and whinos. Production was by Craig Leon.

A significant amendment was in the title of the track. Sex Offender became X Offender. Richard Gottehrer made the not unreasonable point that a song called Sex Offender was unlikely to receive much radio airplay. Fair point, possibly. Probably, even.

The recording came out superbly well. The Phil Spector-esq sound Leon was after was achieved good and proper. Thau and Gottehrer decided rather than release it independently, in true DIY punk fashion (a term and concept not yet invented, incidentally), they would try and sell the track to a label with national distribution. Enter Private Stock Records. Frankie Valli, from the Four Seasons, was their golden ticket at the time and the label had top forty pedigree. Crucially, Howard Rosen, a director with the label, liked X Offender. It was released on Private Stock on 17th June 1976. Its B-side was In the Sun in the US, and In the Flesh in the UK.

“When X Offender came out, everyone was amazed, especially us. No-one who heard it could believe it was Blondie. Wayne/Jayne County played it constantly at Max’s. It was on the jukebox at CBGB. Other bands congratulated me.” – Gary Valentine, New York Rocker

In keeping with other bands from the Bowery at the time, it achieved cult status but did not chart. Again, no matter. Chrysalis Records had by now heard X Offender. This huge, multi- national label liked what they heard and in Debbie, had a potential star in the making. In November 1976, prior to the release of the band’s self-titled debut album on Private Stock the following month, Chrysalis had released Rip Her to Shreds as a single in the UK. Backed, significantly, by its B-side. X Offender.

Gary Valentine had written the song that opened the door. True, Debbie Harry modified its lyrical content. But the music, the spark, the concept was Gary’s. What a significant moment in punk and new wave music. The rest, as they say, is history.

“Valentine is in Blondie for one album, just long enough to see New York blur into the homeless home of what is now called punk rock. He’s in it at the precious, turbulent beginning, and he’s got all the gossip: Debbie versus Patti, vain Verlaine versus bloody-minded (Richard) Hell, fighting for the throne of the scene with no name.” – Paul Morley, The Guardian, 2002

Gary’s influence did not stop there. Blondie’s retro sixties look was largely down to him. As early as 1975 he was donning skinny ties, with white shirts, black jackets. A quintessential new wave, yet retro look. Early photos of the band show this quite clearly.

“Debbie later said she had planned the sixties retro look right from the start, just as she had planned the revitalised sixties AM radio sound. But if you look at the early photos, I’m the one with short hair and a skinny tie.” –New York Rocker

Blondie’s following had taken to dressing like their new cult heroes by late 1976, too. This quote from New York Rocker depicts the crowd at a CBGBs show:

“Skinny Ties and polkas bounced amid the dog shit and broken bottles.”

Valentine’s tenure in the band was quite short. Indeed, he left the band in 1977 following a UK tour. Before the band became huge, and before, ironically, the most iconic of sixties-styled publicity shots: the cover of Parallel Lines. His replacement was an Englishman, Nigel Harrison.

However, before he and Blondie parted company, Gary came up with one of the band’s finest moments. The classic single, (I’m Always Touched by your) Presence, Dear.

“Their boy wonder bassist wrote some of their classic early songs, X Offender and (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear – before quitting just as they were becoming a well-oiled hit machine.” – Little Village, August, 2014.

It is surely the only hit single to mention theosophy. More on this subject later. Gary wrote both the words and music, the lyrics relating to the relationship he had at the time with his girlfriend, actress and journalist Lisa Jane Persky. It was one of psychic and paranormal experience: “While I was on tour we would know when each one was going to call, and we would find out that we were thinking of the same thing at the same time, even though we were many miles away.” (Gary Valentine, Little Village magazine, August 2014)

The song was featured on Plastic Letters, the band’s second album, released in February 1978. It was a top ten hit in the UK but wasn’t released as a single in the States. To this day it is a tune that receives genuine love and warmth when played live. Beautifully melodious, with a winning opening line –

‘Is it destiny/ I don’t know yet
Was it just by chance/ Could this be kismet?’

It appears open to interpretation whether he was fired or quit the band. Accounts from different band members give alternative versions. Gary eventually left after coming back from the UK following a Blondie series of dates with Television, and a subsequent NYC date.

“When we got back to New York and started rehearsing, it was clear something had to give… There were too many fights… it was clear I was on my own.” – New York Rocker

Gary didn’t get to play on the second album, Plastic Letters, something he would have liked to have done, for sure. However, his impact on the band’s introduction into modern music folklore is more than significant. Not every bass player can come up with songs like X Offender and (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear. Special, special songs.

Paul Morley puts it nicely in The Guardian in 2002:

“Valentine’s dream is over…Thrown out of Blondie, leaving the hit (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear as his lovely gift to the pop world.”

Valentine wasn’t really a fan of the more aggressive, almost cartoon style punk that came from the UK and became embedded in society thereafter: “Most of the bands spouting up from the cities outside New York were looking to England, not The Bowery for inspiration.” (New York Rocker)

An encounter with Captain Sensible from The Damned cemented his view: “they were from out of town, even another planet … I knew that spitting was a big thing in the UK, but to have this jerk gob at my girlfriend was too much.”

He was part of the excitement, the initial surge, when anything at all could go. What an exciting moment in time. When the scene belonged to a select few, before being hijacked and sold to the world at large.

Post-Blondie Gary moved out to LA to be with Lisa, his girlfriend, who was pushing her acting career. He released a solo single in 1978 on Beat Records, entitled The First One.

He formed a new wave trio, The Know in 1978 who gained a decent following on both the West and East side of the States, but only managed to release one single (in 1980), I Like Girls on Planet Records.

They disbanded in 1981 and Gary then worked as a hired hand on guitar with Iggy Pop in the 1980s.

Gary played with the reformed Blondie again in the States in 1996-97. He also appeared on stage as they collected their Rock n Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2010. He didn’t perform live with them on this latter occasion, however.

 

Gary became a full-time writer upon relocating to London in 1996. He had obtained an undergraduate degree in Philosophy at California State University, and his articles started appearing in Mojo, The Guardian and various other platforms. His first book Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius, was published in 2001. A historical look at counter culture in the sixties, it was followed by his own experiences in music and also in life, New York Rocker – My Life in the Blank Generation, which appeared in 2002.

A keen student of the occult, mysticism and consciousness, he has also written several books on the subjects in this arena. See, his output on the subject was not restricted to the lyrics contained in (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear! His books on Carl Jung, the educator Rudolf Steiner and theologist and mystic Emmanuel Swedenburg explore intelligent minds which voluntarily delve into the irrational.

“They might be seen as the thinking man’s mystics.” – Mike Oppenheimer, NY Times, 2012.

Gary Lachman (he reverted to his original name as a writer) is one interesting character. His significance to the literary and music world as a contributor is tremendous. Anyone who provided the song which nudged open the door through which one of the word’s biggest bands walked is obviously an important character.

It’s important this is not overlooked. Gary Lachman and Gary Valentine … together, one fascinating, significant figure.


❉ ‘New York Rocker: My Life in the Blank Generation’ by Gary Valentine was originally published in 2002 by Sidgwick & Jackson.

❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His debut novel ‘Toy Guitars’ is due to be published in 2019, and a further novella, ‘Donny Jackal’ is currently being edited. He previously promoted live shows as 101 Productions and owned The Attik night club from 2001-2007. He was also a songwriter and guitarist in The Incurables. Paul runs a music blog and has recently started a series entitled 101 Significant Figures. This focuses on under-appreciated individuals in the punk and new wave movement. See www.paulmatts.com for more details.

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