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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Call Me" and the timeless sound of 1980

Blondie's Moroder-produced movie soundtrack anthem presents the state of pop at a sonic inflection point — a sound people still love today.

Just the other day, I was talking about another 1980s movie song in "Maniac," and how it remains difficult for me to divorce any version of that song from its use in Flashdance. Today's selection tells the opposite story: having never seen the movie in which this iconic 80s song is used, I don't make the same connection, and I therefore don't have a visual basis for the song other than its single and album art.

From a purely musical standpoint — given the above, the only way I'll be considering the song today — Blondie's 1980 smash hit "Call Me" occupies a really interesting place in the progression of pop. It was released right at the beginning of a transformative decade for electronics in music, and producer Giorgio Moroder's synthesizer contributions certainly reflect the impact he and fellow electronic producers would have. However, the song also retains many qualities of 70s rock, with dry, punchy drums and propulsive, garage-like guitars. The track's elements and influences, new and old, come together to create a snapshot of popular music just as one of its most significant periods of development was beginning.

"Call Me" is unequivocally a rock song, but it's neat and polished in its sound in a way most straight-up rock records aren't. Instrumentally, Moroder's signature addition of multiple synthesizers — many of them rigid in their subdivision sequencing — go a long way toward making a production sound more square. When one element is sequenced, the others often need to be as well to ensure everything lands on the beat. This clean beat also has the effect of rendering a very dry sound, especially in early 80s tracks which were produced before the iconic "gated reverb" drum sound began dominating the airwaves. All the synths combine with the guitars and traditional rock instrumentation in this new interpretation of popular music to form an unmistakably new wave-informed sound, but one which still clearly remains rock and roll at the end of the day, retaining enough traditional sonic elements to make it still feel organic at this pop crossroads.

As it turns out, the organic feeling I get from the track was a product of it being created at this musical crossroads, with Moroder's electronic wishes being superseded by Blondie demanding to play all their own parts. Ultimately, studio difficulties left Blondie only contributing backing vocals, with Moroder's pick of session musicians playing the various instruments, but the impact of the band's wishes resonates throughout the song regardless. Especially in the early 80s, synth guitars and basses were nowhere near facsimiles of the real instruments; thus, by acceding to Blondie's wishes, Moroder ended up making much more of a true rock song in "Call Me" than what would have otherwise emerged. Of course, the iconic synthesizer solo was also played live in-studio, by composer and session man Harold Faltermeyer, and it doesn't seem like Blondie's Jimmy Destri complains about playing another man's solo when they perform "Call Me" live. Given the song's resounding success — topping the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks running — it makes sense why he and the others don't make a fuss about it.

Of course, just as much as the instrumentation makes "Call Me" what it is, so too does the unmistakable, cool voice of Debbie Harry. I love hearing the contrast in her voice between the very forward chorus in her higher register and her more steady delivery of the verses. Then, of course, there's the bridge with its temporary forays into Italian and French. Even without seeing American Gigolo, I've always heard the bridge as a thinly veiled attempt at picking up someone. It's clear that the attraction present is little more than physical, and for one night at best, so from the narrator's perspective, what's the harm in trying all the cheapest tactics in the book?

Even with a run time of over eight minutes, and even forty-two years on from its release, "Call Me" never gets old. There's something about its structure and how its sound captures both the past and future of pop, the electric and the electronic, that makes it timeless. It makes all too much sense to me why the track and the careers of those who made it have endured.


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