BEHIND THE BLONDIE INVASION!
THREE o’clock on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein have just got up and the hotel breakfast is being wheeled in.
Debbie hangs out of bed sporting the dayglo-striped minidress she wore on “Whistle Test”. Her hair is tousled, the face is devoid of makeup but she looks great. No way are the lights and skilfully-applied paint responsible for the image you see. Debbie Harry radiates, specially when she grins, like now.
Chris Stein sprawls on the bed next to her, barefoot and relaxed. While Debbie bounces on the bed, pours coffee and hops around the room, rarely in the same place for five minutes, Chris stays in the same position, a half smile on his face as he expounds.
They seem very content considering the massive work schedule of each day. I’m not here specifically to do an interview, though my “hanging out” with them is on the itinerary. Debbie and Chris are friends from days before Blondie hit the jackpot, when the Press slagged ’em for different reasons than now (“Debbie Harry will never be a star” to “all she has to do is stand there and be Debbie Harry”), and the current epidemic mania was just a budding cult.
I admit I had the odd qualm. Maybe they’d changed? Maybe Debbie had become the peroxide statue basking in fame, recluse in her fortress, taking Concorde to the corner shop and bereft of her spirit and enthusiasm (as some would have you believe).
The day the papers said she was imprisoned by her fame and could only sit in bed and eat nuts and melons, Debbie was out shopping in a wig and giggling at the story on the news-stands. Today, with her periodic buffoonery, flow of easy chatter and attention to details like stage volume, she’s still very much in the real world.
Chris and Debbie possess a close privacy and warmth which dispels any notion of superstarish arrogance or conceit, which God knows few would be in a better position to flaunt right now.
Regular readers will know how Zigzag closely followed Blondie’s rise through ’77-’78 with excitement and a fair degree of deserved overkill. As they got bigger our contact waned and there was no Blondie in ZZ in 1979. To make up for it here’s the longest piece we’ve ever carried on ’em, in fact the longest interview they did over here.
It’s no secret Debbie hates interviews cos she always gets asked the same things. We just chatted and it flowed to the extent I can’t put some bits in cos of legal conplications! Still, there’s more than enough left.
Now the easiest way to warm up a just-risen Blondie is to mention the Music Press. Always works. You may have noticed the usual quota of slaggings in the latest batch of reviews. So have they.
All I can say is I thoroughly enjoyed meself at all the ones I went to, ‘specially the third night at Hammersmith when The Ig leapt on to do a duet with Debbie on “Fun Time” and Robert Fripp perched on his stool and played stunning guitar on a rousing version of “Heroes”.
There were other things too: like the emergence of Clem Burke as the first superstar drummer for a long time, Debbie vastly-improved singing and presence (who said she don’t move?) and an engaging looseness about the band despite all the masses of gear and lights (Frankie, what were you drinking that night?!?).
All through ’79 I was caught up with a whole bunch of great bands. As Blondie moved up the ladder and conquered the world, they became more and more far-removed and inaccessible. But this visit has brought ’em back into the front line as far as I’m concerned. I’ll do a little dance and we’ll be off then…
ZZ: Are you surprised how crazy it’s got here? It was last tour but this time it’s worse!
DEBORAH HARRY: Yeah, it is, and I’m really surprised at a lot of things. I don’t know, I don’t think anybody really knows what the fuck is going on anymore. I think everybody is so ditzed out and struggling so much just to survive that they can’t be rational. I don’t think anybody’s very rational any more. Criticism means less and less and less to me, whereas now it should be meaning more and more. When I see something in a newspaper that tells me something about the music or lighting or things that are really important to me, I read ’em. But when it comes to slagging me off as some kind of she-bitch… those aren’t the reasons that I do what I do.
ZZ: Well, the kids don’t care anyway.
CHRIS STEIN: I feel the same way. We’re not doing a show for the critics, ‘specially this time around. We’re doing it for the fans.
DH: Yeah, that’s the reason we came. We came here for our audience. It’s inevitable that part of the game is to get the Press but it’s really silly, I wish that these people really had to do something of their own initiative, something creative so they could see what it’s really like, because they’re full of shit. Plain English, they’re full of shit.
ZZ: I read a couple of reviews which said Debbie didn’t move on stage much, so I was really surprised on Friday at Hammersmith, cos you were leaping around and rolling about and everything.
DH: I know, I move all over the place. They must be fuckin’ crazy! I sometimes think they don’t even watch the show. I got one review from some girl up North in one of the local papers and she said I had on a gold sequinned outfit and that we did less than an hour. I think she was home watching TV. She didn’t see our show because we played for almost an hour and 45 minutes and I had on a green jumpsuit. They say I don’t move around enough – they come in for one song, like I stand still in a couple of songs because it becomes redundant to keep doing the same thing. There’s a limited number of moves that you can make that carry it off. I was standing stock still for “Shayla”. What am I supposed to do? Run around during a ballad? Yeah, sure! I’ll trot back and forth, run up and down those ramps and make it look realistic.
CS: I’m still happy with 75 per cent of the coverage. We expected a backlash for the album, so I guess it came later for the tour. I think the idea of a review as sexist crap because they can’t tolerate the idea of a woman having any power and they put down Debbie based on her sexual stance is a bunch of bullshit, but if they want to put us down on a musical level, that’s great. That’s what I consider criticism.
DH: That’s why when I go on “Round Table”, right. Here I am, sort of on top of the heap in terms of a lot of new groups coming up and I’ve the opportunity to go on national radio and slag off the competition. I can destroy the competition verbally. God knows how much I could really do to somebody’s career. But when I go on there I’m really cautious about listening to what things are and I evaluate different sections of the song and I give my review on that, because that’s what I am, I’m a musician and I’m an artist and when I listen to something there’s content to be evaluated rather than a social attitude. I really like listening to the Pretenders’ record and I heard some reggae I really liked. I don’t remember all the songs that I had to listen to because there’s quite a few, but I certainly try and treat people as I wanna be treated, and I certainly don’t want everybody to like everything that I do, that Blondie does, because I think that’s an impossibility.
ZZ: How about the Press in the States?
DH: Nobody’s as sophisticated. The music they hear is very incestuous, and the States is so much bigger and spread out, and the only incestuous magazine is “Creem”. “Rolling Stone” is baseball, you know. Baseball.
CS: You read the ‘Rolling Stone’ piece, which was a slagoff. We knew during the piece that it was going to be bad. We knew we were at odds with the guy when we were doing the piece. Whereas Tony Parsons was sweet, “Oh Debbie, I love you”…
DH: Yeah, he came on all buddy-buddy and wrote a real gooey piece and I was embarrassed about that, it was sickening. Then I met him the second time and he set me up. I’m the fuckin’ idiot.
CS: His Hammersmith Odeon review was sexist, based on his sexual yearning for Debbie. I remember that Pete Makowski did an almost identical review for “Sounds” but that’s never been credited historically. Tony Parasite! My favourite and most hated writer, the Cotton Mather of Blondie, the witch-hunter who weeds out all the evil in the rock world. Super-Parsons, he carries his crusade against hypocrisy and evil. I think he’s a hypocritical, miserable, lying cunt. He makes money from slagging people off and he enjoys it. I suggest Tony Parasite form his own fuckin’ rock band so he can figure it out. He has implied in his writings that he is an old mate of Debbie’s. In reality the entire length of our relationship was 35 minutes, yet he seems to know all about our lives. He must be a very psychic character.
ZZ: Steady on Chris… How did you feel playing Hammersmith to berserk crowds when at the Television gig nearly three years ago they just sat or were in the bar?
CS: We’re a lot more confident now. I haven’t been smoking or drinking before any of the shows.
DH: Me and Chris go on stage totally straight. I don’t do anything any more, I just go on totally fucking straight, and it’s really cool. I really had a good time onstage on Friday. I took it for granted Friday was gonna be Press night and I figured I’m not gonna get uptight about anything, because I wanna have a good time and I did, and I know that it showed. I think we got the audience up in a real way, God bless ’em – we weren’t demanding of a reaction, they just did it, they responded. That was really cool.
ZZ: You must have a very gruelling schedule this trip.
DH: This time is really one day after another. There’s no pauses. We’ve days off but there’s days of travelling and Press when we’re not doing shows. We’re here only for two or three weeks total so everything’s jam-packed in.
CS: We’re not making money on this trip. If we’re lucky we’ll break even.
DH: Even the last major tour here lost money, several thousand pounds. So touring is definitely an outmoded way of making a living.
CS: It’s just like politicians going out and talking to the people, kissing babies and all that…
ZZ: You’re doing some interesting cover versions now. James Brown’s “I Feel Good”, “Heroes” with Fripp (a great version of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” later that night)…
CS: One day I’ll put together a list of the cover songs we’ve done. The ones we used to do – “Nutbush City Limits”, “My Baby Must Be A Magician”, “Smarty Pants”, “Mr. Big Stuff”, “Out In The Streets”, several other Shangri-Las songs, “Stupid Girl” (aha!), “I’ll Be A Big Man In Town” by Franki Valli, “My Obsession”, “Come On”…
DH: I’ve got a whole briefcase full of lyric sheets like this (about six inches wide). We rip ’em all off, with smiles on our faces!
“Heroes”… “Heroes” is one of those songs. Bowie’s “My Way”… “Heroes At The Wall”. God. Operatic.
ZZ: You gonna record with Fripp again or anything (Debbie was on Fripp’s excellent “Exposure” album but Chrysalis zoomed in and stopped it)?
DH: I dunno, there’s problems. Our record company won’t let us do anything with anybody, ‘specially me. It’s such a fucking drag.
ZZ: Tell us about this New York Blondes business. (Recently a 45 emerged of Blondie doing “Little GTO” under the pseudonym New York Blondes. Chrysalis moved fast there too…)
CS: The New York Blondes thing is an interesting sidenote; Rodney Binzenheimer, who is sort of the older Kris Needs of Los Angeles in a way…
CS: He definitely has the same hairdo – he was beaten up by Brian Jones. He’s been on the scene for years, the guy is the mainstay of the Californian New Wave community and has one of the best New Wave shows in the country.
Rodney, naturally being so famous, is totally broke so, about three years ago Rodney recorded a first single, “Then She Kissed Me”…
DH: And the Kessel boys – their father’s Barney Kessel – produced it. They’re Phil Spector’s bodyguards, two real big guys. Anyway, Rodney convinced Clem that we do backing on “Little GTO”, so we said okay and went and did it. I did a guide vocal in one take to show Rodney the song… some of the Beach Boys and their wives were on that single too – the backing vocals are flawless.
CS: We did it for Rodney so he could make a couple of bucks. Needless to say it didn’t come out. Oh, they pressed up about 300 with Rodney singing. Then they proceeded with Greg Shaw of BOMP!, who’s another ripoff swine posing as an artist helping people out. Between them they got the damn thing released on Decca Records, with Debbie’s vocal. When they did Chrysalis proceeded to sue them.
ZZ: You produced an album for Walter Stedding, didn’t you, Chris? (He’s a New York avant garde violinist.)
CS: That was on a real low level. They only pressed a few hundred.
ZZ: Didn’t you play drums on it or something, Debbie?
DH: No, that was just a live show, not the record. I wish it was. I wouldn’t bother to do anything for anybody and have the record company try and stop it. God forbid. It’s just a horrific situation for me. I would feel so guilty because I constantly get asked to do things, and I would love to do things with other people and fool around and stuff like that, but it would just win it for them. They’d end up with litigation and bullshit.
The name becomes more important than the product. It’s just like, GIMME A BREAK! That’s the most meaningless, trivial crap you can possibly confront it with ever, when the name is more important than the product. I guess that’s what big business is based on these days anyway.
ZZ: Are they gonna put out any more singles off “Eat To The Beat”?
DH: Oh yeah. Another two. “Atomic”, then “Shayla”.
ZZ: That would make the whole album available at 45 rpm!
DH: I know. I tried to get ’em to stop last year after three, because I thought it was a little bit upsetting, a little bit much.
CS: But I was really happy “Sunday Girl” got to number one, it was really fantastic.
DH: It is good in a certain way, but it is kind of like being a plague! (Laughs.) Like an invading plague!
CS: Everybody thinks we’re millionaires but royalties take a long time to come through. When you come to New York you can see our spacious penthouse apartment!
DH: You can see the peeling paint with the leaking roof and the mould on the walls… but we love it, it’s home!
CS: The building is falling apart. Everybody keeps reading in the papers that we live in this luxury penthouse but it’s just an old crummy apartment.
ZZ: What’s New York like right now?
CS: Oo great. There’s all these different trends in music. Jazz is coming up now really heavy. My favourite group is called the Lounge Lizards, who I’ll produce when I get back, I’ll pay for them myself. I’ve just done a group called Casino Music for Ze Records. Ze is a good company – Jimmy did a compilation of a lot of New York bands. Bowie’s doing the cover.
ZZ: I was gonna ask about that EP of your 1975 demos that’s just been re-released (the new versions have orange labels, originals – very limited – are white).
CS: Yeah, Alan Betrock (early Blondie manager who paid for the recording) is one that really fucked us up in the long run too.
ZZ: Really? (Shock, ‘cos I always thought of Betrock as one of rock’s rare men of integrity and taste.)
DH: Yeah. Unbelievable.
CS: I made him swear he’d never release “The Disco Song” (original demo which became “Heart of Glass”), but it got out and he’s responsible.
DH: He spent about $500 doing these five songs so we offered him the money plus a couple of hundred for his effort and devotion, etc, and helping us out and getting it done. He said, “don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything with it, it’s for me.” Then he went and did a mix. Believe me, it’s much different.
CS: One thing we’ve learned is we can hardly trust anybody. It’s very disillusioning.
DH: See, Alan started out interested in managing us, but he started “New York Rocker” and dropped interest because we had personnel shifts and a few problems. We had no money and he didn’t wanna invest his own beyond a certain point, and that’s what a band needs initially someone who can invest a couple of thousand dollars and get their equipment straight, make a demo and present them. That has to be done. It didn’t happen for us, and no one had any fucking money so he dropped us and picked up a group called the Marbles… which he ended up losing a lot of money on.
CS: They were the early Knack. The first “We’re the Beatles” band. Obnoxious.
DH: They’re awful. One night I went onstage with them and did a song with a wig on…
CS: Then they proceeded to pull the wig off so she grabbed the bass player’s strings and dragged them off his bass and they had a fight onstage. That was about four years ago.
ZZ: You’ve recently been sorting out your managerial problems. (New men are Shep Gordon and Denny Vosburgh, who have Alice Cooper too.)
CS: My quote on that is this: “In New York City there’s a dog that lives in an alley with a lot of fleas and he gets more money for the tour than the band.” It is a symbolic statement.
ZZ: The fans think you’re millionaires!
DH: God bless their little hearts, and they’re the ones who put up their money. I’d just as soon tell them to listen to it on the radio, don’t buy it…
ZZ: What are your immediate plans?
CS: Mmm, I’m a little disturbed by the commercialism of the whole thing. Just the way that Blondie is. I think now we’re so successful we can reach people. We can still reach those kids maybe with a different message, something else…
DH: It’s better to be at the bottom actually… on a certain level. It’s such a business to be on top. There’s no ethics involved, there’s no moral code. The only moral code is get what you can.
ZZ: Do you think it was more fun in the early days then?
DH: It’s easier on your conscience and it’s easier on your sense of fair play, when you’re just a low man on the totem pole. It’s more genuine in terms of what rock’n’roll stands for. When you get up to this part it’s so full of hypocrisy. The hustle is on just totally one thing. I suppose the bigger you get the worse it gets. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be the Who, or the Beatles or Stones. Oh my God! I can’t imagine what those people live through. It’s amazing.
ZZ: I liked the way you stuck to doing smaller venues on the tour when you could’ve filled Wembley Arena for a week.
DH: The promoter (is this man Mick Cater, I wonder, who was so rude and self-important backstage at Hammersmith. Calling me over to tell me to go where I was going in the first place – “and don’t move for half an hour”. What’s this, school? No, POWER in the hands of fools. Oh, sorry Deb…) was BEGGING US, to do bigger gigs. We had to go to war for that too, to do the gigs that we wanted to do.
ZZ: Naturally. There’s more money to be made in aircraft hangers.
DH: We even wanted to do more stand-ups. There must be a way… once you set up in a hall and you don’t have to pay your crews to keep coming in and out, you should be able to play… I mean, I wouldn’t mind playing Hammersmith Odeon for a week.
ZZ: So you still get a buzz from playing?
DH: Oh yeah! Now I have more control I get more inspired because I’ve more control over what I’m doing now than ever before. I’m singing much better now.
ZZ: What’s your favourite thing about success then?
CS: It’s nice to go in a record store and create scenes in public because I’ve always tried to create scenes in public and Debbie has too. We always did outrageous things, so now we’re doing it on a mass level in Kensington High Street in front of traffic and it’s fantastic. Doing the shows is great, and the money we do have is great. I can buy things like video cameras. We’re able to equip ourselves now. I don’t really think I’ll go in for buying Rolls-Royces and that shit. We’re gonna buy a car when we go back but you can get one for $500 in New York. We had one before but it was wrecked. An old Chevrolet Camerro, which we used to carry all the equipment in, Debbie would drive… it was in Amos Po’s movie “Nightwatch”. There’s a scene of us pushing the fucking car to get it started! Eventually it died, and that’s what ‘I’m on E’ is about – that car. We gave it to a guy named Vinnie, who drove it off a cliff in New Jersey.
DH: The day before we went to England for the first time our car died. It got stuck in reverse. I drove all the way down 7th Avenue in reverse with the car pointed this way, ducking in parking spots avoiding the police. Me ‘n’ Vinnie were sitting in the car going like this (mimes driving looking over shoulder).
CS: Vinnie was in the Blondie family tree. He was in World War Three with Frankie. That’s Vinnie in “I’m on E”. A lot of our songs are based on real life characters.
CS: Victor is this guy Victor Bokras, who’s a writer from New York who looks like a little Russian count, wears a monocle.
DH: Ha ha! How about “All my Needs”?
ZZ: Mm, what about the next album?
CS: I’ve a feeling the next album may not come out for quite a whole, because we can’t do another album in the series of Blondie’s Smash Hits. It has to be something different. I don’t know how it’s going to be yet. The gap will be much longer than before though.
ZZ: My favourite track on “Eat to the Beat” is “Sound-a-sleep”. Was that written cos you get insomnia?
DH: Yeah. That’s what was happening to me on that last really big tour. I didn’t sleep hardly at all The music is magnificent.
CS: It’s supposed to be like regular old style traditional music – I think maybe the next album is going to be big band hits of the ’30s and ’40s. At the end of the show we play the track without the vocal. That tape is a rough tape we made while recording in the studio. The one Debbie practised her vocals with. We’re recording some of the gigs now – they may be on B sides.
Another thing – sorry to say to the fans, we have to apologise – our lighting man got blown up in Edinburgh. We had flashpots, like Kiss, and one went off in his face by accident. He got pretty burnt.
DH: Yeah, it was awful.
CS: We got another man but the lights are about 50 per cent of what they were… one of the worst things about this is disappointing people. The more successful you are there are a lot of people who have good reason to wanna talk to you and get to know you, and you can’t do it. I used to be able to hang around in the front and talk to the kids. Now you can’t. Debbie used to hang out in the street if the weather was good. When we did the matinee show at Hammersmith last time we were handing out six packs of beer out the window to the kids and they were having a party in the alley raging and getting drunk.
Debbie’s been going out with a wig and it’s really interesting. Did you read the story in the paper about Debbie being trapped in her hotel room in Birmingham? Well, that day she was out shopping with a dark wig on. Only one little boy picked up on who she was. That thing in the paper was hilarious!
DH: Yes, “she sits in her suite for seven hours eating nuts and melons…” That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. That number of nuts and melons could kill somebody! “When she hit the stage she burst like a fat caterpillar” It’s all really entertaining, you know. It’s really quite funny.
CS: Some of the commercial aspects do disturb me though.
ZZ: Next time you come back it’ll be like bleeding Abba.
CS: Well, it won’t be. Next time we come back we’ll do fucking stand-up gigs. We can come back and play four or five nights in every town in a small place, if we can get it together.
DH: And in the summer there must be like band shows, outside shows.
CS: But at the moment, the way everything is so hectic around us, we’ll have to stop in February and see what’s happening.
ZZ: Why don’t you produce the next Blondie album yourself?
CS: No, I never want to produce a Blondie album because it’s too much responsibility. A guy like Chapman or Giorgio Moroder can teach you a lot of things. I don’t yet have the experience. Wait till you hear the single we did with Giorgio. It’s fantastic!
CS: We did a single with Giorgio Moroder. It’s the title song of a movie called “American Gigolo”. It’s a real hard rock song, not like disco. Giorgio was great. He wrote the song and Debbie wrote the lyrics. He listened to all our albums and put together the ultimate Blondie song. It’s a combination hard-rock, boogie “Paint it Black” type thing. It’ll be out in February or March.
ZZ: Maybe you should get him to do the next LP?
CS: Yeah, maybe. We wouldn’t mind working with Giorgio. I don’t know if we’ll do the next one with Chapman anyway. I don’t think we can do a third album in this series, not another album that’s like a string of singles. We’ll do something else, some longer songs.
By now it was time for Debbie and Chris to get ready for the gig so I wandered off. As I said, the show was dynamite and no way motions-following. Afterwards there was a party. Last thing I remember is Debbie in the bathroom plastering my eyes with black stuff for Chris’s video camera. Oh no.
Meanwhile I plan to catch Blondie at least two more times before they go back. I’ve a feeling changes are in the air. Whatever, just don’t dismiss ’em as a plastic hit-machine of pin-ups plus backing musicians. If you believe all that then you ain’t living in the real world at all.