Magazines + Newspapers

The Face

October 1981 – Number 18
pages 10, 11 & 12

Written by: Chris Salewicz
Photography by: Anton Corbijn
LIKE MATCHING Regency miniatures, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein sit side-by-side on a two-seater beige couch in the large, subtly opulent living-room of a fourth-floor suite in London’s Grosvenor House Hotel.
A cooling carbon monoxide breeze from Hyde Park blows in through the room’s five open windows, conveying the distinct sound of fast-moving early evening traffic on Park Lane four floors below.
One imagines that those wealthiest of Arabs who are the hotel’s more usual guests must have been somewhat intrigued by the chin-length purple wig that now squats a little awkwardly on Debbie’s Head. In the lobby downstairs there is promotional literature for photographer Patrick Litchfield’s book, The Most Beautiful Women, in which Debbie is featured. Now her moon-shaped head has more of the appearance of an over-ripe plum.
“I figured,” Debbie laughs at herself in her soft, high, casually confiding tones, “that since with Blondie everyone knows me for my hair colour, I might as well have a lot of different hair colours and get everyone really confused.
“The girl who lives downstairs from us in New York has this weird marketing job, and she had all these wig samples. And now I’ve got every possible colour, and people will just have to expect anything. I can do three or four colours a day, and I don’t have to wait. It’s really the ultimate.
“Actually,” she admits, “this one is a bit weird because of its length. I’m really not used to having short hair.
“But the wigs are such real showbiz schtick,” she chuckles huskily. “I figure they’re a good way to follow up the Blondie cliche, and have fun with it, and not have to give out any intellectual reasons about Blondie.
“I’ve been colouring my hair since I was 13. Not just blonde – every colour: purple, green, yellow, red, orange, blue, pink. I started doing it in 1959.”
“Which is why,” interjects Chris Stein, “she is now completely bald.”
Beneath the wigs, of course, Debbie Harry’s hair is now its natural colour, a dark brown that is one shade away from auburn – she returned to her own colour for her role in the film, Union City Blue.
BLONDIE is no longer blonde: a visual manifestation of a step forward into another phase of her life. This new artistic chapter – the way was prepared by her low-key movie debut – has a definite musical beginning in “Koo Koo”, the solo LP she has just released.
Apart from featuring her long-time lover and musical ally, guitarist Chris Stein, “Koo Koo” is most notable for being a collaboration with bassist Bernard Edwards and guitarist Nile Rogers, the two men who are the renowned Chic. “Koo Koo” is a Chic Production.
Harry and Stein first became familiar with Chic’s music at the beginning of 1978 when touring Australia, where “In The Flesh” off the first Blondie LP had become the group’s first-ever hit. “All of us on that tour were so into their songs,” Debbie says. “Then when we got back we met them and became friends, and our paths have crossed ever since.”
Unlike last year’s entirely Chic-composed Diana Ross album, “Koo Koo” has only four Rogers/Edwards songs. It has an equal amount of Harry/Stein numbers, and two written by all four musicians. “It was a collaboration from the word ‘Go’,” insists Debbie. “It was an unprecedented situation for them, but that’s why they wanted it. They encouraged it, in fact.
“It was like everybody was trying to break out of their formulae. Because they were stuck in one, we were stuck in one… And we all wanted to escape. It’s not a Chic album, and it’s not a Blondie album either.
“We really felt locked in to what we were doing. Everyone said that our last Blondie album, ‘Autoamerican’, was such a huge departure, yet it was and it wasn’t. To me, it still sounded like a Blondie record, although we did do slightly different kinds of material.
“The thing that really got us about being Blondie was that so many groups were imitating us – people like Kim Carnes and Kim Wilde – and that was really starting to get on our nerves.
“You know,” she adds, “I was a little surprised at the way my voice sounded on some of ‘Koo Koo’, because it was so raw. Nothing was done to it in the studio, like on the Blondie records. This is more like what I really sound like live, I guess.”
HABITUALLY, as Debbie finishes speaking, she nods her head backwards and forwards several times as though emphasising what she has just said. As she talks, she keeps her hands still, only her lively face displaying animation.
Chris Stein, by contrast, gesticulates constantly; waving his hands, flexing them against one another, or running them through his just greying hair and rubbing his ginger-tinged beard.
Harry and Stein make a good team. Both have much positive energy about them, the teetotal guitarist providing his woman with quietly protective support. Though unfashionable these days amongst the truly hip, and hardly considered in any way iconclastic or avant-garde, they probably are far more accessible to new ideas and information than many of their more self-consciously cool detractors.
Both are involved in video and cable TV, and though it is probably impossible to live in Manhattan and not be “into art”, the self-confidence which sucess has brought them ensures there is no twee New Yorker smugness in their espousal of modern visuals. They democratically insist on the importance in the “Koo Koo” project of Swiss artist H.R. Giger who designed the LP cover and who fusses like a busy magician about the suite, his fine grey hair flailing about his forehead like that of the recent Marlon Brando.
“The importance of the visual side of what we do,” Debbie asserts, “is an automatic assumption on my part. I’ve always noticed that the best groups were always very visual groups. That’s a special thing: there’s no place else except in rock’n’roll that that is represented – a 50/50 representation of visuals and sound.”
They claim that working together within the often sexually highly charged atmosphere of rock’n’roll has never imposed any strain on their relationship. “I’m amazed that it’s been so easy,” admits Debbie. “I think whatever the context of a relationship the first two years of being with a person are the hardest. If you can get through those first two years together, you can get through anything. It’s really whether you want to make it work, and how flexible you’re prepared to be.
“I just think you have to lay down your own rules. If you want to make it work, make it work for however it’s comfortable for the two people.”
THE FUTURE of the Blondie relationship however, seems uncertain, even though Chris Stein denies tales of strife within the group. Blondie are, though, contracted to record several more albums, which Chris somewhat reluctantly concedes will have to be made. Their form appears uncertain:
“We could just improvise… Play for ten hours and then put it together. I’m not sure at all what it’s going to be like. Mind you, I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of the Islamic disco song which has been floating around New York for so long I can’t remember.”
“I’d like to do something Chinese,” is Debbie’s only thought on the matter.
A Blondie tour appears out of the question. Debbie, however, may appear with Chic when they tour Europe towards Christmas.
There is a possibility that Blondie may make a film together, an idea certainly attractive to Debbie following her role in the cheap quickie Union City Blue. “The film got really good reviews in America,” she says. “But it didn’t do good business. I could relate very much to the fact that the character I was playing lived in her own private world, watched movie stars and then went and dyed her hair.
“She wasn’t really a housewife character, because she didn’t have any children. She was just very alone. She was married, but he was never there. She was really alone.”
The role Debbie hoped to play opposite Robert Fripp in a re-make of Godard’s Alphaville will not happen. “I think,” says Chris, “one of the things we learnt from Alphaville was that you should never reveal your ideas before they’re hatched. Now we’ve got plenty of plans for things we want to develop, though experience shows there’s certainly no point in talking about them beforehand.”
“Chrome” on “Koo Koo”, however, was originally written for that film, Chris admits. Debbie and Chris wrote some of the songs for the new John Waters’ movie, Polyester, starring Divine and Tab Hunter. They’ve also written three songs for a cartoon film being made in Canada.
Though Blondie have achieved huge success, Debbie insists such a situation doesn’t neccessarily permit popular music-making to become easier: “In a lot of ways as a performer it’s easier to be the underdog. When you come out onstage I think it’s more of a challenge to have to make people like you. Also, sometimes you come out onstage and everybody’s ready for you, and you just don’t come up to their expectations, because everybody’s fantasy is always more than reality – then it makes it very hard.
“Even so, now we all have such experience and we’ve had such good luck, I think we feel pretty confident – though I don’t think we feel over-confident. We feel good about what we do. We’re lucky! If you’re going to enter the commercial music business, then there’s no point in not trying to be successful.”
She dismisses the commonly held notion that because the music business is so male-dominated then it’s easier for women to get a foothold: “In fact, it’s much harder. It’s definitely not a woman’s business. It’s pretty easy for a woman to be a lounge or cabaret singer, but the pop world has never really been that open.”
She says that it’s also a fallacy that women singers are necessarily jealous of each other: “Sometimes they are. Sometimes there’s a healthy competitive attitude. Sometimes there’s real friendship. And sometimes there is jealousy. It depends on who the person is, and whether they feel secure or not.”
Once in an interview Chris Stein remarked that the musician’s function was something akin to that of an oracle of the unconscious; that he/she articulates assorted truths common to his/her time. “Oh, that’s certainly true”, he nods his head, “But it’s the case with any artist, not just with musicians. But that’s all part of our… uh…”, he shyly hesitates as though suddenly feeling self-conscious or exposed… “spiritual life.”
“Sure,” he continues after a moment, more matter-of-factly, “because an artist is very often not even sure where his stuff is coming from. What he comes up with just seems to sort of… come through him, through archetypes, which are just things that are there in your primitive unconscious that just come up and release themselves.
“You know, a lot of the criticism people get from becoming successful is because they’ve been singled out to rise above the masses – that’s what upsets a lot of people.
“But I think that’s always existed – from Biblical society up to the present day, there’s always been shamans and elders. There was always someone who stood out – not necessarily as a functional leader of a group, but often as some sort of spiritual or aesthetic leader.
“I think it’s a natural function, yet people fight against it and want everybody to be the same – they’re a little resentful about any one person being elevated. Certainly, economically I can understand that, but from a practical standpoint it’s a perfectly logical thing.
“Someone like Iggy Pop is very much an Everyman figure. And groups like The Clash represent that, too: The Clash are very much archetypes. I can understand that – I am not for a grey, sexless society.
“Certainly that’s what Elvis Presley was.”
And with that Debbie and Chris depart the Grosvenor House, late for their dinner appointment with a couple of very different archetypes – David Bowie and Eric Idle.

LUNCHTIME the next day. Debbie and Chris have returned to the same room, but are sitting on a different couch. Under hot TV lighting, with all the windows in the room now closed, they are giving an interview to an Austrian television crew.
Now Debbie’s purple wig is replaced by one that is blue-black, long, and Morgana-like. She wears a black silk cocktail dress and plain black shoes. Chris wears a neat, three-button grey flannel suit, black open neck shirt, and grey sandals with no socks.
It is mid-way through a relaxed interview by a professional, calm interviewer, who asks: “There is this old cliche that rock music has something to do with drugs. What’s your opinion on this?” Debbie: “It’s a complex thing: I think a lot of kids are really victimised by it, and I think a lot of politicians are making a lot of money on it. It’s a big danger.
“I think it should be much more openly talked about than it is. People should be much more educated about drugs, because I think that everyone is searching for something at a certain time in their life, and so they are trying a lot of different things.”
Chris: “I think the reason people turn to drugs is because they’re searching for magic, and for some kind of spirituality, which society teaches them doesn’t exist anymore.
“But drugs are a trap, because when you take them you only keep going off to the same place. And then that’s that: that’s all you ever get. But if you work with your own mind, and your own psyche, then you can just keep getting higher and higher. And that’s what’s important. If you smoke pot a lot you don’t dream properly: you don’t go into that deep sense of relaxation when you’re sleeping. Personally I’ve tried very much to cut down on pot-smoking. And I don’t do any other drugs.”
Interviewer: “Do you think it’s just politicians with their stupid laws…” Chris: “In America it goes beyond that. We see areas with large black populations where it’s so easy to go out and get heroin. The politicians don’t do anything about it, because they want to keep black people under control. You can’t get heroin in a nice white neighbourhood in America, but if you go to a black neighbourhood it’s very easy. It’s everywhere. And the police don’t care.”
Interviewer: “Do you think people take it for inspiration?” Debbie: “I get much better inspiration when I’m straight. I’m much more creative. I have better ideas. Everything is brighter when I’m straight. It’s a trap. It’s really stupid. It’s even a waste of money.”
Chris: We’re coming to a new age. We’re approaching the year 2000. I’d like to see everyone be a little more advanced. Communication is the most important thing. One of the new values should be open-mindedness: people should be willing to accept a lot of different things. There’s so much happening in the world now that people have to accept other ideas. Otherwise they’ll destroy themselves.”
The Grosvenor House suite had been booked by the record company specifically as an interview setting.
At the discreet Mont Calm hotel, just the other side of Marble Arch, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein sprawl on separate arm-chairs in the lounge of the suite in which they’re actually staying. A spiral staircase leads up to the bedroom from a corner by the window.
Debbie has changed out of her dress, and is wearing a faded black t-shirt and black pants on which the zipper has just snapped. She also has removed her wig, revealing her fine, natural hair. As they both sip chocolate, attempting to keep away altogether from caffeine, they consider what is left for them to do within the world of music.
“For me,” affirms Chris, “what we’re doing with Chic is very important – if we have black kids and white kids listening to the same music, then that makes a good social statement. Personal freedom is what’s important, and if kids can get together, then that’s a very good thing.”
“As for myself,” Debbie considers, “I think I’ve pretty much proven to myself that I can do things: I can make myself feel good within myself. And if you make people feel good about themselves then they feel like they’re worth something – self-value, self-importance, but without false ego: just something that makes you feel good.
“And I’ve done that now, obviously. And everytime I complete a project it feels good.
“So I would just like to keep on working.”

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