THE RETURN OF
Interview: Nancy Culp
“I want to have fun this time and take things lighter than I did in the past.” After solo failure in the early Eighties and the prolonged illness of her boyfriend Chris Stein, Debbie Harry returns to vinyl form and tells the world about it in an exclusive rm interview Hurry up Harry:
If you were asked to name, off the top of your head, the band with the most enduring image from the late Seventies, the chances are that one name and one image would immediately spring to your mind – Blondie.
Yet up until recently, all that remained of her presence (dear) was a lovely celluloid memory, such as was witnessed on the recent reshowing of Blondie’s first ever TV appearance, on Granada TV’s ‘The Way They Were’. We saw a truly awe-struck Tony Wilson gawping in completely undisguised wonder at the thigh-booted, platinum-haired vision in black as she rasped her way so deliciously through ‘Rip Her To Shreds’.
So what did happen to Blondie and its inspiration for that name – Ms Deborah Harry?
From the early garageland punk of ‘Rip Her To Shreds’, through to the musical boundary smashing ‘Heart Of Glass’, then into the Eighties with the song that probably first featured rap proper in the popular charts, ‘Rapture’, the archetypal blonde with the perfect face dominated the pages of every music paper. Once the initial punkiness had been honed down by ace pop producer Mike Chapman in the form of ‘Denis’, Blondie were practically unmoveable from their position in the top 40. Indeed, they were the top singles act of 1979, with two number ones and two platinum discs (for ‘Heart Of Glass’ and ‘Sunday Girl’). The album, ‘Parallel Lines’, outsold all its nearest rivals, and it seemed – as the punky Seventies wore on to the electronic Eighties – that Blondie were set to make a transition rather more smoothly than many of their contemporaries.
‘BLONDIE – THE GROUP’ the slogan went, but no amount of solidarity amongst the ranks of the record company or the press could stop the public from latching itself onto Blondie’s most unmistakable asset – the stunning Ms Harry. Role model for an entire generation of women, she possessed that elusive quality of being appreciated by both men and women. The possible stumbling block of her straight-from-the-street-corner tackiness was countered by an obvious high intellect, a palatable level of artiness and a genuine love of what she was doing. (“I’ve never thought of giving it up. I’ll always consider myself as a performer and a musician and I can’t say that I’d drop it,” she tells me later.) She is all things to all sexes.
However, the glittering career and endless stream of hits suddenly hit a rather large hole in the road, and the Blondie-mobile plummeted headfirst into the ditch. First of all, Debbie’s long awaited solo album in 1981, ‘Koo-Koo’, was slammed unanimously by the critics. Taking its cue from the only single to make a chart showing, ‘Back Fired’ was a rather apt title. Maybe, in hindsight, the avant-garde nature of it went against it.
She was one of the first pop people to use Nile Rodgers and explore the possibilities of rap. Then in 1982, insult was added to injury when the band’s limp ‘The Hunter’ album bombed, along with a UK tour playing arena-type venues. More importantly, Debbie’s boyfriend and co-founder of Blondie, Chris Stein, suddenly fell pray to the mysterious and debilitating illness pemphigus vulgaris – which attacks the victim’s skin causing it to become infected and fall off.
That was it. The band shuddered to a halt, Chris went into hospital for an indefinite period leaving Debbie, alone and distraught, to carry on and eventually nurse him back to health. She was never seen out, except for the occasional particularly cruel photo of her en route to the hospital wearing her sorrow only too clearly.
Then, mid last year, a song crept out on the ‘Krush Groove’ soundtrack, then another on the ‘Scarface’ soundtrack. Slowly but surely, Debbie was getting back into the swing of it, True, the recordings may not have been quite what made her such a creative force in the first place but on the whole, most people were only too glad to have her back on the scene, the one and only Platinum Venus.
By the end of 1985, with Chris now measurably better and well on his way to writing again, Debbie started to think about returning to the studio, with the pair of them collaborating on the songs. Late October 1986, and I’m dialling a New York number with hands trembling so much that I can just about make it to the last digit. The phone answered and an agonising silence ensues before the soft tones of one of my top five goddesses eases me into the interview.
The main topic of conversation is, quite naturally, the new single ‘French Kissin’ In The USA’. Due for release in early November, it’s a remarkable return to the form of yore, albeit a gentler hybrid of the well loved Harry repertoire. A sampler tape from the album, also due in November, promises more of the same. It’s called, aptly enough, ‘Rockbird’.
“I really had fun doing it,” remarks Debbie, after gracefully accepting reams of gushing comments from yours truly. “It’s a very personal record for me. It’s less agressive than the Blondie stuff. I feel it’s far more sort of feminine.”
Was it written by you or Chris? “Oh no, it was written by a guy called Chuck Lorre, who I’ve never actually met. The song was just submitted to me by my record company Geffen, and I just loved it so we recorded it.”
You’ve been away for quite a while now, where do you see yourself fitting in with the current music scene? “I don’t really know, I haven’t been paying attention to it.” (Small wonder really.) “I haven’t really thought of it as fitting in. I think all different kinds of music can exist together.”
What made you feel that now was a good time to get back into it all? “Well, it just seemed like I was ready to get back to business and work. Chris is so much better now, so it was a good time to do it.”
I tactfully avoid the subject of Chris’s illness, as it somehow seems inappropriate to rake over old issues, especially as I felt she just wanted to talk about what’s happening now. As she talks she sounds excited, yet maybe just a little apprehensive about her new solo outing. It’s been two years after all, and the business can change a lot in that time. But has it?
“In this country,” (USA), “it certainly has. The music marketing is much more sophisticated and so is the American press.” She hesitates and then continues, “I always felt that the English music press – and I’m not just saying this – was far more sophisticated and that the American press tended to look up to it. But that’s changing now.”
Maybe her enthusiasm for the English press is coloured slightly by the fact that us lot over here took Blondie to our collective hearts far earlier than the Americans, but then Blondie always did have a slight Englishness about them. Perhaps it was something to do with their spirit of adventure which took them into the uncharted waters of the previously black dominated disco/rap area. Debbie emphasises that the experimentalism was what Blondie were all about.
“It’s certainly to our credit. I think rap is a very vital and interesting medium. I’ve always loved it. We always experimented with crossover things and I think it’s stood up well historically.”
When you look back over Blondie’s recorded output and your solo stuff, what do you think were its strengths and weaknesses?
“I think our biggest strength was being adventurous and moving on, like after achieving a certain sound. Also not staying in a rut. We were very adventurous and aggressive about trying new things and making that blend of black music and white rock and roll work so well. I guess too, we had the right combination of being intelligent and entertaining, and we were good visually of course! And we tried to maintain a sense of humour. Our weaknesses? Well, they were the ones that destroy most bands. Problems with business, competition getting too much within the band – outside forces.”
Yes, it is very often money and the business side of things which finally ruin things, isn’t it? And resentments within the band over payments and so on.
“It’s exactly the truth! And it keeps repeating itself over and over again. I think a lot of people in the business use it as a tool when they’re involved with bands.”
There’s more than a hint of bitterness in her voice when she says that last sentence, and it makes you think that maybe it wasn’t only Chris’s illness which put an abrupt halt to the band. However, if there is any bitterness within her, it certainly is not showing up in her physically. As you can see from the latest pictures, Debbie is still as supernaturally gorgeous as ever, and at her age (and I was too polite to ask, but would hazzrd a guess at just over 40), she makes women 20 years her junior look like pruning gloves next to her rose-like beauty. I comment on that fact and she laughs.
“You’d better hold back that statement ’till you’ve seen me in person! I don’t know, I’m just lucky. I’m terribly bad sometimes and sometimes I’m good. But I should be more disciplined.”
Reassuringly, the same as the rest of us girls, eh? So you’ve not had any facelifts then? “No!” (laughing), not yet!”
So how do you still look so good? “I don’t go in the sun. I’ve not been very successful at tanning. I just go red. So I’ve had no incentive to sit in the sun.”
I think I’m probably only one of many to be externally grateful to Ms Harry for liberating all us peroxide peaches from the tyranny of having dark roots showing. But tell me, have you ever got so fed up with it that you’ve felt like running out and dying your hair say red or black? This question prompts a veritable gale of laughter from the other end.
“No, I really don’t! I think it’s more modelled now. There’s more streaking in it. The front, as you can see on the sleeve photo, is still very blonde, but the back is very striped. I’m going for a more blotchy look at the back!”
What does she think, I wonder, of all these women she’s influenced – hello Patsy K, Cyndi Lauper, any bottle blonde this side of Madonna. I can almost hear her lips pursing up when I mention that last name . . .
“I can’t honestly say that I’m flattered that I have had so much influence, because everything before you influences you. But there are the Slits, Siouxsie, Poly Styrene, Chrissie Hynde etc, so I can’t claim that it’s all mine, there are others!”
You mentioned earlier to me, you disliked mixing music and politics – are you aware of what’s happening in England such as the Red Wedge thing which involves musicians and party politicians?
“I’ve never liked that. I’ve always tried to keep politics out of my music. Music should be for entertainment, for relief from your daily perspective. Politics stinks as far as I’m concerned.”
Inevitably, the conversation turns to the topic of the Government’s attitude to AIDS and the related subject of sex in general.
“It’s infuriating. They put billions of dollars into the arms race, then put a thousandth of that into medical research for AIDS. The statistics are frightening. It could depopulate sections of the earth in 10 years time! It’s not just limited to homosexuals, it’s a heterosexual disease. So everyone has to realise that. Personal attitudes and tastes don’t concern me.
“Whatever you want and need is fine by me, but as far as public health and alloting money to research everyone should be saying that it’s a problem for everyone to deal with, not just a minority group. But the worst thing that has happened here is the Supreme Court Law over oral sex. Now, I’m not completely sure of the facts so you’ll have to check it out – but there is a law about to be passed which means that even if it’s been two consenting adults in private, you can be arrested for having oral sex. That’s not just in Texas but every state. Isn’t that terrible? I think it’s aimed at homosexuals.”
Frightening indeed. But let’s turn back to a somewhat more cheerful matter, the new album ‘Rockbird’, which features three songs by producer Seth Justman, three co-written with Chris, one of which, ‘In Love With Love’, she describes as being: “Sort of lyrically and somewhat musically it is our sequel to ‘Heart Of Glass’.”
Also included is the single, another song co-written with a woman called Toni C, and a tune co-written with Nile Rodgers entitled ‘Beyond The Limit’.
All sounds jolly exciting too. But have you been keeping up with the press at all, you know, checking up on the competition?
“Well, I haven’t, but I’ve been paying more attention to it lately. People keep asking me questions as if I know which trend is which, but I’ve been in the studio so much. Like the other day, someone asked me who I liked and I said Sigue Sigue Sputnik. People laugh at that but they’re so entertaining.”
She also confesses to liking New York’s adopted bastions of Irish patriotism, the UK’s very own Pogues.
Are you nervous about the reception the record will get though, Debbie? “Well, I’m sort of having a delayed reaction to that. It’s only since I’ve been talking to journalists that I’ve actually thought about things like that. I don’t want to get nervous. I want to have more fun this time and take things lighter than I did in the past. You know, it might all have a cumulative effect!”
Well, I for one sincerely hope so, because, Heaven only knows, the charts sorely miss Debbie Harry’s sparking blend of sultry sophistication and pure femininity. Hurrah, I say, for the best of the girls!