Will Stokes dives once more in the bleach with Blondie Bombshell Debbie Harry
The spirit of Blondie is preserved in several monumental images or states of mind: the sheen of a shining red convertible on a summer’s afternoon; the thrill of the day before your birthday; the pouting lip-glossed strut of a 14 year-old at her first school disco. Or even that split-second camera flash where, just for a moment, you are in the spotlight. Tonight, your hair is beautiful…
If the term ‘Girl Power’ had been masterminded in the late 70s it would surely have been applied to Debbie Harry, vocalist of Blondie. She was more than any female performer: she signed, sealed and delivered the whole Riot Grrrl/Girl Power movement years before Madonna had even started ragging her hair, and shared a similarly rebellious attitude. “I tried to avoid the hackneyed rock poses and movements,” she says, “along with the usual use-me-abuse-me attitude of most girl singers.” Indeed, the general visibility of female performers at the time was roughly limited to two camps: furrow-browed singer-songwriters (Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian) or flailing divas stranded at high-tide from a decade previous (Tina Turner, Cher). Crucially, the majority were master-minded by men.
But no record company supremo could have formulated Debbie’s pouting attitude, fashion forging or trademark harmonies. Equal parts mirth, melody and mayhem, Blondie virtually defined the emergence of a new musical direction at the convergence of the 70s and 80s. Their unholy alliance of disco, power-pop, reggae and the first stirrings of white hip-hop was motored by the aggression of punk and nightspots like the legendary CBGBs. All of these small and contrasting details contributed to Debbie’s status as one of the few women in music to kick ass on a truly global scale.
Debbie was the magnetic yet accessible spearhead/spokeswomen for a new generation, and blew all competition from the water like a peroxide atomic bouncing bomb. Her alluring combination of sex and sanity was just one eye-catching feature of Blondie: a bunch of trashy pop-punks who’d first thrown down their MOD roots in a strop, strutted into the hit parade as Debbie pulled on her thigh boots and stamped over anything that got in their way. Those boots really were made for walking.
It was the blurring of musical genres that would make Blondie a considerable worldwide force as the new decade beckoned. Each new hit showcased both a different musical direction and a new look for Miss Harry, with Debbie initiating some memorably tongue-in-cheek performances in the early history of pre-MTV videos and striking cover shots. As Denis became the bands first Top Ten UK hit in 1978, Debbie twirled in front of your family in a slashed swimsuit, her only accessories being stiletto heels. Photo-shoots for singles like Picture This, with its image of a starkly made-up Debs suggestively licking the rim of a 12″ single, proved that Harry was more than capable of playing the vixen when it suited her. At other times, as on the sleeve for Dreaming, she grabbed respect by the balls and squeezed until she got it. In a khaki-green PVC storm-trooper outfit, complete with wrap-around shades, the message was clear: ‘Look if you like. But look out’.
Deborah Harry was born in Florida in 1945, and was given up for adoption into a middle-class family in the suburbs of New Jersey. Even as a young teenager, she had a typically rebellious attitude to her upbringing. “I used to wear black all the time and pretend to be tough,” she laughs. But Debbie’s musical career started unpredictably enough, as part of the baroque-folk ensemble Wind In The Willows, who issued a single album in 1967. Later in 1973, she became vocalist of The Stilettos, an early incarnation of Blondie. Living in down-town New York, she hung out with the hip Warhol set at trendy venue Max’s, and worked as a Playboy Bunny. Instantly recognising the importance of sex as a weapon, she come up with the name Blondie herself after being repeatedly asked by overweight truckers, “Come on blondie, give us a screw…”
But even then, Debbie knew that neither sound nor style could carry a band far without the other: “I wanted a combination of the aggressive Shangri-Las’ rock and the round, solid vocals of an R&B girl group,” she said, “and the overall idea was to be both entertaining and danceable.” But The Stilettos only began to receive press attention when Debbie motioned to turn the group into a thrift store on-stage explosion. She later manipulated the contradictions of the bombshell/waif look and attitude as she formed Blondie with partner Chris Stein. “I had a black Morticia dress, a gold day-glo cross, gold lame dresses, stupid wigs, a goldfish bowl with a goldfish in it called Mr Jaws. I was developing the Blondie character. She wasn’t quite there yet, but she was on her way.”
It was the dynamics of the Blondie persona in all its different traits – punkette, babe, little-girl-lost, trampy street urchin – that became a notable part of their success. Debbie was a pin-up who had the balls to match the boys. While millions of lusty schoolboys wanted to be with her (perhaps ironic in itself as Debbie was 33 before Blondie scored their first hit) just as many girls simply wanted to be her, her inspiring mix of sex and sass proving irresistible. She was blonde, but certainly not deaf nor dumb, steamrollering the late 70s chart detritus with self-penned pop missiles Heart of Glass, Atomic and Call Me, and cherry-picking from long-forgotten would-be classics like Denis, Hanging on the Telephone and The Tide Is High.
And everyone knew who Ms Harry was – she landed like a hyper-cool New York space alien at an Our Price store in London in 1979, creating the kind of mass hysteria that was previously observed for The Beatles in the UK. Debbie had morphed into the cartoon Blondie character so convincingly that on the release of fourth album Eat to the Beat, pin badges were handed out with the slogan ‘Blondie Is A Group!’ just to remind people that Debbie was only one part of the outfit. Sparking this much attention, perhaps it’s no wonder that Madonna has borrowed heavily from both Debbie’s relentless iconic posturing and trashy yet original fashion style. In a recent US fashion spread dedicated to Harry, Mrs Ritchie gleefully pushed the pleated skirts, skinny ties and straightened peroxide locks to the max, calling Debbie ‘a brilliant woman.’
After Blondie inevitably imploded in 1982, Debbie continued mining a unique brand of empowered feminism. Her debut solo shot, 1981’s Chic-produced Koo Koo, had featured a famously controversial sleeve by H.R Giger, where our Debs is pictured skewered by four metal pins through her head. Free to follow her own direction, she was soon making inroads into a celluloid career with 80s classics Videodrome and Hairspray and the solo music career enjoyed sporadic success. She scored a smash in 1986 with the classic French Kissin’ in the USA, while anthem I Want That Man launched the career-best 1989 album Def, Dumb and Blonde. Meanwhile, she recently displayed true blonde ambition as she sang with the smoky Jazz Passengers ensemble, and gave an impressive performance in The Fluffer (premiering at the 15th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival) in which she played a lesbian strip-club owner.
The music remains as durable as elastic; everyone has their favourite Blondie rip-snorter. Mine’s the bombastic Rapture (the slouching beat and vocal being tweaked by all manner of R&B acts, from Foxy Brown to Glamma Kid.) The classic Atomic, meanwhile, with its twangy guitar and inspirational ‘TOOO-NIIII-II-I-ITE!’ credo, has been regularly spun on the club decks, most recently by Tall Pall. The renewed interest in Blondie at the turn of the Millennium even led to a sixth UK No. 1 single for the reformed group with the rousing Maria. Pretty impressive for a woman who rocked to Andy Warhol’s beat – fifteen minutes and your time’s up, indeed.
Debbie Harry is made of sterner stuff. Blondie received the coveted Lifetime Inspiration award at the Q Awards two years ago – raising the ceremonial roof with Heart of Glass and wearing a black lycra ensemble bejewelled with hundreds of genuine razor blades. An apt confection, perhaps, for a lady who has always been on the sharper edge of sex.
Or, as the song goes, ‘cool as ice-cream, but still as sweet.’ You live in dreams, Sunday Girl.