The Greatest Music Stars Of All Time!
NEW YORK DOLL
Debbie Harry brought sex into the charts and inspired a whole generation of vamps.
Photo: New York City 1977 by Kate Simon
Blondie – Parallel Lines
Hanging On The Telephone
Making Tracks: The Rise Of Blondie
Debbie Harry, Chris Stein & Victor Bockris
Blondie – Greatest Hits
ON 3 FEBRUARY 1979, Blondie scored their first UK Number 1 with the shimmering disco track Heart Of Glass. With the band out on tour, Top Of The Pops screened the promo video for the song. It was a defining moment for Debbie Harry. Wearing a grey cocktail dress and chiffon scarf, the singer radiated a dark, enigmatic glamour, like one of Howard Hughes’s ’40s Hollywood starlets. She looked remote and unobtainable; sexually assured but also strangely nonplussed about her own beauty. If Agnetha from Abba had been in The Velvet Underground and done cool drugs, this is what she’d have looked like.
Harry’s geometric cheekbones, girl-group voice and hint of bohemian darkness had a seismic effect. “I was hugely influenced by Debbie Harry,” frothed Madonna. “I thought she was the coolest chick in the universe.”
Harry was, it seems, like Elvis Presley in reverse: boys wanted to ravish her and girls (including Madonna, Elastica’s Justine Frischmann and The Cardigan’s Nina Persson) desperately wanted to be her. Women found her unashamed, unapologetic sensuality empowering.
“There was a sexual energy to her work and to her persona,” says R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. “She was way ahead of the curve in terms of what was going to come later.”
But in 1979, as Blondie’s third album, Parallel Lines, brough the group international fame, there was one woman who increasingly didn’t want to be Debbie Harry – and that was the singer herself.
In Britain, the group had exploded onto the scene a year earlier, miming on TOTP to their zippy, power-pop cover of Denis, the ’60s hit by Randy & The Rainbows. Fronting a group of garage-rock bozos, Harry swayed breezily at the mic wearing nothing but a red, outsized man’s shirt and a pair of knee-length brown suede boots. Evidence of any underwear was slim. She resembled a woman – not a girl, but, y’know, a grown-up woman – who’d thrown on her boyfriend’s shirt to answer the door to the postman. In living rooms across the country, young boys felt unsettling impulses and embarrassed dads disguised their interest with carefully placed copies of The Radio Times.
Yet Harry herself, who loved dressing outrageously and would later pose topless, the image she was projecting felt sanitised. “They really made an effort to make me appear palatable,” she complained in 2002.
But maybe Harry was doing herself a disservice: there was always a darkness and complexity about her. Many drew comparisons between the singer and her heroine, Marilyn Monroe. There was certainly a connection there. In Monroe, Harry had recognised a fellow outsider and frustrated intellectual, both confined and liberated by her looks.
BORN IN MIAMI in 1945, Harry was adopted and raised by a middle-class family in New Jersey. As a kid she was introspective, self-doubting and dreamy. “It took me years to overcome being shy and retarded,” she half-joked. In the late ’60s, she got a job waiting tables and Max’s Kansas City, the Manhattan club frequented by Andy Warhol and the Factory crowd. She became part of the scene. Later, she was a Playboy Bunny.
Her Lower Eastside milieu was, at the time Blondie emerged from CBGB’s in 1975, arty and bohemian. Her partner, Chris Stein, with whom she started the group, was fascinated by the occult: he absorbed himself in Aleister Crowley and Sir James George Frazer’s neo-paganist tome The Golden Bough. The couple lived together in a sleazy flat wallpapered with images, and kept a cat who shat everywhere.
It was, then, a thoroughly worldly 32-year-old who appeared on British TV screens in 1978: but it was also a woman whose group had until a few months before been considered a joke on the CBGB’s scene. In his influential 1975 article on the club, the NME’s Charles Shaar Murray wrote, “Sadly, Blondie [sic] will never be a star, simply because she ain’t good enough”. Her biographer, Victor Bokris, observed that, during early gigs, Harry “was not confident. She would try to do things and then look to the audience to see if it was right.”
Further eating away at Harry’s self-esteem was the fact that NY punk goddess Patti Smith despised her and her group.
In the early days, people thought Blondie were unmitigated trash. What was little understood was that Harry and Chris Stein contrived the band as a kind of half-ironic parody of the classic, chick-fronted bubblegum groups of the ’60s. It was a redux version of pop: blonde, sexy singer, ugly muso blokes, great catchy hits. You wanna be the biggest group in the world? Look how easy it is! Just re-work Denis and appear on TV wearing no underwear!
Off-stage, journalists and fans were surprised to discover that Harry was quiet, bookish and unnervingly sharp. Worse for males, she was also unobtainable, being in a long-term relationship with one of the rubber-faced uglies in the group. But you can hardly blame the outside world for getting it wrong: throughout 1977 and 1978, Blondie’s calculated myth-making had turned Debbie Harry into the most sexually potent star of her generation.
THE CRITIC Greil Marcus observed that reading Lester Bang’s book on Blondie made him realise that “listening to a simple song is not a simple matter”. The group’s arch, self-knowing dissection of a winning pop formula soon came back and bit their collective ass: being “Blondie” increasingly stripped her of her intellectual identity and equality within the band; the whole carnival was reduced to the farce of her wearing a badge with a legend to the effect that “Blondie isn’t the singer, it’s the group”.
The pressures of mega-fame let to Eat To The Beat, the follow-up to Parallel Lines, being a thinly disguised cry for help – an unleashed Harry barking, “I’m not living in the real world!”
But for a year or two, Debbie Harry was the most striking, inspiring and powerful pop conceit in the whole world. “Once had a love, but it was a gas, soon turned out had a heart of glass…”
Madonna was waiting just around the corner…