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Reunion blues

Guardian Unlimited – Thursday 6th April 2006

When Blondie made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Gary Lachman, the band’s original bass-player, braced himself for trouble …

When friends in the US emailed me to say I was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, I thought they were having me on. I was Blondie’s bassist and guitarist from 1975-77, and wrote X-Offender, the song that got us our recording contract – enough for me to turn up in most accounts of punk, but not enough for me to be more than a brief paragraph or obligatory footnote in the long history of rock. Asked if I thought I registered more than a blip on the big boys’ radar screen, I would have answered no.

But there it was on the press release: Blondie were among the inductees for 2006, along with Black Sabbath, the Sex Pistols, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Miles Davis, and Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss of A&M Records. Wow, I thought. Then: Nah, they can’t mean me. Judging by past experiences with my old band-mates, and having been air-brushed out of a rockumentary or two, I assumed my part in the Blondie legacy would, as per usual, be lost in the shuffle.

I was wrong. The Hall of Fame had done its homework, and I was included, along with Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison, two other Blondies from the late-1970s and early 1980s who also had less than chummy histories with the rest of the group. It promised to be one dysfunctional family reunion. At the ceremony last month, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, I was proved right.
I hadn’t given the Hall of Fame much thought. I was part of that generation who first questioned the whole notion of a rock hierarchy. Rock’n’roll meant three chords, skinny ties, leather jackets and charity shop suits, dingy clubs and life on the edge. It didn’t mean the bloated mega-industry it had become by the mid-1970s, an early version of today’s global colossus. I thought of awards ceremonies as meetings of Mutual Appreciation Societies, back-slapping and schmoozing, careers bought and sold over cabernet and chocolate mousse. All that disgusted me.

So when I heard that the Sex Pistols had declined their invitation to join the Hall of Fame, I wondered if they had the right idea. Thirty years ago, when punk went transatlantic, New York and London gave birth to a threat that establishment organs such as Rolling Stone were reluctant to recognise. The driving force was the need to give rock a hefty kick in the pants. It had become soft, indulgent and out of touch. But the Pistols soon fizzled and Blondie, the most successful group to emerge from NYC’s Bowery, hoisted themselves out of the gutter by hitching their agon to a variety of rising stars: disco, reggae and rap.

Little mention was made of punk’s 30th anniversary at the ceremony, but Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s founder and editor, read out John Lydon’s riposte to his invitation. “Next to the Sex Pistols,” he read, “rock’n’roll and that Hall of Fame is a piss stain. Your museum. Urine in wine. We’re not coming.” It raised a few laughs and a hiss or two, but I wondered who was using who? Was Lydon reprising his appearance on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, cutting to the chase by not even showing up, or was Wenner hoping to garner some much needed new credibility for the Hall of Fame, by bringing in some of the bad boys?

Candidates are eligible 25 years after their first recording, and as one gossip columnist reported a music executive remarking: “Things are only going to get worse … Everyone decent is already in.” Rock is gradually becoming pop music’s opera: alive, but no longer really breaking ground. Waiting in the wings are New Romantics, grunge, techno, hip-hop, rap and house. If the Hall of Fame is going to remain relevant, it will have to widen its criteria.

The Pistols’ whinge set the tone for an uncomfortable, slightly surreal evening. Quite a few of the inductees had passed away: Miles Davis in 1991 – a jazz great who, unquestionably deserving of the award, nevertheless seemed out of place – and Ronnie Van Zant and Steve and Cassie Gaines of Lynyrd Skynyrd, who died in a plane crash in 1977. Black Sabbath’s induction by Metallica was spiky. Ozzy Osbourne has been a long-time critic of the Hall of Fame, and in 1999 requested that his group no longer be considered for induction. “We’re here to celebrate Black Sabbath tonight, a decade or so late,” Metallica’s Lars Ulrich remarked, before blasting into a homage to their heroes.

But the award for “most awkward moment” has to go to my old buddies. Word had come down well before the night that the current Blondie crew wouldn’t perform with ex-members, and were reluctant even to share the podium with us. I briefly wondered if nostalgia and the significance of the event would temporarily mend old rifts, and I’d have a chance to play a few old numbers. But no joy – a point Debbie Harry made painfully clear to an audience already baffled by her snubbing us. When Frank Infante teased her and asked if we could play, she said: “Can’t you see my band is here?” “Your band?” Frank said. “I thought Blondie was being inducted.” Lydon’s expletives notwithstanding, I’m sure we beat the Pistols in providing the most unpleasant entertainment of the evening.

What does it mean? Well, when I look at the list of previous inductees I know someone’s going to realise they made a mistake and ask for the statuette back. But in the meantime, I saw Ozzy, signed autographs, and my name is enshrined in the beautiful IM Pei-designed museum in Cleveland. It might not have been the most important thing that ever happened to me, but it was close enough for rock’n’roll.

· Gary Lachman, as Gary Valentine, was a founding member of Blondie and is the author of New York Rocker: My Life in the Blank Generation (Sidgwick & Jackson), priced £10.99. To buy a copy for £9.99 call the Guardian book service on: 0870 836 0875.


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