Magazines + Newspapers

Clash Magazine

September 2007

volume 3 / issue 4

Pages 66, 67 & 68



The door of the hotel suite opens, and in walks the most iconic woman in music – the inimitable punk goddess with the steely blue eyes and the razor sharp cheekbones.


Even at 62, Deborah Harry is every bit an idol. She deserves the presence of a superstar, but instead is humble yet captivating, quiet yet commanding – the traits that propelled her to international fame as the leading lady of Blondie. Thirty years after the band’s formation and Harry is just as busy as ever – she is in London playing dates with Blondie, but is also here to talk about her new solo album, ‘Necessary Evil’, which finds her just as sultry and subversive as ever.

Your new solo album ‘Necessary Evil’ is great – it sounds quite dark, almost industrial. What kind of mood were you in while making it?
I dunno. Just as it came, you know? I didn’t really have an overview. I was just writing songs that I felt was the best that I could do.

Some are angry, some are sexy – they can be very forceful.
Mm-hmm, it’s a little bit more aggressive than the Blondie stuff.

Aggressive – that’s the word I was looking for! Was that an attitude you went in to the recording with?
That’s just the way I am! (Laughs)

Oh dear, should I be scared?
Yeah! (Laughs) I mean, I felt that the Blondie material is so dated and that everyone has this almost childish idea of who I am and what I’m like. They sort of fantasise about who this little blonde thing is and it really doesn’t have a lot to do with me! (Laughs)

So it’s taken you until now to make that statement?
I just had the opportunity to do it and it just presented itself and I felt like, I dunno, it just seemed the right thing to do at the right time. I can’t really proceed with the Blondie thing in the way that I would like to do it, because the corporate world or the buying public sort of feels like it is one thing and it’s sort of frozen and it’s very hard to change that, it’s really hard to make that evolve.

How do you make the distinction when you’re playing live between the solo artist and Blondie?
I clearly am a mature woman, not a teenage little whatever, 27 year old girl, y’know, hopping around. I am definitely a different person. I of course have some of the same things, but you know, I am just an older person with a more full vision of life.

There’s a real punk sound to this album. Is this something that’s always been with you or have you returned to this style after experimenting elsewhere?
I think that the punk sort of anti-social contrary position or stance really fits me. I think I really fit into that. Just doing what I did at the time that I did it was a pretty strong political statement because there weren’t very many girls doing rock music at the time, so that was good for me. I felt comfortable there. I don’t think that I am particularly in your face or aggressive. I try to do things in a way that’s entertaining as well as satirical and strong, you know? A combination of things. I never wanted to be in your face political, [stabs finger in air] that pointing the finger kind of thing. I always wanted to sort of do it like, [sideways sly glance] “Ha!” Which I think is a lot more fun.

What are your earliest memories of music?
God, I’ve been around a while! Oh God, this is gonna really date me; stuff like Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney and the Hit Parade kind of stuff from the Fifties.

When did you discover that you could sing?
I always did that from when I was a little girl. Nobody could shut me up really! (Laughs) I don’t really see myself as being a good enough singer. I don’t think that I’m a really technical singer. I’m an emotional singer and I get my point across, but it’s more from a point of view or a thought process than any technical kind of thing.

You first joined bands when you moved from New Jersey to New York in the mid-60s. What kind of music were you doing then?
Oh I was in a folk-rock group but I was also in a couple of really avant-garde jazz ensembles! (Laughs) God they were just weird! We would get together and make a lot of noise really.

Researching your influences, one of the names that kept cropping up was Janis Joplin. Did you get to see her live?
Oh yeah. Yeah, I met her. I was a waitress at [legendary NY club] Max’s Kansas City in the Sixties. Everybody used to come there; that was like THE place to go. She came in one night and I served her a steak, which she ate I think like one bite of. (Laughs) I went to see her at the Anderson Theatre – I think she was still with Big Brother [And The Holding Company]. And I may have seen her one other time when she did her second group. She just had the strength and freedom that was really remarkable at that time, because there weren’t many girls doing it when I was doing it but how many were doing it when she was doing it? It was her and [Jefferson Airplane’s] Grace Slick really.

The emergence of New York Dolls around ’72 at the Mercer Arts Centre introduced a new and more glamorous but less musical scene. Were you aware that this was the beginning of something new?
Well yeah. One of the best things about the Dolls’ scene, and I was really a follower of theirs – I used to go to all their shows as much as I could, because they did a lot of almost weekly dates at the Mercer, which has since crumbled to the ground. But I used to hang around with them and I thought that they were completely wonderful. They were really into Eddie Cochran and Marc Bolan and stuff like that. But the thing that was best about them was that they suggested a bisexuality or a transsexual thing, which I don’t think was really as strong anywhere else.

You men Chris Stein when you joined the band The Stilettoes. You both left together to form your own band. What were your intentions? Was it to fit in with the misfits or were you looking to do something different?
I don’t think we really had a clear intention. I think we were just trying different things out.

What were your shared musical tastes?
The thing about downtown was that the music scene was very eclectic – there was not just one particular sound or style of music, it was all different things. So I think that the punk thing sort of actually came later.

Once Blondie were signed, the band had to be marketed, and usually it was at the expense of your sexuality. Did you feel used or ashamed at all that because you were a woman you were being exploited?
Well the sexism of it offended me initially. In fact, the first poster that was printed up from Private Stock, I had on a see-through blouse and I told the photographer to crop it there [draws line across shoulders]. They got hold of the whole negative and they printed it as is. I was extremely offended and I yelled at the president of the record company. I said, “How would you like it if your balls were exposed?” And he was so shocked that anyone would ever say that to him. He was so shocked and so offended, but, you know, that’s exactly how I felt.

You were the first band from that scene to become so internationally famous – firstly in Australia and the UK. When you first came here from New York, how did you find the societies differed?
Well it was much more unified over here, everyone sort of dug it and it seemed like everybody was in on it. Radio was playing the most up to date tracks; everything was sort of really accepted and embraced. In the States, nobody would play any of the younger bands’ music. It was very difficult to be heard really. Record labels were terrified of the ‘punk’ label – that’s probably how the ‘new wave’ title came around, because they had to find another way to market it.

The exciting thing about Blondie was that you were able to still be successful while experimenting with different styles – rock, reggae, hip-hop – how important was that freedom to you?
Oh, I think that that’s just what we did. We were part of that whole, I dunno… New York was a melting pot so all of that music was familiar to us and we just added it in, you know, the flavours of it.

When did you first become aware of hip-hop?
We went to this place, it was a Policeman’s Benevolent, a PAL club, and they had a lot of those sort of open venue things, two turntables, and kids would get up and do their thing. It was pretty great. A lot of it was braggadocio and bravado and everything like that, a lot of sexual boasting and stuff, but there was all kinds of subject matter and it seemed very powerful to me. The whole form of it was terrific. Some of our friends like Nile [Rodgers] and Bernard [Edwards] kept using scratching tracks for Chic, they used a lot of that. So one day Chris and I were just laying around in bed and he said, “I think I’m gonna write a rap song called ‘Rapture'”, and I just said, “Okay”.” (Laughs)

When Chris fell ill [in 1983, Stein was diagnosed with a rare and usually fatal genetic disease called Pemphigus] and you made the conscious decision to take a step back and take care of him were you aware of what it might do to your career while not working?
There was a whole meltdown at that period. I think part of the reason Chris got sick was because he was so stressed out. It had a lot to do with business and contentions within the band…

So a break was inevitable.
Yeah, so Chris was the broken straw, so it was really unfortunate. And we were partners really, so I didn’t really… I mean the record company dropped our contract, you know, everything just sort of broke down at that point.

What was the impetus to them start Blondie again at the end of the Nineties?
It wasn’t my idea! (Laughs) Chris wanted to do it. He said that he felt that if he didn’t do it then that it would never get done, that he was of a certain age and that was the bottom line of it. This guy Harry Salisbury came along and made friends with Chris and he was in management and started talking to Chris about it – “This is it, this is your life, this is your legacy, and perhaps you should really consider looking at it. Just look at it.” And so he started looking at it and called me up one day and said, “Uh, what do you think about getting the band together again?” I said, “ABSOLUTELY NOT! NO WAY!” And then he sort of told me all the things that he was thinking about and his point of view and he asked me to think about it, so I did.

Then you had a number one single with ‘Maria’ – that must have been fantastic.
Yeah, it was, it was really great.

Was that a bookend to your career or was it another reason to carry on?
Uh, I guess, I mean it sort of was, to my mind, it had a double-edged thing going on. It was really exciting and great to have a song in the charts again, but it wasn’t the song that I would have chosen to move forward. It was a song that harkened to the past and I really wanted to do a song that was much more futuristic and that would have led us into a new creative episode or a new chapter, and the record company had no inclination to do that. They just wanted to work the catalogue as much as possible, just use the cart that we had. They had no intention of any kind of future creativity or new directions for us, which is the only reason that I got back into it, because I did not want to be in an oldies band and that’s one of my problems with doing Blondie. That’s one of the reasons that I had to do a solo project, because…

You had all these tensions and ideas that you had to get out?
Yeah. I mean the whole reason that you become an artist is to evolve and to grow and to improve and to change, to explore new territory, and that commercialisation and that crib that they want to keep you in – I understand marketing and I understand why – but it’s sort of counter-productive when it comes to trying to be better or to grow.

You recently sang with Lily Allen. Are you aware of the influences that you have on future generations of female singers and musicians?
I think so, yeah. I’ve read things like that. I can only say that I feel the same way about the women that went before me, like Dusty Springfield, The Mamas And The Papas, Diana Ross, all the R&B women… I mean I’ve just been totally involved with them as well. It’s just sort of natural that you hear that stuff and that’s what you learn from. That’s what art really is, it’s just this thing that grows and rolls and just gets built up as layers and layers of crud! (Laughs)

Words by Kris Needs

“Yeah, we’re coming back back. We’re flying over with bombs!” hollered Debbie Harry after our first interview just over 30 years ago. Blondie were almost through their first UK tour, supporting Television, and disgruntled with the hostile reactions from some of the music press.

She wasn’t joking. ‘Denis’ set the ball rolling and the rise of Blondie-mania was a remarkable thing to watch as it unfolded then snowballed until Debbie was the biggest female star on the planet. Thanks to being one of the few writers not hellbent on hatchet-jobs or belittling the group as just sex symbol plus backing musicians [in Zigzag, the magazine I was editing], I witnessed scenes of fan-mania like I would never see again and had experiences that now seem downright surreal in the light of the iconic status now afforded Debbie.

Take 1978, the year Blondie-mania started to take hold. I’d organised a photo session for the September cover which saw me meeting Blondie outside Broadcasting House to trumpet an exclusive preview of ‘Parallel Lines’. I had the new Zigzag t-shirts, which Debbie kindly put on for the photo session. Fine, but then they dragged me to the ground into shot and started kicking and punching me with a blood-curdling chant of ‘Stomp on Needs!’ Having suffered at the hand of the press all week, both in interviews and print, it chillingly dawned that they were taking it all out on me.

This abuse was compensated for by being invited to witness Blondie rehearse in a pokey Victoria room. That was great, my own personal Blondie concert as they charged through later classics like ‘Picture This’, ‘Pretty Baby’ and ‘Hanging On The Telephone’ from about ten feet away. It fell on my journalistic judgement to decide whether ‘I’m Gonna Love You Too’ should make the set. It did. It often got overlooked that they were a great band.

Several times I hopped on the tour bus, which acted as a protective cocoon when leaving places like Birmingham Odeon, fans banging the window and screaming like it was Beatlemania circa 1963. The coach ride back to London was berserk too. I was supposed to be doing an interview but all I got was banter and mania with the odd pearl. When we stopped at the services and I adjourned to the gents, Debbie and Chris got hold of my recorder, which I only found out when transcribing next day.

Chris: “Hey Debbie, don’t you think Kris Needs is a stupid wanker?”
Debbie: “Well, I don’t know, I haven’t seen him with his pants off but actually I’m really curious to see”.
Chris: “Curious?”
Debbie: “Yes!”
Chris: “Bitch! Take that!” [Crash] Debbie: “As a matter of fact, I am curious yellow.”

Then followed a long Debbie monologue describing Chris eating a banana. I also have Blondie singing ‘Loch Lomond’.

I loved this sense of humour, the off-duty Debbie being fond of surreal gags and Chris a perfect foil. Memories now flood back, like being in a bathroom having eyeliner applied by Joan Jett and Debbie, waking up in a dustbin after a launch party and… all will be revealed in my autobiography!

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