Punk attitude with chart-bound smarts! A cynical attempt by the man to sell rebellion to squares! New Wave was also a glorious explosion of nervy energy that, from 1978 to 1982, defined indie rock. Join MOJO as we marvel at the skinny ties and jerky rhythms of a maligned music genre with…
THE A-Z OF NEW WAVE
Compiled by: Martin Aston, Johnny Black, Danny Eccleston, Pat Gilbert, Andrew Male, Kieron Tyler and Don Waller.
B is for blondie
They walked the tightrope twixt pop and punk defining the pin-sharp look and sound of New Wave. Debbie Harry looks back on the birth of Blondie with Lucy Brien.[Photo caption: “This was the Chrysalis promo session for Plastic Letters,” remembers Chris Gabrin, “which we shot around New Year, 1978 in my studio in Camden. It was good fun.”]
DEBORAH HARRY’S ROAD MANAGER IS A tall Californian called Machine. He has a biker moustache, a firm handshake and is ineffably polite. “Deborah will be with you in just a moment,” Machine says in hushed tones. It’s like waiting for the Queen. When Harry slips in to a Kensington hotel room 10 minutes later, although she is dressed casually in the same grey Gap T-shirt as MOJO (set off by a natty black waistcoat and grey trousers), she exudes a quietly regal air. She sits neatly in an armchair, legs crossed, and smiles expectantly, almost looking demure, almost like Deborah Harry, the serious artist who ditched the diminutive ‘Debbie’ when she went solo in the early ’80s. But that shock of blonde hair, those huge eyes and perfectly made-up lips all suggest the playful Debbie persona, the new wave icon is still sparkling through.
Today, mostly, we have Deborah. At first she is guarded, detached, talking about the weather, the rain, the flash floods, anything but herself. Every so often, however, she lets loose with a mischievous cackle. She begins to relax as she talks about her sixth solo album Necessary Evil, her first since 1993’s Debravation. A combination of electronic club grooves and garage-style powerpop, the album was produced with collaborators like young New York team Super Buddha, the Toilet Boys’ Guy Furrow, a Jazz Passenger or two and her long-term co-conspirator, Chris Stein. Two songs, however, Two Times Blue and School For Scandal, hark back to the new wave sound she and Stein pioneered in the ’70s with Blondie – the band that began on the New York CBGB scene as a joke, and ended as a global phenomenon.
Manhattan is still Harry’s home, but she says it has changed immeasurably since she first moved there in the late ’60s. “We all think it’s changed for the worst. It’s so very expensive. When I first came to New York you could get a great space for under $100 a month. Now you can’t find anything for under $2,000. There are no subsidies for music or art, and you really have to work hard to survive,” she says. “It eliminates a lot of young people coming there and charging the atmosphere with enthusiasm.”
By contrast, New York in the ’70s was a burned-out city on the brink of bankruptcy. Rents could be had dirt-cheap in the centre of Manhattan, so this attracted a new generation of musicians and artists, from the New York Dolls to The Ramones, Patti Smith and Television. While Andy Warhol was holding court at his downtown Factory (by the early ’70s it had moved from its original location to Union Square West, round the corner from Max’s Kansas City), bands were vying for attention at venues like Club 82, Max’s and then CBGB. To Harry, this vibrant collision of music and art was hugely inspiring.
The adopted daughter of a gift shop salesman, Harry moved from stultifying New Jersey suburbia to the Lower East Side in the late ’60s with the full intention of participating in the underground scene. When she talks about this period she becomes animated, as if reliving the edgy passion of the time. “I was a teenager exploring, like a fly on the wall looking at everything with big, googly eyes,” she recalls. “It was a pretty wild and ferocious place. The scene was very eclectic. In the early ’70s it was still glitter rock, with bands crossing over. Some were very pop, some metal, the whole thing was a big mishmash.” Harry sung briefly with folk rock band Wind In The Willows and eked a living as a waitress, a beautician and a Playboy bunny girl, biding her time. “Then in 1973 I ran into Elda Gentile from the Dolls’ entourage. She said, ‘I have a group called Pure Garbage.’ I later called her up and said, I’d love to come and see you. ‘Oh, we broke up.’ I said, Well, let’s put it back together.”
That was the basis of The Stilettos, a raucous glam rock act that from 1973-74 played places like the Boburn Tavern on 28th Street. Performing covers of Labelle and The Shangri-Las, the attracted a hip crowd – even Bowie and Iggy Pop checked them out. A young roadie and aspiring musician from Brooklyn called Chris Stein came to see them play and, entranced with the lead singer, inveigled his way into the band. Before long he and Harry became a couple, and for the next 12 years they were inseparable. They carried on as a musical and romantic unit after The Stilettos split up, forming Blondie in the summer of ’74. After a few line-up changes the group stabilised the following year with drummer Clem Burke and bassist Gary Valentine.
They played shiny, barbed powerpop, referenced teen groups, movie themes and ’50s chic, and were considered lightweight by the CBGB’s cognoscenti like Patti Smith or the Rimbaud-reading Tom Verlaine.
“Patti Smith was down on me because she was very competitive, that was her nature,” Harry says now. “I don’t think we had a direct, succinct concept. We were learning what the game was, learning how to play different things. It was very experimental for us, that’s probably why we got off to a slower start. I think other bands had a more defined point of view than we did.”
One thing the band did share was a love of comic art. “In the truest sense of the word, pop music is very influenced by cartoon art. That brevity, that abbreviation, the knowledge that everyone understands,” asserts Harry. “Blondie was a comic coming to life.” Warhol, the inventor of Pop Art, was a strong acquaintance of theirs and supportive of the band. “Andy was the Svengali of the downtown scene,” says Harry. “He was very in touch with what was going on, and excited by it. He was very kind to Chris and myself, he invited us to a lot of different things. He was a social butterfly, that was part of his ritual.”
At first Harry was an awkward frontwoman. According to Peter Leeds, who managed Wind In The Willows and went on to manage Blondie, “She had brown hair and hid.” Nervous and shy, it took Harry a while to ease into the Blondie persona. She became more relaxed on-stage she says by simply doing it “over and over”, night after night.
Her friend and former flatmate, the designer Stephen Sprouse, helped customise her look – thigh-high boots, ripped T-shirts, little black dresses and armbands. Harry can be non-commital when talking about her former image, but when pushed, she will admit that she was satirising “somewhat” her former role as a Playboy bunny.
“Satire played a big part in a lot of things we did. I think very appropriately,” she says, and lets out a giggle. “I was influenced by old movie stars. I liked all the blondes – Bardot was wonderful, and Marilyn, of course. And Carole Lombard. She was so hysterical and such a klutz. Her physicality was something I put into my moves.”
The male members of the band took their influence from a more unlikely source – Canvey Island pub rock ne’erdo-wells Dr. Feelgood. When Clem Burke arrived back with the first Feelgoods album in early 1976 it provided the inspiration for the male Blondie look – cheap Mod suits from Hoboken thrift stores, short haircuts. “It was all part of the process of jettisoning the Stilettos style,” says Harry.
IN 1976, THE BAND CAME TO THE ATTENTION OF ’60s girl group veteran Richard Gottehrer, who produced their self-titled debut for the independent label Private Stock. By now, Jimmy Destri had joined. His Farfisa organ and a cinematic quality to his songwriting added another dimension to Blondie’s sound, but Gottehrer found it a challenge harnessing the unfocused energy of the individual players. He got Shangri-Las songwriter Ellie Greenwich to sing backing vocals on the song In The Flesh, and she was decidedly unimpressed. “They weren’t very good, and I was looking for more of a voice,” she said. “But little did I know!”
Harry retains a clear picture of the time. “At that point we were working against great odds. We didn’t have any money, yet we pursued and persisted. We were tenacious. We kept working the angles, scraping by.” Amid the ’60s pastiche, raw punk attitude and uneven rock operatics there was a sound struggling to get out. It could be heard on X-Offender and the sneering, sardonic girl-talk of Rip Her To Shreds. It was also there in their sly and sassy cover of Randy & The Rainbows ’60s hit Denis. Blondie began to cast their net wider, finding an appreciative audience for their pop trash aesthetic outside the New York scene. They went down well in Los Angeles, and even better in the UK. Nine months after a British tour supporting Television in 1977, Denis went to number 2 in the UK charts. In the States they couldn’t even get radio airplay. “There’s a different approach to pop in Britain,” says Harry. “There’s a really solid foundation to pop history. In a sense we fitted in a lot better here.” It was (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear, the second UK hit single from the second album Plastic Letters, that really crystallised the Blondie style, with Burke’s fierce garage drumming and Harry’s Shangri-Las vocal soaring over a lush, wall-of-sound chorus.
Bursting with ideas and fronted by Harry’s deliciously scuzzy cartoon blonde invention, the band were poised for stardom. They just needed someone to pull it all together. Their manager Peter Leeds engineered a deal with Chrysalis Records, home to bands like Jethro Tull and Procol Harum. The label’s co-founder Terry Ellis was mad about Harry, saying that the early pictures of her “shrieked stardom”. His first move was to hook the band up with Mike Chapman, the Australian-born pop mogul who, together with Nicky Chinn, crafted 19 hits in the early-’70s for such glam rock acts as Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Smokie and Mud. Proud of their ‘Chinnichap’ pop formula, Chapman was flamboyant and outspoken, holding that, “If you can’t make hit records you should fuck off and go chop meat somewhere.”
Blondie were not impressed. On the first meeting, in a small, dark room that Harry and Stein rented in the Gramercy Park Hotel, the couple gave him a frosty reception. “They lived in a world I knew nothing about… They were New York. I was LA,” Chapman said later. “They thought I’d been sent to destroy their music.” Harry smiles when MOJO reminds her of this. “We didn’t know him,” she says. “We only knew him by reputation.”
After playing him their new song ideas, though, Chapman saw “the embryos of a musical masterpiece”. Rehearsals began in the spring of 1978. The band – now augmented by guitarist Frank Infante and bassist Nigel Harrison following the departure of Gary Valentine – were driven hard by Chapman, who forced them to rehearse for hours on end.
“Mike was the great pop hitmeister,” holds Harry today, “a very dynamic fellow. He wanted to make good records. But at that point we were crap. Disorganised, hectic and not very well focused. Mike saw what was there and really locked it down. He said, ‘You gotta stop foolin’ around. You got some songs here. You’ve got the potential for a sound. You got different styles of playing that are gonna be a unique blend.’ He was very visionary in that respect.”
When sessions for what would become Parallel Lines began in earnest at New York’s Record Plant studios, Chapman made the band do take after take. Harry has a mellow attitude now, but in the past she has called Chapman “a dictator… a real hot chili pepper”. Not only did he meet opposition to his working technique, he also had to deal daily with a cast of fragile, fractured egos – all of whom fancied themselves as hit songwriters. There were frequent clashes. For Chapman, this tested to the limit his powers of diplomacy – but as they forged ahead, they all realised that something special was emerging.
From the biting, driving opening of Hangin’ On The Telephone, first recorded by LA new wavers The Nerves, it is evident that Chapman had been gloriously efficient in his efforts to bring out the best in Blondie. Harry’s voice is deeper, more powerful, charged and packed with attitude while the band remain sharp, nervy and energetic. Harry’s memory, however, is of “long hours of studio time and how hard everyone worked. We worked well into the early morning hours.” Although the recording process was arduous, it is that driving beat allied to melodic rigour that became crucial to the emerging new wave sound. It’s punk with a work ethic. It’s what made Blondie definitive.
The album’s stand-out track was Heart Of Glass, a track that for years had been an oddball bluesy staple of the Blondie live shows. “We’d done it every which way – upside down and inside out,” says Harry. By the time of Parallel Lines, disco was in the ascendant, with over a thousand discotheques in New York alone. With Heart Of Glass, Blondie achieved the ultimate crossover pop song – equally at home on hip dancefloors as it was on mainstream radio. Unsurprisingly, this session was the longest, with 10 hours spent just getting the Roland Rhythm Machine track right. “[But] it was bringing in the time change and electronic beat that really made it,” admits Harry.
When the album was finished, the band were optimistic. “We were determined and dedicated. When we had the investment from a real label, that made it a lot easier to achieve what we were capable of,” Harry remembers. But Chrysalis weren’t sure about the result. “They rejected Parallel Lines at first. They said they didn’t hear any singles on it. Mike really had to bat for us with this record.”
Released in September 1978, Parallel Lines started a slow, steady climb up the charts. Hangin’ On The Telephone was a Top 5 hit in the UK. But what really sealed the band’s success was when the second single Heart Of Glass went to Number 1 in Britain and America the following year. Suddenly Blondie were everywhere. The Parallel Lines album cover, featuring ice blonde Debbie in front of her five smiling men in black suits and skinny ties, encapsulated the new wave look – vivid and symmetrical with hints of ’60s Mod and a dash of punk spirit. Harry’s design mentor Stephen Sprouse created much of the album’s look. His use of minimalism and simplicity echoed Harry’s tastes: “I loved the op art of the ’60s, and the way bright colours were used as a monochromic backdrop.”
Not everyone had been won over. In using a disco beat for Heart Of Glass, Blondie were accused by their art rock peers of “selling out”. “We got a lot of criticism for that. How could we do that? God forbid!” Harry says sarcastically. But according to Harry, Blondie weren’t worried about being cool. Shot in Studio 54, the Heart Of Glass video features Harry standing stock still in a silver dress, baring her teeth, while Destri manically chews his keyboard lead and Stein plays with the mirror ball. Much of the time Harry didn’t really dance, she was more of an anti-dancer, making small, jerky movements or tilting her head at awkward angles. “I didn’t want to be showbiz, I didn’t like the idea of choreographed routines. I found that nauseating. I still find those cheerleader-like dances completely abnormal. I wanted to do something jerky, that was sexual but accentuated the lyrics somehow. It didn’t concern me that I should be on the right foot with the right beat. That was part of the contrariness of what we felt Blondie was.” Many people had yet to “get” their irony.
There also remained an ambivalence about Harry’s image. While many appreciated the way the singer undercut her glossy style with punk attitude, some feminists called her a “publicity hooker” and a “hypocrite”, and part of her male audience turned up simply to leer. Harry, herself, was uncomfortable with being marketed as a sex object. “I was highly offended at everything the record company did. We’d say, God, they’re not taking us seriously, they’ve missed the point,” she laughs. An early poster used by Chrysalis, for instance, displayed Harry with the headline: “Wouldn’t You Like to Rip Her To Shreds?”
“That’s the problem of art and commerce,” says Harry. “We came from the New York City underground. We were trying hard to be artists. We didn’t have any idea about merchandising or marketing. The whole thing was a complete, gigantic shock and smack in the face. Everything was horrible – we’re losing our identity. My God, what’s happening? There’s no getting around it.”
For much of this Harry blames manager Peter Leeds. The promo poster for their first album, for example, featured Harry in a see-through blouse. “I get a called from Debbie about it with lots of expletives,” Leeds told Harry biographer Catha Che. “Private Stock is going to release this poster. I listen to her, but secretly, I think it’s a great idea.”
Harry is convinced that Leeds wanted to separate her from the rest of the band. “He could see I was the selling point. He told them on a flight from Tokyo to Frankfurt that they could all be replaced. That I was the only one who was important. Then he put out those T-shirts: ‘Blondie Is A Group’. In his mind the songs didn’t matter, nothing else mattered. He even tried to get me to break up with Chris.” Leeds was unrepentant. “All of the band was pissed because of the attention that was focused on Debbie,” Leeds told Che. “I had long talks with them – Don’t you understand, she’s the ticket? None of them appreciated how second rate they were without her… She was the ticket.”
After Parallel Lines Blondie parted company with Leeds, but by then, according to Harry: “The damage had been done.” Exhausted after constant touring, the band were still broke, owing huge debts to Chrysalis for getting out of the Private Stock deal. There was also the never-ending power struggles within the band. Stein and Harry were a self-contained unit, slightly separate from the rest of the band. “There was rivalry,” admits Harry. “Jimmy Destri envisioned himself as the one in control, the power behind the band. Chris, too, knew what he wanted and how to avoid the pitfalls of getting squashed into a pop formula. It was always the boys, and me and Chris.”
By the time of their next album, 1979’s Eat To The Beat, everyone was tired. Mike Chapman, once more at the helm, found his sessions disrupted by constant meetings. “We were looking for new management. That was very distracting, I’m sure he hated that,” recalls Harry. Piece by piece, though, the album was assembled, with hit tracks like the soaring disco anthem Atomic and the stratospheric Union City Blue. Harry remembers it as a new phase in the band’s development: “We got better at what we did. There was an advancement of technology and the different sounds we could bring in. Chris had a synthesizer that could talk! We were pretty open to experimentation. When we finished the album the record company said, ‘Hmm. There’s not Heart Of Glass on here. We just said, No, there isn’t!”, laughs Harry. Yet the album still yielded three hit singles. In 1980 Blondie went to Los Angeles to make the oddball futuristic concept album, Autoamerican, which featured Number 1 hits in the shape of the Paragons cover The Tide Is High and hallucinatory rock-rap fusion Rapture but also a whole lot of unnecessary genre pastiches. The band began to lose their core audience. By 1982’s lacklustre The Hunter, Blondie were running out of ideas and Stein was ill with what turned out to be the rare autoimmune disease pemphigus. It seemed the game was up.
As the band outgrew their new wave roots, Harry felt trapped by her Blondie creation, and she began a solo career. “I didn’t have a clear picture of what I wanted to do,” she says. She’d evidently had enough of the cartoon blonde. The H.R. Giger-designed cover of her 1981 solo album Koo Koo – featuring Harry with metal skewers through her face and neck – was a more effective comment on her career in Blondie than the lightweight punk funk contained inside. She took several years off to nurse Stein back to health, before returning in 1986 with the album Rockbird. It produced the hit single French Kissin’ In The USA, but by then her career was eclipsed by another blonde who capitalised on the Blondie blueprint. “I came right up against the Madonna thing,” she says. “Maybe it’s my paranoia, but a lot of my looks – if you look closely – sometimes there’s pictures of her and me that completely overlap. She was getting such a huge push from Warners, I was definitely on the ‘B’ list. It was a hard period for me. I don’t think anybody knew how to market me or what to do with me. I was like a fish out of water.”
After a decade away from the limelight making the odd album, singing with the Jazz Passengers, appearing in cult movies (notably John Waters’ Hairspray), Harry found her way back with Blondie’s reformation in 1998. She’s evidently proud that the new wave sound remains popular today. “There is some human instinct about not being marketed to,” she says. “In those days music wasn’t producer-generated but artist-generated, and people really respond to that.”
She’s also learned to love the image that first launched her. “In 1977 I wasn’t just a cocktail waitress. Here I was writing my own songs, contributing to the music, living the life. Back then I was a young woman, one of the few women on the scene at the time. What could be better than that?”
“She was a ray of light in a dark punk world.”
The Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberge on what she admires about Debbie Harry.
“I FIRST saw Debbie Harry on The Muppet Show in the early ’80s. I’d have been about five, and she was almost like a ray of light in this dark, punk, leather jacket world, and a literal ray of light with her blonde hair. She had this overtly bubbly persona, but at the same time also a toughness. That weird combination makes her so unique. When the first Blondie record came out she was like 31 and to have so much success at that stage in your life is incredible. She chose to reinvent herself and she was really sexy and taken seriously. As someone who turned 30 last year I can only dream of being a fraction as desirable, smart and effective on-stage as she has been. New York magazine published something recently on famous New Yorkers in their rooms from the ’60s and ’70s and there is Debbie Harry and Chris Stein in their kitchen in the West Side. It looks really shabby. I was surprised because it was at the height of their fame – people don’t always make a lot of money doing what we’re doing. Blondie’s music is a part of popular culture. The songs are everywhere. Everytime you hear Heart Of Glass you feel good. She was obviously having fun in a scene that was taking itself very seriously. She was a breath of fresh air and brought some fun to it.”
As told to Andrew Male
H is for HANGING ON THE TELEPHONE
It was the summer of 1978, and singer-songwriter Jack Lee had hit rock bottom. “I remember the day vividly,” he says today. “It was a Friday. They were going to cut off our electricity at six o’clock, the phone too. I had a wife, a child and another on the way. It was fucking over. Then the phone rang and the voice said, ‘This is Deborah Harry, I’m in a band called Blondie, we really like your song Hanging On The Telephone and we want to record it on our album.'”
Lee has lived to have mixed feelings about Parallel Lines’ finest moment: grateful for the financial fillip, disappointed that it was never the version by his own band, The Nerves, that conquered the world. He’d written and acetated the song way back in 1974, inspired by an illustration in Alan Aldridge’s book, The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, and partly based on his relationship with his then girlfriend (“I had similar issues with her mom”).
Forming The Nerves with fellow San Francisco street musicians including future Plimsoul Peter Case, he’d moved to LA with the blessing of scenemaker Rodney Bingenheimer. But Sunset Strip was a shadow of its former self (“Blame disco and the dinosaurs,” says Lee) and The Nerves – a West Coast anomaly with their high tempos, short hair, skinny ties and suits – seemed cursed when the venue caught fire barely one song into their first Hollywood show.
Surviving to become influential fellow-outcasts on a club scene that nurtured LA punk tyros the Weirdos and The Germs, the trio confirmed their status as new wave missing links on tour with the Ramones and Mink DeVille (see ‘M’). “We never had the time or the money to dry-clean the suits,” recalls Lee of those hand-to-mouth months. “One night in Denver the sleeves fell off, and by the time we’d got back to LA they’d literally rotted off us.”
The struggle took its toll on more than just their threads. After releasing a self-titled EP in 1976, The Nerves grew apart. Today, after 30 years of relative anonymity, lee is writing a book of Songwriting Secrets and gigs as Jack Lee Inferno, and acknowledges the durability of the ditty that will always be his claim to fame. “Humility aside, I always knew it was a special song,” says Lee. “It seems simple enough, but I honed it until it was that direct. Even people who hated me – and there were plenty – had to admit it was great.” (DE)
Essential listening: The Nerves EP (Nerves Records, 1976).
Dreaming Blondie (Chrysalis, 1979)
This could be their finest moment, Clem Burke’s manic, (Keith) Moon-struck rhythms creating crash! boom! pop! perfection.
Available on: Eat To The Beat (EMI)
GOT A NAGGIN QUESTION? ASK AWAY, BECAUSE OUR MAN FRED DELLAR HAS THE ANSWER… MOST OF THE TIME.
Fred says: Debbie appeared on a February 1981 episode and performed One Way Or Another and Call Me, plus Rainbow Connection as the obligatory duet with Kermit. The show was in the fifth season for Henson’s heroes, one that saw Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez, Paul Simon, Gladys Knight, Johnny Cash and Buddy Rich chancing guest spots; Cash lost out on a Jackson duet with Miss Piggy, while Rich engaged in a drum battle with the supercharged Animal. Everything from the various series, spanning 120 episodes in all, is available on a 10-DVD set. The Debbie Harry section also appeared on a Best Of (with Sylvester Stallone and James Coburn) some time ago, but it’s now hard to find. However, all the guest spots from 1981, plus earlier ones of such as Judy Collins, Alice Cooper, Leo Sayer, Arlo Guthrie, Dizzy Gillespie, Diana Ross, Lou Rawls et al can be viewed on YouTube and MySpace.