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Record Collector

May 2010

Back To The Future

As Blondie return with a new album, Kris Needs charts their convoluted rise from derided CBGB support to world stardom, with a little help from Chris Stein and Debbie Harry (both then and now)

“Blondie was a great ride, and it’s still going on,” declared Debbie Harry two years ago, as the group started thinking about a follow-up to 2003’s The Curse Of. Now, with a new album almost ready and the group planning high-profile UK summer gigs, Blondie can count themselves in the unique position of being both mid-70s New York punk explosion survivors and the only American group to score UK No. 1 singles over three decades: the 70s, 80s and 90s. “We still could have four, we just missed a decade!”, laughs Chris Stein now.
Although hugely successful, Blondie were often misread or savaged during their late 70s, early 80s peak. Now they’re often summed up by a few glorious hits and Debbie as all-time female pop icon. But their impact and influence on popular culture runs much deeper. Musically, Blondie continually stretched beyond their roots in New York’s classic pop tradition and punks revolution while introducing underground art and black music forms like rap and disco into the mainstream, again often against heavy flak from both critics and punk purists.
Meanwhile, Debbie braved often-hostile elements to open the door for female singers to seize control of their own destiny, paving the way for anyone from Madonna to Lady Ga Ga, launching a thousand looks in the process.
Debbie and Chris have always been the creative dynamo at the heart of Blondie, their unique relationship determining the group’s every, sometimes unpredictable, move, through thick, thin and even near-death. Stein was Debbie’s rock and artistic foil in the fame years, while feeding the diversity which gave Blondie their edge and progression, within the context of global stardom. In terms of musical achievements and cultural significance, the artistic partnership of Harry-Stein is up there with Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards or Strummer-Jones. That it’s still going strong after 35 years is a remarkable feat in itself.
Deborah Harry was born on 1 July 1945 in Miami, then adopted at three months old by a couple who ran a gift shop in Hawthorne, New Jersey. As a teenager, she was a cheerleader who dreamed she was Marilyn Monroe’s lost love-child, becoming a self-confessed outsider dressing in black, always dreaming: “I was a romantic, a Walter Mitty type who always imagined herself in other roles.”
After two years in finishing school, the 20-year-old Harry rebelled against being “programmed” for normal family existence by striking out for the bright lights of New York City in 1965, working as a secretary but checking out Andy Warhol’s happenings, Central Park Be-Ins and joining in with downtown experimental groups after a friend introduced her to the SoHo scene.
In 1967, she joined New Jersey psych-folkies Wind In The Willows, playing finger cymbals and singing on their only album, produced by future Woodstock co-organiser Artie Kornfeld. “It was pretty awful,” remembered Debbie, “…baroque folk rock. They even had a bassoon player! I didn’t have anything to do with the music then. I was just a back-up singer.” Predictably, the album became highly-sought after when Blondie took off, reissued and stickered “Featuring Debbie Harry”.
The group split after making an unreleased second album. Debbie’s next four years were directionless and sometimes traumatic as she wafted through various jobs, including working for eight months as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City, serving the likes of Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and the vintage Andy Warhol crowd. “It was very exciting and picturesque. I met all the stars, served them their steaks. Most of them were so stoned they couldn’t eat and still gave me five dollar tips. I’d wrap up the steaks and take them home. I had a great time.”
The job ended when Debbie, by now nursing a heroin habit, briefly ran off to California with a millionaire before a stint as a Playboy bunny. “I was stoned lots of the time. I used to cry and cry. I wanted to blank out of my mind, and whole sections of my life. (But) I have no regrets about those days. I had to get away from home. I had to experience life to the full. I guess I was lucky to come through unscathed… I made up my mind to do those things and it’s all turned out worthwhile. Surely that’s better than sitting in front of the TV all your life, wishing that you’d done the things you’re watching other people doing.”
After Debbie kicked drugs at an artists’ commune near Woodstock, she returned to New Jersey and attended beauty school, but was drawn back to New York by the new scene happening around the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Centre early in 1973. Every week the multi-roomed venue adjoining the Broadway Central Hotel attracted trans-sexuals, freaks and artists with bands forming in time-honoured boom style. “The New York scene dates back to the Dolls,” Stein later asserted.
Itching to get involved, Debbie started The Stillettoes with local scenesters Elda Gentile and Rosie Ross, exercising their girl group trash fantasies in exotic costumes (with drummer Billy O’Connor and bassist Fred Smith). “Chris calls it the last of the glitter groups,” said Debbie. “It was a sort of campy Shangri-Las, Supremes type of girl trio. We had a lot of fun but weren’t too musical. The record companies were not interested.”
Elda’s boyfriend was outrageous former Warhol movie star Eric Emerson, now fronting a band called The Magic Tramps, who also played at the Mercer. Chris Stein was their guitarist. Born in Brooklyn on 5 January 1950, the son of politically radical and artistic parents, he had been involved in the mid-60s Greenwich Village folk scene, before spending 1967’s Summer Of Love on LSD in San Francisco. After suffering a breakdown, Stein spent several months in an insane asylum, before emerging to study photography at New York’s School Of Visual Arts.
One night in October 1973, Stein and Emerson decided to check out the Stillettoes at a 28th Street dive called the Boburn Tavern. Instantly smitten by the blonde singer, Stein soon joined The Stillettoes, moving into Debbie’s Thompson Street apartment while he sub-let his First Avenue bolt-hole to a new band from Queens called The Ramones.
The following year saw New York’s downtown movers converging on a Bowery flophouse bar named CBGB by new owner Hilly Kristal, who booked bands like the Patti Smith Group, Television, Suicide and Wayne County. The Stillettoes debuted there in May 1974, supporting Television on the Sunday residency, which made their name.
The earliest incarnation of Blondie appeared after Debbie broke away with the musicians and added two blonde singers called Julie and Jacky, settling on the new name after two-gigs as Angel & The Snake. Debbie assumed the role of what she originally intended to be a fun-loving comic book character named after the catcalls she got from truckers on the street.
“At the beginning, I tried to incorporate a lot of different girls I knew as well as my own experienced into Blondie. I tried to make her a resilient creature who could bounce back and had a never-say-die, what the hell attitude. She was sparkling and adventurous, she liked having fun, liked having sex and was tender and sensitive at the same time.”
Blondie’s early days were a blur of line-up changes, feet-finding and fun amid the close-knit Lower East Side community. “It didn’t happen in the early days because we weren’t formed musically and we seemed always to be in a state of flux,” recalled Stein. “We were having a good time and weren’t really too career-orientated at the time.”
Guitarist Ivan Kral was in Blondie for three months before joining Patti Smith, while girl singers Tish and Snookie came in for several months as The Banzai Babies before starting their Manic Panic boutique on St Mark’s Place. In early 1975, after O’Connor left for law school, 18-year-old Keith Moon fanatic Clem Burke, from Bayonne, New Jersey, successfully auditioned for the post of Blondie’s “freak energy rock drummer”. Halfway through his first gig at CBGB, Fred Smith announced he was quitting, to replace Richard Hell in Television. Burke suggested bringing in his New Jersey jamming companion Gary Valentine. In October, the finishing touch to the first Blondie line-up came in the form of student doctor Jimmy Destri, who’d just left local popsters Milk ‘N’ Cookies.
While Blondie relentlessly rehearsed, Debbie worked as a waitress at White’s pub, near Wall Street, where she met the fearsome Anya Phillips, who would become her best friend and a big influence on her clothes and image. Blondie HQ became a squalid former doll factory situated above a liquor store a few blocks from CBGB.
While Debbie honed her thrift store chic, assisted by Anya and future fashion giant Stephen Sprouse, Burke instigated Blondie’s short hair-and-suits makeover after returning from an English holiday brandishing Dr Feelgood’s highly-influential 1974 debut album, Down By The Jetty.
Blondie were managed briefly by respected rock writer Alan Betrock, who paid for demos in June, 1975 including Platinum Blonde, a cover of the Shangri-Las’ Out In The Street and eventual Heart Of Glass prototype Once I Had A Love (The Disco Song). The feet-finding uncertainty and hand-to-mouth chaos around the group put Betrock off making the larger investment needed to get the group started (later rankling the band when he released the demos as an EP when Blondie started taking off, now a collector’s item).
A period of inter-band depression started lifting when fan-oriented publications like Punk and Betrock’s New York Rocker appeared in 1976, adopting Debbie as a regular pin-up after Stein supplied them with photos. The appearance of a striking, Monroe-style beauty amid punk’s dressing-down started gaining the band attention, especially in the UK.

The First Album
After catching the attention of 60s girl group producer Richard Gottehrer, Blondie signed to the Instant Records production company he had started with former New York Dolls manager Marty That, resulting in a deal with Frankie Valli’s Private Stock. Gottehrer produced Blondie’s first album at Plaza Sound Studio in Radio City Music Hall, a suitably old school New York location for an album drenched in the city’s classic tradition of girl groups and garage bands (although Debbie later cheerfully admitted, “On the first album we didn’t know what we were doing; we just went into the studio and did it”).
Blondie’s first single, X Offender (based on a real story about a sex offender who falls for her arresting officer), was released in November, a surging garage-girl group hybrid iced with Destri’s soaring Farfisa, which made Single Of The Week in the UK’s Sounds weekly. Original copies featuring In The Sun on the B-side have fetched four figures on e-Bay.
The self-titled album followed in January, shortly before punk’s tidal wave really started making its presence felt in record. Although dismissed by critics still dug into the traditional 70s trenches, it was greeted by others like a breath of air straight from the beach with its fun blend of punky street-pop (Kung Fu Girls, Little Girl Lies), Jefferson Airplane punk-psych (Rifle Range), yearning rooftop ballads (In The Flesh, with backing vocals by Ellie Greenwich) and B-movie trash-scapes (Return Of The Giant Ants). Debbie explained Rip Her To Shreds, one of Blondie’s strongest early mini street dramas, as, “about catty gossip, and not only girls are guilty of it; boys are guilty of it too. Everyone gossips, it’s a universal thing.”
Blondie made their first sortie out of New York the following month, hitting Los Angeles with a week-long stint at the Whiskey A Go Go. Aided by veteran DJ-club runner Rodney Bingenheimer, they were embraced as boys copied their mod look and girls imitated Debbie’s mix-and-match glamour. Phil Spector scared them at his mansion but a young fan called Jeffrey Lee Pierce was so smitten he started copying Debbie’s hair and running Blondie’s fan club, before forming the group he called The Gun Club.
Stein used the way that Debbie influenced girl fans on that trip to defend her unashamedly sexy image. “I don’t think we do it any more than the Stones did with Mick Jagger. He was always a big sex symbol. In Los Angeles there are girls who are adopting the look, the hair, the berets, and stuff like that. I think girls identify through Debbie. I always thought Mick Jagger was sexy. I’ve always been heterosexual and sort of identified through him.”
Debbie: “The difference in the media’s attitude to a boy or girl on stage infuriates me. If a handful of men are on stage and girls are screaming at them then everything is as it should be, but if it’s a girl on stage then everything is supposed to be cheap… So many girls come up to me and say ‘Great, keep going, do it’. I’m not making enemies of girls, I’m making fans of girls.”
Despite the opposition, Debbie’s defiant beauty and sexy playfulness also broke down barriers for what’s now considered normal behaviour, as Stein points out. “Looking back from the 21st century I often wonder about some of the things people said back then about Blondie, about how some of the crazy criticism and mud slung at us about Debbie exploiting her sexuality would hold up in the light of what has come after in the cold light of Britney and her ilk. Deb got so whacked for doing what, in retrospect, was absurdly innocent compared to what’s become the norm now embraced by masses and media.”
In March, Blondie were invited to support on Iggy Pop’s US comeback tour where Bowie played keyboards. Stein: “They heard the record and asked us. It was great. They were real gentlemen to work with, very polite. They’re real professionals, into the idea of a whole show with a first act. We were treated very well.”
Blondie played their first gigs in the UK that May with fellow CBGB band Television, finding themselves facing the ‘support band syndrome’ of sound problems and reduced stage space. They still won new fans and some good reviews, particularly the Hammersmith Odeon gig.

Debbie battled with a record company itching to capitalise on her looks while aware that she was Blondie’s main weapon in getting initial exposure. Maybe incredibly, rather than trade on their biggest asset, incessantly-paranoid band elements insisted she line up with the boys as an equal member as badges proclaimed “Blondie Is A Group”, beginning the tensions which would run throughout the band’s career and contribute to its initial disintegration.

Plastic Letters
After the tour, Blondie returned to New York, where new manager Peter Leeds (former Wind In The Willows business brains and another ongoing factor in group unrest) fired Valentine for reportedly being difficult. Blondie commenced recording their second album with Gottehrer at Plaza Sound with Stein also handling bass, before Clem’s mate Frank Infante came in from Jersey City’s World War III. Leeds also negotiated with Chrysalis Records to buy out Private Stock and Gottehrer.
The band called the album Plastic Letters from a sign behind the New York street photo session in which Debbie sported a pink dress designed by Anya Phillips. It demonstrated a widening of styles and punkier edge on energised rockers like Youth Nabbed As Sniper, Detroit 442 and Love At The Pier, evocative ballads like Bermuda Triangle Blues (Flight 45) and the experimental blowout of Cautious Lip. “Plastic Letter was hard because the group felt hard at the time,” said Debbie. Debbie’s lyrics were again based on experiences and characters the band knew. For example, I’m On E is about Debbie’s old Chevrolet Camaro, which died. “We gave it to a guy called Vinnie, who drove it off a cliff in New Jersey”.
When Blondie returned to the UK in November (including first signs of Blondie-mania at Friars Aylesbury, but sound problems at London’s Rainbow), Chrysalis reissued the first album and budget 12″ of Rip Her To Shreds. Infante had switched to rhythm guitar, while Nigel Harrison, from Silverhead, took over bass. After gigs in Australia and the Far East, Blondie returned to London, playing a near-disastrous showcase at London’s Dingwall’s which, amid screeching sound problems, degenerated into a fight which spilled backstage and out the stage door.
With the band tired and press still taking potshots, Blondie weren’t in the best spirits, until their cover of Randy & The Rainbows’ 1963 hit Denis(e) took off sufficiently to land the TV appearances crucial to breaking them in the UK, catapulting it to No. 2. The Roundhouse show was greeted with roaring euphoria from both fans and even press. Debbie, in all-white tennis outfit and knee-pads, was the nation’s new pin-up.
The next single, (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear, was forged gloriously from Blondie’s strengthening perfect-pop template, a Valentine holdover which saved Blondie from one-hit wonderdom by making the Top 10 (aided by a 12″ including the non-album track Poet’s Problem).

Parallel Lines
If the first album was sex, surf and giant ants, and it’s follow-up a feet-finding punk-tinged style-scrabble, Parallel Lines saw Blondie come of age and make a timeless pop classic. Debbie described it as, “a better Blondie: better songs, better playing, better singing.” The group had tightened up after over a year on the road, now able to reach that peak where ideas and songs flow into the kind of album hailed as classic in decades to come.
Much of the album’s success can also be attributed to the production suss and radio-friendly sheen of veteran glam hit-maker Mike Chapman, who earned his pedigree turning out hits for the likes of Mud, Suzi Quatro and The Sweet earlier in the decade. Recording at New York’s Record Plant, the perfectionist Chapman insisted on endless takes but, according to Debbie, “helped us become more commercial, with tighter arrangements and perfect basic tracks.”
Jeffrey Lee Pierce told Blondie about talented West Coast songwriter Jack Lee, whose band The Nerves had release a song in 1976 called Hanging On The Telephone (inspired by a pestering mother-in-law). Blondie’s vibrant version opened the album. The group were sufficiently taken with Lee’s outstandingly melodic pop to also record Will Anything Happen, but the rest of the album was written by different inter-group combinations, usually involving Debbie and Stein, including One Way Or Another (about a stalker Debbie once encountered), 11:59, the gossamer heaven of Stein’s Sunday Girl (written while he was missing an absent Debbie and their runaway cat Sunday Man) and “our fake Motown song”, Pretty Baby, inspired by Brooke Shields in the film of the same name, a pinnacle of their girl group homaging. Soaring sci-fi ballad, Fade Away And Radiate, written by Stein in 1974, is elevated by the distinctive guitar tones of Robert Fripp, a close friend of Chris and Debbie, who was set to star with him in the aborted Alphaville movie project.
Heart Of Glass would bust Blondie out into the world market when released as a single the following January. Named after Werner Herzog’s unsettling 1976 movie, it had started life as a slower, funk-tinged outing called Once I Had A Love (or The Disco Song) on the 1975 demos. Using a Roland drum machine, which had yet to dominate disco but had been notably used by New York electronic pioneers Suicide, Kraftwerk and Donna Summer’s producer Giorgio Moroder, they spent 10 hours building machine-drum pulses to underpin Debbie’s feisty vocal and pulsing synth waves, which also pre-dated the 80s electronic dance sound.
The band hated the album’s black and white striped sleeve as Leeds had promised they could pick their individual images to work around the design but went with the only smiling shot headed by a variation on the Blimpie’s logo. Nobody seemed to notice when the album was greeted by across-the-board rave reviews then became their biggest seller to date when released in September, reaching No. 6 in the US and pole position in the UK.
The album’s first single, Picture This, was a beautifully-honed slice of mid-tempo Blondie pop, assisted to reach No. 12 by Top Of The Pops and a yellow vinyl pressing.
After touring the US with The Kinks, Blondie returned to the UK in September to experience full-blown Blondie-mania, with screaming mob scenes reminiscent of Hard Day’s Night, even near-riots. Hanging On The Telephone was proving so popular it became the next single in November, reaching No. 5.
In early 1979, Alice Cooper’s manager Shep Gordon took over from Leeds, while Heart Of Glass topped charts in several countries, including the US and UK. Blondie’s contemporaries and even supporters like Punk magazine openly scoffed and even became hostile at what they called “selling out” to disco. By filming the video at Studio 54, with the band toting mirror-balls, Blondie seemed to be almost baiting the critics.
“We never thought about the word disco when we were working on it,” says Stein. “We were thinking about Kraftwerk. Disco was kind of like The Bee Gees at that point. I guess it represented the establishment to the punk people.
“Saturday Night Fever was actually pretty gritty. In retrospect, Travolta and those guys were definitely portrayed as totally outsiders rather than establishment. It was closer to punk sensibility even though they were dressing in slick clothes, but just represented whatever the fuck it represented to the punk people at the time.”
Debbie considered the song to be, “one of the most innovative songs that Blondie ever recorded… We did it because we wanted to be uncool. I always thought people who categorised us as nostalgia, punk or anything were out of their minds.”

Eat To The Beat
During the UK tour, the group told me that they were toying with the idea of releasing two albums next: one of regular songs, the other venturing into the experimental side, which always lurked beneath. Stein even talked in terms of a concept album, “like Ziggy Stardust or Tommy”. In the same month of May that the divine Sunday Girl went to No. 1 in the UK single charts (the 12″ boasting the French version of the song), Blondie started recording with Chapman at New York’s Power Station (Stein doubling his workload by producing a French duo called Casino Music for ZE Records).
“We had really got the concept of Blondie down to the extent that we didn’t have to think about it or work on it that hard any more,” reflected Debbie in Making Tracks, the book she put together with Stein and author Victor Bockris (who got a track named after him on the album).
While still sporting quintessential Blondie pop classics like first single Dreaming, Eat To The Beat gleefully cast its net into those experimental waters with the post-apocalyptic disco tear-ups of Victor and Atomic (predating techno, with its pounding beat and shimmering sequences but boasting the guitar riff from Neil Diamond’s Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon), while Stein described the haunting Shayla as “a psychedelic country song in outer space”.
Other diversions included their first stab at reggae on Die Young Stay Pretty, and Sound Asleep’s delirious drift, inspired by the insomnia Debbie experienced on the UK tour. She said her Blondie character has now, “evolved into a creature who is like a mirror, reflecting and interpreting the songs… Now she has become more abstract and less female.” The full range of the record was heightened when it was released as the first video album.
After Dreaming and the album both shot to No. 1 in September, the majestic aural skyline of November’s Union City Blue stalled at 13. Blondie spent much of 1979 trying to crack their home country, hitting the UK again in December. After stopping the traffic in London’s Kensington High Street, when an estimated 3,000 fans turned out for an in-store signing at Our Price Records, the group insisted on taking four hours to greet them all. To this day, Stein rates the chaos they caused as his favourite Blondie moment.
Blondie performed Dreaming on the Christmas Top Of The Pops, then started their tour on Boxing Day, seeing in the new decade as Old Grey Whistle Test broadcast the Glasgow Apollo show, complete with bagpipes. Despite the fact that they could have sold out Wembley Arena, Blondie elected to play eight nights at the more intimate Hammersmith Odeon. “We had to go to war to do the gigs we wanted,” revealed Debbie, but she seemed visibly more relaxed as Blondie played some of their best ever shows. Tony Ingrassia, who had worked with The Stillettoes, returned as choreographer, by invitation from Debbie, who explained, “I would try and take the audience on Blondie escapades and emotional voyages, and this worked very well for me.” Every night saw them encore with T. Rex’s Get It On and Bowie’s Heroes (joined by Robert Fripp, while Iggy got up one night for Funtime).
During a long afternoon interviewing Chris and Debbie at their hotel before one of the shows, the couple talked about newspaper reports describing her as a recluse imprisoned in her hotel room.
Stein: “Debbie’s been going out with a wig and it’s really interesting. Did you read the story in the paper about Debbie being trapped in her hotel room in Birmingham? Well, that day she was out shopping with a dark wig on. Only one little boy picked up on who she was. That thing in the paper was hilarious!
“Yes,” giggled Debbie. “‘She sits in her suite for seven hours eating nuts and melons…’ That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard! That number of nuts and melons could kill somebody! ‘When she hit the stage she burst like a fat caterpillar’. It’s all really entertaining, you know. It’s really quite funny.
“When I see something in a newspaper that tells me something about the music or lighting, I read ’em. But when it comes to slagging me off as some kind of she-bitch… Those aren’t the reasons that I do what I do.”
Atomic became Blondie’s third UK No. 1 in February. Although they took a leaf out of disco’s book and treated their 12″ singles as an art-form in themselves, with special mixes and non-album tracks, Debbie still felt strongly about the number of tracks being plucked off their albums. “I tried to get them to stop last year after three, because I thought it was a little bit upsetting, a little bit much. It is good in a certain way, but it is kind of like being an invading plague!”
Atomic was followed two months later by Call Me, their biggest ever hit. Produced by Giorgio Moroder for the theme to the American Gigolo movie, starring Richard Here, the song was originally an electronic instrumental called Man Machine. Debbie wrote lyrics inspired by the film, then Blondie created what Stein described as, “a combination hard-rock, boogie Paint It Black-type thing”.
Call Me went to No. 1 in both the UK and US, where it wouldn’t budge for six weeks, becoming Billboard’s No. 1 song of the year. The song was also released in a Spanish version called Llamame on legendary disco label Salsoul (originally intended for the Mexican market, now one of the more unusual Blondie collectables, fetching around £30).

Speaking in January 1980, Stein had expressed doubts about doing another album with Chapman, bandying names like Moroder, Chic and even Abba. “I don’t think we can do a third album in this series, not another album that’s like a string of singles. We’ll do something else, some longer songs.”
This was the start of Blondie’s rebellion, which they likened to Bowie’s constant reinvention. “We very consciously wanted to go against that we’d done previously,” stated Debbie. “We didn’t want to do what everybody expected us to do. On AutoAmerican we wanted to expand. The whole thing about Blondie is expansion.”
As it happened, Chapman actively encouraged the new adventure, taking the band away from New York’s all-pervading influence to plant them amid the sleaze of LA’s Sunset Strip at United Western Studios. They now had enough budget to employ a 30-piece orchestra for Stein’s soundtrack-style theme, Europe )over which Debbie recited a poem about the place of the car in American society) and veteran jazz musicians on smokey ballad Faces. The album closed with Debbie’s wistfully haunting version of Lerner and Loewe’s Follow Me from Camelot (“I like the idea that us doing a pretty little song from Camelot can give a critic an ulcer!”). Only the grand sweep of T-Birds (inspired by the LA girls’ roller derby team) and Walk Like Me nod at the recognised Blondie hit sound.
Paradoxically, although the album met the anticipated derogatory press reception, two musical diversions provided two of the band’s biggest ever hits. The Tide Is High covered the Paragons’ John Holt-composed mid-60s ska hit, which U-Roy made into an early 70s UK skinhead anthem. Released in October 1980, it went No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Chic-inspired Rapture followed in January 1981: the only Blondie single to fare better in their home country, as it glided to No. 1 while making five in the UK. That could have been down to the track catching the early hip-hop wave about to sweep America, continuing Blondie’s never-ending quest to mirror happening musical strains.
AutoAmerican’s negative press might have been one reason it only made No. 3 in the UK album charts, but it could have been another courageous move. Now Blondie had made their experimental album, they shut down the album-tour conveyor belt to take a brief hiatus for various side projects.
Debbie and Chris recorded her KooKoo solo album with Chic, while the guitarist started setting up his own record label and working with East Village art-jazzers group Lounge Lizards, Jimmy Destri produced an album of NY groups for Marty Thau’s Red Star label, Harrison played with Michael Des Barres and Burke produced a band called The Colors. Frank Infante busied himself suing over lack of involvement in AutoAmerican, indicating the degree of inter-band tension crackling away.
To keep the Blondie pot boiling and coffers swelling, Chrysalis released The Best Of in October 1981; all the hits, including four remixed by Chapman (who conjoined the English and French mixes of Sunday Girl, raided 12″ versions of Rapture and Heart Of Glass and reverbed In The Flesh into a widescreen Spector rooftop epic).

The Hunter
After their solo flights, neither Debbie, fresh from her stellar spot on The Muppet Show, or Chris felt much urge to return to Blondie, but agreed to do another album for the sake of the others. Stein recalls The Hunter being created in a mire of inter-band sulks, rows and tension, exacerbated by heavy drug consumption. “With Blondie everybody started as little kids and that sibling rivalry never went away.”
The songwriting spark seemed to have dulled, although Debbie’s lyrics on tracks like the Beatles-lamenting English Boys and vocal performances were still improving, especially her sensitive reading of Smokey Robinson’s The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game. There was also a classic piece of foot-shooting when Blondie were asked to do the theme song for the new James Bond movie but declined the movie company’s song in favour of writing their own. Sheena Easton then had the hit with For Your Eyes Only while Blondie’s song appeared as an album track.
Although Chapman dressed the album in 80s bombast, something wasn’t right in the jungle. As the producer says in his liner notes to the 2001 reissue, “I could tell that things were very different now. I knew that this would be the last Blondie album.”
The album’s early 1982 release coincided with the publication of Making Tracks, launched with a party at an exhibition of Stein’s photographs at Wapping’s B2 gallery, which was mobbed by fans. First single, a lively calypso excursion called The Island Of Lost Souls, was accompanied by Debbie, in green dress and blonde wig, co-hosting Top Of The Pops with John Peel. The single just brushed the Top 10, as did the album, while abrasive rock-disco follow-up War Child reached a lowly 39.
A big world tour had been booked, ironically including previously-resisted Wembley Arena. But Blondie’s popularity was undoubtedly on the wane and ticket sales were poor. The atmosphere on the US leg, still frayed by drugs, was appalling before they stopped after a Philadelphia gig with Genesis and Elvis Costello, when Stein fell ill. He was later diagnosed with a rare genetic disease called pemphigus which attacks the skin. With Blondie already undergoing a painful death, it put the band out of its misery. Blondie were no longer a group.
“Blondie did what we did before anybody knew what was happening, and laid a lot of groundwork for other bands,” reflects Debbie. “We had bad luck and we had good luck at the same time, and we were probably too early.”
“There were so many causes as to why we split and a lot of negativity,” muses Stein. “Maybe we were a reality TV show before there was reality TV.”
While Burke joined Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart in Eurythmics, Debbie teamed up with Moroder the following year to record the insidiously electro-popping Rush Rush, for the Scarface soundtrack, in 1983, which would be the last the world heard of her for over three years. Chris spent months in hospital, then two years convalescing, cared for all the way by Debbie, who always downplays the popular story that she sacrificed her career, saying, “I only did what anyone else would do for their partner.”
The jolt into harsh reality after mega-stardom did take its toll on the couple’s relationship but, despite breaking up, they remained close, Stein participating in most of Debbie’s solo projects, starting after she signed to Geffen in 1985. In 1999, he married actress Barbara Sicuranza, relocating to Woodstock, where they live with their two daughters.

The Return Of Blondie
Blondie returned in 1998 with a new line-up seeing Harry, Stein, Burke and Destri joined by guitarist Paul Carbonara and bassist Leigh Fox, recording at various New York studios to make the No Exit album, named after a Jean-Paul Sartre play and released the following February. The album was produced by Craig Leon, a man steeped in New York recording lore from working with the likes of The Ramones, Suicide and Richard Hell.
The past-referencing continued with a cover of the Shangri-Las’ Out In The Streets (first heard on the 1975 demos) and when the album’s first single, a quintessential Blondie pop classic written by Jimmy Destri called Maria, shot to No. 1.
Meanwhile, the title track updated Blondie’s hip-hop menu with heavy guitars and Coolio, while Boom Boom In The Zoom Zoom Room showed the jazzy foraging still flourishing.
The band responded to their triumphant return by touring and releasing a live album, Livid, in 2000, before EMI-Capitol reissued the first six albums in 2001.
2003’s The Curse Of earned its name because Beyond, their record company, went bankrupt, leaving the band to sign with Sanctuary, while irreplaceable demo tapes were stolen at an airport. With Leon back producing, the album again managed to marry musical exploration with forays into hip-hop (Shakedown) and disco (Good Boys, which made No. 12 when released as a single, remixed by old friend Giorgio Moroder).
Blondie were inducted into the US Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2006 (experiencing backstage shenanigans with former members).
The following year, Debbie and Chris returned to CBGB, scene of Blondie’s birth 34 years earlier, to play an acoustic set the day before it closed, another victim of the gentrification which has immeasurably changed their former neighbourhood.

D-day Approaches
Since returning, Blondie have gigged steadily but, for over a year, have been working towards their imminent but still-untitled new album, recorded at Woodstock’s Appleyard studios with Killers producer Jeff Salzman. The band now line-up as Stein, Harry, Burke, Foxx, Carbonara and keyboards-player Matt Katz-Bohen, replacing the finally-departed Jimmy Destri, now a Manhattan drugs counsellor. Their Christmas internet version of We Three Kings was an early taste of a group now firing on all cylinders.
“I’m really excited about this record,” says Stein. “It’s more pointed than the last one and there’s a lot of weird stuff, but I think this is the most solid album of this period. It’s way superior over the last two records. I wasn’t into full-on writing and production mode when I was working on those, because the kids were still stabilising themselves. It took me a while to get back into the momentum, but I feel really productive now and worked much harder on this. Hell, I’m fucking 60 years old! It’s ridiculous.
“I know the lyrics are great; I’m always amazed at the stuff that Debbie comes up with. We did a bunch of cover songs that people will know from our recent encores. We’ve got two Spanish songs and a French one called Le Bleu A L’Ame. Debbie has a song called D-Day.”
Then he says they’ve just recorded two more songs when, a few weeks ago, he’d pronounced the album finished. 35 years ago since Chris and Debbie started Blondie, they’re straining at the creative leash again, while new generations continue to discover one of music’s most timeless catalogues. New York might be turning into another city but the original downtown spirit is alive and kicking.

Blondie’s Roots!
Blondie might have needed cover versions to fill their sets in their early days, but the desire to homage and reinterpret other people’s songs has remained. Or as Debbie gleefully put it once, “I’ve got a whole briefcase full of lyric sheets. We rip ’em all off with smiles on our faces!”
After revealing that Blondie started a version of Suicide’s Ghost Rider during sessions for their next album, Chris Stein says, “The band was always talking about doing a covers record. One day I’ll put together a list of the songs we’ve done…”
Here, RC tried to save him the trouble by listing some of the nuggets tackled by the group over the years (concluding that the album idea could be a good one)…
Time Is Tight (Booker T & The MGs)
Nutbush City Limits (Ike & Tina Turner)
My Baby Must Be A Magician (Marvelettes)
Smarty Pants (First Choice)
Mr Big Stuff (Jean Knight)
Out In The Streets (Shangri-Las)
I’ll Be A Big Man In Town (Frankie Valli)
Palisades Park (Beach Boys)
Moonlight Drive (Doors)
Little GTO (Ronnie & The Daytonas)
Denise (Randy & The Rainbows)
Jet Boy (New York Dolls)
I Feel Good (James Brown)
I Love Playing With Fire (Runaways)
Hanging On The Telephone/Will Anything Happen (Jack Lee)
I Feel Love (Donna Summer)
Funtime/Sister Midnight (Iggy Pop)
Heroes (David Bowie)
The Tide Is High (John Holt)
Follow Me (Lerner-Loewe)
The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game (Smokey Robinson)
Start Me Up (Rolling Stones) Ironically, the last song Blondie played before splitting up in August 1982.
Stupid Girl/My Obsession/Come On (Rolling Stones)

In And Out Of The Bleach: Debbie On Record And Celluloid
When Debbie Harry announced that she and Chris Stein would be working with Chic on her first solo album, many expected the ultimate combination of Blondie pop and the sophisticated disco created by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers on Good Times. Instead, both groups seized on the opportunity to rebel against their formulas and had a blast experimenting with any different style as long as it wasn’t their own. The result was 1981’s KooKoo, a bold, playful statement which seemed to declare that neither party would be confined to commercial expectations.
The two camps met and mutual admiration established when both were working in New York’s Power Station in 1979, Blondie on Eat To The Beat and Chic resuscitating Diana Ross.
“We knew the guys from Chic and went round to see them,” recalls Stein. “Rapture was our homage to Chic. We started getting more of a black audience and we admired them a lot. It seemed like a right thing to do.”
Each songwriting partnership wrote four songs and collaborated on two, the band based around the core Chic trio of guitarist Nile Rodgers, bassist Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson.
“They were looking for a chance to break out of their format with Chic, perhaps as much as we were looking to break out of our format with Blondie,” said Debbie. “Really, we were both equally in the same position. They had been totally identified with the sound they had and Blondie had been identified with our sound and then we got the chance to do something together. It was really fun, they’re so crazy.” At the time, Debbie happily declared, “I’m nuts about this record. I always say that, but this is the one I like best so far.”
Although it reached No. 6 in the UK, the album’s riotous blend of hard inner city funk, angular post-punk and Islamic disco confused both groups’ fans, while the now dark-haired Debbie poleaxed her pin-up status bringing in Oscar-winning Alien creator H.R. Giger to design the sleeve, depicting her face impaled by acupuncture needles, symbolically skewering her public image and getting banned by London Transport in the process. Giger also directed striking but little seen videos (now on YouTube) for first single, Backfired, and Now I Know You Know, where Chic bow to their unmatchable majestic balladry and Debbie gives one of her finest ever vocal performances.
At the time, both parties agreed that KooKoo had been a feet-finding exercise worth repeating, but the in-demand Chic duo were grabbed by Bowie for Let’s Dance then new blonde in town Madonna. Stein hoped to get Mike Chapman to produce a follow-up for his Animal Records, before his illness precipitated his “enforced vacation”. The only time Debbie was seen by the outside world during this time was when she guested on Andy Warhol’s weekly cable TV programmes, which she had started in 1979 and continued until 1987.
Debbie returned to making music once Stein was on the road to recovery, recording Feel The Spin with ‘Jellybean’ Benitez for the soundtrack to 1985’s Krush Groove movie, also released as a 12″, paving the way for her full return the following year with the Seth Justman-produced Rockbird album and its single, French Kissin’ In The USA, which restored her to the UK Top 10. 1989’s Def, Dumb & Blonde saw Debbie with Chris at her side and reunited with Mike Chapman on a set mixing lush Blondie-style pop-scapes with yearning ballads, including End Of The Run, a poignant reflection on the Blondie years and absent friends.
Mainstream releases were still being countered with downtown underground projects, like an intriguing Haitian outing called Invocation For Papa Legba, which Debbie and Chris concocted for 1989’s Like A Girl I Want You To Keep Coming compilation for veteran New York imprint Giorno Poetry Systems. Debbie also dueted with Iggy Pop on Cole Porter’s Well Did You Evah for 1990’s Red Hot & Blue AIDS awareness compilation. 1993’s Debravation was her last album for Chrysalis, sporting input from several dance producers including Arthur Baker, Richard Norris and Lenny Dee. Both album and single, I Can See Clearly Now, still managed to reach the UK top 30.
Debbie then took an unexpected but rewarding diversion, displaying a deeper side to her singing after hooking up with former Lounge Lizard Roy Nathanson’s avant-jazz outfit Jazz Passengers, touring and appearing on 194’s In Love and 1997’s Individually Twisted albums. “I always pushed myself to try out different things and explore other sides of my music, and that’s really kept me happy,” said Debbie.
Time taken up again with Blondie, it was 2007 before Debbie made another solo album (although the previous year she had teamed up with Moby for a glorious tribute to her home city called New York New York). The atmospheric Necessary Evil saw her exploring electronica with the Super Buddha production team, showing how she continued to keep in touch with sounds bubbling in the clubs. Debbie has never lost touch with her downtown roots, regularly appearing at events organised by veteran underground club Jackie 60, phenomenally-popular annual drag ball Wigstock and gay rock club Squeezebox.
Inevitably, making movies seemed a logical step for the girl who once dreamed and sang about being a platinum blonde star like Monroe or Harlow. But Debbie never took the obvious route there either, often choosing dowdy brunette or unhinged villain in some of the roles which came her way.
After appearing in several low-fi Amos Poe productions, including Blank Generation and Unmade Beds, Debbie’s first high-profile role was as a depressed 50s New Jersey housewife in Mark Reichert’s Union City in 1979, while in David Cronenberg’s 1983 cult sci-fi classic Videodrome she played a sexed-up shrink called Nicki Brand. In 1980, Debbie and Stein contributed music to John Waters’ Polyester, going on to play the camp matron figure of Velma Von Tussle in the director’s acclaimed 1987 movie Hairspray, which sent up 60s life in Baltimore.
In 1990, she played a psychotic housewife in Tales From The Darkside: The Movie, but perhaps the role which saw Debbie taken most seriously as an actress was as an upstate short order cook called Dolores in James Mangold’s Heavy, alongside Shelly Winters and Liv Tyler.
As with her music, Debbie’s movie career seems to have stuck to the punk ethos of trying the challengingly unexpected with no formal training. At 65, with Blondie returning, Chris Stein says her lyrics have never been stronger. Surely it’s time for that long-awaited autobiography and maybe her own remarkable story on celluloid?

Chris Stein: Downtown Superman
Few groups captured the essence of New York better than Blondie, yet their part in the city’s underground art and music scenes is often overlooked. Even at the peak of their popularity, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein kept their ears to the sidewalk and feet in the clubs, their immersion in flourishing movements like disco, hip-hop and post-punk manifested in the music they made with Blondie, including some of their biggest hits.
The post-punk movement thrived in clubs like the Mudd and Hurrah but, although this next generation of arty individuals fixated with disparate musical styles and gutter glamour hailed Blondie as godfathers, Debbie and Chris owed much of their home-turf grounding to a chaotic cable TV show going out every Tuesday after midnight from a 23rd Street studio.
Initially inspired by Hugh Hefner’s early 60s Playboy After Dark TV show, Interview magazine writer Glenn O’Brien’s anarchic TV Party was vital in bringing together the city’s disparate artistic elements in a loose, anything-can-happen free-for-all. Songs and sketches were directed by film-maker Amos Poe, while the orchestra was led by Warhol assistant Walter Steding. “It was punk TV… We thrived on disaster,” said O’Brien.
Between December 1978 and December 1982 Stein co-presented, while Debbie acted in either a backroom capacity, even working the camera, or appeared on air. If Blondie were on tour, they tried to film a contribution while Stein sometimes put money into the show. “It was like having our own club that was open once a week,” he recalls.
Through the show, the Blondie couple struck up close relationships with guests including Warhol, William Burroughs, Chic’s Nile Rodgers, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and hip-hop figure Fab Five Freddy Braithwaite. Other regulars included Robert Fripp, David Byrne, The Clash, B-52’s and their old friend Jeffrey Lee Pierce. These relationships led to two of Blondie’s biggest songs. As Fab Five Freddy glided between uptown’s rapidly-developing hip-hop scene and downtown’s multi-faceted hotbed through Warhol’s crowd, he became instrumental in giving artists like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash their first exposure to white crowds while taking Debbie and Chris to their first South Bronx hip-hop jam.
“Freddy took us to our first hip-hop show in the Bronx at one of those community centre type things,” recalls Stein. “It was very exciting for me at the time. I still have images of it in my head. We’d just never been exposed to it and suddenly here was a full onslaught of the whole deal. It was very old school; Funky Four and Flash were all at that show.”
At the time, this epiphany prompted him to declare, “Rap is the first real underground black movement that’s come out. It’s thriving. Racially it’s totally mixed. There’s no segregation in the New York rock scene.” He was inspired to write Rapture with Debbie, while also thinking of Chic’s Good Times (which provided the backdrop for the Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 hit Rapper’s Delight). Debbie’s rap namechecked Freddy and Flash, while the video was the world’s first glimpse of the movement’s lifeblood graffiti and turntables, manned by Basquiat when Flash didn’t show, although the DJ returned the compliment by cutting Rapture into his first single, The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash At The Wheels Of Steel.
After starring in Glenn O’Brien’s movie Downtown 81 with Basquiat and Blondie, Freddy got involved in local film-maker Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, the first movie depicting hip-hop culture in the South Bronx, whose cast included graffiti artist Lee Quinones, Grandmaster Flash and Cold Crush Brothers. “Charlie Ahearn was really into the hip-hop and graffiti scene and decided to make a movie about it,” recalls Stein. “Doing the soundtrack was brilliant. It was a big collaboration with Freddy, who made a lot of the introductions.”
Stein’s epoch-making soundtrack was created in collaboration with artists like Grandmater Can, foreshadowing modern production techniques. “We never ever met! It was like how people work today on the internet. We just traded tapes back and forth. They had bass and drum parts, then I came in and did weird electric guitar stuff, while Freddy added some sound effects like electric shavers and police sirens. Then the finished thing was pressed up and made into a hundred white label copies. Guys would beg me for copies.
“They ere initially just given out to people who were working on the film to use to scratch with but everyone gravitated to this one track called Down By Law. Caz cut it on turntables and sent me a tape of his cut version, then I synchronised a bunch of synthesisers to the cutting, which I’m sure hadn’t been one prior to that.”
The soundtrack was eventually released on Stein’s Animal imprint in 1983, the Cat-Stein collaboration released as the Wild Style Theme on 12″. He had first thought of starting a label called Skull Records in mid-1981 (“like 2-Tone, except the opposite”), putting his plan into action after unsuccessfully taking Wild Style soundtrack around record companies. Stein intended Animal as an outlet for downtown friends, artists he liked and his own productions, aiming to restore “loudness and craziness” to the “staid and conservative” music scene.
Although initially approved by Chrysalis as a kind of vanity project to keep one of their main stars happy, the label’s success swelled its status, although Stein financed many activities himself and deals were one-off “hand-shakes”. Releases included Iggy Pop’s Stein-produced Zombie Birdhouse, James White & The Blacks, Panther Burns, San Francisco “nut-case” Snuky Tate and landmark Gun Club albums Miami and The Las Vegas Story, plus the Death Party EP. (Last year, Stein and Debbie contributed to the We Are Only Riders project, which saw old friends and collaborators, including Nick Cave and Lydia Lunch, finish bedroom sketches of songs unearthed on cassette by Pierce’s former collaborator Cypress Grove.)
Stein also produced 1982’s Dancing In Heaven album for violinist Walter Steding, having previously worked on his 1980 single. The Joke as the only known release on Andy Warhol’s Earhole label which, with its limited pressing and sleeve (below, right) by the artist, has become a three figure collectors’ item.
Stein was forced to curtail Animal when he fell ill; partly because of the heroic workload he was imposing on himself with production, label duties, TV shows and the disintegrating Blondie. Since then, he’s seen the effects of these endeavour continue to resonate, and should be happy in the knowledge that he was one of the few stars to rise from New York poverty to put something back into the scene which spawned them.

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