Magazines + Newspapers


Issue 123

June 2010

Pages 44, 45 & 46

Blonder and Blonder

As new album ‘Panic Of Girls’ nears completion, Big Cheese celebrates the punk-pop majesty of New York legends BLONDIE.

FAR AND AWAY the greatest success story of US punk, Blondie not only made the leap from the Bowery-beat dives to global superstardom, they performed that feat while keeping their cool commendably intact. With a string of smash albums and a faultless roll call of hit singles to their credit, Blondie stand among pop music’s most enduring icons. During the initial flush of their career, from 1977 to 1982, Blondie seemed to have it all; not only did they have at their disposal a bottomless well of pop classics as an unbelievable run of singles proved, peroxide queen Debbie Harry was the ultimate front girl. With her charismatic take on pin-up glamour, Harry’s looks and vocals melted hearts worldwide, although she didn’t sacrifice a jot of her lower east side punk ballsiness in the process. On top of this, the band crossed and fused genres effortlessly, leading the field in splicing elements of disco, reggae and rap into the pop-rock format.

Blondie’s beginnings lie in the 1970s New York glam-punk circuit. Attracted by the downtown scene surrounding the New York Dolls, Debbie Harry, who had previously dabbled in folk music, first came together with guitarist Chris Stein in the Stillettos. The pair became involved romantically and soon broke away to form their own band, whose name would be inspired by the ‘Hey, Blondie!’ heckles Harry would receive in the street from truck drivers. Taking their baby steps in the city’s underground clubs, Blondie’s line-up was at first less than stable, initially featuring NY punk figures Tish and Snooky on backup vocals, who soon departed to form the Sic Fucks. However, with the addition of the whirlwind drummer Clem Burke, bassist Gary Valentine and keyboard player Jimmy Destri, Blondie’s line-up stabilised, and having become a live favourite on the circuit, in 1976 the group secured a deal with Private Stock records. Debut single ‘X-Offender’ b/w ‘In The Flesh’ reveals a pronounced sixties pop sensibility to the band’s music, and it was the latter – for some reason played in preference to the A-side on an Australian TV show – that proved their commercial breakthrough, the single and self-titled debut album both roaring up the Australian charts in consequence.

Internal tensions led to Valentine’s departure at the end of the band’s 1977 UK tour, although his songwriting contributions were retained for the band’s second album ‘Plastic Letters’ the following year. Expanding their line up with Frank Infante on guitar and ex-Silverhead Nigel Harrison on bass, Blondie switched labels to Chrysalis records, and stamped their presence on the UK top ten with sixties cover version ‘Denis’, a runaway success they were quick to follow up on with the Valentine-penned ‘(I’m Always) Touched By Your Presence Dear’. ‘Plastic Letters’ achieved a top ten position in the UK album chart, and the band was paired off with producer Mike Chapman to work on its follow up, the multi-million selling ‘Parallel Lines’. With an impressive history of bubblegum-glam hits to his credit, the producer worked his chart-friendly alchemy on Blondie’s sound, yielding further UK hits with ‘Picture This’ and ‘Hanging On The Telephone’. But it was the third single from the album, ‘Heart Of Glass’ that really pushed Blondie up into the big league, Chapman’s production glossing the song into an icily hypnotic disco-pulsing colossus. While the sounds of Studio 54 were considered anathema to many punks, the rest of the world fell at Blondie’s feet and the band stormed pop’s mainstream, topping the charts both in Britain and the US, where the band had this far been an underground phenomenon.

Blondie had plenty more chart magic in the tank. Another number one followed with ‘Sunday Girl’, and their fourth album ‘Eat To The Beat’ was released to worldwide acclaim in the autumn on 1979. This record yielded no less than three classic singles, ‘Atomic’, ‘Dreaming’ and Union City Blue’, which were quickly followed by another worldwide smash hit, 1980’s ‘Call Me’, the theme track from the film ‘American Gigolo’, for which the group teamed up with Italian disco maestro Giorgio Moroder who was fresh from a run of success with Donna Summer. By now a truly world-beating act, Blondie settled down to work on ‘Auto American’. While this album yielded further chart triumphs with a reworking of the reggae standard ‘The Tide Is High’ and ‘Rapture’, which made a bold crossover into rap music, tensions within the band were again surfacing, with Frank Infante beginning to feel sidelined.

1981 saw the group taking a sabbatical to work on various solo projects. Harry recording her debut solo record ‘Koo Koo’, which ventured into disco/funk territory with Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers of Chic on production duties. The album was a reasonable success, although the cover artwork by ‘Alien’ designer H R Giger caused some minor controversy. Reconvening in 1982, Blondie began work on ‘The Hunter’. By this point the band were on a commercial down slope; although the singles ‘Island Of Lost Souls’ and ‘War Child’ both charted, they failed to dent the UK top twenty. An implosion of some kind was on the cards, and when Stein was diagnosed with the skin disease Pemphigus, Blondie folded under the pressure.

For a while, Harry and Stein took a step back from the limelight. Stein kept a hand in music for a while with his own label Animal Records, who boasted Iggy Pop, Gun Club and James Chance on their roster, but the debilitating effects of his illness caused him to fold the label in 1984. Around the mid 1980s, Debbie and Chris separated as a couple, but continued a working relationship, and on Stein’s recovery, Debbie returned to the scene with 1986’s ‘Rockbird’ album and the memorable ‘French Kissing In The USA’ single. Further solo releases followed including 1989’s ‘I Want That Man’, and Debbie, now Deborah, also performed as vocalist with the Jazz Passengers.

In the interim years, Blondie’s influence was becoming apparent in a diverse range of acts and around the mid 1990s, moves were afoot to put the group back together. Harry and Stein reunited with Clem Burke, Jimmy Destri and Gary Valentine and performed a number of successful reunion shows. The ‘No Exit’ album followed in 1999, and although by this point Valentine had again dropped out, it was a masterful return, from which the single ‘Maria’ landed the band yet another UK number 1. Blondie elected to stick together as a band, following this success with 2003’s ‘The Curse Of Blondie’ album and touring extensively in support of their greatest hits DVD and CD releases.

2006 saw the band getting a well-deserved induction into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame, a triumphal event somewhat marred by an unscripted contretemps between the current band and Frank Infante, who was aggrieved at not being allowed to join the band onstage. Blondie went ahead and played the event without the participation of former members, wrapping up with a couple of bars of ‘Anarchy In The UK’, a salute to the Sex Pistols who had turned down an award.

2008 saw the deluxe 30th anniversary reissue of ‘Parallel Lines’, for which the band embarked on a worldwide tour. The following year Debbie’s iconic status was once again reaffirmed, as a ‘Lady Of The Eighties’ Barbie Doll! More importantly, Blondie began work on a new album, due out this summer, titled ‘Panic Of Girls’, with a string of live dates and festival appearances to follow. “Still cutting tracks as we speak,” according to Chris Stein, ‘Panic Of Girls’ promises songs with French and Spanish vocals and some striking cover art from Dutch artist Chris Berens. Still hungry after thirty five years in the business, Blondie’s all-conquering blend of chart-friendliness and Lower East Side punk sass has placed them in a league of their own. Pop perfection with glamour, style and smarts to spare!

Blondie tour the UK in June

Hugh Gulland

Hanging On The Telephone

Logging some phone time with Blondie man Chris Stein…

Out of that CBGBs scene, you were by far the most successful band. Do you think you managed to be more businesslike or focused than your contemporaries?
“Hardly. Fuck, I sold fifty million albums. I’d have more money if I was businesslike! Jesus! No, it had a lot to do with Debbie, and we were lucky and we got people working around us who gave us a push early on.”

Your original breakthrough came on Australian TV, with them playing the b-side to the single by mistake…
“I think that that is just a great story, I think Molly Meldrum (Australian TV producer) really knew one song was going to be more successful than the other, but I don’t really know for sure. When we went to Australia it was like going back into the past, like the fifties or something. Yeah, it’s amazing what’s happened, Australia now is like a whole bohemian continent, you know, hippies and goth kids with no shoes everywhere. Back in those days it was way, way behind socially and culturally. They were shocked and horrified to a certain extent to what was going on with the punk thing!”

So, ‘Heart Of Glass’, as far as you doing a disco crossover thing…
“We never had the word ‘disco’ in our heads when we were working on it, we thought it sounded like Kraftwerk! [Disco] at that point was like the Bee Gees stuff, you know? Early disco stuff to me just was coming out of R&B anyway, some of the earlier stuff was not that slick.”

Yeah, ’cause you also did ‘Rapture’ which I think was inspired by Fab Five Freddy…
“Yeah, sure, apparently that was the first rap song that was ever played on MTV. I never knew that!”

It was pretty unknown as an art form here at the time of that record.
“What’s funny to me is I spoke to lots of people in the industry in those days, I was always meeting with these higher-ups in the record business and almost a hundred percent of people told me this was a fan and was going to go away!”

That 1978-80 period for you must have been extraordinarily pressurised.
“Yeah, it’s why everything kind of dissolved. There was one period where we were constantly working for, shit, whatever, four or five years. In the last few years I frequently say not many people become successful doing this stuff, a lot of people try to do it and a lot of people have a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, but to actually go through the process and have a lot of success is really exhausting.”

You split not long after that though, 1982 or so. What triggered a break-up?
“Everything. People weren’t getting along, and drugs, me being sick and everything.”

But you stayed with music, because you had Animal Records for a couple of years, and that label had a hell of a roster, you had Iggy…
“Yeah, I was always delving into something. Iggy, it was very ironic, because nobody was interested in him at the time, and the very next record he did was the one with ‘Wild Child’ on it, which started his sort of rise to success – general public I mean, Iggy was always a major hero to a cult audience, sort of like the Ramones, you know.”

What finally prompted the 1990s Blondie reunion?
“People had been suggesting to me a long time, and I don’t know, it never quite struck home as a real thing and then suddenly, I met a bunch of people who put it to me in a different way and it seemed like a viable thing, and I also had a heavy tax burden and it seemed like the right time. The ironic thing is Blondie has always been kind of ahead of its time. We were the first ones to do a lot of things. It seemed like the first time we got back together, many bands from that period started reforming!”

So presumably it’s still fresh for you and you still enjoy getting out there on a stage?
“I know I would miss it. Touring can be a grind, but I like doing shows!”

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