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19th June 2010



They showed punk a way to escape the culture-de-sac of unambition, introduced hip-hop to the masses and made femininity in rock something powerful. All while writing a string of peerless pop hits. Now Blondie are back on tour, and Gavin Haynes wants to celebrate

This week, for the first time in absolutely years, Blondie are slicing a brief arc across our isle: through the Isle Of Wight, Bournemouth, Sheffield, Newcastle and RockNess, with the promise of more festival shows. And they’re not reuniting: they bucked the trend by doing that years ago remember?
And unlike so many more recent reunitees, since their 1997 return they’ve not been shy of churning out new material either. Sort of. If and when it arrives, ‘Panic Of Girl’, due in September, will be their first new record since 2003’s ‘The Curse Of Blondie’. Whether it turns out to be a wretched pot pourri of worn-out mumrock, or a bold new dawn by a band with a gift for reinvention, it’s safe to say that their legacy remains assured. In their prime, Blondie were the conscience of the disco. They were the glassy heart of the new wave pulse. They made punk sexy, and sex punky. They’ve been spiritual seers to generations of bands, from Elastica to The Strokes to Franz Ferdinand to Music Go Music. Deborah Harry’s salacious sneer opened up new templates and pathways for girls fronting rock bands. Her pioneering role as a bridgehead between pop and rock can still be felt. Madonna took copious notes. These days, Gaga’s a fan. “I feel like out of the whole punk thing, you did what I’ve been striving to do,” Santigold told Harry, efficiently summarising the argument in a 2008 joint interview, “which is bring a pop element to it. When I listened to your songs when I was younger, I felt like they were ’50s-esque, but twisted into a stripped down, raw thing. You did that with fashion, too. You’ve got that total punk thing, and then the whole glam-rock thing. You made a tough, badass, not girly but still feminine look.”
Tough, badass, but still feminine Angela Trimble was three years old when she was transported from her Miami birthplace to the New Jersey suburbs by a very nice couple called Mr and Mrs Harry, who adopted her and gave her a new name: Deborah. In this safe, neighbourhood idyll, she had plenty of time to plot her next move: getting out of this safe, dowdy neighbourhood idyll. Harry was by many accounts, a slightly shy, thoughtful teen already blissed-out on her dreams of stardom and mixing it with the metropolitan elite.
So, as soon as she was old enough, she headed for New York in a hazy search for future greatness, which translated into spending much of the next 10 years skiving through a succession of dead-end jobs. As her career repeatedly failed to catch fire, Harry found herself growing increasingly depressed.
At this point, fate came to one of her shows, dressed as Chris Stein. Student at New York School Of Visual Arts, serial band member, cerebral, quietly cool, Stein too was searching fruitlessly for the key that would unlock his big dreams. Watching Harry perform with her all-girl band, The Stilettos, he became convinced he’d found it. The pair got talking after the show and the conversation went well enough that, three weeks later, Stein had joined The Stilettos.
Not long after, Harry and Stein struck out on their own, taking their inspiration from good ol’ fashioned ’70s sexism: “One day I was walking down the street, and I heard a trucker give the catcall I’d heard a thousand times from truck drivers and road workers,” Harry remembers. “‘Hey, Blondie!’ And I knew that was it!” Clem Burke, Gary Valentine and Jimmy Destri completed the lineup, and they started to get regular gigs at CBGB. Hilly Kristal’s legendary dump was starting to become a turnstile for an array of singular talents – the Ramones, Television, The Dictators, Patti Smith, The Voidoids. New York’s artsy nihilists made its filthy catacombs their second home. Punk was brewing.
By this point, it was love that was chiefly brewing for Stein and Harry. Their strong platonic friendship/partnership had morphed into something far less platonic, far more groinal. In face, Hilly himself used to tell an amusing anecdote about how his then-wife had once walked in on the couple flagrantly intercoursing each other in the CBGB toilets.
But even with the temperature rising in the punk scene, and after playing a seven-month stint of every weekend at CBGB, Blondie remained something of outsiders to the movement coalescing around them. They were seen as too lightweight to be considered as banner-bearers for the nascent punk community. When record executives started to sniff round CBGB for bands they could successfully market as part of the punk fad, Blondie were last picked.
Despite this industry apathy, they continued to hone their set. By the time their 1976 debut ‘Blondie’ was released on a tiny independent, it represented the taut essence of everything they had learnt over the past two years of sweaty basement shows. It flopped. Except in Australia, where the band had a breakout hit, in the form of ‘In The Flesh’, the B-side to ‘X-Offender’ – which had been played in error on Countdown, Australia’s answer to Top Of The Pops.
Out of that power ballad they caught the ear of Chrysalis Records’ headman Terry Ellis. Astounded by the star wattage of Debbie, he became convinced he could turn the group into a Big Fucking Deal. He duly bought out their recording contract with the minor NYC indie label who had release their debut, and packed them off to make a second record: ‘Plastic Letters’. It grazed the Top 100 in America, but went Top 10 in the UK after the success of ‘Denis’.
At the end of a UK promotional tour, Valentine left the band, replaced by Frank Infante on guitar and Nigel Harrison on bass. They thought they were successful then. They didn’t know the half of it. ‘Parallel Lines’ – the album that followed – was to sell 20 million copies, taking them to a whole other place. New producer Mike Chapman famously told them on day one of recording that he would make them a hit record. He stuck to his word – using his burgeoning interest in the new technologies of synthesisers to revamp their sound and turning down the bubblegum bounce of their poppy punk while turning up the sleek, propulsive sheen.
Nowhere was this clearer than on third single ‘Heart Of Glass’ – a track that Stein had been toying around with since the band’s formation. Originally a loping, quirky pop-reggae piece, Chapman upped the tempo, changed the time signature, and added the waves of svelte synth that turned it into a disco standard. It topped the US charts. At a price – with the Disco Sucks wars raging, Blondie found themselves often accused of selling out. From today’s perspective, of course, the song represents the moment at which indie music first found the funk; the first great marriage of intelligence and icy sex-glamour to emerge from the rubble of punk’s Year Zero.

Throughout ’78/’79, Harry-mania was in full flow. Public appearances often took on shades of A Hard Day’s Night. Harry had become a media fixture – an icon, a pinup. Warhol painted her. Such is the vanity of those inside the bubble that some of her bandmates had begun to grow jealous of the way they’d been relegated to the role of backing band.
‘Eat To The Beat’, in 1979, extended their reign at the top, producing the thermonuclear disco of ‘Atomic’ and the breezy, wistful ‘Dreaming’. Their career peaked not long after, when electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder turned to Blondie to record the theme song to the 1980 film American Gigolo. To this day, ‘Call Me’ remains the 44th highest selling single in US chart history.
Later in 1980, the band found time to squeeze in one more record. ‘Autoamerican’ saw Blondie freed to explore their most adventurous pop impulses, with mixed results that included one of ‘Rapture’, the first time many had ever heard of the fad called ‘rap music’. For their bravery, they were rewarded with another US Number One single. It was to be their last.
The sad story told many times was that success had gone gangrenous on Blondie. The band were overworked, being ripped off by their managers, and at each other’s throats – Burke recalls never seeing the rest of the band together in one room during 1981 – supposedly the peak of their powers. One last gasp, LP, ‘The Hunter’, flopped badly – its lead single, ‘Island Of Lost Souls’, even missing the US Top 30. But it was already fait accompli. Anyone who’d seen Chris Stein perform on their ill-fated final tour could’ve already told you that they were done for. He was skeletally gaunt: a withered stick-man with his rounded glasses and parchment skin. Stein himself took a while longer to work out what was wrong: his drug use had both cushioned the pain and disguised the weight loss that had come with pemphigus – a horrific blistering disease of the auto-immune system that was generally fatal. Harry remained by his side throughout his six-month hospitalisation. “I remember, we exploded, then my body exploded,” Stein recalls. “That metaphor was always very clearly fixed in my head.”
Blondie were over. Neither Harry not Stein set foot onstage for another six years while the singer devoted her life to nursing her boyfriend back to health. The strain on their relationship took its toll in the end: the pair split in the early-’90s, though they have remained friends. But it was only by 1997 that the band agreed to reunite. 1999’s ‘No Exit’ managed to spawn a new UK Number One – ‘Maria’, allowing Harry to gazzump Cher by becoming the oldest woman to sing on a British chart-topper. ‘The Curse Of Blondie’ followed in 2003, to very mixed reviews. Since then, they’ve largely remained out of sight. ‘Panic Of Girls’ lengthy gestation can partly be explained by the face that the band have little left to prove. And partly by lingering froideur within the Blondie camp. “Being part of an ensemble is difficult,” Harry laments. “We don’t fight like cats and dogs anymore, but we certainly have our positions.” And your primary position should be down the front at one of her shows.


The songs they’d honed through their time crawling the boards of CBGB were more bubblegum than new wave, with Harry’s interest in ’50s/’60s pop predominating, best summed up by the buzzsaw doo-wop of ‘X-Offender’.

The pre-megafame follow-up to ‘Blondie’ was, many complained, a little bit washed-out. Bar the two big singles, many of the tracks here could’ve been offcuts from their debut. But things would get better…

‘Parallel Lines’ summed up a certain aspect of the new wave, and sold 20 million records into the bargain. ‘Picture This’, ‘One Way Or Another’, ‘Sunday Girl’, ‘Heart Of Glass’: the hits just kept coming.

Ballsier and slicker than its predecessor, while ‘Eat To The Beat’ lacked quite the same quantity of tunes, it nonetheless offered an assuredly fun follow-up to the success of ‘Parallel Lines’.

Ambitious, yes. The three minutes of pretentious but not unloveable instrumental that kicked off ‘Autoamerican’ signify that Blondie have reached the Serious Artist phase, for better or for worse.

The sleeve should’ve been a clue. With its lamentable photo featuring Harry in outsized blonde ‘do’ surrounded by her coterie of Sleeperblokes, the cover sounded warning bells for its contents. Overproduced and underthought.

NME Icons is a new monthly series celebrating artists and moments that have helped define and shape our musical world. Throughout June there will be special features about our second Icons Blondie on, NME Radio and NME. On NME TV, catch Blondie Vs Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Wednesday, June 16th, 10pm) and a Time For Heroes: Blondie special (Thursday 17th, 8pm).
Let us know who you think should be honoured as a future NME Icon by emailing

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