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The Herald – arts

Saturday 9th July 2011

T in the Park’s Sunday girl… and her boys

Three decades since their heyday Blondie are moving on from pop to embrace broader tastes, guitarist Chris Stein tells Neil Cooper

Blondie mainstay Chris Stein is spending the day with his children on a New York beach. You’d think it must feel as far away from the downtown scene that sired the band he founded in the 1970s with vivacious front woman Debbie Harry, as it does from Balado, where a reignited Blondie perform at T in the Park tomorrow.
Panic Of Girls, the band’s first album since 2003’s The Curse Of Blondie, went into record shops in CD form earlier this week but appeared in supermarkets and newsagents a few weeks earlier, not on a major record label, but as a self-released collector’s pack with a magazine, poster, badges and postcards. Given that tracks were first laid down as far back as 2009, before assorted record company wrangles made a long silence even more protracted, one could be forgiven for thinking the title of its predecessor had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The truth, however, for Stein at least, is more mundane.
“I took time out to be with my family,” he says. “I had two kids who are now six and seven, so I sort of stumbled into a full-time dad situation, and that’s taken a while. Also, it can be difficult because of our age. Touring can be physically exhausting compared to how it used to be. When we started out we were in our twenties, and no-one our age now was doing anything. But Bob Dylan’s just turned 70 and is still out there doing stuff, and we’re still here. And the next record’s already halfway there, so there won’t be as much of a gap this time.”
Back in a near-derelict, pre-beach New York, Stein and Harry were mainstays of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, the two clubs that defined the Big Apple’s pre-punk and post-punk scene alongside now seminal fellow travellers including Television, the New York Dolls and Talking Heads, with the influence of The Velvet Underground, The Stooges and the Beat poets lingering.
“Everything came out of glam rock,” Stein recalls. “Suicide pre-dated the New York Dolls, and the scene was very exciting. Then I went to see Debbie play with her band The Stilletos, and became part of them.” When The Stilletos broke up in 1974, Harry and Stein endeavoured to start a new group. Originally called Angel And The Snake, by late 1975 and after a few personnel changes, the band changed its name to Blondie, and an underground legend was born.
Where some acts were content with cult status, however, Blondie’s pop sensibilities were mired in classic American jukebox rock’n’roll and quickly crossed over into the mainstream. By the time of their first television appearance – performing a spunky Rip Her To Shreds on Factory Records head honcho Tony Wilson’s teatime arts magazine show What’s On, during a tour of northern English punk clubs – the original Blondie line-up of Harry and Stein (who had become a couple personally as well as professionally), drummer Clem Burke, bassist Gary Valentine and keyboardist Jimmy Destri had already released their eponymous major label debut album. A flower-wielding Wilson was clearly already smitten with Harry, whose sassy appearance in over-the-knee boots as she snarled through the song was a captivating introduction to a female singer who combined sexiness and strength enough to compete on equal terms with the boys’ club that still prevailed.
“The first time we came to the UK was with Television,” Stein recalls, “and it was very different in terms of audiences. In America, audiences were still very bohemian and a little bit coffee shop, but in the UK it was much more physical.”
Within a year, on the back of second album, 1978’s Plastic Letters, a cover of Randy And The Rainbows’ 1963 hit Denis went to number two in the UK charts, while its follow-up, (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear made the top 10. It wasn’t until the same year’s album Parallel Lines, however, that Blondie really hit pay dirt. Despite a whopping six singles taken from it – including Hanging On The Telephone, Picture This, Sunday Girl and Heart Of Glass – Parallel Lines shot straight to number one.
The following year’s Eat To The Beat album sired Dreaming, Union City Blue and Atomic, while 1980’s Autoamerican diverted away from New Wave power pop and Phil Spectoresque epics to dabble with reggae on The Tide Is High and, most notably, New York’s burgeoning rap and hip-hop scene on the Grandmaster Flash referencing Rapture. In between the two came Call Me, the Giorgio Moroder-produced theme song to the film American Gigolo.
By 1982’s The Hunter, however, Blondie’s commercial peak had passed, the band was in personal and financial disarray, and a split was inevitable – especially after Stein was diagnosed with pemphigus, a rare autoimmune disease that causes blistering of the skin. With Harry taking several years off to nurse Stein back to health, Blondie appeared to be history, with a perfectly constructed set of pop classics as their legacy.
Then, in 1997, with Stein fully recovered though no longer romantically involved with Harry, Blondie reconvened with their original line-up, one of the first bands of their era to reform in an ongoing avalanche of artists riding the nostalgia wave to claim a glory that should have been rightfully theirs first time around. Yet, while Blondie did the hits, they weren’t about looking back, releasing No Exit, a Jean-Paul Sartre-referencing collection of newly recorded material, in 1999.
If fans feared the worst, No Exit was a long way from any legacy-tarnishing hotchpotch of hastily cobbled together material that some older acts fall prey to as they signally fail to catch the chemistry that once fired them. No Exit even spawned a number one single in Maria, a joyous return to form that found the now fiftysomething Ms Harry in finer voice than ever on a song that could sit proudly alongside Blondie hits of old.
“It was F Scott Fitzgerald who said there were no second acts in American life,” Stein muses while his children play about him, “but we’ve kind of proved him wrong about that. And there wouldn’t have been any point in just doing the old songs. We didn’t want to get stuck in that way. We had to keep moving forward in the way that Blondie have always been out front.
“More and more musicians were referencing Blondie, so it seemed the right time to reform. Now we see a lot of our peers are out there doing it. We played with the New York Dolls a while back, and now The Cars are back together with Ric Ocasek, so it’s all good.”
With Harry, Stein and Burke now the only remaining original members, Blondie have been revitalised on Panic Of Girls by a raft of younger players who add to the album’s multicultural breeziness. If one thing always singled Blondie out, it was their willingness to embrace sounds and influences that went beyond their trademark pop-bubblegum bounce. Panic Of Girls is no different, with the reggae-lite of Girlie Girlie on a par with The Tide Is High, while elsewhere accordions and other ecletica abound as Harry sings in both French and Spanish. Stein is a particular champion of the Latino sphere.
“The Spanish and Latino music scene in America is very exciting just now,” he observes somewhat anthropologically. “Latinos make up one sixth of the population here now, so it’s only natural that Latino music is heard more. There are still a lot of great bands coming out of urban areas, but it’s hard for them to sustain things compared to when we were starting out now the rents are so high. But in terms of listening, I get much more turned on these days listening to Spanish-language radio stations.”
With such diverse interests pre-dating the faux world music of the likes of Vampire Weekend, Stein and Blondie are still savvy enough to show the kids how intelligent pop should be done.
As Stein has already observed, however, “The challenge now is our age. I see Debbie as someone on a par with Nina Simone or something. So as long as people still come to see us we’ll keep on playing, but I try to be smart about it.”

Blondie play T in the Park, Balado, tomorrow. Visit and

The reel Blondie

Debbie Harry’s stint as a Playboy Bunny in her pre-Blondie days is well known. Less familiar is the film career she pursued before, during and after her time in the million-selling punk pop act.
It began with an uncredited appearance as a singer in 1976 cop flick Deadly Hero and continued in 1979 in spoof documentary Mr Mike’s Mondo Video, where she appeared alongside Saturday Night Live alumni Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray. Carrie Fisher and Margot Kidder also had cameo appearances – as did Sid Vicious, then living in New York.
Harry’s appeal, however, has often been to outsiders. It was Canadian horror maestro David Cronenberg, for instance, who gave the singer her first major role when he cast her as a sadomasochistic psychiatrist in 1983’s Videodrome (pictured). John Waters – the self-styled Pope of Trash – then cast her as a lead in his 1988 hit Hairspray. And in 2001, Leeds-born Wash Westmoreland, who started out making gay porn in the late 1990s, cast her in Fluffer, set in the world of adult films.
The mainstream hasn’t neglected her either, offering her roles in films such as Cop Land (with Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel), Deuces Wild and even a comedy, 1997’s Six Ways To Sunday.

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