ALBUM BY ALBUM with Blondie
LOVE STORY[Blondie’s Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, Landmark Hotel, London, 7 February 2017. Stein: “Debbie always had this terrific presence as well as being really gorgeous. I was smitten…”]
Blondie were the dream pop enterprise: hooks and looks to die for, one of the great singles groups. At their core was an enduring bond between lovers DEBBIE HARRY AND CHRIS STEIN.
Simon Goddard meets Harry and Stein, along with former associates, to hear a tale of love, punk, disco, drugs, madness, illness, heartbreak, recovery, lawsuits and survival.
PORTRAITS – RACHEL WRIGHT
FAIRYTALE OF NEW YORK
CHRIS STEIN doesn’t need a photo to jog his vivid memory of the night he first saw Debbie Harry but he carries one in his phone anyway. It shows her onstage with campy girl band The Stillettoes at New York’s Bobern Tavern circa 1973. Harry isn’t immediately recognisable as the future face of Blondie: her hair a natural brown crop, her eyebrows plucked and indistinct. But the sultry eyes and the toothsome mouth caught mid-holler are unmistakable. “I like to think I saw what other people saw later,” says Stein, then an aspiring 23-year-old guitarist and songwriter. “Debbie always had this terrific presence as well as being really gorgeous. I was smitten.”
The object of these affections leans over to look for herself. “Aw, yeah,” coos Debbie Harry, drinking in the vision of her 28-year-old self. “The good old days!”
Lifelong musical soulmates, Harry and Stein sit at a table in the suite of a London five star hotel, surrounded by framed etchings, decanters of water and a piece of slate displaying a few dozen untouched coloured macaroons. Rewind four decades and you’d have found the then-lovers in a rundown Bowery apartment above a liquor store with bullet-holes in the windows, living below a landlord who, not wishing to venture to the only toilet on their floor, urinated in empty beer bottles which occasionally spilled and dripped through the ceiling cracks. As Blondie drummer Clem Burke describes: “If you fell asleep on the couch you’d wake up and there’d be roaches or mice crawling on you. It was pretty grotty.”
Ours is the task of tracing their 40-year history between: from poverty, piss and roach powder to silver service, a 2016 Q Award for Outstanding Contribution To Music and Blondie’s sparky 11th studio album, Pollinator. A tale of love, punk, drugs, madness, illness, heartbreak, recovery, lawsuits and survival in precisely that order. At least, that’s the plan. Right up until Harry turns the air to liquid nitrogen.
“Are we going to go through all this shit?”
At 71, Harry remains unnervingly beautiful, though she’s more the stand-off Sphinx of Greta Garbo than the “punk Marilyn Monroe” of cliche. When she chooses she can turn on her Sunday Girl nuclear smile and the heart flips. Or, by turn, she can fix you with a stare to make an ice-tray of your innards. Burke describes Harry as “essentially a shy person”, which might explain her arm’s-length responses and general default mode of saying little while Stein answers for the pair of them. Former Blondie producer/hit-maker Mike Chapman puts it more bluntly: “Debbie’s a very, very complex person. There’s a lot of shit going on in that head.”
“The way that I look at it now is that when I started a band with Chris, that’s when I settled down,” says Harry at her most forthcoming. “That’s my settled part of life, being in a rock band, which is not the way people usually look at it. I think both of our lives before that were completely mad.”
Blondie were born in 1974, their crib the same New York hiss and grime of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, weaned on the punk-inciting echo of the New York Dolls in downtown bars and gay discos such as Club 82 and, most famously, CBGBs. At their outset Harry imagined the band as a living cartoon character. “The idea of a drawing coming to life and stepping onto the stage had a terrific surrealness about it.”
Perching at the bubblegum garage extreme of the CBGBs punk spectrum – beside the Ramones and the Heartbreakers, opposite end to the artier Television and Talking Heads – they found the perfect producer for their eponymous 1976 debut album in ’60s girl group veteran Richard Gottehrer. Debut single X Offender, inspired, says Harry, by bassist Gary Valentine who, due to an underage pregnancy situation, “the police were after for statutory rape”, was clearly too contentious for airplay. Only when an Australian DJ mistakenly flipped the single and played the softer album cut on the B-side, In The Flesh, did Blondie accidentally earn their first hit. Or at least that’s the myth.
“I’ve often thought that story is bullshit,” says Stein, “but it did get us to Australia so we could start a couple of riots.”
After pulling out of a show in Brisbane at the 11th hour, upset punters tried to smash down the stage door, prompting four arrests and the local front-page headline “WILD ROCK SCENES”. Their Australian tour manager was quoted explaining the cancellation on illness caused by Harry’s intolerance to fruit, “from probably eating too many cherries.”
“I didn’t eat any cherries,” Harry says flatly. “I had food poisoning and the doctor wouldn’t allow that to be printed so he said I’d eaten too many cherries because there were cherries in the dressing room. I mean, I was so sick I couldn’t walk!”
By Cherrygate, Blondie had already made a second album with Gotehrer, Plastic Letters. In Denis, a Ramonesed-up and gender-flipped cover of Randy & The Rainbows’ ’60s doo-wopper Denise, it contained their UK breakthrough, reaching Number 2 in March 1978. Simultaneously they changed labels, to Chrysalis, and adjusted their line-up, now Harry plus the skinny-tied quintet of Stein, Burke, keyboard player Jimmy Destri, new bassist Nigel Harrison and extra guitarist Frank “The Freak” Infante. With the exception of Burke, every member was now also jockeying for writing credits. “I think we really suffered by neither Chris nor I establishing ourselves as band leaders early on,” says Harry. “We were into this commune kind of thing, being old hippies, which didn’t really work.”
Contractually obliged to start work on their third album that summer, Chrysalis paired the power-struggling six-piece with a new producer. “I told them straight,” recalls Mike Chapman. “I steamed in there and said, ‘You guys aren’t as good as you think you are. You could be, but you’re not yet.’ They really didn’t like me saying that.”
Blondie didn’t need to. Chapman was right, and he’d prove it by making them international superstars.
MAKE IT MAGNIFICENT
MIKE CHAPMAN swivels in his chair at the console of his Hoxton studio, hands locked behind his head as he repeats the phrase which dominates our conversation about his years with Blondie. “Fucked up,” he savours, as only a grinning Australian can. “They were all fucked up, and I was getting fucked up just to keep up with them. I remember one night we had a couple of bottles of pickles and somebody said, ‘Let’s hang these from the studio ceiling.’ I said, ‘That’s a great idea!’ So we got all these paper clips and all these pickles and went in with a ladder. I came in the next day and there were a couple of hundred pickles hanging. I can remember the smell. This horrible sour smell. We were so fucked up!”
A proven glam-rock Midas co-writing and producing hits for Suzi Quatro, Mud and The Sweet, Chapman would make four albums with Blondie, the first three their legacy-defining holy trinity: Parallel Lines (1978), Eat To The Beat (1979) and Autoamerican (1980), crucibles of some of the most transcendent pop music ever conceived. Yet all were recorded amidst a chaos of bitter in-fighting, legal wrangles with management and the snowballing drug use of Chapman’s “fucked up” legend.
“Three people in the band were seriously into drugs,” says Clem Burke non-specifically. “But we all used them recreationally, Mike included. I just remember stacks and stacks of beer cans in the studio. We would toss them into a corner and by the end of the session it was this Empire State Building of beer cans.”
“Yeah, we did was too many drugs,” admits Stein. “Everyone was doing fucking tons of cocaine and that was considered OK. But if you were doing heroin that was like [makes crucifix with his fingers], ‘I can’t talk to you anymore!’ So there was this big line drawn and it all got weird.”
Chapman recalls the first, Parallel Lines, as a comparative honeymoon period, the main problem a daily battle to earn their trust in his studio dictatorship, revelling in his self-appointed nickname “The Commander”. “I walked out twice,” he says. “I went to a bar next door and sat there with a bottle of vodka. There were huge egos in the band and there was always somebody not wanting to play what I wanted them to play. But I think the chaos was responsible for a lot of the magic. I had the most miserable time working with The Sweet in the early ’70s. It was always, ‘Fuck you, Chapman!’ But out of that aggression came The Ballroom Blitz. It was the same with Blondie on Parallel Lines. Each song was an event.”
The album’s greatest event was a track they’d been kicking around for years with a funky George McCrae shuffle nicknamed The Disco Song: the musically audacious gambit of CBGBs Bowery trash to dare shine beneath the uptown glitterball of Studio 54. “It didn’t really have a title,” says Harry. “I just kept singing ‘pain in the ass’ because it was written about a specific person.”
“Huh, obviously,” she snaps with lightening sarcasm.
The Disco Song was renamed Heart Of Glass by Stein and bullied into perfection by Chapman. “It took a lot of labour,” says Stein. “Nigel [Harrison] walked out a few times and flung his bass down yelling, ‘Fuck you, I’m not doing this anymore!’ But Chapman somehow made it fun.”
Nobody at Chrysalis heard in the oscillating bliss of Heart Of Glass a single that would reach Number 1 – the first Blondie track to do so, in both the UK and the US. But then, according to Chapman, the label’s reception to Parallel Lines as a whole was depressingly cool. “I remember it had been a week since I handed in the finished mix and I hadn’t heard anything. Then, by chance, I bumped into [Chrysalis co-founder] Chris Wright at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I said, ‘Hey, Chris. Have you heard the Blondie record? Whadya reckon?’ And he went, ‘Hmm. Yes. Pretty good. I didn’t hear a Denis on it, though.’ That was his reaction!’ Chapman slaps a thigh. “All those hits, Hanging On The Telephone, Sunday Girl, Picture This, Heart Of Glass. And he didn’t hear a fucking Denis! That tells you all you need to know about the music business.”
To Chrysalis’ cloth-eared shame but multi-platinum delight, Parallel Lines not only became its first LP to reach Number 1 but Britain’s biggest selling album of 1979. The same year Blondie topped the charts again with its harder, looser, bolder follow-up, Eat To The Beat, sparkling with more hit fairy-dust in Dreaming, Union City Blue and the divine spaghetti western disco apocalypse of Atomic. Only by then, to coin a euphemism, the pickles were on the ceiling.
“The drugs started kicking in at that point,” says Chapman. “The more money they had, the more drugs. So after the success of Parallel Lines, things started getting fucked up. That was when Jimmy [Destri] picked up a synthesizer and hurled it at me. It hit the floor and smashed – $35,000 worth of machinery just went BOOM! Then every night after work we’d go to Studio 54 which was disgusting, this completely debauched atmosphere. We were all doing the wrong drugs, we were all fucked up. It was killing us.”
Realising that the root of the problem was geographical, for the next album Chapman pleaded with them to swap New York for his home of Los Angeles in the hope local temptations wouldn’t follow them. The successful Californian gamble resulted in Blondie’s masterpiece, Autoamerican.
“My original idea was to call the album Blondie Coca Cola,” says Stein. “And have Coke as the sponsor. But they said no, so it became Autoamerican. The whole album’s about American culture, even closing with Follow Me from the musical Camelot. The song in the play is when Merlin dies and Arthur needs him the most and I always thought of it as a metaphor for JFK.”
“Autoamerican is my favourite,” says Chapman. “We brought in a full orchestra for Europa, and Debbie went out and did a little dance as they were playing. We got to hear Debbie finally sing jazz on that album and her voice is fabulous. We had all Chris’ great ideas, the rap on Rapture which he and Debbie wrote in about 10 minutes in the corner of the studio. There was a feeling that whatever we wanted to create, it would be fantastic.”
Amid its sumptuous sonic playground, Autoamerican included yet more invincible hits in their wonky reggae cover of The Paragons’ The Tide Is High and the Chic-inspired Rapture, the former Blondie’s third consecutive UK Number 1 of 1980 following the Giorgio Moroder produced Call Me, and the glorious Atomic. Yet once Blondie returned to New York, familiar problems intensified.
“I don’t think that drugs were the real problem in Blondie,” refutes Harry. “We’d worked for years without a vacation, we were expected to produced a huge amount of material, we didn’t have proper management and we had a bad record deal. I mean, how much can one take?”
That ceiling full of pickles was about to come crashing down.
DOOM OR DESTINY
WE’VE BEEN discussing the many reasons Blondie first broke up in the ’80s for several minutes when Debbie Harry starts pretending to bang her head upon the hotel table like a white peroxide judge’s gavel. “Let’s – stop – talking – about – this!” she groans. Anybody would think she wasn’t enjoying our conversation.
The truth is a grim but all too familiar rock’n’roll story – as Stein puts it, “the classic narrative of the fucking disasters of stardom.” The original management contracts they signed in naive but good faith proved to be “catastrophic”, the financial ramifications of which still affect the band and all former members. “Our current lawyers have frequently said they had never seen anything more complicated or convoluted as the room full of paperwork that encompasses the Blondie situation,” says Stein.
Hostility and paranoia had also deteriorated to the point where Harry blacklisted guitarist Frank Infante from Autoamerican sessions, appearing only when she wasn’t around to record his solo on Rapture. And although Harry protests otherwise, drugs were suffocating not just their music but their lives. “People don’t like to talk about that whole aspect of what went on,” notes Burke. “But it’s a cliche, isn’t it? Take a dart, throw it at any band and you’ll find the drug problem.”
A final record with Chapman, 1982’s The Hunter, proved to be an album too far. “That whole album gives me the creeps,” says Chapman, who spent the sessions lodging at Stein and Harry’s Upper West Side Manhattan apartment. “I had a room at the top and so many nights I’d hear something and look down and I’d see Debbie sat in this chair designed by [Alien artist] HR Giger, beneath a black mosquito net, surrounded by candles just sitting there, doing God knows what. By then, the whole band, it was like everybody hated each other. I felt at any point somebody was going to pull out a gun and shoot someone. Really. It was a dangerous vibe in the studio.”
Compounding the curse of The Hunter was Stein’s onset of the chronic autoimmune disease pemphigus vulgarisms. “Exacerbated by stress and drugs, though it came from a different place,” he says. Too sick to continue, Blondie were officially put out of their misery in November 1982 so Harry could nurse Stein back to health. By the time he recovered, their relationship was over.
Harry, meanwhile, pursued a successful solo career between acting roles including David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and John Waters’s original Hairspray. “And then one day,” she says of Blondie’s ’90s re-formation, “Mr Genius here…”
“I owed so many taxes,” laughs Stein.
“Was that it?” jibes Harry. “Tax criminal!”
“Well,” he shrugs, “it seemed a good idea at the time.”
The Number 1 success of 1999 comeback single Maria suggested it was. But by resurrecting Blondie, Harry, Stein, Burke and Destri incurred the legal wrath of excluded ex-members Harrison and Infante, climaxing in an infamously fractious showdown at the band’s 2006 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. The same year Destri was fired from the group, prompting more litigation. Blondie persevered as Harry, Stein and Burke, releasing a succession of underwhelming albums with new musicians, all betraying their vibeless construction via the internet, never actually recording as one in the same studio. “It wasn’t very communal,” mourns Burke.
“I definitely didn’t want to make a record like that,” says John Congleton, producer of 2017’s Pollinator, the new Blondie album which Burke hails as the best they’ve made since re-forming two decades ago. “When I first met them I told them that the only way I was interested in making a Blondie record was if I could put them in a room together and record a band. Luckily they were into that idea.”
Recorded in New York’s Magic Shop where Bowie made his final two albums (“He signed a champagne bottle which they had on display,” says Burke, “you definitely felt him in the studio”), with just two Harry-Stein originals including the rousing Doom Or Destiny, the bulk of Pollinator features bespoke Blondie songs written by famous fans including Sia and Charlie XCX. “Everything is becoming so collaborative in music now,” explains Stein. “I thought it would be a nice idea.”
With cameo appearances from Joan Jett, The Strokes’ Nick Valensi and Laurie Anderson, Congleton was nevertheless “emphatic” about limiting Pollinator’s supporting cast to a minimum. “I was like, ‘You guys are the brides not the bridesmaids. You don’t need to impress a younger generation. You started this shit!'”
The night it all started at the Bobern Tavern, when Harry first met Stein, she says “it felt as if I knew him, even though I didn’t.” Seeing them together today, comically bickering back and forth, their rapport is that of the archetypal old married couple. No longer lovers – Stein has a wife and children, Harry has until recently described herself as “bisexual” – but eternally the Darby and Joan of New York punk. “We’re all of us programmed to find a mate of some sort,” she adds. “Right?”
Before leaving, much to the exasperated Harry’s relief, Q is curious to know whatever happened to her Vultures T-shirt, the one she wore with a bullet-belt and heels for Punk magazine’s “Punkmate of the month” in 1976. “I’ve got it with a lot of old junk,” says Stein, who took the shot. “My buddies got it in Brooklyn in an old sporting goods store. We never ascertained what Vultures actually was. A softball team or something. I gave it to Debbie at the time.”
“And I put it in one of those window box frames,” says Harry. “And he demanded it!”
“Well, c’mon,” he chuckles. “I did get it for you. It came from me.”
“Yeah, I know,” she says softly. “I know you did.”
Harry smiles at Stein with the same warm “good old days” eyes. After all they’ve been through, maybe this time Blondie can live them again.
BLEACH FOR THE STARS
The hit sparklers and forgotten gems in Blondie’s jewel box
Opening with a nod to producer Richard Gottehrer’s girl-group hit My Boyfriend’s Back, their debut single’s bright melody belied a darker lyric about sex crimes.
The Attack Of The Giant Ants
This bonkers punk-conga about killer insects from outer space is the campest surviving relic of the band’s cartoon origins.
I’m On E
Plastic Letters (1978)
E as in “empty” on a fuel gauge. Harry’s speed-punk blues, written after coming home from tour to learn her beloved Chevrolet had been driven off a cliff by Burke’s mate “Vinnie”.
Plastic Letters (1978)
Turning the water of doo-wop into punk-pop wine, the cover that changed their career trajectory. Blame Kate Bush for stopping it becoming Blondie’s first UK Number 1.
Heart Of Glass
Parallel Lines (1978)
After mucho mistrust in the studio, Chapman found Blondie’s disco legs, boogie-ing to their first UK Number 1 in February 1979. Kate Bush didn’t have a record out that week.
Fade Away And Radiate
Parallel Lines (1978)
Robert Fripp adds eerie vibes to a song Stein wrote in 1974. Chapman remembers Ronnie Spector visiting the studio, watching Harry tape her vocal.
Parallel Lines (1978)
Easily the best pop song inspired by a missing cat, ostensibly a tribute to their lost moggy “Sunday Man”, thought in transparent truth, Stein’s romantic ode to Harry herself.
Just Go Away
Parallel Lines (1978)
Harry gives the pack-up-and-leave scenario of Carole Bayer Sager’s You’re Moving Out Today some punk attitude. Chapman lead the backing choir. “Ger-ow ah-woi!”
Eat To The Beat (1979)
Talent borrows, genius steals, in this case from ABBA’s Dancing Queen. “The melody, absolutely,” Stein happily admits of Eat To The Beat’s triumphant opener.
Eat To The Beat (1979)
Primal-screaming, monk-chanting Trojan Horse that terrified all innocent pop kids who bought Blondie’s fourth album. Still sounds reassuringly mental.
Union City Blue
Eat To The Beat (1979)
Poignant cry to Harry’s New Jersey roots and her acting role in the crime thriller Union City. Its video confirmed her as the coolest woman ever to wear sunglasses.
Eat To The Beat (1979)
Ennio Morricone meets Donna Summer, its twang courtesy of a Gretsch While Falcon borrowed from Bruce Springsteen (recording The River next door).
Interrupting Eat To The Beat’s singles run, another Number 1 courtesy of Giorgio Moroder’s theme to the film American Gigolo. The sexier cousin of Fleetwood Mac’s Rhiannon.
The epic overture to their most epic album. Or Blondie rewrite the theme tune to Hammer House Of Horror with full orchestra and weird, futuristic ending.
Live It Up
Seguing seamlessly from Europa, proof that by this stage they were disco-pop masters. The “darkened night” mid-section is 30 of the greatest second Blondie ever recorded.
Here’s Looking At You
Blondie go 1920s jazz as Harry props up the bar with a catchphrase from Bogey. A testament to the rich stylistic versatility of Harry’s voice.
Not just a pop/hip-hop landmark but as Burke argues, “Frank Infante’s must be the first rock guitar solo on a dance track, three years before Michael Jackson’s Beat It.”
The Hunter (1982)
The best of the album that finished off Blondie. A tender lament to Harry’s anglophile youth and lost ’60s dreams, written in the wake of John Lennon’s assassination.
No Exit (1999)
The pop prayer by keyboard player Jimmy Destri that raised Blondie from the dead after 17 year. “I didn’t like Maria too much,” an all-too-honest Harry tells Q today.
Doom Or Destiny
A fitting metaphor for the story of Blondie. Guest Joan Jett helps Harry rock her way out of “a tar-pit having a shit fit” in a welcome return to vintage punk-pop form.
Q Review – New Albums
BLONDIE – POLLINATOR
BMG, OUT 5 MAY
After gaps as long as 17 years between records, Blondie have been unusually prolific since 2011’s Panic Of Girls. Pollinator is a smart move: a new album that sounds enough like an old album to appease the partisans, but which has Charlie XCX among its au courant contributors. All bases are covered: the single Fun, composed with TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek, is precision-tooled dance pop, while My Monster has co-writer Johnny Marr on slashing guitar. Nothing here sounds forced: Sia’s Best Day Ever is the perfect fit for Debbie Harry’s imperious voice. While best of all is the Dev Hynes-assisted Long Time, which sounds like a glorious amalgam of every Blondie single ever.
Listen To: Doom Or Destiny | Long Time | Fun | Best Day Ever