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Record Collector

February 2018

Blondie 1978:
The Art Of Class

There was no Hanging On The Telephone for the intrepid Kris Needs when it came to reporting on Blondie in 1978 – the year they became an international pop phenomenon. He was very much um, touched by their presence (sorry), and had the bruises to prove it…

Picture this: Her famous mouth turned up in a Bowery snarl, Deborah Harry smashes a booted foot into my aching side then sits on my chest and violently grabs my hair. Through plain-glazed eyes I make out five shadowy male figures who kick and pummel my sack-like form with grim relish on a sun-scorched pavement outside Broadcasting House. One stubs his cigarette out on my head, another jams the magazine I edit into my mouth, and they all chant “Stomp on Needs!” with blood-curdling relish, interspersed by growling that names of certain British rock journalists.
Blondie are obviously channelling all their pent-up anger at the unusually savage treatment they’ve been receiving from the British music press onto my crumpled, helpless form. For a few moments I experience genuine panic. Thankfully, the red mist evaporates and communal blood-lust dies down. They haul me to my feet, look a bit sheepish and Debbie dusts me down with sweet apologies. This was only supposed to be a photo session for the cover of Zigzag, Blondie’s main champion since late 1976 but it’s swiftly turning into a deranged sacrificial ritual. “I guess we got a bit carried away,” confesses Debbie.
Forty years later, this still seems like some surreal fantasy dream sequence. Debbie is now one of pop culture’s most famously feted faces, while the album they’d just finished recording, Parallel Lines, is routinely hailed one of the 20th century’s perfectly-formed peaks, thanks to exquisite hits such as Hanging On The Telephone, Heart Of Glass, Sunday Girl and One Way Or Another that vastly influence pop music to the present day.
While the record has been honoured with relentless retrospective praise and endless documentary re-examinations, nothing can ever capture the chaos, uncertainty and turmoil that surrounded the album’s creation. Though Parallel Lines transformed Blondie into one of the world’s biggest groups, it was such a high bar to reach again that they had almost willfully brought the whole scary monster of success crashing down upon themselves by the time the band imploded four years later. Now the current incarnation of Blondie – always with Debbie, Chris Stein and the irrepressible powerhouse Clem Burke at its core – can celebrate Parallel Lines as part of their glittering back catalogue and back in the adulation of subsequent generations happy to still encounter a genuine 70s phenomenon in the flesh. As last year’s well-received Pollinator showed, Blondie’s inimitable talent for straddling diverse musical forms, underground art styles and mainstream pop is still firing on unusually full cylinders.
This is the story behind Parallel Lines, told from inside the eye of the hurricane that started for this writer in early 1977 and has continued in various shapes and forms ever since.
As 1978 got under way, few would have guess that Blondie would complete their transformation from CBGB’s band-least-likely-to into the pure pop butterflies stretching for the stars who would soon top the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. During 1977, Blondie had toured the UK with fellow downtown art-rockers Television, unleashed the sex, surf and giant ants of their self-titled first album, replaced awkward bassist Gary Valentine with Clem’s mate Frank ‘The Freak’ Infante, and recorded second album Plastic Letters for Private Stock. Though Valentine had opposed Blondie covering Randy & The Rainbows’ Denis, he bequeathed them the ethereal pop classic (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear. With the band’s songwriting and chops rapidly maturing, the classic Blondie sound had started taking shape, first manifesting itself in what Debbie described as “high voltage rock”.
During the Plastic Letters sessions, their manager Peter Leeds negotiated a new deal with Chrysalis. After reasoning that the British label would be key to breaking the ripe European market, Leeds serenaded its co-chairman Terry Ellis and brought him over to catch Blondie at CBGB. He was suitably impressed. Now all Blondie had to do was buy out Private Stock and producer Richard Gottehrer for half a million dollars. Booked for a 25-gig UK tour in November, it’s trimmed to three dates, as European interest increases. Infante switches to guitar, making way for British bassist Nigel Harrison from Silverhead and Ray Manzarek’s Nite City.
The sound, and band, are damagingly off-form at London’s Rainbow, yet the first of the three gigs has already pointed towards raw future. My local Friars Aylesbury is already famous for having launched Bowie as Ziggy Stardust five years earlier, among many other careers. On 12 November, with tickets at £1.75, the club presents Blondie’s first headlining UK show.
After the quirky power-pop of Swindon’s little-known XTC, the near-capacity crowd greets Blondie with unbridled mania, as they storm through X Offender, a swooning In The Flesh, Man Overboard and their spirited cover of The Runaways’ I Love Playing With Fire. Debbie’s effervescent cheerleader pout of the previous visit has given way to a vibrant-assured, punky sex kitten persona that sees her strutting and shaking, dressed in a black blouse and leather trousers, rising to this feverish display of nascent British Blondiemania with lip-smacking relish. From that moment, it’s glaringly apparent that Blondie could leave their CBGB colleagues in the dust and become the biggest of the the new bands.
It already seems like Debbie has left her punky roots well behind. After Blondie score a surprise Australian hit with In The Flesh, she does a two-week media blitz down under, followed by the band’s five week tour, which also takes in Thailand and Japan. Blondie are knackered by the time they return to London for a one-off showcase at Camden Dingwall’s on 24 January, designed to whip up media interest in Plastic Letters before it’s release the following month with a full-scale UK tour.
With the recent demise of the Sex Pistols hammering the last nail into punk’s coffin (thought tell that to the gobbing morons who chose Debbie as their target), power-pop inevitably provides a safer trend for the music business, as former punks trade their leathers for black suits and skinny ties.
While hanging on to their downtown experimental ethic, Blondie can rise above any doomed trend by simply reinventing pop music for the modern age while giving these tempestuous times a genuine pop sex symbol. I decide to give them their first Zigzag front cover, so Chris Stein duly sends shots from the zebra swimsuit session that landed Debbie the “Creem Dream” spot in Detroit’s renowned Creem magazine.
The plan is to spend the day of the Dingwall’s show with the band and snatch interviews along the way but, arriving at the Camden bar at 2:30 in the afternoon, it’s soon obvious nothing is going smoothly on what will turn into one of the worst days of Blondie’s career. Chris had gone down with flu in Japan and is battling a temperature of 104F, while a cloth-eared sound man used to manning the board for KISS in charge of the PA.
Clem and keyboardist Jimmy Destri are first to arrive, explaining about Chris’ flu, but stressing he’ll do the gig. After Harrison and Infante turn up, Debbie shuffles in, bundled against the January cold in a big black leather coat, scarf and woolly hat pulled down over her face. Huddled in a chair, she enthuses about the new album and part of the tour she enjoyed. After a procession of tweaks and gremlins, the soundcheck doesn’t start until 7:00pm and the sound is riddled with feedback. “That’s just what I need to clear my head”, rumbles Debbie, before the Stein-less band gamely struggle until the sound is halfway reasonable. Nothing bodes well for the show.
After about an hour, we repair to the Royal Garden Hotel on Kensington High Street, where the band are staying. Debbie says Chris wants to talk, so I accompany her to their room, finding the guitarist propped up in bed, though his fever has broken, helped by a colossal B12 shot from a friendly doctor. “I’ll just wear shades and be cool”, he says.
Chris and I chat while Debbie has a bath and gets ready for the show, settling on an outfit of faded blue denim and gold boots. While he shows off his collection of on-the-road photos, she brandishes her recently acquired trumpet, explaining, “I just blast through it and make a noise at the end of Cautious Lip.” Clutching her trumpet and medicinal brandy bottle while wrapped in her big black coat, Debbie turns all heads when we walk out through reception past the string quartet in the foyer.
Even then, Debbie was rapidly becoming an untouchable goddess, the prototype for Madonna and all who followed, bringing movie star beauty and her unique charisma into a music world dulled by punk’s worst tropes, vacuous trends and frequent ugliness. While they maintain their close creative relationship and unshakeable friendship to this day, Debbie and Chris were an item back then, a touchingly homely eccentric couple who protected each other through the chaos. A few years ago, Debbie confessed to me, “I felt kind of sorry for Chris because I felt he was under pressure being in the band and also being my boyfriend. As a man he felt a sort of physical responsibility for me. He had to be very protective, which I think was a strain for him.”
Debbie and Chris were the original pop culture-vulture couple, invariably sweet and, in retrospect, very tolerant of this young fan and press champion’s goofy antics. Chris was permanently stoned on good hash, poring over his comic books or the photos he took that were published in books such as Victor Bockris’ Making Tracks. There was always a new concept or cultural fixation ready to burst out (such as Blondie’s early championing of hip-hop). Behind the most beautiful face anyone could wish to see, Debbie possessed a sharp, surreal wit and playful flirtatiousness enhanced by that honey-melting voice. As I wrote in Zigzag, “It always amazes me when people say Debbie is cold or whatever. I always find her warm and friendly, which is pretty good considering the legions of attentive people she has to deal with… She is a bit shy with a little girl sense of humour.” Obviously, I was smitten, but then who wasn’t?
Meanwhile, Dingwalls is packed with press, liggers and some fans at the front. When Blondie charge into X Offender, the volume is ear-bleedingly cacophonous, soon turned down but still exacerbating the visibly swelling tensions onstage. With Chris leaning against one of the onstage pillars in shades, songs from the first two albums are joined by a scorching cover of the Stones’ My Obsession. Unnoticed by the cynical liggers remaining at the bar, the band is noticeably tighter and more together than they were even two months back, but the coruscating feedback continues until the frustration breaks after the first encore’s Youth Nabbed As Sniper. Clem counts in the next song while the band are still tuning up. Chris pulls him up and he storms off stage, trashing his kit and shoving keyboardist Jimmy Destri on the way. “Er, goodnight”, says a bemused Debbie with a clenched smile.
Backstage, the frustration erupts into a brawl that spills onto the outside courtyard before the venue’s bouncers intercept.
Debbie describes the whole night as “a disaster” but I still end my report by declaring “Blondie are gonna be huge.”
The Dingwalls’ fiasco is soon forgotten as Blondie tour Europe for a month, coinciding with Plastic Letters being released on 4 February. Its sprightly mix of high school hoppers, heady heart-napalm and experimental detours displays a band on a mission to establish its own sound. Released as a single, Denis shoots to No 2 in the UK and Blondie return, appearing on Top Of The Pops. Backstage is a very different vibe to Dingwalls; I don’t think I will ever see Blondie so excited again, Clem because he’s appearing on the same show as his heroes.
The hit sends the album to No 10 and elevates Blondie’s first full UK tour after opening in Blackburn on 23 February. I catch them at Dunstable’s Queensway Hall on 2 March and three days later at a packed Roundhouse, which breaks the run of below-par London shows. It’s exhilarating and almost shocking to watch the scenes of unbridled adulation. With great sound and an on-form band, the Roundhouse is Blondie’s breakthrough show, Debbie radiant in all-white tennis gear, including mini-skirt and knee protectors. At this time, I was often hanging out with Lemmy, whose own band, Motorhead, was starting to take off, so I bring him backstage, where he kisses Debbie’s hand like the gentleman he was. The sizzling show earns Blondie their first good reviews.
Returning home after six months on the road, Blondie are shocked to find they’re still broke, which exacerbates their deteriorating relationship with Leeds. This isn’t helped when he announces that every male in the band can be replaced.
Punk-fearing radio stations still avoid their records, so Debbie and Chris tour the US for three weeks, charming DJs, distributors, stores and reps, who all say they just need the right song. By late April, Blondie are playing the US while the glorious (I’m Always Touched) By Your Presence, Dear climbs to No 10 in the UK. While in LA, Blondie meet producer Mike Chapman, the glam-rock dynamo whose partnership with Nicky Chinn enlivened the glam movement with brash, compact nuggets by The Sweet, Mud, Smokie and Suzi Quatro before he struck out solo in LA.
Chrysalis boss Terry Ellis enthusiastically supports Chapman producing Blondie and, within weeks, Chapman finds himself meeting Chris and Debbie on their New York turf. “They terrified me,” he later confesses. “They lived in a world I knew nothing about… They were New York. I was LA. They thought I’d been sent to destroy their music. I sat down in this little hotel room in New York with the two of them, and Debbie didn’t say a word. She just stared at me. ‘I’ve come up here to talk about the possibility of producing you.’ I didn’t want to force myself on them, and Debbie was just sitting there going, ‘Yeah, yeah, is that right?’ Chris eventually said that they were sort of interested, but it was a really horrible atmosphere, and I didn’t know what to say.”
The ice started to melt when the couple played Chapman some of their new songs, including Stein’s exquisite Sunday Girl (inspired by their cat of the same name) and Heart Of Glass, which dates back to 1975, when it was called Once I Had A Love (or The Disco Song). The two parties clicked at rehearsals designed for Chapman to rearrange the new material, notably Heart Of Glass’ brazen dunk into the dreaded disco. Now Blondie had that song, plus several more diamond missiles waiting in their creative firing pods.
In June, Blondie entered New York’s Record Plant and, though Chrysalis allowed them six months, they completed recording the album in six weeks. Chapman revealed himself to be a perfectionist, demanding endless takes to the point of blazing rows that teetered into violence. In the process, he honed Blondie into a pure pop hit machine by trimming the flab and pouring their contagious melodies, punky attack and evocatively diverse visions into a blender that squirts out pure gold.
Chris and Debbie wrote most of the songs, with Destri contributing two, Frank and Nigel one each (the latter’s originally surf-influenced music graced Debbie’s lyrics inspired by a possessive ex-boyfriend-turned-stalker on One Way Or Another). Others included “our fake Motown song” Pretty Baby (inspired by Jodie Foster’s film of the same name), Destri’s mysteriously melancholic 11:59, Harry’s snarling “third person transsexual” brush-off Just Go Away, along with Sunday Girl and Heart Of Glass (Infante’s placatory I Know But I Don’t Know was the only real dud).
Their fantastic version of The Doors’ Moonlight Drive didn’t make the final cut (much to Ray Manzarek’s disappointment), but other covers included Buddy Holly’s 1957 I’m Gonna Love You Too, plus two by Californian singer and Nerves frontman Jack Lee, whose Hanging On The Telephone and Will Anything Happen? were tailor-made for Blondie’s new sound. Lee was recommended by the doomed Gun Club frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce, who Chris and Debbie described as Blondie’s number one West coast fan, to the point of wearing his hair half-blonde, like Debbie’s.
“Jeff Pierce from the Gun Club was a fan of ours,” recalled Debbie. “He sent our manager a cassette of Hanging On The Telephone by The Nerves. We were playing it in the back of a taxi in Tokyo, and the driver started tapping his hand on the steering wheel. When we came back to the US, we found that The Nerves weren’t together anymore and we said, ‘Gee, we should record this.'” (Pierce’s devotion is reciprocated to the present day by Chris and Debbie reworking his songs for the ongoing Jeffrey Lee Pierce project.)
The album also cemented Blondie’s friendship with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp who, fresh from Bowie’s Heroes, elevated Stein’s ravishing Fade Away And Radiate, originally written in 1974 about falling in love with dead movie stars. The soaring, sophisticated yearn of Picture This (written by Harry, Stein and Destri) was ear-marked for first single.
Then there was Heart Of Glass, the album’s most audaciously radical statement, a homage to the disco trend that sweept the world in the wake of Saturday Night Fever. The song was given a Giorgio Moroder-style electronic groove twist, born from Chris and Debbie’s love of Donna Summer (initially shown when Blondie played their version of I Feel Love at a New York benefit show that May). Written in 1975 by Debbie as she waited to park her car, Heart Of Glass was initially influenced by The Hues Corporation’s Rock The Boat but, when Chris and Jimmy returned from one of their 47th Street shopping trips clutching the newly-introduced Roland CR-78 drum machine, they had other plans. As Chris explained, “When we recorded it for Parallel Lines, we were really into Kraftwerk, and we wanted to make it more electronic. We weren’t thinking disco as we were doing it; we thought it was more electro-European.” Chris came up with the title, unaware that it was also the name of a 1976 Werner Herzog movie. “When we did it, it wasn’t cool in our social set to play disco, but we did it because we wanted to be uncool,’ declared Debbie, already aware that such a flagrant act had the potential to shock the factions of the punk/rock community championing the racist, homophobic Disco Sucks campaign.
Debbie’s vocals were recorded last at the sessions. While he had no qualms savagely imposing his high standards on the boys, to the point of instruments being hurled his way, Chapman handled her with care and consideration for her “beautiful, identifiable voice”. He also taught Debbie about phrasing and timing. As a result, she had never sounded better on record, her innate energy and emotional way with a ballad changed with style and controlled passion.
The album was named after an unfinished Debbie song (“about two people that can’t connect”, she told me). The band hated the sleeve, now regularly cursed with the overused term “iconic”, but actually the result of a sneaky move by Leeds who, after saying the group could pick their individual images to fade around the stripes, chose the solitary shot in which they’re all smiling behind a stern-looking Debbie. Incredibly, Chrysalis rejected the finished album when it was played to their executives. It took Chapman convincing them it was stuffed with hits to prevent Blondie having to go back to the drawing board. The label still took the misstep of releasing I’m Gonna Love You Too as first US single, which duly bombed, despite Blondie touring the US with The Kinks in July.
In the UK, Picture This hit No 12 when released in August, bringing Blondie over for promo that coincided with Chris’ Blondie In Camera exhibition of photos he’d taken over the previous three years. Its launch was turned into a promotional lig at the Mirandy Gallery in pre-gentrification Wapping. Once I traversed the sprawling wilderness of ruined warehouses, I found the gallery under siege from hordes of fans battling to get in after hearing about the event through the band’s ever-swelling fan network. Blondie were inside mingling with booze-guzzling blaggers. While a riled Clem hurled yellow-blonde vinyl Picture This 45s to the fans and told photographers to “fuck off”, Debbie was shunted from execs to media types hurling inane questions. I suggested wheeling her around on a trolley. “Oh, don’t give ’em that idea!”, she spat. After we dashed through the baying mob outside to the limo, shrieking fans attempted to cling to the car as it drove off; it was everyone’s first taste of what was already being called Blondie-mania. A Hard Day’s Night was mentioned for the first of many times over the coming months.
Two days later, I was invited to see Blondie work up their new live set in an anonymous rehearsal room in Victoria.
On arrival, I found the boys getting new songs lined up as they waited for Debbie to return from the promo treadmill, focusing on 11:59 and Hanging On The Telephone. They sounded tight and sparkling. Debbie walked in wearing shades, said nothing and walked out again. She was absolutely shattered after another day of being asked when she’s getting married by the tabloids and took a while to settle in after perching mutely on a stool. It took her account of a bed-quaking fart from her sleeping partner waking her in the middle of the night to break the ice. Then she was off on a heart-tugging 11:59, with its deeply haunting refrain, “Today could be the end of me/It’s 11:59 and I want to stay alive.” It will remain one of my favourite overlooked Blondie songs because it always takes me back to that night when I sat a few feet away from the band as they played it, close enough to be bathed in Debbie’s luminously sensual charisma and the sound of a band igniting into greatness. They went on to play several new songs I recognised from my advance cassette, including Pretty Baby, a startling Fade Away And Radiate and One Way Or Another. As a “typical English fan” I was asked to decide whether I’m Gonna Love You Too should made the set and two minutes later gibbered to the affirmative. I also watched them play the whole set on a Fulham sound stage over the weekend, including designated encores of Iggy’s Funtime and T.Rex’s Get It On.
Forty years later I can appreciate being the sole audience member witnessing Blondie honing Parallel Lines live as a real once-in-a-lifetime experience. No fighting, no attitudes, just a band facing the prospect of playing hundreds of packed auditoriums with buoyant new energy. Still, I remember being concerned for Debbie as she was obviously feeling the strain. When I told her she’s only human, she sighed, “I know, but sometimes I forget that myself.”
The visit to the capital also included the aforementioned Zigzag photo session, held outside the BBC as Debbie had been doing a radio interview. After she emerged sporting her specially-made Zigzag T-shirt, the photographer suggested beating me up as a symbol of the UK rock press and all the suppressed rage for rude journalists was unleashed, as described earlier. It may seem hard to believe now, but Blondie were relentlessly pilloried by smartass rock press elements then. During Blondie’s first run, the press, dominated by at least four main weeklies, could make or break careers. Like The Clash, the era’s other great success story, Blondie were relentlessly ripped into to the point that the music press became a major presence in their life, unfortunately capable of sparking depression or celebration. Blondie’s five years saw thousands of words written about Debbie; raking her past, challenging her appeal or trying to nail the persona behind the perfect pout. Few ever came close. Now she’s an icon, but it wasn’t always like that. In August 1978, Blondie had yet to release the completed Parallel Lines into the world. It was the ace up their sleeve that they knew would silence those cheap shot critics and propel their rise into the big league.
September was a turning point for Blondie in the UK with the release of Parallel Lines, receiving universally good reviews and eventually going to No 1 in the UK. Having just played a three-week European tour supported by the Buzzcocks, the band returned to the UK on 9 September to start half a dozen dates bookended by shows at Hammersmith Odeon. Before a crowd bring visibly suppressed by the notoriously thuggish Hammersmith bouncers, Blondie started with In The Sun, followed in rapid succession by X Offender and songs from all three albums, including I’m Gonna Love You Too (which inspired an inner smirk on my part) and Denis. Fade Away And Radiate was the big set piece, Debbie in a mirrored gown and shades with blinding white light beaming off her to stunning effect. She dropped the gown for the home stretch through Pretty Baby, Youth Nabbed As Sniper, I’m On E, One Way Or Another, A Shark In Jet’s Clothing and Kung Fu Girls.
Debbie seemed to be everywhere; teasing and touching out-stretched hands, between high kicking with sex kitten playfulness. The encores were Rip Her To Shreds, The Attack Of The Giant Ants (featuring long-time fan Eddie Duggan in ant-suit), T. Rex’s Get It On and the New York Dolls’ Jet Boy acknowledging their New York roots. Mourning the recent death of Keith Moon, Clem sacrificed his drum kit in honour of his hero.
Following that, an in-store signing session at Kensington High Street’s Our Price Records was mobbed mayhem, the whole street engulfed by screaming, hysterical fans. Mistaken for one of the band as we step out of the limo, I’m glad to oblige with my patent Clem Burke signature. Debbie is beaming, later enthusing, “They expected maybe a few hundred and 2,000 people showed up at Kensington High Street. They had to block off the road and everything. Fantastic!”
“It’s nice to go into a record store and create scenes in public because I’ve always tried to create scenes in public and Debbie has too,” adds Chris. “We always did outrageous things, so now we’re doing it on a mass level.” More recently, he told me, “The Blondiemania era of being mobbed on the way out of gigs and chased down the street of course amazing, though I don’t know if I actually put it up against our predecessors. When people compared us to The Beatles or Stones we always knew it was a scaled-down version. The main moment was that instore appearance on Kensington High Street in a small record shop that attracted a couple of thousand fans, who stopped the traffic. We stayed there for about four hours signing records and greeting people who filed through. That was awesome.”
Blondie saw this kind of spectacle every night as they travelled round the UK playing Newcastle, Edinburgh, Manchester and Birmingham before Hammersmith again. I was invited to spend two days, as Chris puts it now, “venturing into the hinterlands of Britain as we lived out our fantasies of Beatle-mania”.
As I arrived in Manchester, Blondie were gathered in a room at the Portland Hotel in their stage gear watching themselves on Top Of The Pops. An hour later the same six are sitting in a Manchester Free Trade Hall dressing room waiting for those 90 minutes that starts around nine. While the group tunes up, Debbie clowns around and sings, getting suitably psyched for show-time.
In every city, massed chorales of “Blondieee, Blondieee!” and “Debbieee, Debbieee!” are a constant soundtrack. Manchester erupts as the group play the instrumental theme before Debbie appears, yells “Surf’s up!” and they’re off with In The Sun, before charging through the set I’d heard on the sound stage. This is my first time witnessing Blondiemania at one of their shows and it screams by like a delirious fever dream.
Unbelievably, the band aren’t happy afterwards because of equipment problems and goofs only they recognise, but they’re in a decided minority. Then comes the getaway. Several hundred teenage girls and boys are clamouring around the stage door, screaming and hollering like an eerie swarm of bees. I find myself standing next to Debbie by the exit, waiting for the right moment to traverse the few feet onto the coach. Getting the nod from the tour manager, who places himself as a human shield, Debbie pulls down her baseball cap, looks at me and smiles. “You ready? Here goes!” It’s only yards between door and coach but seems like a mile as we brave the gauntlet of grabbing hands, one whipping the cap off Debbie’s head (much to her annoyance as it had her Jilted John badge on it, which still rankled her when we spoke 30 years later). It’s a striking contrast to nine months earlier when I’d stood with her outside Dingwall’s as her band piled out in a tangle of fisticuffs after a dispiriting gig. I ask Debbie if it’s like this every night? “Oh, last night was much worse!” she smiles.
The slow, three-minute drive to the Portland Hotel is accompanied by most of the crowd, who bang the sides of the coach and pull at the door, howling “Debbieee, Debbieee!!” When we get to the hotel, we have to weather the grabbing hands and jostling fans again. This is the only time I’ve ever experienced such mania from the inside and, let me tell you, it’s quite frightening when these usually well-meaning fans lose all normal concepts of restraint or behaviour.
Next night in Birmingham, despite one of those soundcheck rows that inevitably unnerves witnessing outsiders, Blondie are on top form and they know it. They are buzzing with anticipation for that night’s heavyweight championship clash between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks and dispense the set with ebullient confidence and energy. Debbie alternates between high-kicking dervish whirls or simply radiating all in yellow, from socks to the ape T-shirt just given to her by a fan.
The band are initially alarmed to see nobody dancing, or even standing, despite ever-more animated antics from the group, including Debbie turning Denis into a chant of “Ali! Ali!” Watching from the wings, I notice concerned glances shooting between the band, but a sortie around the hall reveals a gorilla-like squad of white-jacketed security men lining the walls, diligently enforcing the signs in the foyer warning the show will be stopped if anyone stands or leaves their seats while the main act is on. The crowd is obviously straining at the leash, needing just one sign from their leaders. It only takes Frank Infante’s “Come on!” and a beckoning wave from Debbie during Youth Nabbed As Sniper to bring the whole hall to its feet, many rushing the front like a human tsunami. It’s so sudden the bow-tied security are caught powerless as the previously forbidden stage-front area becomes a sea of outstretched hands and enraptured faces. Now the dam has burst, the crowd go mental.
“That’s better,” smiles Debbie as the set goes into overdrive for One Way Or Another, Kung Fu Girls, A Shark In Jet’s Clothing, then encores of Rip Her To Shreds, The Attack Of The Giant Ants, Get It On and Jet Boy. As its cacophonous climax, Clem strides to his drum-kit to hurl his snare into the crowd, Destri humps his keyboards like a dog and Chris later admits to reveling in the spit being sent from the punks. As the band stagger off, a huge “BLONDIE!” chant envelops the happily-transformed hall.
Afterwards, the dressing room is a total contrast to last night, the euphoric band relieved they weren’t responsible for the seat-bound arses. “This gig tonight was really weird; you saw what happened,” says Chris. “The audience was sitting down through the whole first half of the set and we didn’t know it was because of the security. Everybody said that it kept running through their minds that they’d read the press and thought we stunk! There was such a rush when everybody ran up to the front, it was like doing three gigs at once. Really amazing.”
“It surprised us, ‘cos we didn’t think they were getting off on it. It was really weird. Scary,” concurs Debbie.
While the hall is cleared, Muhammad Ali defeats Leon Spinks and wins the World Heavyweight Championship for the third time, the stage door throng necessitates a police escort for Blondie to escape, further pandemonium sparked by Debbie throwing her bouquet out of the coach window. This was before the days of luxury tour buses, the coach resembling the ones in Carry On Abroad or Magical Mystery Tour as we head back to London.
An attempt to do a formal interview starts with the omnipresent music press. “We love the music press!”, declares Chris. “Actually, I think the English music press is really good because it kicks you in the arse and gets you to work harder, so it’s good. I enjoy it, even when they put you down. It’s like getting spit on; tonight, when they were gobbing on me, I was really getting into it for the first time, which is strange. I’ve never enjoyed it before. The press is like that. It’s all just a big cosmic joke and they know it. If it’s stupid or inaccurate I get pissed off.”
“On the whole, the English music press has been very good to us,” says Debbie from the seat next to me. “The legitimate press is another matter. Straight people. They’re kind of strange. But the music press has been really good to us, even though some of them are cunts. CUNTS! FUCKING CUNTS!”
“Debbie gets slagged off just because she’s an idol and people look up to her,” add Chris. “That’s why she gets slagged off, ‘cos they have to tear her down. It’s like obligatory, y’know? I don’t think the English press is gonna affect what happens to Blondie one way or another, except for the fact that they affect the fans. I think we have to go in a different direction from being a plain old pop band myself, and people telling you that is good. The next album is gonna be different anyway.
We should do two albums next.”
“Yeah!”, agrees Clem. “Chris had this idea of putting out two albums at once. One more experimental, the other a regular song album.”
From here the interview degenerates into a drunken free-for-all. Debbie and Chris hijack my cassette-recorder and discuss my underpants before Debbie describes Chris eating a banana: “He stuffs it all in his mouth like a monkey”. Soon, Debbie is shouting out names of English drinks and leading a mass singalong through, of all things, Andy Stewart’s Loch Lomond, in Scottish accents.
Meanwhile, Clem sits happily amid the carnage spilling into the gangways and blearily declares, “All this stuff for me is like I’m totally living out my ideal. My Utopia is this, believe it or not.”
Buffoonery aside, these dates affirm that rare but wonderful occasion when a band knows it’s cracked it and things will never be the same again. After two years of hard graft and harder knocks, Blondie are taking the UK on a bigger scale than they or anyone could have dreamed of and the world had an immortal new superstar; an enigmatic icon, beautiful pin-up or old school pop idol the likes of which would never be seen again.
Of course, now she’s attacked in the press for that too (mainly by threatened male hacks grasping at macho hipness that they could never achiever). “I didn’t create the situation,” she says. “My face seems to sell. I can’t help that. This is the business, so you have to use everything you’ve got to your advantage. It would just be foolish for us to ignore it.”
This new status never went to Debbie’s head. Blondie boasted an attitude and freshness but never lost their New York edge. Of course, this came against an almost textbook array of business nightmares, inter-band tensions and creative frustrations, their triumphs overshadowed by the worsening management situation that Debbie describes as, “the most disruptive transitional period for us.” Still subjected to punishing tour schedules and little financial reward, Blondie decided Peter Leeds had to go. After some predictably tricky business wrangling, they ended up with Alice Cooper manager Shep Gordon, after again finding themselves buying themselves out of an early business straitjacket.
While the business warfare raged, Hanging On The Telephone shot to No 5 in the UK singles chart, but Blondie were still stigmatised by punk in their home country. As always, their answer was to hit the road, this time on a US tour supported by David Johansen. They played San Francisco’s Winterland for Bill Graham on New Year’s Eve, ushering in what would be their most successful year to date.
1979 began with Heart Of Glass released as a single in the US and UK, where it went to No 1 and stayed there for three weeks. The single’s reign was boosted by a 12″ remix from New York radio master mixer Shep Pettibone and a video filmed at New York New York, the chic club set up to rival Studio 54. Debbie, sporting a shorter, all-blonde hairstyle and a sheer silver Stephen Sprouse dress sings through gritted teeth while the boys cavort among the mirror balls.
Another war now broke out among Blondie’s own downtown community, who were shocked at their disco diversion. Debbie and Chris simply saw disco the way they would also see hip hop; as another form of black music from the New York streets, like a movement parallel to punk. Though the city was bankrupt and its crumbling downtown buildings were awash with drugs, the artists and party animals the cheap rents attracted would soon produce an amazing cross-fertilisation of ideas. While the Dolls scene at the Mercer Arts Center had thrived followed by CBGB, clubs like the Loft, Gallery and Sanctuary, whose punters were mainly black and gay, were defining modern clubbing just a few blocks away. Blondie getting in there first by releasing a disco song as a single is a brave, even suicidal, move in a year when the Disco Sucks backlash climaxed with the burning of 10,000 dance records in a Chicago park that July. Many of Blondie’s art-scene friends were mortified and openly hostile, accusing the band of “selling out”.
“We always planned to release Heart Of Glass as a single, but wanted to hold it back, because we knew were gonna get tagged with the disco thing,” admitted Chris.
“I thought it was pretty funny,” laughed Debbie. “People were furious, going (adopts malevolent hiss) ‘Death to disco!’ when I walked past, and would ask ‘How could you do that?'”
It proves to be a smart move as, freed of the punk shackles, radio DJs start playing the single, TV shows played the video and Heart Of Glass eventually hit No 1 in the US that April. This sudden upswing meant it was time for Blondie to build on the single’s success by touring the US. The UK wouldn’t see them again until the end of 1979, but their job is done and all the detractors can do is wait until 1979’s willfully diverse follow-up, Eat To The Beat, to try starting a backlash.
Chris and Debbie kept me informed of what was going on by letter, usually some hot gig they’d seen or the latest development in New York’s artistic underground community. Despite their fame, the pair keep their feet firmly in the downtown artistic hotbed that spawned Blondie, becoming friends with former heroes like William Burroughs and Andy Warhol, who loves Debbie.
In December 1978, Chris and Debbie involve themselves in the anarchic TV Party hosted by Stein and Interview magazine writer Glenn O’Brien that goes out every Tuesday after midnight for the next four years on Manhattan’s liberated cable network. “It was like having our own club that was open once a week,” recalls Chris, describing the chaos that reigned through spontaneous skits and song directed in a 23rd Street studio by movie-maker Amos Poe. Debbie sings or assumes a backroom role, Warhol assistant and violinist Walter Steding leads the TV Party Orchestra and regulars include David Byrne, Robert Fripp, The Clash, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Nile Rodgers, The B-52’s and local no-wave bands.
The subsequent rise and fall of Blondie amid cocaine frissons and personnel rifts before Chris’ serious illness brought down the curtain in 1982 is another story and, of course, a new version of the band still plays today, giving new generations a taste of New York underground pop at its sleekest. Their set obviously includes Parallel Lines, which has now sold over 20 million copies and sounds as gloriously timeless as it ever did.
A few years ago, I enjoyed a lovely phone conversation with Debbie, her voice still the same with its light sing-song quality and ready laugh as she reflected. “Blondie were really part of a chain of events, part of that New York scene where we were really feeling it and really living it. We did actually appreciate each other and anything seemed possible. 1978 was very exciting. It could be quite overwhelming at times. Generally, I have a certain memory of the excitement of the time and also the amount of work that we did. We didn’t stop. I remember some specific incidents, like in Manchester when some guy stole my hat then somebody else gave me another hat! Also, I don’t think we had very good management.”
“Blondie did what we did before anyone knew what was happening and laid a lot of groundwork for other bands. We had bad luck and good luck at the same time. We were just too early. I guess the music industry caught up with us, in a way, but they didn’t like us when we started. Then eventually it became normal. We did feel like we were breaking into the establishment. Now it’s a different world we’re living in. I can’t regret anything. It was a great ride, and it’s still going on!”

If you so much as glanced at the music press of the late 70s and early 80s, you’ll be aware of the work of photographer Martyn Goddard. And if you didn’t, this feature looks immeasurably cooler thanks to the shots of Blondie that we’ve been lucky enough to use.
Not only did he snap Debbie Harry and co, but a winningly eclectic selection of acts that reads like something of a who’s who of pop and rock of the era: ABBA, AC/DC, Ian Dury, Echo & The Bunnymen, Eddy Grant, The Jam, and Elton John are just a few of those who have benefitted from his way with a flashgun and a tripod. He told us what it was like to shoot Blondie as the mayhem was on the verge of kicking off:
“In late June 1978 I found myself in the Record Plant in New York City with Blondie as they were in the studio recording their third album, Parallel Lines. This was my second visit to photograph the band, as a month earlier I had taken a £99 Freddie Laker flight to New York and spent a week with them staying in the Gramercy Park Hotel shooting Debbie Harry, which became a cover story for The Telegraph’s Sunday magazine. I’d followed the band around New York – their life in midtown Manhattan and visits to nightclubs and venues long into the night in the city that never sleeps.
As well as providing material for the Telegraph feature, the image later used for the Parallel Lines picture disc was taken during that first visit. It was shot in Debbie’s hotel suit, I had the image in my head before leaving the UK and had obtained a white label test pressing of the album from Chrysalis. My plan was to ask Ms Harry to kiss the blank LP. She was totally up for the concept, but my second request I thought might be trickier.
It was fashion week in New York and a hairdresser I’d worked with back in the UK agreed to produce a special hairstyle for the shoot – the time was set and the stylist arrived, but at the last minute Debbie decided that her hair was in terrible condition and not fit for a photo session! Ten minutes with the stylist sorted that and we were ready to go again.
I set about building a small studio in the sitting room using just one portable flash unit, a stand, tripod and my trusty Nikon FM. The close-up part of the shoot progressed quickly and I was able to produce not only the cover for the magazine but that European picture disc image. Later that week I travelled with the group to Philadelphia, where they were supporting Alice Cooper, and enjoyed photographing the band’s live one-off gig at the Palladium in New York.
When I arrived at the studio for a Chrysalis photo session in June – one of several planned for the week – I could sense a tense atmosphere. As a photographer, shooting in recording studios, which tended to be very dark functional spaces, was always a technical problem with period camera equipment and film stock. Additionally, one had to work around the process of a band recording a record.
It was soon evident that Blondie, and Debbie in particular, were having issues with producer Mike Chapman. The sensibilities that the group’s New York punk heritage had instilled in them meant that they were finding Chapman’s quest for West Coast pop perfection overbearing. Debbie would have to sing short vocal passages which were overdubbed time after time, hence the various facial expressions that she was making to the camera!
Though the recording process seemed stiflingly boring for all members of the band, the album was to take just six weeks to record. The rest is history.”

Martyn Goddard’s signed limited edition photographs of Blondie are available to purchase from

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