This issue, we proudly elevate the enigmatic Blondie to the star position in all their 1976 glory. A band that mixed arty New York punk smarts, Brit Invasion and girl group styles with progressive feminist values are undoubtedly “totally Shindig!”, as is first-hand witness Kris Needs’ epic story. Whilst not suggesting that this will be a challenge for trusty old readers, I do eagerly await the letters.
Jon ‘Mojo’ Mills – Editor-In-Chief
OUT IN THE STREETS
Forged in the ashes of Warhol’s Factory, Greenwich Village folk clubs, Manhattan dive bars and the pre-punk vortex that was CBGB, BLONDIE escaped drugs and mental illness via an intoxicating brew of kitsch comic book style, ’60s girl group pop and the latent superstar quality of their singer Debbie Harry. Three years after their ragged coalescence they were on their way to becoming the most popular band on the planet.
KRIS NEEDS was there.
“They trusted me to watch the escalating madness from the inside”
When Blondie’s current incarnation toured UK arenas recently their status as much-loved nostalgia band shone once again with Debbie Harry still radiating as one of the most famous female icons of all time. It wasn’t always like that.
The band’s first phase as chart-riding success explosion lasted just four years between early 1978’s UK breakthrough with ‘Denis’ and disintegration after ’82’s The Hunter. Lesser known is how the band ascended to this exalted position from the liberated artistic chaos of downtown Manhattan in the early ’70s. We’re here to revisit the early days of Blondie’s astonishing New York story. Blame The Shangri-Las and The Velvet Underground.
It may seem hard to believe now but, like that era’s giants The Clash, Blondie were routinely ripped into by then-dominant music papers that could make or break careers. Zigzag, the fanzine your writer edited for five years from ’77, loved them from first single ‘X Offender’ and said it loud until they split in ’82. Chris Stein and Debbie Harry trusted me to watch the escalating madness from the inside and it was then I discovered how Blondie had also been vilified before they became successful.
Debbie was born in Miami but adopted from an agency at three months by a couple who ran a gift shop in Hawthorne, New Jersey. Dreaming she was Marilyn Monroe’s lost love child, she had the quintessential suburban American childhood, singing in the church choir, cheerleading and dressed down by a mother who “didn’t contemplate a future for me other than marriage”. Debbie felt otherwise and, in 1965 at the age of 20, followed her growing artistic leanings to New York City’s bohemian revolution where she encountered Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground blow-outs, The Fillmore East and exotic club culture. “I was just a baby growing up in the middle of this incredible scene,” she recalled.
Debbie banged percussion with experimental groups like Tri-Angels and First National Unaphrenic Church & Bank, before joining baroque folk-rockers Wind In The Willows, singing on their sole ’68 album. After the group split, “I was completely out of my mind. I was into junk, I was really fucked up… I wanted to blank out my mind and whole sections of my life.” She supported herself waitressing at Max’s Kansas City, serving Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and Andy Warhol’s circus, ran off to California with a millionaire (“It was something I’d always wanted to do”) then spent nine months as a Playboy bunny. To escape drugs, Debbie moved to an artistic community near Woodstock before returning to her parents’ house and going to beauty school.
Drawn back to Manhattan by the glam commotion around The New York Dolls at The Mercer Arts Centre, Debbie fell into the uprising glitter scene, befriending Warhol acolyte Eric Emerson’s ex-girlfriend Elda Gentile, whose band Pure Garbage had just split. Together with Rosie Ross, they started The Stillettoes in mid-73 as a vehicle for their girl group/trash obsessions.
Born in Brooklyn, Stein immersed himself in the mid-60s Greenwich Village folk scene, playing with local groups including The Morticians and First Crow On The Moon, whose career peak was opening for The Velvet Underground. After spending the summer of 1967 tripping in San Francisco, he returned to New York, flipping totally in early ’69 and spending three months in an insane asylum. On release, he studied photography at New York’s School Of Visual Arts.
Chris was also magnetised to the Mercer in ’72, meeting Eric Emerson, joining his band The Magic Tramps and moving into his Lower East Side apartment. One night in October ’73, they decided to check out The Stillettoes who, having replaced Ross with Amanda Jones, were playing their first gigs at The Boburn Tavern on 28th Street, where the stage was a pool table with legs sawn off. Backed by bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy O’Connor, the girls mixed Shangri-Las and Supremes songs decked out in cave-girl outfits or ’50s swimsuits, directed by Warhol’s Tony Ingrassia.
Debbie later spoke of the “dark intense stare” and immediate “psychic connection” with Chris, although they didn’t speak at first. After Elda asked him to join the band, they grew closer until Chris moved into Debbie’s Thompson Street apartment. The couple bounced off each other creatively as Debbie’s muse broke free from insecurities previously masked by drugs, writing songs like ‘Platinum Blonde’. In May ’74, The Stillettoes debuted at Bowery bar CBGB, supporting another new band called Television on their reputation-building Sunday residency. Along with Wayne County and Suicide, these were the first bands to play the club that became New York’s punk epicentre. In June, The Stillettoes received their first UK press mention when Melody Maker’s Roy Hollingworth reviewed a gig t infamous 4th Street drag bar Club 82 alongside a photo of “…a cuddly platinum blonde called Debbi (sic). Some of the songs were well worth putting on vinyl”.
Shortly after, Debbie left The Stillettoes with the musicians, played CBGB twice as Angel & The Snake then named the group Blondie after blonde singers Julie and Jacky joined. Apart from being “a street name I got from truck drivers… Blondie was a comic coming to life. I wanted to create this character who was primarily having fun.”
At first, the group was a camp, Labelle-influenced romp but Julie and Jacky left after the latter dyed her hair brown and guitarist Ivan Kral joined for three months. While rehearsing at The Performance Studio on 23rd Street, they encountered old friend Tommy Erdelyi, inviting his band The Ramones to share bills while Chris sublet them his First Avenue apartment. In early 1975, after Kral left to join Patti Smith, two girls called Tish and Snookie guested for several months as The Banzai Babies before opening St Mark’s Place boutique Manic Panic. Billy O’Connor left, replaced by 18-year-old Keith Moon-worshipping powerhouse Clement Burke, from New Jersey’s Sweet Revenge, who answered the ad for “freak energy rock drummer”. Then Fred Smith announced he was replacing Richard Hell in Television halfway through Burke’s May CBGB debut, throwing Blondie into shocked despair. The live-wire Burke persuaded them to continue, bringing in jamming mate Gary Valentine.
A squalid, converted doll factory three blocks from CBGB, haunted by poltergeists, became Blondie HQ-domicile. Even a visiting Wayne County was “shocked when I found someone had shit in their kitchen sink!” The transexual titan recalls seeing Blondie at “an old run-down Irish bar, set up on the floor and all these old drunks were stumbling by going, ‘Yeah baby, shake it honey.'” Debbie worked as a waitress at White’s Pub near Wall Street, daydreaming songs like ‘In The Flesh’ and ‘Die Young Stay Pretty’, befriending Chinese workmate Anya Phillips, who became one of her closest friends and a driving force on the scene.
In June, NME’s Lisa Robinson reported on the “renaissance of new bands” at CBGB, mentioning Debbie’s “appealing trashiness” and rendition of the Velvets’ ‘Sunday Morning’. Local writer Alan Betrock briefly became Blondie’s manager, paying for demos of ‘Platinum Blonde’, ‘Thin Line’, ‘Puerto Rico’ and ‘Once I Had A Love (The Disco Song)’, plus The Shangri-Las’ ‘Out In The Streets’. Student doctor Jimmy Destri arrived with his distinctive Farfisa organ (Suicide’s Marty Rev having recently declined).
The Blondie males’ image got a mod makeover when Clem returned from an English trip with the first Dr Feelgood album. “If there’s one group that could take credit for giving direction to the New York scene it must be Dr Feelgood,” said Debbie, who continued developing her Blondie character assisted by designer friend Stephen Sprouse with wedding garb or the iconic zebra skin dress made from pillowcases found in the garbage. By late ’75, with Patti Smith and The Ramones signed by majors, Blondie still felt like “the band least likely to”, further depressed when another NME round-up declared, “Sadly Blondie will never be a star simply because she ain’t good enough.”
The tide started turning in ’76, former manager Betrock launching bi-monthly scene lifeline New York Rocker in February with Blondie’s first full-length interview announcing, “They are geared for war; an all-out assault on NYC.” Blondie was always a great idea, now they were growing into it. They appeared regularly in Punk magazine, the Mutant Monster Party photo strip depicting Debbie and Joey Ramone as star-crossed lovers. This vibrant period was captured in Amos Poe’s film The Blank Generation, Blondie captured at CBGB performing ‘Platinum Blonde’ and ‘He Left Me’. They also supplied the music for Vain Victory, Jackie Curtis’s Ingrassia-directed play in which Debbie played chorus girl Juicy Lucy.
Blondie were a surprise hit of the Max’s Easter Festival with Wayne County, Pere Ubu, Suicide, Heartbreakers and Ramones, impressing ’60s girl group producer Richard Gottehrer, who had started a production company called Instant Records with former New York Dolls manager Marty Thau. After grabbing Blondie for a single, they signed them to Frankie Valli’s Private Stock label.
In August, Blondie recorded their eponymous debut album at Plaza Sound Studio, a room built for Stravinsky at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. First single ‘X Offender’ was released in November, title changed from ‘Sex Offender’ due to pressure. Based on a true story about an offender who falls for her arresting officer, it shot the classic girl group sound with Farfisa-driven punk energy, UK music paper Sounds making it Single Of The Week.
The album appeared in January ’77, unselfconsciously mixing garage-rock, New York pop and even Doors and Jefferson Airplane influences with B-movie visions on tracks like ‘The Attack Of The Giant Ants’. Blondie was praised in the US, Creem announcing, “This is the band that’s sure to put Gotham City on the map.” Most UK reviews were lukewarm but Zigzag proclaimed, “This promising debut has all the charm, sparkle and zest of the great pop bands. Blondie is fun, with a capital F.” Unbeknownst to us, this review would stand us in good stead.
In February, former Wind In The Willows manager Peter Leeds took over Blondie’s affairs as they hit LA for a week-long stint at The Whisky A Go Go, followed by another week with The Ramones. Without hype, only the album hammered by veteran deejay/scene-maker Rodney Bingenheimer, Blondie stormed the city, boys imitating their mod-punk look while girls copied Debbie’s thrift shop glamour. “I want to be a stylist,” she told a salivating LA Times. “Every time we go on stage, I try to do something different.” Impassioned young fan Jeffrey Lee Pierce started the Blondie fan club before forming his own group called The Gun Club while Phil Spector invited them to his Hollywood fortress, scaring all with his bizarre gun-toting behaviour.
An impressed David Bowie invited Blondie to support Iggy Pop on the US tour he was orchestrating for The Idiot. It went swimmingly, Iggy and Bowie making sure the group was looked after, while New York’s Palladium was a triumphant homecoming. Not all support tours would be so easy though as Blondie found on their first UK visit in May ’77 opening for old CBGB muckers Television, Blondie taking their few inches of stage to still-filling halls.
This writer saw them at Hammersmith Odeon and Bristol’s Colston Hall. At the first gig I was in the company of my Zigzag mentor Pete Frame and later we stumbled into their hotel room where Chris was reading a comic book and Debbie was lying naked under a sheet. By Bristol they’d had enough of Television’s insufferable egos but pulled off a blinder with a stellar cover of The Doors’ ‘Moonlight Drive’, Debbie pretty in pink, almost preppie-style with skinny tie and ponytail, bouncing around and high-kicking into first album songs such as ‘Kung Fu Girls’, Iggy tribute ‘Detroit 442′ and an encore of Ronnie & The Daytonas’ ‘Little GTO’.
“We’re a little disappointed that the press is misinterpreting us,” sighed Debbie in the dressing room. “They did it to us in the States and it took a while to catch on. We get encores every single show and the press puts us down. It’s really unbelievable.”
The band was friendly and boisterously stressing “Blondie Is A Group” but it was Debbie’s striking high profile and Chris’s ingenious strategies that would prove their passport to fame.
Debbie in the flesh was disarming with her amazingly beautiful face and unearthly gaze. In conversation, her voice uncurled a mellifluous sing-song quality, switching between razor-sharp street tones or silky-toned angel, tempered with playfully surreal humour. Chris is her spiritual counterpart, who loved to expound with dry wit on anything from conspiracy theories to comic books. Debbie and Chris obviously understand classic pop but constantly thirst for the new in-sound and vision.
Debbie talked about the band’s name while preparing to go onstage. “It’s an easy name to remember and sort of descriptive. I’ve been stuck with blonde hair for three years but I’m getting tired of it. You get tired of bleaching your hair out. I’ve always had different coloured hair, but try to stop it now…” Realising that might be somewhat untimely, Debbie steeled herself to the current mission and warns, “We’ll be back! We’re flying over with bombs!”
On returning to New York, Peter Leeds fired Gary Valentine, who was becoming difficult. Another mate of Clem’s, Frank ‘The Freak” Infante joined on bass as Blondie returned to Plaza Studio with Richard Gottehrer for six weeks to record their second album. Valentine had objected to covering Randy & The Rainbows’ ‘Denis’ but bequeathed the classic ‘I’m Always Touched By Your (Presence Dear)’. Debbie wanted to shake off the nostalgia tag and inject some “high voltage rock”. With a noticeable maturity in songwriting, the classic Blondie sound was now in place but already sprouting wings with the atmospheric ‘Bermuda Triangle Blues (Flight 45)’. Album title Plastic Letters came from a sign behind the New York cover photo session.
During recording, Leeds negotiated a bigger record deal with Chrysalis, who had to buy out Private Stock and Gottehrer for half a million dollars. Blondie were booked for a 25-date UK tour in November, cut back to three dates as European interest increased coinciding with the first album bitch-fest ‘Rip Her To Shreds’ being released as the UK debut single. Infante switched to guitar, making way for bassist Nigel Harrison, who’d played in Silvered and Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek’s Nite City. (Here in Aylesbury, we knew him from local band The Farm.)
The first gig was at my local Aylesbury haunt Friars, renowned as one of the UK’s best gigs, credited with kick-starting Ziggy Stardust. After the quirky prog-pop of support band XTC, the near-capacity crowd howled as the new, improved Blondie stormed through the albums and their cover of The Runaways’ ‘I Love Playing With Fire’, Debbie strutting and shaking her maracas in transparent black blouse and leather trousers, realising the uproar she could cause. London’s Rainbow Theatre show was less successful, suffering from poor sound with the group seeming over-awed by the large stage. The promised bombs were yet to drop but the Friars gig showed how Blondie could become the biggest of all the new bands.
In January ’78 the recent Sex Pistols split had hammered the last nail in punk’s original furore, leaving the music business desperately looking for a new trend. Blondie found themselves figureheads of powerpop, a smarter-dressed alternative to punk; one that the music business could handle.
Zigzag’s first Blondie piece of that year, fronted by a shot that Chris Stein donated from the famous zebra-girl session, described a day when everything went wrong. Burke and Destri arrived at Dingwalls with the news that Stein has severe Japanese flu. Infante and Harrison arrived with Debbie sporting huge black leather coat, woolly hat and shades, reporting that a doctor had given Chris a mega flu jab. Blondie were using a new, untried PA and Kiss’s sandman, who was unfamiliar with the set. In the narrow Dingwalls with its stage-front pillars, the sound became a feedback-drenched din. Nothing boded well for the show.
Visiting Debbie and Chris’s room at Kensington’s Royal Garden Hotel, Stein was propped up in bed looking like death, although the fever had passed. “I’ll just wear shades and be cool.” While Debbie had a bath and pottered about, Chris showed me his photos taken on the recent world tour. After Debbie settled on short denim jacket and gold boots, I was quite surprised when she proudly showed me her trumpet, explaining, “I just blast through it and make a noise at the end of ‘Cautious Lip’. She certainly turned heads when we strolled past the string section in the hotel lobby, brandy bottle in hand, “In case I catch Chris’s flu.”
Dingwalls was packed with liggers and journalists. Blondie came on, Chris propping himself against one of the pillars, and kicked into ‘X Offender’, screeching with feedback. The ear-bleeding cacophony stoked on-stage tensions but the sound improved as the set progressed, notably a crashing version of the Stones’ ‘My Obsession’. Before the encore, there was an onstage ruck after Clem Burke started playing too soon and Chris pulled him up. The drummer trashed his kit, storming off past Destri. “Er, goodnight,” shrugged a bemused Debbie, shuffling off. Backstage shouting and fisticuffs spilled into the yard and had to be broken up by bouncers.
The following month, ‘Denis’ shot to #2 in the UK charts and Blondie returned, this time with those bombs.
The long-delayed Blondie 1974-1982: Against The Odds box set is due this summer
reviews – 45s
Sunday Girl ****
Recorded in June 1978 during sessions for Blondie’s planet-engulfing third album Paralle Lines, ‘Sunday Girl’ remains a key entry in the string of ’60s girl group homages that had begun with ‘In The Flesh’ and arguably culminated in ‘Slow Motion’. Curiously overlooked for single release in the US, even after becoming a chart-topper over here, ‘Sunday Girl’ was nevertheless deemed worthy of a French language interpretation. A hybrid mix of both became familiar to millions after its inclusion on “every home should have one, and probably did” set The Best Of Blondie.
This natty RSD double-single includes both, alongside Chris Stein and Debbie Harry’s skeletal, bossa-flavoured home demo [producer Mike Chapman can once again be credited for giving flesh to this idea] and a perky live performance captured in Portland, OR during the album’s residency in the Billboard Top 10 that up-ends notions of Blondie being a ragged stage act that couldn’t do justice to its polished studio work.