Good Boys by Stephen Hill
As Blondie prepare to release their first new single in four years, bets are on as to whether they can break not one but two records. If ‘Good Boys’ follows in the foot steps of their classic singles ‘Heart of Glass’ and ‘Call Me’ and becomes their 5th US number one, Blondie will not only become the first band to have chart toppers spanning four decades, but singer Deborah Harry will also be recognised as the oldest pop princess of them all.
Debbie Harry’s age has always bothered pop pickers. She was 34 when she had her first number one and 53 when she did it last. As Nicholas Barber observed of the last Blondie comeback ‘If they’re not as young as they used to be, one of the key to their success was that they never used to be very young in the first place’. February 1999: ‘Maria’ topped the UK charts and Deborah Harry’s prismatic face was once again emblazoned in the nations psyche. Certainly, when you deconstruct it, the Blondie re-union worked. It was variously argued in the broadsheets (usually by thirty something men) that because Blondie were so ahead of their time in the first place, they were just right for now. But it seemed like an accident – a private party for the fans that had got out of hand. And although Deborah Harry dutifully toured the world shaking her sexy bits in bigger arenas than Blondie ever played the first time round, come the beginning of 2000 it was back to New York for more collaborations, films and low-key performances.
So what, in 2004, are Blondie doing making such a blatant bid for the limelight with one of the most commercial sounding records of the year? ‘Good Boys’ is a deliciously breezy slice of electro-pop, effortless reminding us that for all the punk sneering, Blondie records worked best on the dance floor of Studio 54. And, when over-seas copies of the single leaked out last summer, ‘Good Boys’ outraged fans in certain quarters in the same way ‘Heart of Glass’ did back in ’79. If there is any justice it will, once again, make them top of the pops. But since the Blondie Mk. 1 hit machine imploded in 1982, chart positions and populist acclaim have never been what Debbie Harry’s been about. Sure she went through the motions and produced some memorable hits. ‘French Kissing in the USA’ and ‘I Want That Man’ both did well. However, she never seemed able to court media attention in a way that became so fashionable in the Eighties. Her interests were too diverse and leftfield for anyone to bother grasping where she was heading. Perhaps it was a case of bad management and publicity but everything she ever did was always hyped a ‘comeback’. ‘Good Boys’ will be no different.
A few years back Ms. Harry recalled the release of her first post Blondie album Rockbird as a horror movie sequel: ‘the return of the fly’. Humour and good grace has always been her strongest suit. While she continues to entertain the adolescent fantasies that launched her career, it is always with a wink of an eye to let you know that she doesn’t take it too seriously. Humility too has endeared her to the British public. Her solo band toured relentlessly between ’89 and ’94, featuring both Blondie guitarist Chris Stein and Underworld’s Karl Hyde. They played everything from low-key club venues to support slots in stadiums. So when news broke in ’93 of fans heckling her with taunts of ‘get your hits out’, during a series of shows that showcased the raw and more alternative side of her back-catalogue, it seemed quite churlish given the self-indulgence of her male contempories. And although from Harry’s point of view, commercial pressures from the record company may have compromised the integrity of her solo recordings, in retrospect albums like Def, Dumb and Blonde and Debravation hold their own next to the Blondie back catalogue, which was remarkably schizophrenic anyway.
In the Nineties Deborah Harry brimmed with self-confidence. Films like Heavy and Six Ways To Sunday established her as an independent film actress. And, in her collaboration with the Jazz Passengers, an avant-garde New York ensemble, Harry’s singing career seemed more vital than it had in years. Unlike Cher or Tina Turner, Debbie Harry is not a showbiz entity. She never moved to LA, she doesn’t have a stylist and her weight continues to fluctuate. But she is resolutely pop. As Garbage’ Shirley Manson commented recently, if in 1000 years time people wanted to know what a pop star was, the dictionary definition would not be Elvis or Madonna but Deborah Harry.
In Blondie’s prime Harry exuded a charm that defined the pop aesthetic: dumb, playful, iconic and sexy. Whether it was the influence of Warhol or the co-incidence of her Monroe-like beauty is unclear. Perhaps it was simply the fact that Harry was the first female star on the level of Bowie and Jagger. But, the songs also raised the game. They defined the template for modern pop. They had a glittering run of super-hits that embraced the sound of new wave and incorporated disco, reggae and Hip Hop. The genius was they never tried to be too authentic. With Mike Chapman at the helm the guiding principals were simply commercial appeal and good production.
For Harry the legacy of Blondie has been both a blessing and a curse. Major labels only seem interested if she tries to recapture this magic formula, and success in this direction has been erratic. Determined solo efforts like ’93’s Arthur Baker penned ‘I Can See Clearly’ failed to set the charts ablaze while the nonchalant Blondie get-together for No Exit was an international success. However, it has also given her a role she can play with. It facilitates collaborations with a diverse range of artists in which she can experiment, spoof and sometimes tear up that Blondie sound. In recent years she has collaborated with John Cage, The Heads, Andy Summer and of course Jazz Passengers’ Bill Ware and Roy Nathanson. Thus, until now, where Deborah Harry has sounded most enthused has been when she has negated that super-pop legacy. She’s true to her beat-punk origins and when the history books are written that will always be seen as remarkable. So why risk it all now with such a blatant attempt to crack the charts?
Blondie and not just Deborah Harry were always perverse. In the mid-70s it was pretty uncool to have a female lead singer. Being over 30 would have been unspeakable and playing bubblegum pop, when your contempories are Television and Patti Smith, was near suicidal. Blondie biographer Victor Bockris has commented that if there had been CBGBs yearbook Blondie would have been voted least likely to succeed. In the intervening years Debbie Harry has also done pretty much everything she can do to sabotage her commercial success: bondage gear, banned videos, accusations (false) of tranny bashing, name changes and wigs have all confused the public perception of her. One only has to listen to the opening track ‘Jump Jump’ from Koo Koo her first solo album released at the height of Blondie’s fame to know that there is no line of least resistance for this woman. As an artistic statement the record is one of the most cohesive things she has ever done, but next to Blondie’s pop confection it seems un – listenable-to. But Debbie Harry is a maverick. So perhaps, at this point in her career, the most rebellious thing she can do is put her heart into producing dance pop.
Creativity, however, does not happen in a vacuum. And Debbie Harry’s subliminal decision to resume duty as the consummate purveyor of super-pop says something about the state of the art. We are stranded, it would seem, with two competing accounts of pop. On the one hand, in its production, pop is nominally the embodiment of post-modern cultural practice – endlessly self-referential, depthless, concerned only with ambience. On the other hand, in its consumption, we focus on very traditional notions of authorship, always on the look out for geniuses and heroes. What was clever about the last Blondie reunion that it addressed this by playing up to the song-writerly craftsmanship of tracks like ‘Sunday Girl’ and ‘Union City Blue’ both in concert and with new songs like Maria. Conversely, those numbers that embodied the slick pop process like ‘Call Me’; ‘Heart of Glass’ and ‘Rapture’ were ‘jazzed up’ with improvisations. Now of course Blondie were never really about authenticity in the way in which fans of The Clash or Patti Smith would recognise it. Even in their earliest incarnation tracks like ‘Rip Her To Shreds’, ‘In The Flesh’ and ‘Denis’ all have some element of parody. However, where Blondie struck gold in ’99 is that they were able to reposition that heritage into a more tangibly modernist cultural framework. They habilitated their super-pop cannon by moving it away from its association with pop product.
‘Good Boys’ seeks to do something quite different. It does not try to protect or sure-up Blondie’s legacy. That it would seem is secure. Rather it challenges the way in which we have come to receive contemporary pop. Jaded by the exposition of the pop process in reality TV shows, it is with a knowing look and a slender grasp of irony that we blithely cruise on making value judgements that are false. On the one hand, we deny the skill and talent of those producers working behind records by Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera because we know that they are manufactured and inauthentic. Yet, we applaud when Robbie Williams and Kylie or some other spurious pop satirist makes the crudest of musical jokes. ‘Good Boys’ falls into neither of these categories. It is wilfully dumb, purposely banal and gorgeously pop. It reinstates simplicity and glamour and arguable is best understood alongside the pick of the recent so-called electroclash records of which Debbie’s collaboration with Blow Up on ‘Uncontrollable Love’ is exemplary. However, the irony remains that it has taken someone with Harry’s gravitas to make a record so self-consciously commercial and not, curiously, one of her many imitators.
The wilderness years for Deborah Harry it would seem have coincided with the wilderness years for pop. But if pop is something that Deborah Harry now perceives to be cutting edge and daring again, then this would suggest that something even more exciting could be round the corner and chart singles could become the vital medium they once were.