Irish Independent - Tuesday 22nd May 1990 - Page 7
The blonde goddess of created pop
George Byrne on Debbie Harry who plays Dublin next Monday.
WHAT'S with all this Deborah stuff? Although it's perhaps understandable that a woman of mature years - 45 to be exact - would prefer to be known by the more dignified version of her given name there are few people I know who refer to La Harry as anything other than Debbie, the pet moniker for the leader of one of the most perfect creations of modern pop: Blondie.
When they first emerged on this side of the Atlantic during the magical year of '77 with an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test few could have predicted that this almost kitsch combo, albeit with the addictively alluring singer, would spend the next four years as the almighty Abba's main chart competition. Whatever Blondie had, they had in abundance - songs (what songs!), an incredible visual sense and, above all, Debbie Harry.
Given that in recent times female artists have increasingly tended to be either "bubbly", "vivacious" puppets or dowdy, dreary dragons using acoustic guitars to whip us through the stygian gloom of their pathetic souls, it may be hard for younger readers to imagine a time when the girls rocked as good, if not actually better, than the boys. Even without the liberating lifeblood of Punk - when anything and everything became possible for anyone and everyone - its difficult to picture Debbie Harry and The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde taking anything other than a controlling interest in their careers - and having a bloody good time in the process. Times have changed but, once a star always a star.
Debbie Harry's path to Pop's pinnacle was anything but swift and even. Born in Miami and moving to Manhattan after she graduated from high school, Harry contributed to the death of the hippy movement by playing finger-cymbals (a very difficult instrument to master, let me tell you) with folk-rock act Wind In The Willows, whose rather less than distinguished album escaped in the summer of 1968. After that, she dyed her hair blonde and embarked on a series of dead-end jobs, three of which would certainly prove invaluable in years to come: beautician, Playboy bunny and waitress at the legendary Max's Kansas City, one of the sleaziest rock clubs on earth.
It wasn't until she teamed up with long-time partner (on-stage and off) Chris Stein in The Stilettoes in 1973 that the Blondie masterplan took proper shape. By 1975 the New York Punk movement was beginning to creep overground and Blondie, with their frenetic but wildly melodic '60s-influenced material, were carried along by the tide. Harry and Stein were no mugs either when it came to material or marketing, nor were they wide-eyed kids just plugging away and hoping for the best, and both were fully aware of the importance of image in the overall scheme of things. Their debut album contained some beautifully sordid scenarios set to sugar-sweet melodies, Harry alternating her vocal persona between street-wise hooker ("X Offender", "Look Good In Blue" and "Rip Her To Shreds") and love-struck high-school girl ("In The Sun" and the utterly beguiling "In The Flesh") and sold moderately. And then...
Having nosed into the British charts in 1978 with "Denis" and "(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear" Harry & Co. looked set for a respectable enough stint at the forefront of what had by then become known as New Wave (essentially Punk except with skinny ties and less gobbing) until the "Parallel Lines" album rocketed the band to the top of every chart in the known world. As a pop album it's nigh on perfect; glorious tunes, magnificent production... and Debbie Harry.
Somewhere along the way, Harry and Stein - her main co-writer - had figured out that just writing songs and having someone sing them after the fact wasn't enough, material had to be specifically tailored to their main asset; Debbie herself. And as this was just around the time when videos began to assert their influence on sales figures, having a lead singer with geometrically-structured cheekbones, and who just happened to be one of the main fantasy figures for the world's male population, wasn't likely to damage their chances too much.
Although she could never be described as a technically great singer, Debbie Harry had - and has, let me hasten to add - that rare ability to make even the tritest lyric sound like a promise of undying affection. Let's face it, someone who can sing lines like: "I have given you my finest hour / The one I spent watching you shower" (from "Picture This") or "Once I had a love and it was a gas / Soon turned out to be a pain in the ass" ("Heart Of Glass"), and make them sound like the key to the meaning of life, has gone way beyond the realms of being judged on their ability to hit high C above D.
While "Parallel Lines" was causing havoc with cash-registers all over the world (It spend a grand total of 105 weeks in the UK charts alone), the attempts to dig behind the gleaming facade of Blondie were to prove frustrating. Any probing of Debbie's wild early years (She was 30 by the time the group's first single "X Offender" was recorded) were dispelled with her magnificent smile and coy references to "all part of growing up". Her relationship with Chris Stein precluded the usual inter-star carry-on and that just left the drugs angle open to speculation, which never really provides much interest in isolation - unless, of course, a band member or two wind up in jail or dead.
So, what Blondie were was a seemingly seamless pop machine with one of the cultural icons standing at the front. Not, I'm sure you'll agree, an altogether unpleasant position to be in and it proved to be a lucrative one up until 1981 when the killer tunes suddenly dried up and the group fell apart over the course of the next year, leaving Harry to pursue a rather sporadic solo career with the occasional film appearance thrown in to sustain her profile.
Up until last year's fine "Def, Dumb And Blonde" album (the title alone gives you further proof that you're dealing with a first-class image manipulator), Debbie Harry had only made three records in the '80s, the bulk of her time being spent nursing Stein through a serious illness, but she still exerts a huge influence over impressionable rock hacks who see her as a virtual Glam Goddess - and not without good cause.
Debbie Harry has always oozed strength, sex appeal, humour and matched those talents with a handful of some of the most heavenly pop hits ever heard by human ears. I guess that makes her A Star.