GQ - October 2003

Written By: Michael Bracewell

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Debbie 
Harry

Occupation safety pin-up; Atomic bombshell; sex doll She took punk platinum with Blondie, and forged a pop template for artists as diverse as Madonna and the Strokes. Decades later, she still shines. Interview by Michael Bracewell

I remember quite clearly what I was doing on the evening of Sunday 29 May 1977. It was a mild evening, and the traffic was sparse around Hammersmith Odeon - a cavernous barn of a former cinema turned music venue, which still appears to lurk, rather than stand, just beneath the four-carriageway flyover which takes traffic out of west London. Punk's brief springtime of cartoon anarchy had given way to both a broadening and hardening of its core tastes and beliefs. On the one hand, Woman's Own had already run a feature on "punk fashions for your daughter" - a sure death certificate for the movement if ever there was one - but on the other it was still a risky business, dressed in black plastic trousers and a jacket with carefully burned and safety pinned lapels, to ride the more remote tube lines alone.

Music, too, had found its own schism, between the instantly forgettable beginnings of what would be known as New Wave - a kind of perky, pasteurised version of punk, usually performed by pasty-faced men - and a whole raft of deeply seductive weirdness. The latter camp ranged from reggae so heavily dubbed-out that the bass sounded like someone thumping a transport container with an iron bar, to intense young men from Germany who made their industrial folk music by doing precisely that.

And then there were what seemed like gusts of humid, intoxicating acoustic steam from downtown Manhattan - a music which sounded as though it had been composed on cheap guitars and junk-shop keyboards, by people who read disturbed poetry, worshipped Hollywood's Golden Age and got high on lighter fuel. Which brings us back to the Hammersmith Odeon.

That particular Sunday, a group from New York called Television - one of those great, blank-but-smart punk names, like Magazine - were playing, supported by another New York group, called Blondie. It was a heady double-bill, because these two groups were from the same downtown, CBGB's club, art-punk milieu - the direct offspring of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, soaked in a mixture of comic-book melodrama, trashy eroticism and, in the case of Television's frontman Tom Verlaine, a kind of spikey Symbolist verse which seemed to crawl over his teeth like ectoplasm. Both groups had released records in the UK; both were considered to be very much the next big thing. The place was packed, pungent with cigarette smoke and the chemical smell of electrically chilled, cheap lager. It was the punk place to be. But nobody was quite prepared for, or had ever seen anything quite like, what happened when Blondie, fronted by their singer, Debbie Harry, took the stage.

To a punchy, girl-group drum line, setting up an anticipatory beat like some rock'n'roll hit from the early Sixties, a young woman walked up to the microphone, a woman of such overwhelming personal beauty that the entire audience fell into complete silence. Dressed in black jeans, sneakers and a white sports shirt, Debbie Harry was, quite literally, breathtaking. The only useful comparisons were with those legendary, iconic beauties whose names all ended in "o" - Bardot, Nico and Monroe; with Marilyn Monroe being perhaps the most accurate likeness. With her shoulder-length, silver-blonde hair, pale complexion, severe, angled eyebrows, bright red lips and those twilit grey eyes, which Victorian poets would have called "fathomless", Debbie Harry possessed - and possesses - a beauty which fuses gravity and seriousness with an eroticism which is all the more overt for being so understated. You took one look at her and you knew why Oscar Wilde - a great connoisseur of beautiful women - pronounced "inscrutability" to be the principal feature of feminine beauty. And this was before she had even sung a note.

Almost exactly 26 years later, Debbie Harry - who now prefers to be known as Deborah, dropping the girlish abbreviation of her earlier stage name - is strolling into the breakfast room of the St Martins Lane hotel in London. She has a new album to promote - the gloriously titled Curse Of Blondie - the single from which, "Good Boys", should by rights be a trans-European Number One. Her group, after all, is pretty much unique in having had Number One hits across the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. They've had their down times, too, but have managed to become one of pop's best-known and best-loved bands. They now seem to occupy an enviable place between fashionable iconic cult status - the Blondie style and guitar sound is a prime informant of today's new wave of New York bands - and chart-topping mainstream. Vitally, Blondie's music is now as popular in a hot young designer's catwalk show as in a theme pub on the outskirts of Birmingham. (And if you really want to hear the best of Eighties pop, you'll hear it playing in suburban hinterland DIY superstores on Saturday afternoons, because that's where the Eighties generation is doing its shopping.)

Watching Deborah Harry walk across the room, you ask, "How does she do it?" as you take in her poise, cool expression and seemingly unaged appearance. How can this be a woman in her fifties? Like Jane Birkin, she has a poise and sensuality which transcends - and how - the ubiquitous banality of contemporary sex appeal. She's dressed all in black with an elegance that rolls to the grown-up side of serious, but still manages to look effortlessly modern and casual. She has a black shawl over her shoulders, and a pair of those pop-star-sized dark glasses that only real pop stars can get away with; a strictly exclusive accessory. She speaks in a low voice, in short sentences, with that camp, blank New York City drawl which rides a back curve between abrupt and ironic.

"Well, I certainly don't think I was as personally ferocious as the original Blondie was on stage. The whole thing was kind of obsessed and mad, and... purposeful..."

Back in 1977, Blondie had opened with the opening track off their first, self-titled album, a raunchy number composed by Debbie Harry and bass player, Gary Valentine, called "X-Offender". It began with Debbie, in a voice at once breathless, husky and slipped into fluid curves by an accent which suggested that the girl-next-door had something on her mind, purring the words, "I saw you standing on the corner/You looked so big and fine/I really wanted to go out with you." Then there was a fairground keyboard chord, a fanfare of electric guitars - with Harry's then long-term partner Chris Stein, usually Blondie's lead guitarist, depping on bass - and the song was off, hurtling down its sleazy, absurd little narrative about an underage girl trying to get the attention (for which read discipline) of a big, butch cop.

It sounded like both girl-group shock-pop and a satire on itself, a combination which qualified the song and its creators to be considered purveyors of pure Pop Art: the school of art, originating in New York in the early Sixties, that celebrated mass production, mass media and popular culture. As defined by artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Pop Art - of which Blondie's ethos, in terms of songs, music and performance, was a direct successor - was riven with paradox. It was both utterly sincere and richly ironic; obsessed with the real and revelling in artifice; richly sexual and coldly dehumanised. Deborah is profoundly interested in the relationship between pop music and Pop Art.

"That's what Blondie came out of - we all had that influence." she says, with sudden enthusiasm. "Chris and I came from an art background, and it's part of the way we think. There was also our association with Warhol, and Chris was very friendly with William Burroughs. Chris went to art school, and would either have become a photographer or a painter - and then the music evolved."

Deborah's art, it might be argued, would take the form of constructing herself as the highly sexualised, aloof, breathy starlet singer with a group called Blondie - a singer who could do smouldering temptress and blank, camp street girl with equal elegance. A Warhol acquaintance, Glen O'Brien, has recalled watching Deborah assembling her stage persona, just as though it was an actor's role or a piece of performance art. In the highly collectable volume, Andy Warhol's Exposures, published in 1979, Warhol writes:

"Another night Red Star Records' biggest stars all performed. Red Star Records is a small label that's big downtown. The climax of the evening was Walter Steding, backed by a one-show-only band, including Chris Stein, Lenny Ferrari, Catherine Ruby and Debbie Harry, the star of Blondie, one of the best-known punk groups. They played in a big steel cage built especially for the occasion by Ronnie Cutrone, an artist who works with me at the Factory. For a finale, Walter almost electrocuted himself while playing his version of 'You Ain't Nothing But A Hound Dog' on an electric violin. It didn't sound anything like Elvis."

It was a long walk for Deborah to the attention of Andy Warhol's social camera however. Escaping from a New Jersey adolescence to Manhattan, she had worked as a waitress at the legendary Warhol hang-out Max's Kansas City, as well as being a Playboy bunny girl, before she started performing in groups. And success was still a long time coming. First as an outfit called Angel And The Snake, and then the Stilletoes, Harry and Stein played to many near-empty clubs before forming Blondie - who, according to their New York art-punk peers, were the group least likely to make it. As it is, they've probably outsold every Manhattan punk group a thousand times over, having managed the near-impossible crossover from the New York underground to international mainstream chart success.

"At first there was considerable indifference to us, and then considerable amount of resistance - resistance and fear - to me as a female singer. To me, the idea of presenting a strong female singer had finally found its time - that it was inevitable. I felt a lot of female singers were always being victimised or used, and that a lot of their lyrics reflected that. And I remember thinking how much I liked the blues of Janis Joplin or Billie Holliday, but how I really did not want to portray that sort of woman - the sort who was always going to get her ass kicked by love or whatever.

"And I actually think that me doing that was part of the reason why Blondie were treated so badly by people in the industry and in management. Because it was all men - and it was like they were saying, 'We're gonna fuck her up', because I didn't portray a particular type of woman singer. Or maybe we were just stupid. I know that Chris was extremely idealistic and not very interested in business, and that although we were partners I would follow his lead. But actually I think that perhaps I was the better business person."

Blondie, the 1976 debut album, finally consolidated years of hard work into a flawless piece of pure Pop Art product, usefully related to the increasing fashionability of the New York art-rock avant garde. They quickly scored serious chart success. Between 1978 and 1981, Blondie had five UK Number Ones, including "Call Me", "Heart Of Glass" and "Sunday Girl". When Blondie found success, they found it in a big way.

"We were experimenting a lot; usually, bands have just one style, but we were trying out lots of different styles of music. So it took us longer. That's the only thing I can put it down to. When you look at the Ramones, they do their style of song and they've focused it and perfected it. We were doing lots of things, so they took longer to perfect. Does that sound logical?"

Deborah Harry's carefully constructed image as a kind of sultry Times Square Bardot, singing absurdist urban love songs in a voice which swung from the steamily erotic to a whacked-out Warholian monotone, swiftly turned her into a new kind of modern Pop pin-up. But this overlooked, perhaps, her sheer range and power as a vocalist and pop lyricist. As she told me at an earlier meeting, in a pronouncement which might just as easily have come, 40 years earlier, from Marilyn Monroe's assessment of herself as an actress: "People thought I was just a bit of fluff. Well maybe I was just a bit of fluff - but there was other stuff too, there was more there than that." But the Eighties would turn dark and dangerous for Deborah Harry, colliding a succession of personal difficulties - not least the serious illness of her then partner, Chris Stein - with the usual problems that can befall a successful group who have neglected their business affairs. On top of this, record companies simply wanted Deborah to give them more and more of the sex-kitten image.

"In the beginning, it was fine having labels hung on me; then in the Eighties, I felt I was being held in that position. I wanted to grow, to use my image in my own way. But the record company just wanted to market the proven formula, and in a sense we're still confronted with that. When we handed in this new album, Curse Of Blondie, they said they needed more 'Blondie' songs. I said that these were 'Blondie' songs.

"I think people always resist change, and then when something new comes along, everyone jumps on the bandwagon. Things were really bad in 1982 and 1983 - when Blondie first broke up. I didn't know what direction to go in; it was a very scary period all round. The IRS had closed in on me and Chris for various reasons, and at the same time Chris was sick [Stein was seriously ill with pemphigus, a rare disease of the immune system]. It was pretty damn heavy and it all started in 1982. It was awful - they took our house, everything. I made three solo albums after 1985, trying to get back into the swing of things, and I think the music on those is some of the best we ever did."

Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant says that most really interesting pop acts go through an "imperial phase" before either declining into obscurity or entering into a cycle of creative reinvention. Deborah Harry and Blondie are a classic example of this trend, enduring nearly a decade on the outskirts of pop before returning with renewed power and relevance.

In the process, Harry has risen from pop pin-up to Pop Art icon - small wonder that Warhol, always the prophet of such things, made no less than two superb portraits of her. Having performed with the Jazz Passengers, and enjoyed a hugely successful reunion with Blondie four years ago, producing the Top Five hit "Maria", Deborah Harry now has the recognition she so rightly deserves as a classic American Pop Artist, whose medium is the popular song.

"It's all different now," she says, levelling her cool, grey eyes at some point in the middle distance. "Part of the reason that rock'n'roll was so attractive to Chris and I was that it was underground and clandestine. It had an element of danger in it, and that was very attractive, very sexual. But now it's above ground, and it's everywhere. The application of style, in many ways, has ruined it. Stylists today, they come in and they do a paint job on the artist. They make artists look good, but why would they ever put some young singer in punk clothes and pose her at CBGBs? They make her look like she got an 'attitude' - but it's just a heavy, rococo veneer of style.

"But I'm not complaining. I think my opportunities have been extraordinary, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I don't live in a world of regret. I may have been stupid in the past, but I take responsibility for it. I'm not there anymore. I'm somewhere else. Crazy, isn't it?"

Debbie Harry's Knickers - the ups and downs 

When Blondie first blitzed Britain in May 1977, the talk wasn't exclusively about whether they were pop, punk or disco.

Instead, everyone was wondering what, if anything, Debbie Harry had on under her skirt. At the show Michael Bracewell saw in Hammersmith, the bleach-blonde sex bomb wore black jeans. But one Manchester concert-goer remembers a tiny micro-mini, when Harry bent over, failed to reveal a glimpse of rock-chick knicker. Perhaps because she wasn't wearing any.

So, did Debbie go commando? Bracewell points to an interesting parallel with that earlier fantasy figure, Marilyn Monroe who, it was widely believed, opted to forgo underwear so as not to spoil the line of her skin-tight dresses. Whether Monroe did wear knickers or not is still a matter for conjecture among Hollywood lingerie experts. But the fact that we want to believe she didn't is a telling example of collective wishful thinking.

Same goes for the Blondie frontwoman: had she ripped them to shreds or was it just that the ride was high? Maybe we'll never know. But here at GQ we're sticking to our guns. As the line from the Western goes, when legend becomes fact, print the legend. So there you have it: Deborah Harry. Didn't used to wear pants.

Alex Bilmes.


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