ALTERNATIVE PRESS - March 1999
Pages 40, 41, 42
NO INTRODUCTION NECESSARY
by John Kappes
photos by Magda
HAIR AND MAKE UP: LORRAINE ABLES, STYLING: CANON FOR OLIVIER PERROT INC., PHOTOGRAPHED AT DODGE STUDIOS, NYC
Blondie have always served as a needed reminder that you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar. They were pop pranksters who made a marriage of image and content seem easy. From 1977 to 1982, Chris Stein and Debbie Harry were practically the poster kids for growing up in public, together going through boom and bust, sickness and health, in the glare of cheap flash bulbs. Sick of publicity, they nonetheless came back with their catchiest chorus, "Call me, call me anytime." Twenty years later, just as the reunited band are poised to step out with an all-new album titled No Exit, we did.
Blondie were always more into pure pop than a lot of the other American new-wave bands. Did you take a lot of abuse for that?
Harry: No, I actually think there was a kind of mutual appreciation going on, where we had respect for each other's forces. The thing we shared was attitude; anti-social attitude. There wasn't really a lot of warring about musical inspiration. There was some healthy competition going on, but it wasn't about the music itself.
Stein: Everybody was trying to outdo each other, to have the best idea.
Harry: But you'd always find a song that another band did that really turned you on. I think people were more interested in seeing the different personas, because everybody had this personality thing going on.
But things did seem to change by the early '80s, with hardcore punk, when you used to hear that this or that band wasn't "hard" enough. Blondie was one of the few bands then to cross over into dance music, at a time when the "disco sucks" attitude prevailed.
Harry: Well, that's a whole other, macho kind of thing. There's no way around that when you get into music that's about force rather than musicality. That's where you end up. I didn't really hang out in dance clubs or anything, but I always loved Chic. They were really smart and had good songs. I liked Kraftwerk, too. With me, it's whether I like a song. After that, I don't give a fuck.
And that hardcore scene did seem to reach a dead end eventually. There's only so fast and so hard, and then what do you do?
Harry: Go deaf, go blind, I don't know. [Laughs.] Get off the stage. Go sterile.
One fascinating thing about the New York scene was that you had this group of people who knew each other, and somehow their music ended up winning over the country and then the world. Do you think it could happen again?
Harry: Of course it could happen again.
Stein: No way.
Care to elaborate?
Stein: When we were doing it, there weren't all these TV shows and periodicals everywhere. And it didn't happen that quickly; it took a long time. Look at the New York Dolls or the Velvet Underground. I mean, it was 1967 when their dark, leather album came out. They may be legendary now, but then they couldn't make a living. Even with four No. 1 hits in America, Blondie was always a cult band. I don't think nowadays there could ever be a scene that could ferment like that. I don't think it would be allowed to ferment.
Harry: It was quite a concentration of people communicating in their different forms - press people, photographers, artists, musicians, actors - all doing this simultaneously in one little area. So it was really kind of an explosive mixture.
A recent VH-1 documentary on Blondie suggested that the attention Debbie Harry captured worked against the band's survival from the outside, through other people who helped disrupt the group. But surely fame also had some affect on you.
Harry: It's a real whiplash experience being in a successful band - all of a sudden you're sort of flung out there. Unless you have some kind of management that is able to take neophytes, people who have never been in the industry, and give them the information they need about what's going to hit them next, you're left to take lots of slaps in the face.
But I can't really say it's entirely management's fault. It's a difficult, weird little world to be in. All of a sudden you're just like the most tasty piece of candy on the shelf, and everybody wants to take a bite. Also, you're thrust into a position where anything you want, you can have - and you're usually just fresh out of school. Here you are, expected to be an artist, but you're thrown into a really tough business world. So you're really pulled in a lot of directions at the same time. To land on your feet is quite a feat.
Especially since one of your ideas was to send up the whole platinum-blonde obsession, it must have been hard to keep hearing, "It's you, it's you - just dump these guys and you can do anything."
Harry: Well, the group didn't last. [Pauses.] It makes you appreciate somebody who does maintain a career for a very long time at a very high level. You can really appreciate the strength and fortitude and business acumen that comes along with it. I certainly didn't want to be in the hot seat that long. I consider myself coming more from an art-school or a performance-art background. I'm not really a showbiz person. Initially, anyway; I've certainly worked my way into it by now. So it was difficult to put my brain around these contrasting, fighting elements. To make people understand that what I was doing was, for me, a theatrical event, was impossible. They wanted to sell this product, and I was having an event. [Laughs.]
So how do you feel now about Blondie having become a product, a nostalgia item? What's it like when you walk by and see a Blondie keychain or a Blondie cupholder?
Stein: I think I've said before, I didn't just want to play the old songs, but I find I've been getting all sentimental about them. It's my own personal nostalgia. I can understand how they mean things to people, since they have that feeling for me, too. But with rock and roll everywhere now, on milk commercials, I don't know how attracted to it I'd be if I were a kid. It's definitely becoming one more product.
Harry: I can really hear our influence in retrospect, you know, when I listen to a Madonna or a No Doubt. So I'm really happy with the music. At our shows, we know what they're selling. We don't sell diddly crap. We keep it to t-shirts and posters, things people would want to have. There are no cupholders, darling. ALT
THE PLATINUM COLLECTION
Nearly the whole Blondie story is available on this two-CD compilation, including DJ remixes of "Atomic" and "Rapture." Beginners are advised to seek this out. (Chrysalis/EMI, 1994)
With megahit "Heart Of Glass," this album adds the sheen, but something of its subversive charm is evident on the picture disc, where a bored-looking Debbie Harry can be seen licking a piece of vinyl. (Chrysalis, 1978)
At its best, rock is about albums as much as big tracks, and Blondie are best heard sequenced the way the band intended. Plastic Letters showcases pop that's tight but not smothered in a plastic sheen, that's alive with possibilities. (Chrysalis, 1977)
Although this faced some tough criticism upon its initial release, in retrospect it stands out as one of the first multiculti rock records, mixing in Caribbean and dance rhythms at will. (Chrysalis, 1980)
Small ad for the re-release of Koo Koo on Razor and Tie.
Classic 1981 solo release includes:
"Backfired" & "The Jam Was Moving".
Available at your local record store, on line at www.razorandtie.com
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