ARENA - September-October 1995
Pages 84 & 85
Text Dylan Jones
THE PEROXIDE LOW-PRIESTESS OF punky power pop, Debbie Harry was the first iconic modern sex symbol, a spunky tongue-in-cheek pin-up who made teenage trousers jump from Basildon to Buffalo and back again. More young men might have put Farrah Fawcett's poster up on their bedroom walls ("With one hand," as Steve Martin once said), but what was one of Charlie's Angels compared to a fully-grown, fit-to-burst, bottle-blonde Trash Goddess?
Asked once to describe her ideal man, the leopardskin disco diva replied: "Small, furry and able to fit in my lap while I drive." Now how many of us would gladly have changed places with a vole, marmoset, or even a ferret for just one short (but hopefully bumpy) ride to the supermarket?
Harry's star rose with such speed and burned so brightly we were oblivious to anything other than her scarlet bee-stung lips, her preposterously breathy vocals and the way she stood on stage - you know, with her legs just a little too far apart.
We didn't care that she had once sung with a dreary folk rock troupe called Wind In The Willows: no matter that she'd been a B-grade Warhol acolyte, a Playboy bunny, or a waitress at the notorious New York club Max's Kansas City; so what if she was already 32 by the time Blondie released their first LP (in 1977)? As long as we could hear her rasp her way through "In The Flesh", "X-Offender" or "Rip Her To Shreds", then nothing really mattered at all.
Born into suburbia in Miami in 1944, she was raised 800 miles north in New Jersey to expect little else. Adopted at an early age, she never knew her parents, and would fantasize that Marilyn Monroe was her mother. She first bleached her hair, age 14, in 1959, the year Madonna was born, soon developing a keen - though never ruthless - blonde ambition. And having embroiled herself in New York's downtown scene in the early Seventies, by 1975 Harry, along with her boyfriend and future Blondie guitarist Chris Stein (as well as other NY bands such as Television, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Talking Heads and The Ramones), suddenly found herself in the right place at the right time.
Fuelling millions of adolescent punk fantasies, in her spray-on micro-skirt, black tights and black stiletto ankle boots she was lust on a lollipop, Barbie's sluttish older sister (you remember, the one who gave French kissing lessons at school). "Wouldn't you like to rip her to shreds?" ran the pre-PC copy-line on the posters announcing Blondie's first proper tour of the UK in 1978; and as we studied the accompanying picture of Harry looking like a compliant party girl, well, we had to admit that, yes, given half the chance we would, actually.
As for the group, its tongue was firmly in its collective cheek. Even their name was a giveaway - a band called Blondie fronted by a girl who obviously wasn't. She never tried to hide the fact that her iconic platinum blonde hair was dyed: you could even see her brown roots on the record sleeves. Harry may have been a sex kitten but she was certainly no bimbo, and set about exploiting her sexuality before anyone else got the chance. From the beginning Harry was continually toying with the ambiguity of pop iconography and the implications of sexual role playing, and the endless Monroe comparisons were taken with liberal pinches of salt. The irony was eclipsed when - for a short time in the late Seventies - she became the most coveted woman on the planet.
Beauty has always been a double-edged sword, and the toll was predictable: "Although I'm not a great thinker," she says, "I'm not an airhead either, and pretty people are just not expected to be serious. They don't have to be. They can survive on being attractive, sexy, seductive, whatever it is they do. So, the reasoning goes, why should they want to be anything more?" Like other stars of her generation during the Eighties she let her career slide and also changed her name from Debbie to Deborah ("Since I was becoming such an old bag," she said recently by way of explanation, "I thought I should have a little more sophisticated, luxurious kind of name"). She also went in to bat for Chris Stein, giving up performing and recording when he succumbed to a rare skin disease.
Occasionally she will seem as though she's turning into the Liz Taylor of punk, what with her fluctuating weight, a determination to wear the latest frocks even when they don't suit her, and her on-off career as a character actress, appearing in David Cronenberg's Videodrome, John Waters' Hairspray, the forthcoming pop-industry parody Drop Dead Rock (with Adam Ant) and the arthouse Heavy (co-starring Liv Tyler, Shelley Winters and Evan Dando). But with Harry, self-parody has always been just a kiss away.
She might be 50, but the vampish idol is eternal. Hot-to-trot she most certainly is, and if coaxed will still tear it all off. "Why? I guess I get off on it," she'll drawl. "I'm a flasher at heart. I'm a dirty girl."
Courtney Love, eat your heart out.
"Beautiful - The Remix Album" is out now on Chrysalis.