Beat Instrumental - March 1980
Tony Horkins pens a few parallel lines on
THE BOYS BEHIND
I don't know whether any of you have noticed, but behind the luscious blonde that fronts Blondie are five blokes playing instruments. The next time you see them on TV just try and tear your eyes away from the girl with the lightbulbs in her hair and take a look at those geezers at the back holding the beat down. Chris Stein, Jimmy Destri, Nigel Harrison, Frank Infante and Clem Burke are not session musicians - they too are in Blondie.
At their recent live gigs I was amazed to find myself constantly looking away from Debbie Harry over to the right hand side of the stage where drummer Clem Burke was giving his tom-toms not a minute's peace. Nigel Harrison on bass proved to be a mite on the good side and although guitarists Chris Stein and Frank Infante and keyboard player Jimmy Destri were not exactly mind blowing as individual musicians, they played proficiently and gelled well together. Blondie are a good little outfit.
I took the opportunity in a swank London hotel to talk to as many Blondies as I could (all except for a homesick Jimmy Destri) and find out what makes them tick.
NIGEL HARRISON - BASS
Being the only English member of the group, Nigel has an entirely different set of early musical recollections. For a start he remembers being an avid BEAT reader and actually said "I probably wouldn't have got this far if I hadn't read some of those things I did." He also remembers skipping school and work, getting on the train at 9 o'clock and coming up to London from Buckinghamshire to walk around Shaftesbury Avenue and peruse its host of music shops.
"I remember walking into 'Orange' or 'Sound City' down there and seeing Jimi Hendrix go in, look at the wall, pick up a Strat and say 'I'll take six of them.'"
Although always keen on music, Nigel decided he'd actually like to play an instrument when he was twelve.
"All my friends were becoming Hank Marvin so I wanted to join in. I bought a Spanish guitar and started picking out riffs to songs like 'Satisfaction'. I never had any lessons but there were a few kids around me that were really good and they helped me. I don't read music or anything, I just watch people's fingers all the time."
The story of how he ended up playing bass sounds about as believable as a General Hospital script, but I'm assured it's true.
"There was this real shady deal at the back of Exchange and Mart - a bankrupt stock of Vox guitars and a friend of mine had sent away and got a really cool one back with a tremelo arm and one pick-up. So I sent away for mine and it said allow six weeks for delivery. I must have waited over two months and meanwhile all the kids were learning to play theirs. It finally showed up almost when I'd forgotten about the thing and they sent me a bass guitar when I'd sent away for a six-string. I was too cool to admit that it was a mistake so I kept it and that's how I became a bass player."
"My first group was called the Musketeers. It was one of those typical groups where the guitarist's father used to run it. We did little gigs all over the place for five or six pounds a night."
He went through a lot of groups in his early years, graduating from pop bands to being influenced by the Small Faces, Pretty Things and other generally 'wild' bands.
"I used to see a hell of a lot of bands in those early days. Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, The Stones when Brian Jones didn't turn up one night, The Ronnettes, The Who, Jeff Beck."
Although he got to see a lot of bands he never tried to copy anyone's style. He says he never knew anything about music - he didn't even know how to tune a guitar - but he just used to watch people's fingers.
"I did later. I know Jack Bruce influenced me with his melodic bass playing."
After seeing Blondie a couple of times I noticed that Nigel prefers to pick at his bass with his fingers rather than using a plectrum.
"I always liked people that use their fingers. I can't use a pick because I get cramp in my hands. I have to use it sometimes because my fingers get very sore."
After his Vox bass, he Exchanged and Marted for a Tuxedo bass and through constant checking down the bargain columns got a Linear amplifier and a Selmer Goliath cabinet.
"They had these real ugly 18" speakers that sounded real terrible, but they had a big cabinet that looked good."
He had a Vox AC 30 bass amp, went through numerous basses and finally ended up with a 65 Precision which he's still got.
With changes in instruments came changes in groups, and after the Musketeers came a number of different blues bands.
"I was in this band called the Smokey Rice Blues Band which lead into a band called Rice which was doing Jazz-Rock things. After checking out the block ads at the back of Melody Maker I ended up in a band called Silverhead."
Silverhead were managed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice who gave up after about two months when the band started buying themselves Marshall gear and turning it up. They got taken over by Deep Purple's management and in their life span did five American tours.
"Silverhead were a real raunchy rock n' roll band and still to this day I listen to recordings that we made. I think it was an incredible band but we broke up in mid-'74 due, I think, to mismanagement."
With a background that includes touring with Purple Nigel can't help but still like heavymetal music today. One of his fav bands of the moment is UFO and he's particularly impressed with Michael Shenker - their ex-guitar player. Doesn't he prefer that sort of stuff to what he's now playing?
"No, I don't prefer it. It's very weird being involved with Blondie. I love pop music but I never really saw myself as being in a pop band. Silverhead was to me what I wanted to be in."
With such strong tones of desperation in his voice I wondered if he'd own up to feeling frustrated in what he's doing.
"Yea. I do, very frustrated. I always thought that when you actually made it that's because you're in a group that you totally believe in. In fact it's quite an uncomfortable situation altogether with the music.
I love making the records, I like the music. Half of the appeal of Blondie is the contained three minute song. In the reality of playing that on stage every night it's hard to project a personality when playing a set song like 'Picture This.' I'm not saying there should be wailing solos, but we all get our rocks off, so to speak, because our encores are fun."
On this tour Iggy Pop and Robert Fripp (who also plays a little on the albums) have got up to jam on such things as 'Louie Louie', 'Heroes' and 'No Fun', and that is the bit that Nigel really gets into.
Getting back to gear talk, Nigel is still a Marshall freak.
"I should do ads for Marshall. I've tried other equipment but I've always come back to them. Marshall to me is an honest, consistent sound. I've tried an Acoustic amp with graphics that was just to complicated and I used to use an Ampet. I tried SUNN amps too but I always come back to Marshall. It's the sound of the '60s, you can plug it in anywhere... to me with a Fender bass a Marshall amp and two 4 x 12 cabinets you can't go wrong. I don't have them stacked because I don't like it blasting in my ear, I prefer to feel it at the back of my legs, and through the floor. That, to me, is perfect."
CLEM BURKE - DRUMS
On record Clem Burke is great. Live this guy is unbelievable. He comes on as fast and flash as the late Keith Moon only more solid. He can spend a whole song running round the toms yet still keep the beat down. I wonder if drums have always been his only musical love. He answers in a very matter-of-fact way.
"I tried to play the guitar but I'm left-handed and all my friends were right-handed so they couldn't show me the chords so I started playing the drums. I was about 14."
The first kit he had was a Japanese red sparkle kit finished similar to what he has now. He used to listen to Beatles albums in those early days but noticed that the only person who wasn't just keeping down the basic beat was Keith Moon - his first major influence.
"He was playing a radically very different style of drumming to everyone else so it got me interested. I used to try to play the end of 'My Generation', but I could never do it."
Although playing in a few 'high school' bands, Blondie was the first real group he ever joined, and their nucleus formed in '75. Through the years he tried Ludwig kits - "I had one like John Bonham's" - and he now has a couple of Premier kits.
"I smash drums up a lot but they don't seem to break. I have the Premier Resonator kit. They're really good drums, very sturdy and the Resonator kit is a double shell kit and the projection is really good. Being American I like the exotic end of it - the fact that they're English. In America they're not really a big seller. Over there Ludwig's the big one, and Japanese drums."
"I still use the Ludwig Speed King. It's one of the cheapest pedals made and probably the best pedal. In the States they cost about 20 dollars, which is really expensive for a bass drum pedal. I'd recommend it to anyone. It's very simple, with just two screws at the bottom to adjust the tension, and that's it. Very simple but very functional and very practical.
"Through tradition I only use the one tom on top of the bass drum. I have two floor toms instead, I prefer that because the ride cymbal can come in closer."
The cymbals themselves are all Zildjian, though he says he tried some Paiste
cymbals "But they all break". If you caught the band live you'd have noticed this cymbals set up at a rather strange angle.
"All my drums and cymbals are set up at right angles because I like the way it looks."
Is that the only reason?
But you seem to break your sticks a lot. Maybe that's why?
What sticks are they?
How many sticks did you get through on your last gig?
"I don't know, they just keep coming. I send the roadies out to buy them so it doesn't matter. I suppose it's a lot. I like to play with the side of the stick against the cymbal. I don't like things tilted because I don't approach the kit like that. There's a lot of reach involved when I play. I have sat down at a little jazz kit with little light sticks and when you're used to playing in the way I play it is pretty amazing. It's so easy to go all around the kit. It's fun. I don't mind playing a little jazz once in a while. I have a few friends that are jazz musicians. But for rock n' roll I enjoy the physical aspect. I like the drums to look symmetrical. I'll worry about playing them afterwards."
As for other drummers now, he speaks highly of Stuart Copeland - "Obviously" - and also Peter Thomas of the Attractions. He also mentioned Topper Headon of The Clash, Rat Scabies of the Damned and general 'physical' drummers.
I wondered what little tricks he's picked up since he started playing.
"One of my favourite things is playing a paradiddle with two beats with the hands and two with the foot. That's been quite useful. Also when you catch the cymbal with your hand - I like to do that. One of the keys of Rock n' Roll drumming is the endurance and I like the sweat. The best way to describe my drumming is a mixture of Keith Moon and Hal Blain, the drummer on the Spector records."
Have you ever thought that you can't go on anymore because you're so tired?
"Not too often, no. Once I get into it... once in a while when I'm out of shape maybe but right now I'm primed to continue. I like total abandon - the best drug is adrenalin".
How come your kit is set up low down at the side of the stage rather than on a riser at the back?
"It's a new set-up that just came about in the stage plan. It took a little getting used to and it's still in the prototype stage. I don't think the stage set-up is absolutely correct right now. It seems, though, that the rest of the people in the band get more out of it when I'm down low than when I'm up on the riser, and if it suits them, it's OK.
I wondered if the beat was up to the composer for the song or whether it's left solely in Clem's hands.
"It works both ways. Sometimes it's totally my beat, sometimes I listen to suggestions."
I was thinking particularly about the rather manic drumming on 'Dreaming.'
"That's basically all mine. I wanted to re-record it because I didn't think it was too commercial. The craziness of the drums is fine, but the bass drum should have been mixed further up.
Clem is already a 'star', and all that's left for him to do is to be recognised as a musician. This is his goal. He loves what Blondie are doing but wants to, and does, play with other people to further his career.
"Too often a drummer gets associated with his particular band and that's it. I want to expand."
CHRIS STEIN - GUITAR
For this interview Chris thought a 'technical' setting would be apt, so we made a bee-line down to Pye Studios somewhere in London. Chris was supervising the cutting of some live tapes, one of which will appear as the B-side to the next single, a longer version of 'Atomic' probably their version of 'Heroes' with Fripp playing guitar.
Chris admits to a few overdubs especially on the vocal front. Personally I prefer the untouched 'Louie Louie' where Debbie sounds just that little bit more convincing. At the moment he's only cut a copy of that for himself but if you're reading this Chris, please release it!
Chris learnt to play the guitar when trying to pick out the melodies of movies, 'The Guns Of Navarone' being his particular favourite (which, ironically, has now been released by the Specials as a single). He was into Dylan before the Beatles but was eventually affected by the Beatles boom, though it was more fashionable to like the Stones.
After hearing the wails of an electric guitar from a garage in '61 he decided that the guitar was for him. However, he was a little confused as to how to physically play the thing.
"I didn't know you were supposed to press the strings down onto the frets to get different notes. I thought there was one fixed note and that was it."
A strange kind of mistake to make, and apparently not his only one. An early influence was Flatt and Scruggs and he was rather confused by Flatt's slide guitar playing...
"When I saw Flatt playing slide I didn't know what it was. I thought he was playing with his thumb so I started playing a lot with my thumb and it took me a year or two to gradually get my fingers round the other side of the neck."
The actual guitar he was playing while going through his period of confusion was a Harmony guitar, which lasted him a couple of years. Then he had a Hagstrom (the classic Elvis Presely-endorsed guitar) before purchasing a Supro Ozark which he used on the first Blondie recordings.
On the band's current UK trip Chris met Jim Burns of Burns guitars and you can expect a bout of ads linking Blondie and Burns together in an endorsement deal.
"I want to endorse Burns guitars - that's like an honour to me. Jim Burns is one of the great inovators, along with Leo Fender, and he's not really got his just rewards."
If you'd have read our August '79 issue you'd have noticed the article on Jim Burns and his company and seen the unusual shaping of the Scorpion guitar with the end of the guitar body shaped like a scorpion's claw.
"I was amazed when I saw it because I had carved up a Telecaster to a shape very similar to the Scorpion. I had to sell it when I was broke. It never quite survived the shock of being carved up."
"I could never do a Fender endorsement because I have no respect for them. I think they're mass-produced, soul-less instruments. If you get a good one you're lucky or you could get a lousy one. They're just hacked out and mass-produced."
As for amps he's using a Fender twin. "I try to play as low as possible which is the basic concept with a female singer in the band."
"A Big Muff which has a compressor in it, an MXR compresser which I use a lot now, a phase shifter which I hardly ever use and a Roland
Chorus Echo for all my space effects. The Roland's got this great effect where with a foot pedal you can slow down the repeat rate and speed it up. You can get some great spacy effects out of it."
With two guitarists in a band, especially a band that is overtly guitar orientated, I wondered how they decide who plays what.
"I have a slight edge over Frankie because I've been with the band longer. Actually I don't play anything on 'Victor' and he doesn't play anything on 'Shayla'. We both play on everything else though."
In the studio it's the ever-popular Mike Chapman who's put Blondie's most successful albums onto tape. How's Chris found working with him?
"I don't know if we'll continue, but he's great. He's really helped our playing. He gets the best performance out of you. He'll take one part and say 'That's the way you should play it' within the music, and now you've got to play it a hundred thousand times until you get it right. We have to play until we get it up to his standard. It took three hours to do the bass drum on 'Heart of Glass'."
Clem Burke had told me earlier that Mike wanted a particularly clinical sound on that track so he made Clem do the drum parts separately and play along to a click track to get the timing one hundred per cent.
Out of Blondie Chris has produced a French band called 'Casino Music' and written the soundtrack to a movie called 'Union City' staring this old lady, Ms. Harry herself.
"I play a little guitar and bass on it but I mainly just wrote the music. I'm really happy with it."
Like many pro musicians Chris writes his music at home using a multi-track tape machine.
"I just start with an improvised riff and develop it. Sometimes I get a song in my head, but it's hard to remember it."
FRANK INFANTE - GUITAR
"I always liked music, even when I was a kid. My mother and father used to play records a lot. I was 13 when I got a guitar, and then I got a bass because I liked the bass a lot.
"At that time I used to buy music sheets. But they weren't the same key as the record, so I gave up on that. The way George Harrison would play a song wasn't like how it was written on the sheet.
"To me the best way to learn to play the guitar is to first learn the chords from a chord book. Then just jam along to records and stuff."
That all sounds very simple, but how do you stop strumming chords and start playing actual riffs?
"It has to be a feel that you build up. You've just got to keep playing."
Frank's first band was a rhythm and blues outfit called 'The Rogues'. At that time he was heavily into the blues, especially Paul Butterfield. That band did mainly cover versions of other peoples songs, like the Stones, and then he formed his own band which played their own material. That was a loud hard rock band with the familiar Marshall amp sound. In both those bands he was playing guitar though he used to like playing and writing songs on a Kay bass that he had at home. It was playing bass that he first got involved with Blondie, guesting on Plastic Letters.
"Gary Valentine, their old bass player, had left and they just asked me if I'd play on the record. I played guitar on a lot of the songs too. On the tour I was switching back and forth. Sometimes Jimmy would play bass, sometimes Chris would. And then we got Nigel and I stayed on guitar."
When asked which of the two instruments he prefers he has no hesitation when answering with 'the guitar'.
I like playing rhythm. Even if I play lead I like rhythmic lead. I like melodic leads too but rhythmic leads are more like rock n' roll."
Do you plan out your solos or do they just happen?
"It's mostly whatever happens. To me a solo is like a buzz - it just happens when you're in the studio. The only thing we really plan out is the basic track. The solo on 'I'm Not Living In The Real World' is a first take. It had to be - it was real crazy."
At the moment Frank is the proud owner of three Les Pauls. This is the tale of one of them...
"I had this gold guitar and I put paint remover on it and melted the thing! The paint remover was so strong the pick-ups and knobs melted. Now it's a natural finish and I put on Di Marzio pick-ups and now that's the guitar I like the best.
"I have another one I like too, but I broke the neck on it three times. On stage I use two Les Pauls. I use one for most of the songs and the other one I use for 'Victor' because it has an open tuning. For me to tune the other guitar down to G would be ridiculous. I'd never get it back in tune again in time to do the next song."
Along with Chris, Frankie too is interested in Burns guitars.
"The guitar looks really cool. I like the way it feels, but I haven't played it through an amplifier yet. He said he'd customise the neck to whatever I wanted."
"I was using Marshall but it got to be a problem because it was too heavy for what we're doing. So now I'm using a Twin. I went through ever amp there is in this band - Marshall, Burman, Boogie but now I'm just back to a Twin Reverb. That gets all the sounds you want. Well, I can get any sound I want out of it. I don't need any electronic gadget to do it."
However he does use just a little gadgetry. An MXR phaser and an MXR compressor.
Unlike Chris, Frank doesn't like to sit at home with a tape machine to write songs. He'd rather wait till he gets into the studio and let things happen.
"I have this tape recorder that Ampex gave me and it's still in the box. I'm homeless at the moment so I have nowhere to set the stuff up. That's my goal right now, to get a base - a place where I can set my stuff up. Like my guitars are all in storage right now."
Outside of Blondie he likes to jam with other people and in fact plays guitar on ex-runaway Joan Jett's solo album. He likes listening to bands like Public Image "Because they're different" and other music that's not predictable. He also says he likes disco music The Jam and The Undertones, whom he'd just seen and enjoyed.
DEBBIE HARRY - VOCALS
Not only is Debbie Harry responsible for the majority of Blondies lyrics, but she's even credited as writing whole songs single-handed. Can she play any instruments?
"No", she laughs, adding "barely" as an afterthought.
What can you play barely?
"I don't want to say, it's too embarrassing."
Well how do you go about writing a song on your own?
"I don't usually write music. Sometimes I have little phrases. I hum them to Chris and he incorporates them. Mostly I just think of the lyrics now. Because of the nature of what we're doing I've really limited myself to working on a song that's presented to me, and then I put lyrics on it."
How do you go about writing the lyrics then?
"Just things that interest me. Sometimes a line in a conversation will stick in my head".
When presented with a song do you write songs to a melody or pick your own melody?
"It depends. Usually if a song is that well developed or constructed by the writer they usually have a melody line. Sometimes I disagree with them and I change it. Like the first line of 'Slow Motion'. I changed the melody line of that."
I mentioned that whenever I try and write a lyric to a song it always comes out sounding really wet. Horribly romantic drivel that I'm too embarrassed to show anyone. It seems that I'm not the only one with that problem.
"You should have heard the original lyric to 'Dreaming'. It was about some girl with a terminal disease! It was very sick."