Beat Instrumental - October 1978
Pages 33 & 34
This feature is not about
...it is about A MAN - CHRIS STEIN
Chris Stein was wearing a pink suit with a pink shirt, pink tie and pink pocket hankerchief. Even his biro was pink. Had we not been accompanied by his bride-to-be, Ms. Deborah Harry, heads would still have been turning like kebabs on a spit.
The BBC corridors are indeed a strange labyrinth to be walking through, especially with this lot in tow. For those who have never known the dubious pleasure of visiting this centre of British Civilization, it should be said that the atmosphere is not exciting. The walls were last painted on D-Day, and at that time their idea of decor was a generous wash of olive drab on a grey undercoat, with strip lighting to show up the miserable, utilitarian nature of the place in all its stark horror.
How appropriate, then, that we were on our way back from a Top Of The Pops rehearsal - surely the most dreary show on earth.
The other bands present for the rehearsal took it all with an air of good humoured resignation. A party of O.A.P.'s shuffled across the studio floor, uncertain whether this was the Nine O'Clock News or the Generation Game. "Punters goin' "ome already," commented The Jam's Bruce Foxton as they shambled out again. A man with a clipboard jabbed his forefinger in the direction of myself and publicist Alan Edwards as we lurked in the shadows. "Move over to the other side of the studio if you want to watch!" he trilled. "And put your cigarettes out, please," he added, stamping his Hush Puppies petulantly.
As the Meters, Jilted John and - on film - Foreigner went through their numbers with clockwork efficiency, we retired to the sanity of the upstairs canteen, where guitarist Chris and I were able at last to talk about the Blondie album, "Parallel Lines".
The album is most certainly a big enough improvement on "Plastic Letters" to put them in line for a comprehensive slagging from most modern music writers. Did Chris see it as a more mature effort?
"Well, I don't really see it in those terms. Those first couple of albums had the energy of final release - we'd been playing the songs live for two years, and doing them in the studio meant that, y'know, they had the feel of live arrangements. But yeah, lots of bands get slagged off when they get to their second or third album, because the band has usually started getting interested in a studio sound rather than live sound, and certain sections of the press don't like that. But they're more interested in attitude than music, I think."
The producer this time was Mike Chapman, he of Chinnichap notoriety. How different had his approach been from that of Richard Gottehrer, who produced albums One and Two?
"oh, Chapman's very different. Gottehrer used the one-take approach. But the way we worked with Mike was to spend a lot of time on the backing tracks. The track Heart Of Glass, for example, was based around a Roland Rhythm Machine, and the backing eventually took about ten hours to get down. We must have spent about three just getting the bass drum sound.
"Chapman's a perfectionist. He works with an engineer called Pete Coleman, whom he trained just about from a baby, and they work great together."
The all-round improvement of "Parallel Lines" is due in part to Chris's unusual ideas for the guitar. In places - and in particular on "Fade Away (And Radiate)" - the sound is quite strongly psychedelic.
"Part of that is Robert Fripp. It's an old song written, oh, some time between '74 and '75. We met Fripp originally when Eno was going to come and see us but couldn't make it, so he sent Fripp instead. It was great to meet him. We actually did a show with him in New York, and as I say he helped us out on this new album. But it's hard to copy the lines he played in the studio for live gigs, cuz he zooms all over the fretboard, and at one point ends up at the 23rd. fret. So I've had to work on that.
A shake of the head and an expression of slight incredulity.
"Well, OK, he's not strickly psychedelic, but he plays really quiet, really quiet, and it completely changes the atmosphere. You don't need a million watts each to get across."
Stein's own musical background is fairly straightforward; his first guitar at the age of eleven was a single-cutaway Harmony cello-type guitar. At that time he was not conscious of rock and roll, but considered the popular music of the day to be "mush". Folk, bluegrass and Earl Scruggs all gained his attention. I fingerpick to this day - two fingers and the thumb...." Chris produced the picks from his pocket. "I still play banjo. For a long time I used to fret the guitar with my thumb - I knew you weren't meant to play like that, but I'd got it from watching steel guitar players. I can't see how anyone can use their nails to pick. Mine just splinter."
In 1963 came Dylan, then the Beatles, and quickly afterwards the Stones, followed by a resurgence of interest in "real" (i.e. black) blues.
"At first I considered the Beatles to be bubble-gum music, until around '65. The local intelligensia were into the Stones. It was considered more "ethnic", more street-level. By that time I was right out of the old folky blues stuff. It was all English rock.... but I was never in a position to regard rock as a career until recently, with this band."
He owns two Strats - one a '56 for the studio, the other a '76 for live work. Both are mapleneck models. He considers the new one to be inferior - a guitar for throwing around on stage. The amps are Marshall valve 100's and Fender Twins.
"I would never use a transistor amplifier for the guitar. They're all right for bass or keyboards maybe. The Marshall I use in the studio, but I find it too loud for using on stage, so there I use Twin or maybe a Roland JC120. I like a nice chingey sound from the Strat, and the Twin is just right for that. The beauty of the older Strat is that I can get extra high harmonics on it."
Two new members of Blondie have appeared: Frank Infante on second guitar and Nigel Harrison on bass.
"Frank's playing about half of the guitar on the new album. Our sounds complement one another: I use a clean, smooth, sustained sort of sound and Frank's raunchier. Most of that sustain comes from a Big Muff which I've been using for a long time. I used to have two, but one got stolen, and I've been all round the world with the other one. It's only just starting to crack up, which isn't bad after such hard use. The other Electro-Harmonix unit is a phase shifter. Then I've got a Roland Chorus Echo. That's useful because it's got footpedals for the rate of echo and for getting sound-on-sound, so you can just build it up and up. And I've also got an MXR compressor. It gives you a lot of extra top, which is great for a nice bright, chunky rhythm sound. And of course it's nice to use as a limiter."
And finally there's the vexed question of the E-Bow, concerning which Beat had some harsh words while back. Chris reckons it's OK, takes time to get used to ("They gave me mine") and is impractical for live use. He expresses interest in the Gizmo, but - like everyone else - has never seen one.
And that's Blondie - or at least one-sixth of it. It's not easy to interview anyone in a noisy BBC canteen with people coming up to ask for Debbie's autograph every
five seconds. Then again, I was lucky even to get past the front gate, since the girl from Rock On had been turned away by the BBC's uniformed gorillas despite numerous tearful protestations. Ah, the things we do for you readers...