Billboard - March 18th 2006
Pages 4, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44.
S T A R S
An expanded version of the Blondie interview in this special feature is available exclusively at
BY CHUCK TAYLOR
POP MUSIC TRAILBLAZERS ARE STILL COURTING 'COOL'
Blondie. Who knew one word could be so colorful.
Ask anyone who has experienced popular music during the last 30 years, and the mere mention of Blondie is synonymous with a band that rooted itself along the dark edges of punk rock then reinvented the voice of the mainstream, unapologetically turning new wave into top 40.
On March 13, more than three decades after forming in New York, Blondie will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A week earlier, the two-disc album "Greatest Hits: Sound & Vision" - featuring a mash-up of "Rapture" and the Doors' "Riders on the Storm" - was released on Capitol.
By this point, Blondie's accomplishments have become folklore: The first rap song to hit No. 1 on The Billboard Hot 100 was the group's "Rapture," a composition that holds up amid so many hip-hop novelty hits all these years later. And all the hit songs in between - "Heart of Glass," "The Tide Is High" and "Call Me" - are standards in many a post-baby boomer's personal soundtrack.
To this day, Blondie's top 40 catalog maintains a sterling sophistication, though at the time, the act's foray into pop - really, a punk band singing disco - appeared to be a betrayal of its roots. Even so, few bands are able to court "cool" from the time they achieve public consciousness through their peak of popularity and beyond. But vocalist Debbie Harry remains as much a musical icon today as she did when she and her bandmates - including the current lineup of Chris Stein on guitar, Clem Burke on drums and Jimmy Destri on keyboards - were just getting started in the mid-'70s.
Before Blondie, Harry was the backup vocalist for a folk group called Wind in the Willows. When Stein met the former Playboy Bunny, they not only became romantically involved but also formed a group, the Stilettos. As they gained popularity at New York - mainstay punk club
CBGB, the name was changed in honor of its lead singer's bleached blond locks.
In 1977, Blondie's self-titled debut was released on Private Stock Records, as was the single "X Offender." Neither charted.
That same year, Chrysalis bought the label, issued "Plastic Letters," and the band toured Europe and Asia. Single "Denis" took them to the upper reaches of the U.K. singles chart and boosted the album to No. 10 there.
"Chrysalis had such a strong belief in Blondie that they paid over $1 million - an unheard-of price back [then] - to buy the band's contract from Larry Utall at Private Stock. Their belief paid off," says Richard Gottehrer, who initially signed Blondie and produced "Denis."
Blondie then collaborated with producer Mike Chapman for the third album, "Parallel Lines," the first of three consecutive projects to top the U.S. album chart. The single "Picture This" hit No. 12 in the United Kingdom, and the follow-up "Hanging on the Telephone" scored at No. 5.
Stateside, it took "Heart of Glass" to turn Blondie into a household name - a song the label was hesitant to release because of its overt disco beat. It became not only the group's first No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 in 1979 but propelled the album to sell 20 million copies worldwide. Singles "One Way or Another" and "Dreaming" followed, both making the U.S. top 30. But the biggest break of the band's career was yet to come.
In 1980, Blondie teamed with producer Giorgio Moroder for another audacious disco song, "Call Me," the theme from the film "American Gigolo." Originally, the song was intended for Stevie Nicks who turned it down, so Moroder turned to Harry, who wrote the lyrics and recorded it over the already completed instrumental track. The title remained at the top of the singles chart for six weeks and became the No. 1 song of the year.
"Blondie helped create a new scene that was the beginning of a whole musical movement," former Ramones drummer Tommy Ramone says.
Despite its increasingly mainstream, singable hits, Blondie was still accepted as a new wave band whose pop success did little to dampen its hip image, even as Harry courted her fame along Main Street USA, appearing on "The Muppet Show" at the turn of the decade while Harper's Bazaar named her one of the 10 Most Beautiful Women in America.
The fifth Blondie album, "Autoamerican," was released at the beginning of 1981, preceded by the tropical-reggae pop romp "The Tide Is High," which gave the group another No. 1 in the United States and the United Kingdom. "Rapture" followed, the group's fourth and final chart-topping hit, whose videoclip featured a cameo appearance by New York artist and Andy Warhol disciple Jean-Michel Basquiat.
After that, Blondie scored only one more top 40 hit before breaking up - "Island of Lost Souls" at No. 37 in 1982.
Soon after, Harry embarked on a solo career and recorded a batch of songs that remain beloved in the dance community including "Backfired," "French Kissin'" and "In Love With Love." She released five solo albums including "Koo Koo" and "Def, Dumb & Blonde." She has appeared in nearly 40 films during the past 28 years, including John Waters' 1988 hit "Hairspray."
It would be 17 years before Blondie would return with the remarkably relevant album "No Exit," which sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. Single "Maria" - which fueled two tours of the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe - reunited the band with the charts, accompanied by a videoclip that showed how kind time had been to the long-lived group.
Allen Kovac, CEO of Tenth Street Entertainment, has seen Blondie through its second life. When Kovac met Harry and Stein, he already had under his belt the formidable comebacks of Meatloaf, Duran Duran and other heritage artists that he brought back to life.
"Debbie was intrigued that there was the possibility that a band could reunite - get the people together in a room to heal and sort out their issues and really come back together," Kovac says. "I convinced them that there is no greater path that any individual is going to take that will succeed more than climbing the mountain together. Just seeing them rehearse, I knew the magic was still there.
"When we shopped the new album, no label wanted it," Kovac recalls of the comeback effort. So he essentially created a boutique company to release the album and single "Maria." The effort sold more than 1.5 million copies, hitting No. 1 in 14 countries, according to Kovac.
"There just aren't many bands that are willing to break the mold," he says. "When you look at what they have done - helping rap [move] into the mainstream, along with reggae, rock, disco and pop - they opened a lot of doors. Everyone tries to fit into a pipe and that's why we have a generic industry. But with Blondie, people saw that women could take on anything. Before there was Madonna, there was Debbie Harry."
Kovac says it has taken a frustratingly long time for Blondie's body of work to be given the kudos that it deserves.
"People are just now beginning to realize the brilliance of Debbie Harry and the creativity of Chris Stein," along with the songwriting and instrumental prowness of the band, he says. "I learned when we were working to get the Bee Gees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that it takes more than a body of work and talent, it takes mounting a political campaign. Debbie went out there and shook everybody's hand. That's just what you have to do."
That degree of commitment is why Blondie remains a testament to just how far raw talent and hands-on management can take an ambitious troupe of musicians with the versatility to adapt. In this case, the power of music is ageless.
additional reporting by Debbie Galante Block.
'WE'RE ABLE TO RIDE THE WAVES'
BY MICHAEL PAOLETTA
Blondie sure knows how to celebrate its 30th anniversary. On March 13, the legendary band - along with the Sex Pistols, Black Sabbath, Miles Davis and Lynyrd Skynyrd - will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
One week earlier, a new two-disc CD/DVD collection, "Greatest Hits: Sound & Vision," arrived via Capitol, and the band will soon officially announce a major U.S. tour.
Throughout the years, Blondie has beautifully and lovingly blurred the lines between many genres of music, including punk, disco, new wave, rap and reggae - with rock forming the group's sturdy foundation.
With the passage of time, Blondie has experienced changes in personnel. Billboard recently talked to longtime members Debbie Harry (vocals), Chris Stein (guitar) and Clem Burke (drums).
What does Blondie's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame mean to you?
Debbie Harry: I didn't think we would be. When we hadn't been inducted [around the same time as] the Ramones and the Talking Heads, I was like, "Oh, well." I told myself that it wasn't that important and that it doesn't make any difference. But being inducted has made me feel really good. Blondie did a lot of credible, groundbreaking work. To be recognized in this way makes it official.
Clem Burke: We were on a sold-out tour in the U.K. when we got the news. I was in an Internet cafe with my wife, checking my email, and Yahoo [had it in] the news. My wife and I began screaming, and all these reserved English folk were looking at us, probably thinking, "Oh, those nutty Americans." But I was so happy. It legitimizes what Blondie did - and still does. But I'm not sure how punk rock it is to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Chris Stein: It's strange for me. Initially, I was a little ambivalent about it. But it seems to mean so much to other people, and so it started meaning more to me.
How important was the New York club CBGB to Blondie's early days?
Burke: Thanks to [owner] Hilly Kristal and CBGB, there was a platform for us.
Was playing CBGB a turning point for the band?
Burke: The turning point for us was when we went into the studio and recorded our first single, "X Offender." People realized we could actually make a good record.
Initially, when we were playing at CBGB, we may not have been the greatest live band, but we were experimenting with different ways of presenting ourselves.
Making the [first] record was the thing for us. We always wanted to have hit records. We didn't really want to be underground. We wanted success on our own terms.
Is there any one defining moment that stands out from the last 30 years?
Burke: Hearing our first single on the jukebox at CBGB. That was more important than hearing it on the radio. I remember walking into CBGB when it was crowded and the song came on. It was phenomenal that someone had actually paid to hear the song.
Harry: The fact that a lot of things we did were controversial at the time. Today, they're seen as normal. It was very exciting to be controversial and to have people you were friendly with come up to you and say, "How could you do that? How could you do a disco song?" The word "crossover" didn't even exist then. There was ground that could be broken. Doing the first rap song that got into the top 40 meant something.
We were breaking ground on many fronts. It was a good time for that. Being an underdog, a dark horse - with nobody really tooting our horn for us and saying how great we were - worked in our favor. It gave us this great groundswell that was very natural and genuine. That excited the music industry.
Stein: "Heart of Glass" going to No. 1 in America is definitely one of those moments. The first time we played live in England stands out, too. Also, I'll never forget [Chrysalis Records co-founder] Terry Ellis telling us that he didn't hear any No. 1s on "Autoamerican" and then having two singles from the album ["Rapture" and "The Tide Is High"] go No. 1.
Blondie, indeed, broke much musical ground. When the group experienced success with disco and rap, did that change your outlook at the time, or is it only when you look back?
Harry: We knew it was different. We were always experimenting and trying different things - it was a blessing and a curse. In the very beginning, it left us without a strong identity or strong direction. But in later years, it stood well for us, because we did break some ground.
You also paved the way for other artists to experiment with different musical styles. Did you realize how visionary Blondie was at the time?
Harry: I knew that we were changing people's attitudes to music. We were very urban. [Music] was very segmented around the country. We couldn't tour in certain markets in those days, because there were no audiences for us. Our music wasn't being heard everywhere.
There is a decidedly raw, imperfect quality on Blondie's first two albums. Was this deliberate?
Stein: No. In those early days, we just went in and played to the best of our abilities and then did overdubs, and that was it. When we met [producer] Mike Chapman, it was a whole different reality. He was a perfectionist. Today, "Heart of Glass" could be done digitally in five to 10 hours. Then, it took us about a week to do it manually. It's crazy how we did it. It was endless repetition until Mike was satisfied. This drove me crazy initially, but then I realized the value of it.
Harry: Well, that's when things start to sound unique. Being recognizable and having a sound is not easy to do. Today, it's more difficult because so much has gone before.
Many of Blondie's songs have not only stood the test of time but in fact have increased in popularity. What do you attribute this to?
Burke: The songs. The image of Blondie is irrelevant. Sure, it's what got us in the door, but we wouldn't be around today if that's all there was.
Harry: I don't know if we were ever terrifically talented or technical musicians. We're better musicians today than we were then. But we always paid attention to songwriting.
In recent years, Blondie's music has been licensed for third-party usage. How do you feel about such branding opportunities?
Harry: We don't really have any control [over] the early Blondie material. That's all licensed through Chrysalis Music. Most of the time they don't even ask us. We definitely make money from it. I can't really complain about that. It's not as if we were licensing it ourselves, though.
We do, however, hold the licensing ourselves for our last two [studio] albums. So, that will be a different world for us if anybody gets interested in that stuff.
Stein: We get a lot of e-mails from teenagers, which means people are discovering our music for the first time. But we don't have any say over these opportunities. You know, the general misconception is that we made a lot of money.
Are there any discussions regarding a new album?
Harry: Yes. But at the moment, we don't have a label deal.
Burke: We're definitely talking about a follow-up to "The Curse of Blondie." Being inducted into the Hall of Fame was a great shot in the arm for us.
Stein: The next record we do has to be a raw rock record. That's the trend now. It's come around full cycle - again.
What about the rumors surrounding the announcement of a big U.S. tour?
Harry: We're planning a post-induction tour of the U.S.
Burke: [It is] tentatively scheduled for May and June. We're looking at 40 cities.
Stein: We're overdue for shows in the States. The band is the best it's ever been. It's funny because I wonder what the fuck we sounded like back in the old days. It was probably pretty wretched. I know it was pretty rude compared to where it's at now. Everybody's musicianship is in a different place.
So many acts that debuted when Blondie did are no longer around. How has Blondie survived?
Harry: It's been very serendipitous. We're able to ride the waves. One of the reasons we were able to get back on our feet this last time was because we really found an interesting and interested management company [Tenth Street Entertainment]. That was instrumental.
Burke: Popular culture has aged, and we've aged along with it. It has to do with the generation we're from. People still have an interest in art and music, and it carries through at more of a mass level than before. We're all interested in many different aspects of the media. This enables us to keep going. Now, Blondie is a home base for all of us. I wish we would've seen it that way before.
Also, maybe our extended break helped us to continue. We got back together for monetary and artistic reasons. But it wasn't like someone handed us a big pile of money and said, "You can have this." We wanted to get back together. We asked ourselves how we would go about being a band again. We were never interested in being purely a nostalgia act. Yes, we play our hits, but we needed to make the "No Exit" album before touring. It put the focus on being a band.
Of all the Blondie albums, which one still speaks to you the most today?
Harry: "Autoamerican," actually. Though "Parallel Lines" is pretty important to us, too.
When we put out the first album, everything was fun for us. The first album, traditionally, is easy for bands to do, because it features music that they've been playing for a long time. And then, when they finally get to record the material, it's a breeze because everything has been worked out. But things change after you've been out there for a while. You've become a part of the industry. You're trying to write material at the same time you're doing other business. At that point, it sort of becomes like work rather than just fun. It becomes more serious; there are expectations.
Stein: I really like "Autoamerican." I was heavily involved with that one myself. I had that crazy instrumental ["Europa"] at the beginning. "Autoamerican" was the closest we ever came to a concept album, which is something we had always talked about before.
Burke: We had a good time making "Eat to the Beat." I always say "Dreaming" would've been a bigger hit had it not been for those crazy drums. Those drums were a run-through version. I was kind of wailing away on the drums, just outlining ideas - which ended up appearing on the finished track.
"Autoamerican" was all over the place musically. I never grew to like it until I heard it, years later, in a bar in London.
I'll never forget when we delivered the album to the label. They said, "What do we do with this? There are no hits."
What is left for Blondie to conquer?
Stein: We are still trying to get into the A-level of rock artists. Regardless of what everybody thinks, Blondie is still not in the same league as Aerosmith.
Harry: I was going to say, "Nasty habits." But I think we've already conquered that. I guess to write new songs - to write another great hit.
BLONDIE'S SONGS HAVE STOOD THE TEST OF TIME
BY KEITH CAULFIELD
Few bands can boast having had top 40 hits on The Billboard Hot 100, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, Mainstream Rock, Adult Contemporary and Hot Dance Club Play charts.
But Blondie can.
The genre-bending act's first Hot 100 hit was "Heart of Glass." The disco classic peaked at No. 1, the first of four chart-toppers for the act. In fact, no other New York rock band can claim as many No. 1s.
Of course, "Heart of Glass" was not the band's first single - just the first to dent the charts. Earlier releases like "Hanging on the Telephone" and "In the Flesh" simply never charted.
For its second No. 1, 1980's "Call Me," Blondie paired with producer Giorgio Moroder for the theme from the film "American Gigolo."
The driving rock tune spent six weeks at No. 1, helping make it Billboards's No. 1 Hot 100 song of 1980. Soon after, the band's reggae-influenced "The Tide Is High" also shot to the top of the chart, spending 26 weeks overall on the tally.
Then, in early 1981, the landmark "Rapture" spent two weeks atop the Hot 100. Not only is it notable for being the chart's first No. 1 to contain any rapping, but the track also crossed over to a number of other Billboard charts. It hit the top 40 on the R&B/Hip-hop Songs and Mainstream Rock charts and spent a month at No. 1 on the Hot Dance Club Play chart (as a double-sided hit paired with "The Tide Is High").
Blondie also hit the top 40 of the Hot 100 with "One Way or Another" (No. 24), "Dreaming" (No. 27, "Atomic" (No. 39) and "Island of Lost Souls" (No. 37). The act disbanded in 1982 following the release of the album "The Hunter."
After the group re-formed for the 1999 album "No Exit," the set's first single, "Maria," became a surprise hit in the United States and overseas.
In the United States, it gave Blondie its first Hot 100 entry since 1982, and it was a top 10 hit on the Adult Top 40 and Hot Dance Club Play charts.
In the United Kingdom, "Maria" debuted at No. 1 on the Official U.K. Singles Chart, making it the band's sixth No. 1 there. The group also reached the top with "Heart of Glass," "Sunday Girl," "Atomic," "Call Me" and "The Tide Is High."
All told, Blondie has notched 20 top 40 hits in the United Kingdom, with the most recent being 2004's "Good Boys" (No. 12).
Below is an exclusive chart, compiled by Nielsen BDS, which proves the band's enduring popularity on the airwaves. The list ranks, by detection, the group's 10 most-played songs of 2005.
The chart surveyed all formats of U.S. radio (including classic rock, college and oldies stations), video channels (like MTV and VH1), satellite radio (Sirius and XM) and cable music service Music Choice.
Blondie's Most-Played Songs Of 2005
RANK TITLE LABEL
1 Heart Of Glass Chrysalis
2 Call Me Chrysalis
3 One Way Or Another Chrysalis
4 The Tide Is High Chrysalis
5 Rapture Chrysalis
6 Dreaming Chrysalis
7 Good Boys Sanctuary
8 Hanging On The Telephone Chrysalis
9 Maria Logic/Beyond
10 Rip Her To Shreds Chrysalis