Circus - 31st July 1982
READERS' CHOICE 1972-1982
Blondie continues the hunt
Since the 1976 release of Blondie's debut LP on the now-defunct Private Stock label, there's been one aspect of the band that's never been in doubt; its collective smarts. From early days as part of New York's mid-'70s underground rock scene, it seemed clear that if Blondie were to get that shot at success the group wouldn't blow it. Stardom eventually came - along with personnel and musical changed, a contract with Chrysalis and grudging acceptance by the same Manhattan critics who'd once brushed the band off.
Chris Stein and Deborah Harry have used the leverage of success to pursue interests and activities as diverse as film, video production, photography and book publishing. Occasionally, as with this year's The Hunter, they and the rest of the band even take some time out to make music. Now the big question is whether Blondie (no fans of the road work) will tour the States for the first time in three years. The odds seem good that the tour will happen.
Blondie make back tracks
by Philip Bashe
Under normal circumstances, you'd have to call the Bowery club CBGB's a dive. Dark and narrow, it's located in one of New York City's seamier sections. Next door is the timeworn Palace Hotel, whose winos-in-residence regularly cover the sidewalk.
But under the aegis of rock & roll CBGB's becomes as hallowed as Liverpool, England's Cavern club, long-time home of the Beatles in the early 1960s. While it still showcases original bands seven nights a week, CB's is an historical landmark of New York's mid-'70s rock explosion. Walk past the stage, down the hallway and past the cubicles that pass for dressing rooms, turn left, go down the stairs and you come to the famous graffiti-covered rest room walls. It would take an archaeologist years to locate the names of the groups from that era, since covered over by the names of the hundreds, probably thousands, of fledgling bands that have played there since. There were the Marbles, the Heartbreakers, Television, the Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads and Blondie. Some have disbanded; others still kick around the circuit. The latter four made it; none, however, as big as Blondie.
In the half decade since they played steadily at the club, Blondie have amassed four #1 U.S. singles, and gold and platinum LPs throughout the world. At the time, though, of all the city's local bands, they seemed the least likely to make it. "People would laugh at us," recalls Deborah Harry. "They'd tell us to give it up."
As has become a pattern throughout their career, Blondie are having the last laugh.
The group has reached a very comfortable plateau; young enough still to be considered fresh, old enough to have a sense of history. With its sixth album, The Hunter (Chrysalis), just out, as well as Making Tracks - The Rise of Blondie, a fascinating 192-page chronicle of the band's past, with text by Harry and photos by fellow founding member Chris Stein, it's definitely a time for reflection.
Deborah Harry walks into her publicist's office dressed in black from her boots to her hat, which she takes off to reveal her hair, no longer blonde but brown. That she has allowed it to return to its natural color is but one symbol of her fame. It's something she probably would never have done in the early days of Blondie, when her trash-queen glamour was the group's biggest calling card. It's also symbolic of Blondie's penchant for the unexpected: What could be more iconclastic than to turn "Blondie" into a brownie? On a more practical level, it permits Harry to walk about New York with a minimum of hassles. That's a big consideration when you're as big a star as the Florida-born singer, who laughs out loud when she's referred to as rock's answer to Jackie Onassis; a natural target for the paparazzi. Does she ever reflect on how big it's gotten? "Yeah, sure." And her reaction? "Holy shit!"
Harry is by herself. Stein, her long-time roommate and lover, is secluded in the studio. While you always hear that he's her Svengali and that she's helpless without him, Deborah Harry is very much her own person, although she does refer to Chris frequently while discussing Blondie's early days, which can seem more like five centuries ago than five years.
Blondie's first performance was at CBGB's in November 1974, the group consisting of Harry, Stein, bassist Fred Smith and drummer Clem Burke, a fresh-faced 18-year-old who played with the flair of Keith Moon, dressed accordingly (a major factor in his selection) and who Harry credits as being extremely supportive during tough times. "I was very young," Burke recalls while puffing on a cigarette, "and I was very keen on the whole thing."
Burke's optimism was needed when Smith abandoned Blondie for rival band Television. His replacement was Gary Valentine. By the summer of '75 New York boasted a music "scene" that revolved around CB's. "There was this nucleus of about one hundred people," explains Burke. "And so, when Blondie played, the audience would consist of Television and the Ramones, and when they played, we'd be in the audience."
After Patti Smith signed a deal, record labels became aware of the music being played just a few blocks downtown from their offices, and Blondie, now with a fifth member, keyboardist Jimmy Destri, signed with Private Stock records. Their music - pop songs embellished by Destri's futuristic instrumentation - was unlike anything on the radio at the time, and so it was to no one's surprise that the first album went nowhere. "Frankly," admits Clem Burke, "I expected every Blondie record to wind up in the Woolworth's cut-out bins. I figured, 'Who's gonna buy this?'"
In England they did. "Denis Denis," an oldie picked by Harry, who figured, "Ah ha! Here's a way to get onto the U.S. radio," went to #1 there. The States thought Blondie was a punk group and didn't want to know, a fact that makes Harry laugh, because "The punks didn't want to have anything to do with us. That whole thing just astounded me."
With Englishman Nigel Harrison in the lineup to replace Valentine, who quit in July 1977, Blondie took off on a four-month world tour. Europe was particularly taken by Harry's look, a combination of Marilyn Monroe hair, pouty sullenness and anti-fashion fashion. Harry was becoming The Face, and Private Stock seemed to go out of its way to render the other four faceless, marketing a poster of Debbie in see-through blouse. Hence, Harrison laughs
dryly, "the whole 'Blondie is a group' identity crisis."
Their European popularity contributed to a further identity problem. "For a long time," says Burke, "everybody thought we were British." The hits were just barely covering expenses; while "Denis Denis" was topping the U.K. charts, the members were drawing a meager $125 a week salary. "I remember staying at the Tropicana Hotel in L.A.," says Burke, "where the group Angel were staying. Their lead singer would pull up in a new Corvette, and we'd be sleeping two to a room even though we had these hits in Europe."
Even so, says Harry, it was "definitely an 'up' period," an opinion shared by Harrison. "The spirit was incredible, because we knew it was just a matter of time."
That time came in spring 1979 thanks to "Heart of Glass," a last-ditch effort to cull a single from their third album, Parallel Lines, after two previous 45 releases flopped. Typical of Blondie's records since, it was branded disco at the time and went to #1 amid cries of "sellout" from the group's fans.
"The backlash we experienced from 'Heart of Glass' was just incredible," says Burke, adjusting his dark glasses. "It was the start of the whole dance-oriented music thing. Sometimes," he philosophizes, "you have to be uncool to be cool."
Adds Harrison: "Blondie has a history of doing the right thing at the wrong time."
Certainly that's been proven since. The band's two #1 hits from last year, the reggae-ish "The Tide Is High" and the rap cut, "Rapture," came off their most adventurous LP to date, Autoamerican, an album that was damned upon release. Though the group did at times overextend itself, using orchestration and playing some decidedly non-rock styles, you had to admire its daring. Blondie could have put out another Parallel Lines; Perpendicular Lines, perhaps.
Autoamerican's new approach was the result of the band's decision to take itself off the road. Without having to reproduce the music on stage, "We decided to just go nuts in the studio," Harry explains. For the year and a half between that LP and The Hunter the band was fragmented, and several members questioned their future, for Blondie seemed less like a group than a collective.
"But that's what it always was," insists Harry. "That was the idea."
There was validity to rumors of friction within the band caused by the no-tour policy. Burke and Harrison wanted to go out; Harry and Stein did not. In fact, when it's mentioned how they last performed in January 1980 at London's Hammersmith Odeon, Harry frowns and asks if it was really that long ago. "I hope not," she says.
But Blondie seem sure to tour this summer, and that, says Harrison, "can be taken as a sign that we'll be around for some time to come." "Good," cracks Clem. "I need the money."
All the members feel that the time off for solo LPs (from Harry and Destri) and production work (Burke, Harrison and Stein) helped Blondie regain their identity. And during the lull came groups and records patterned after styles originated by Blondie, which, says Harrison, "helped our confidence, because it was like a seal of approval: We were right."
Despite supposed grumblings against the Harry-Stein power base, Burke and Harrison maintain all is calm within Blondie, and that each member accepts his role.
"Let's face it," says Burke. "When you have as strong an image as Debbie Harry, and such strong songwriters as her and Chris, the way things are going to be delegated is just obvious."
"It's always going to be that way," agrees Harrison, who has two songs on The Hunter. "But when Debbie and Chris write a song, our personalities and styles are in their minds. It's not like, 'O.K., here's what we're doing.'"
"I think everybody in Blondie feels his input is essential," stresses Harry, "because it is. But you can't have a total democracy in a band, because then nothing ever gets done. Somebody has to accept responsibility."
That somebody is usually Chris. Jimmy Destri once laughed at the fact that many of the criticisms Stein took for Autoamerican "were my ideas." And Debbie, whether her hair is blond, brown or purple, is always going to be the image of the group. Coping with her celebrity status is gradually becoming easier, although the articles in the papers and magazines can be maddening. One headlined its story: "5'3" ex-Playboy bunny Debbie Harry kicks drugs to lead rock's hottest new act."
"It's incredible, isn't it," she says ruefully. "At first it can be really upsetting. After a while you just don't care what they say about you."
Harry and Blondie are now part of the mainstream, but things are hardly sedate. "Certainly there was more anxiety back then," she says about the days when she earned more as a barmaid than as a lead singer. "But the problem now is to keep our ethics. And to keep inspired is a real challenge."
The way she deals with what she semi-jokingly calls her "twenty-four-hour-a-day job," knowing that in rock & roll five years is a long time in the spotlight, is to put everything in perspective.
"Success can give you freedom or it can tie you down. It depends upon how tightly you want to hold onto it.
"If you can always say fuck it," she concludes while tugging at her non-Blondie hair, which seems to declare just that, "you're better off."