discoveries - September 1999
Once More (Into The Bleach): Blondie Returns For Its Fifteenth Round
By Ralph Heibutzki
When Gary Valentine crowded into "true bohemian squalor" in New York's East Village in the summer of 1975, he wanted nothing less than to rewrite his story. "I'd left home, under a cloud of various troubles, basically, at 18, I said, 'I'm going to be a poet, a rock star, a writer, or [an] artist.' And that's how you do it - you have to live rough, try and make it, and go to a place where things are happening.
"You go from New Jersey, which couldn't be on the farther end of the galaxy, and suddenly, you're in the center of it [bohemian life], just over the [Hudson] river. If you're gonna have a straight job, you do one thing; if you wanna be an artist, that's what I did."
Time's incinerator has recast much of the East 10th Street that Valentine embraced nearly 25 years ago. Gentrification has overtaken the junkies and youth gangs, while the storefront he shared with a friend - where his fingers piddled around on a broken piano - is now a Tai Chi studio. Yet nothing quenches the fans' interest in the years 1975-77, when Valentine composed, played bass and toured with the cartoon that conquered the world, Blondie.
Few bands have been so extensively documented, or gossiped about; everyone has a Blondie story up their sleeve, whether in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History Of Punk (Grove Press: 1996), or MOJO's recent "New York Naked City Special" issue. Teenage girls marked their mirror time to lead vocalist Deborah Harry's chiseled pout, and the warring tastes of drummer Clem Burke, keyboardist Jimmy Destri, bassist Nigel Harrison, guitarist Frank Infante, and her partner, founder/guitarist Chris Stein.
Almost 20 years have passed since Blondie ascended into platinum Valhalla, doing what more highly-touted peers never did: putting the "singalong" back into singles, and selling records by the gross.
Long before Madonna or Courtney Love parlayed their bowed mouths into icon status, Harry graced Rolling Stone's "Random Notes" column whenever she changed her hair color - from black, to blue, brunette, green and silver - yet never stopped presenting herself as smart, sexy and self-assured.
When Blondie clicked, the results were dazzling. Its 1979-'81 hits ranged from icy disco ("Call Me," "Heart Of Glass"), slinky reggae ("The Tide Is High") and pop-hip-hop collages ("Rapture"). At their peak, they were unstoppable, whether "Rapture" spun as backing music during an NBC-TV "Facts Of Life" episode, or an Alabama DJ used "The Tide Is High" to psyche up the Crimson Tide football team, earning a call from Harry, Trouser Press noted in 1981. A year later, Burke mentioned hearing "One Way Or Another" at baseball games.
It's hard to imagine a better example of mainstream acceptance, which Burke now admits never envisioning. "My whole thing was going to Woolworth's and getting 89 cent records. I thought we had a limited audience."
Few bands have been more analyzed, or misunderstood, especially when Blondie spun out in 1982 following poor ticket sales, an ineffectual album (The Hunter), Stein's near-fatal bout with an obscure disease (pemphigus vulgaris) and Infante's mysterious ouster. That goes double for the plethora of compilations (1981's Best Of Blondie; 1991's redundantly titled, The Complete Picture - The Very Best Of Deborah Harry & Blondie), remixes (1988's Once More Into The Bleach), and cover versions.
Blondie's freewheeling aesthetics can accommodate whoever climbs aboard, such as U.K. bands like Sleeper covering "Atomic" on the "Trainspotting" soundtrack, or rapper Coolio on the swooning goth-pop of "No Exit," the title track of Blondie's first album in 16 years (Beyond Music/BMG). Yet the reunited quartet of Burke, Destri, Harry and Stein remain harder than ever to pin down.
How Harry, 53, feels about revisiting the old neighborhood is unclear, as the San Francisco Chronicle found last February, when the questioning veered from her current solo project: "Listen, this is supposed to be about the Jazz Passengers and their show... I don't know if I should be talking about all this Blondie stuff so much."
Nor are Blondie's publicists more helpful, as their vague promises ("Interviews will be scheduled some time next week") dribble into sphinx-like nonchalance ("We don't know if any interviews will happen"). Besides, they plaintively plead, doesn't everyone know that Blondie is a group?
Resurrecting that 20-year-old slogan might elicit different answers from Burke and Infante, who find themselves on opposing fences. Where No Exit vaulted Burke past numerous '90s sideman gigs (The Eurythmics, Plimsouls and Romantics), Infante, with Harrison's support, sought to block the reunion. Since Blondie had been a partnership, they contended, the reunion could not occur without their blessing, or a share of the proceeds. (A separate $1 million suit against the reunited lineup for alleged financial mismanagement is pending.)
The punches and counterpunches sounded familiar enough when the author asked Harrison for an interview in fall 1996, shortly after he'd been named to run Interscope's A&R (Artist & Repertoire) department.
Citing his responsibilities ("I'm burned out from being on the phone so much"), Harrison politely declined. "I'm still musically scarred from my experiences in Blondie, as far as talking about this stuff goes - that's what you're up against." He still couldn't resist a punch line, "It's really easy for us now, all we have to do is sell the records!"
Yet climbing the mountain once is tough enough, climbing it a second or third time is even sweeter, because all those frictions mean nothing when every car radio is playing your song, hour after hour - if only for a time. "When we stopped, it's like, you have the winning lottery ticket, and you didn't cash it in," said Infante. "I remember coming back from a tour and 'Call Me' was #1 on the radio. I was in the limo with Clem, and that was it. It's what you're workin' for."
The Bleaching Years: 1974-77
Forget who did what to whom. To Burke, rock'n'roll means the clothes, gestures and songs that make a band great. "When I joined Blondie, my favorite band was the Bay City Rollers, because of the energy they had," he said. "When I met Chris and Debbie in '74, I was 18, and really into bubblegum, which was the early impetus for Blondie, 'cause it's all kind of connected."
In Deborah Harry (born in Miami, Florida, July 1, 1945) and Chris Stein (born in Brooklyn, New York, January 5, 1950), Burke found a couple who'd paid, repaid and possibly overpaid their dues. Stein's previous bands included First Crow To The Moon (1967), whose lone break had been supporting The Velvet Underground, and the folk-rock Morticians (1965-66), who did one gig ("a promotional thing for a local barber - opening his shop!" he marveled in 1978 for Pete Frame's "Smouldering In The Bowery" family tree).
More recently, he'd played bass for the Magic Tramps, fronted by another rock martyr in Eric Emerson, one of several inspirations for Lou Reed's "Street Hassle." Since gigs were scarce, Stein left to join the Stilettos (though he kept making tapes with Emerson).
Harry has an equally convoluted performing history. She'd begun singing in late 1966 with the abrasive free-jazz combo FNUC&B (First National Unaphrenic Church & Bank), whose saxophone and percussion assault got no gigs, except a weekly radio show. Harry then joined Wind In The Willows, whose self-titled album (Capitol SKAO 2956, 1968) made no impression, even amid prevailing '60s folk-rock winds. Soured by her first bout with big time rock, Harry bounced around as a health spa instructor, Playboy bunny and waitress at Max's Kansas City, which is where photographer
Lee Black Childers remembers spotting her in 1970.
"As I recall," said Childers, "she was working as a hairdresser in New Jersey, and at night, she would waitress in the back room of Max's Kansas City - you didn't make much in tips, because everybody was pretty broke, but at least you got to be in the back room! She was very pretty and everybody was always hitting on her. She always had ambitions of performing."
Harry ever survived a ride with notorious serial killer Ted Bundy on New York's East Side, as Q readers learned this spring. "... I wasn't going to get a cab so I got into the car... the windows were all closed except for a fraction. I looked down to open one and there were no handles." Alarmed by the man's "incredible odor," Harry wriggled an arm outside to open the door and run away. Only after reading a Newsweek story of Bundy's escapades, for which Florida executed him in 1989, did Harry realize whose car she'd shared.
While the New York scene is always associated with CBGB's and Max's Kansas City, unsigned bands had no outlet until 1972, when the Mercer Arts Center, on Mercer Street, gave the New York Dolls' stack-heeled raunch a crack at its 350-capacity Oscar Wilde Room, which they quickly packed every night. The Dolls graduated to Max's, which had caught some of rock's most gripping scenes, such as Lou Reed's final gigs with the Velvet Underground. But Max's booked signed acts, so did clubs like My Father's Place, on Long Island, while The Coventry's unsigned bookings favored emerging metal acts, like Kiss or Blue Oyster Cult. In such a climate, the Mercer remained ground zero for the new scene until the building literally collapsed in August 1973.
Fired up by the Dolls' initial triumphs, Harry joined the Stilettos with vocalists Rosie Ross and Elda Gentile in October 1973. Conceived as a ballsier, contemporary girl group, the seven-piece combo started gigging at "this dirty little bar on 24th Street called The Bobern Tavern," she told Pete Frame. "We were a lot of fun, but we weren't too musical."
"It was almost like the Andrews Sisters," said Childers. "It was an interesting way of putting a group together, because they really did have their own style. Rosie was [singing] '30s and early '40s, Elda was '50s - she did Alice Ghostly songs - and Debbie did bluesy-type stuff. Debbie had very short hair, which was brown at the time.
"They'd sing together, but would have their turn at the microphone - that's when I first met Chris, at one of those shows. I found him very bizarre-looking, because he was wearing almost more makeup than all three of them put together, sitting there with very heavy eyeliner, all alone at the table watching them."
The Stilettos briefly became hip; David Bowie and Iggy Pop checked them out, as did the late Who drummer, Keith Moon, who caught them at Club 82, an old drag club which filled the void for roughly a year after the Mercer's collapse. That's where Burke first saw Harry, as well as the Dolls, and Wayne (later Jayne) County. He considers Club 82 "the predecessor to CBGB's - it was run by these butch lesbian people, and they had a rock night. It was on East Fourth Street, around from where the Fillmore East used to be."
But then Club 82 stopped booking bands in summer and fall of 1974, while Max's - despite promising weekends for new bands who impressed on slow nights - closed for about a year in December, citing financial hassles. The resulting vacuum allowed a new clubowner to establish an unlikely presence in one of New York City's grimiest areas - the Bowery.
When Hilly Kristal had opened CBGB's in December 1973, he was ready to book country acts and poetry readings - until guitarist Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine, convinced him to book their band, Television, by reassuring him, "Yeah, we play that, and some originals, too." What Kristal had envisioned as country bluegrass & blues changed after March 31, 1974, when Television started a month-long Sunday residency, which drew 20 to 30 people, followed by the Stilettos in May and The Ramones' hyper-minimalist aggression came in August.
Club 82 lost relevance as glitter dried up, so its crowd "migrated to CBGB's, and cut their hair somewhere along the way," said Burke. "I remember tripping over [late New York Dolls guitarist] Johnny Thunders down the stairs! [Drummer] Tommy Ramone [of The Ramones] was the weirdest [figure] - he was this guy, in a sea of shag haircuts, wearing a velvet jacket and a pair of bell-bottoms."
Chris Charlesworth's July 6, 1974 Melody Maker roundup showed Harry a glint of what might happen if the right person ever saw her potential, when he reckoned the Stilettos had some songs "well worth putting on vinyl." They, along with The Brats - led by ex-New York Dolls guitarist Rick Rivets - The Fast, Television and Teenage Lust showed explosive promise, if someone captured it properly, Charlesworth wrote, even if the scene seemed little more than "learning a few chords, applying lipstick and bingo!"
When the Stilettos crumbled in August 1974, Harry walked away with something greater - the start of a personal and creative partnership with Stein. If they hadn't known each other when Childers first saw them, "they certainly knew each other after that night," he adds. "I have to give both of 'em credit, especially Debbie, they were very devoted to each other. It was a very, very promiscuous time in those days; the phone booth at Max's Kansas City was for blow jobs. If you wanted to make a phone call, you had to go down the street."
Assisted by Stilettos bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy O'Connor, Harry and Stein added two backup singers (known only as Jackie and Julie) to become Angel & The Snakes. They played a near-empty CBGB's on August 16 with The Ramones, whose 10 songs whizzed past in 15 minutes. Guitarist Ivan Kral joined that October, but after just three months, jumped ship to join Patti Smith - who'd carved out a strong local poetic reputation (and had even played Max's in December 1973). It wasn't a pretty picture for those not considered to be going places.
"There were these other bars, [like] Monty Python's, where people could play, but it wasn't a scene, except for people who were in bands," notes Valentine. "We would see The Miamis, this great, fun band - they wrote great pop tunes, sort of sarcastic, but with wit. Debbie used to cover one of them [their songs]. You'd go to their gigs, they'd go to yours gigs. The audience was the other bands!"
The musicians' lives had more in common with punk's low-budget connotations than their diverging musical styles. Childers notes, since anybody could rent large lofts in the Bowery - as Harry and Stein soon did - for rock-bottom rates. The conditions were another matter, as Childers discovered when using the toilet. "There was a pipe that came out of the wall, out came a rat, and it ran right across the floor. There were stories based on those kind of places, that when you were sitting on the toilet, the rats would also swim up! If you chose the rock'n'roll lifestyle, that's part of it."
Jackie and Julie lasted till January 1975, when Snookie and Tish replaced them on backing vocals, with Harry as lead singer. The original vocal trio's blonde hair may have inspired a name change to Blondie & The Banzai Babies, until someone finally suggested dropping the second half altogether. Valentine's not sure who deserves the credit, citing "the story of the tribe handed down to me." Debbie got guys whistling and saying, 'Hey, Blondie!' and they became Blondie. There was always, inevitably, confusion over whether Blondie was Debbie [or the group]."
The next five months nearly tore Blondie apart. When O'Connor opted for law school, Smith suggested someone well-known as a skilled, dynamic drummer - Clement "Clem" Burke (born November 24, 1955), whose arrival coincided with the shorter name and first demos. Burke's influences read like a British Invasion roll call - "all the obvious people," he notes, including the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Who, as well as Booker T & The MG's, and The Raspberries. "I was at a crossroads," said Burke. "I was playing with Lance Loud, [also] The Mumps, and I auditioned for Patti Smith, but it's good I didn't get that gig - I'm a major Patti Smith fan, but I wouldn't have owned a house!"
Burke saw what the art-rock crowd didn't, "Debbie had conceptual ideas from the beginning. When I met her, I definitely knew she had something special. I never doubted that."
By contrast, Stein's dark energy never quit. "He had this Alice Cooper fixation at the time," said Burke. "He was really creative on guitar, but he'd present an idea, and you'd have to work with him [as he presented it]."
Childers admits he initially found Blondie "a little poppy" for his liking, "I was living with Jayne County at that time. We were getting ready to see Blondie, and I said, 'There's not really much guts to 'em.' And Jayne knows her rock'n'roll; she really knows it, and she started quoting words and riffs: 'Are you crazy, this is the greatest band right now! Listen to it, don't look at it!' And I was taught my lesson that night in the bathroom, while we were putting on our mascara. I was making the same mistakes a lot of people did - they were looking, and not listening, to her."
Burke's March 1975 debut marked Smith's last gig; his colleagues heard their old bassist was taking Richard Hell's slot in Television, between sets at CBGB's. Figuring the fun had ended, Snookie and Tish quit too (later singing for The Dropouts and The Sic Fucks, then opening the punk clothing store Manic Panic). To Harry, it smelled like the Kral affair, while Stein "half-heartedly" tried out for Thunders' implosive post-Dolls combo, the Heartbreakers. Undaunted, Burke suggested auditioning an old New Jersey acquaintance he'd known in high school, who'd just found his range (middle C) on the broken piano - Gary Valentine.
"He wasn't really a bass player at all. He was a poet; he played one of his songs on piano, and Chris and Debbie accepted him," said Burke.
For Valentine, joining Blondie let him express his '60s-era British influences to their wildest extent, "We found all these great secondhand shops over in Hoboken [New Jersey]. You'd find peg-leg pants, [or] paisley and polka-dotted shirts in their wrappers, in the back of the shop, since they went out of style - they were practically giving them away." That was just as well, too, judging by Blondie's earliest group shots, where Burke and Stein sport longer hair well removed from their later neo-Mod styles, and Valentine sticks to his trademark shades, even as Harry already glows for the camera.
It's the same quality that attracted late multimedia artist Andy Warhol, "because he knew exactly where she was coming from," said Childers. "And she realized it didn't have to be perfect, she didn't have to look like ['60s fashion model] Twiggy. We used to go to that loft in the Bowery and do photographs all the time, so she could experiment with how she looked."
Such tastes defined Blondie, along with the unsigned Marbles, and Ramones, as part of "a '60s retro contingent," while Richard Hell, Patti Smith and Television "were all influenced by French Symbolist poetry, trying to combine the arty and the pop world," said Valentine. "Hey, it got me - I was [also originally] into it!"
That retro streak also found expression on Blondie's first recordings, made only a month after Valentine joined. Worried about the band's hit-or-miss live reputation, Alan Betrock - who'd later edit the New York Rocker, and write books on '60s girl groups - supervised a demo session of the Shangri-Las' "Out In The Streets," "Platinum Blonde," and "The Disco Song," a jokey Stein funk-rock number.
"I was playing about a month when we did those," said Valentine. "He [Betrock] wanted to manage, 'Let's make a demo!' And so he brought us into a studio out on Long Island, someone's garage, basically. It wasn't anything fancy, but it was great, I hadn't done anything like that. But that was a different sound. 'Platinum Blonde' was Debbie's signature song, an old campy number." (The demos have reappeared on The Platinum Collection, while "Out In The Streets" has also resurfaced on No Exit.)
Much has been made of Blondie's lack of live consistency, before and after they became established, but Childers doesn't remember hearing about it, as most bands were doggedly unpolished. "If anybody was inconsistent, it was the Ramones," he said. "When [bassist] Dee Dee Ramone got onstage, you didn't know whether he was going to be in tune - it didn't matter if Blondie had an off day, or hit off notes. It wasn't like they had to be perfect, it was even better if they weren't!"
Infante also takes a generous view, "I wouldn't call it [the early sound] a racket. They were playing pop songs, but they weren't polished. I prefer a situation like that, instead of playing the same stuff over and over."
By summer of 1975, Max's reopened under Tommy Dean's management, leading to what many writers have termed a "club war" against CBGB's, with separate audiences and bands. But Childers dismisses the idea, as both clubs were barely seven blocks apart - CBGB's on Bleecker Street, Max's on 17th Street and Park Avenue South - and had no problem allowing the bands to jump between them. "Whoever you pulled, you got the whole door - the club didn't take any of it," he said. "So you played both clubs, because you had to eat!"
That didn't mean Dean and Kristal weren't above copying each other, as proven when Max's hosted its own unsigned bands festival and double live album after CBGB's broke that ground in June 1976. The largely teen audiences didn't care either way. "First of all," said Childers, "it was very inexpensive to go, if you were a kid from Long Island - it was walking distance, so you didn't have to take taxis, or subways. A lot of kids would go to both, just to see what was going on. It was a social scene, too."
While many fans think the bands got more competitive after A&R men began coming, the sensible ones already worked on their music, which eliminated those "just doing it for the glamour," like Teenage Lust, or the Harlots of 42nd Street, said Childers. Even the Ramones, "who made it appear that they didn't care, were working really hard on their music," he adds. So was Blondie.
Childers learned how much Blondie cared after placing a full-page Village Voice ad announcing the return of the Heartbreakers, whom he was managing, to Max's after a long layoff. Richard Hell had quit, so Thunders suggested announcing the band's return with a photo of the new lineup brandishing guns, "which, of course, we couldn't afford," laughs Childers. "In those days, you could take the ads in, and pay later - and usually not pay later. So that's where my mindset was. Blondie were opening on Friday, The Vest on Saturday.
"So, really, at the last minute, I thought, 'Whoops! I'd better put in the other bands.' It [the names] wasn't tiny, but it wasn't big - but Blondie, all of them, got very angry with me for that. I'm sure you know the history of the Heartbreakers - the catch line was, 'see 'em before they die.' It didn't occur to me I was going to offend Debbie, but she's right and I'm wrong."
The band improved when Jimmy Destri (born April 13, 1954) joined in October. He came from the Anglopop-driven Knickers, which boasted future Trouser Press editor Ira Robbins' guitar (and, in the original band, singles reviewer Jim Green, on bass), but managed only two gigs during its year-long life. Destri's burbling keyboards cemented Blondie's march away from the garage to straight pop, though nobody knew his style would fit so well, said Burke, "We wanted a piano, he had a Farfisa [organ], and it was a mistake! People thought that we did it on purpose, but we didn't really."
When Burke trotted off to Britain for six weeks that fall, the band stopped playing and embarked on some good old-fashioned woodshedding. "Chris, Debbie and I had moved into the loft that was a block and a half from CBGB's - there's lots of stories connected with that place," laughs Valentine. "We'd all written songs; we all hunkered down and practiced without Clem. When Clem returned, we did a lot of practicing."
The new quintet bowed February 14, 1976 at CBGB's, marking the first time that Blondie found its onstage identity, Harry has stated. Valentine agrees, "Jimmy had come to see us a few times at [a gay bar called] Mother's [on 23rd Street], and was hanging out; he was very eager to play."
With the A&R gold rush still well off, Blondie cut its May, 1976 debut single, "X Offender"/"In The Sun" (Private Stock PVT 105). Valentine's A-side drew on the trauma of knocking up his underage girlfriend: "Told me that law, like wine, is ageless; the public defender/You had to admit you wanted the love of a sex offender." (The lyric also mandated a strategic title change to avoid misinterpretation.) "It was definitely a '60s sound, not to blow my own horn, but Blondie was 'X Offender,'" said Valentine. "We closed [gigs] with that, it was sort of an anthem, and got us the record deal. It defined what Blondie was about; we were getting more and more poppish."
"X Offender" had actually been cut for Instant Records, a production company of ex-New York Dolls co-manager Marty Thau, Sire Records producer Craig Leon and Richard Gottehrer, who'd written and produced for '60s groups like The Stangeloves ("I Want Candy"). Instant had already convinced Blondie to sign a two-single deal before CBGB's showcased them at June's unsigned bands festival, beside Richard Hell (fresh out of the Heartbreakers), Talking Heads and Television.
The resulting Live At CBGB's album (Atlantic SD 2-508: 1976) turned out to be something of a farce, since most of the major acts, including Blondie, refused to let their tracks be used. Despite that setback, Blondie won Gottehrer over with raw conviction, in Burke's mind, "Richard came to our rehearsal to audition us for the album. He was blown away that we had 20-30 songs, because nobody [else] could play."
The reviews bore him out; where buyers might reasonably have expected Talking Heads, or Television, Kristal stuffed the album with second-and third-tier acts like The Shirts and Tuff Darts. Thau convinced Private Stock best known for Frankie Valli's #1 1975 hit, "My Eyes Adored You," to buy the "X Offender" single for $2,500, and option for an album. Private Stock signed them after a June 17, 1976 CBGB's gig.
"It was a definite, solid look," said Valentine. "We played in tune, we didn't flub, we had a stage presence, and it worked. We went from being a band that would open for anybody to packing CBGB's [for] three nights running."
The debut album, Blondie (Private Stock PS 2023: 1977) was cut at New York City's Plaza Sound, Radio City Music Hall, where the composer Stravinsky had once set up. A suitable beginning for a trash-camp album, essentially done live in the studio, that opposed the prevailing ethic of four long songs per side. "Attack Of The Giant Ants" and "A Shark In Jet's Clothing" nestled comfortably by the hissy cattiness of "Rip Her To Shreds." "X Offender" and "Man Overboard" deftly revamped the '60s girl group sound, while "In The Sun" updated surf.
Now running Trouser Press, Robbins felt the songs took a back seat to their sonic trademarks of crisp handclaps, shouted choruses and snapping fingers. Destri's two songs aside, Blondie still packed rare charm and raw promise, he said, "What people are going to think outside of New York I won't profess to imagine, but it's going to get played around my house."
"There was still a lot of stuff left over from previous incarnations Chris and Debbie had had - some old glam stuff and campy sort of things," said Valentine. "My influences were British Invasion, Velvet Underground, and later, Television. Jimmy's were similar and Clem's a walking rock'n'roll encyclopedia, so we decided to go in that direction, and that's when we became very identifiable." Meshing Harry's and Stein's leanings to Burke's and Destri's street-level tastes sounded like a nightmare, but it worked on vinyl, as Blondie had already learned to serve the song, not the writer's ego.
"The first record was very innovative, and 20 years ahead of its time," said Burke. "It was really experimental stuff, in a lot of ways." He cites "X Offender," which pushed Blondie into a newly creative level in the studio, rather than just reproducing it live sound, like so many bands did. "Gary played guitar, Chris played bass. That intro, he [Gottehrer] kind of took from 'My Boyfriend's Back.' When they put it on the jukebox at CB's, everybody flipped. It really made an impression on me, he really captured something special with that song. To this day, it's one of my favorites."
Blondie hit the road by January 1977, a month before their album appeared. They found themselves lionized in Los Angeles, where personalities like longtime KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer wasted no time adopting them. Supporting Iggy Pop made the trip even sweeter, since his music figured "among the stack of albums that we listened to religiously," said Valentine.
"To me, that was an incredible thing, I hadn't flown before," he said. "I hadn't really been outside New York that much. The second time we played [in Los Angeles], people were wearing skinny ties and mod suits. We definitely had an influence. That was adolescent rock heaven. We were staying in Beverly Hills, running up incredible tabs, doing all the things you do when you're 20, and somebody says, 'OK, you're a rock star now.'"
The next critical moment came in May 1977, when Blondie toured Britain for the first time, having been handed a seemingly impossible task: supporting Television, whose Marquee Moon album had just appeared to unanimous critical hosannas. While Harry has cited that tour as a miserable affair, Valentine dove headfirst into a country that had fascinated him since childhood, "What I did, more than anything else, was running out to bookstores, because I was a nut for fantasy, weird fiction, occult and magical stuff - we were all into that sort of thing."
Valentine doesn't exactly recall a rivalry, but two distinct camps who happened to be sharing a tour, "There was the 'art' camp, and we were just the lowly rock'n'rollers. I began to admire them [Television], and appreciate their music; seeing [guitarists] Tom Verlain and Richard Lloyd play every night was great!" Yet neither guitarist talked much to each other, much less anyone else, which may explain how some people found them pretentious.
"There was one funny moment in some hotel, with Jimmy, Clem, myself and Verlaine in an elevator, and Verlaine's standing in front of the button. Somebody said, 'Going down, Tom!'" said Valentine. "He had this
atmosphere of being detached, the 'bemused poet.'"
Valentine's merriment evaporated when Blondie came home, and management called ("this was before the days of answering machines," he notes) on July 4, 1977, to say he'd been ousted. "I wanted my own band, I wanted to play guitar more, I wanted to sing," he said. "At the end of the show, I would [sometimes] switch off. I didn't want to take away from Chris playing guitar. I just thought, 'Why not? We can play different instruments, too.'"
Balancing five opinions may have proven too much if "Chris and Debbie had in mind, 'OK, a song from Gary, a song from Jimmy,'" said Valentine. "We were sort of the George Harrisons [of Blondie], in a way, and I kept writing more and more songs." He cites "Scenery," a first-album outtake featuring his 12-string guitar. "I felt that Debbie did a lax vocal, because she wasn't into it. Maybe she didn't want two songs by me on the album. As long as I stayed where they thought I should be, it would be all right, but I wanted more [responsibility." (The song is featured on Blondie And Beyond, where listeners can make up their own minds.)
What miffed Valentine most was knowing his proposal to record - and tour - for the second album had been roundly ignored. "I remember telling the manager that - as soon as I said that, I got a call saying I was out. It became, 'Well, if you apologize to Debbie...' I said, 'I don't really want to do that.' A month later, I packed my things, and went to L.A."
The Lipstick Years: 1977-79
With an album due, Burke nominated another New Jersey acquaintance to play bass. That was Infante, already something of a local legend in World War III, an MC5-type band that never played without hassles. "All these social misfits would come out, and the cops, too. We were loud, into 'the revolution,' but the songs were good. There'd be trouble whenever we played, because we were down on everything."
Right away, Infante sensed something different afoot, "They were just having fun. 'Blondie has more fun' - that was a slogan. It wasn't a serious 'muso' thing, the energy was there, and the songs were there. Before I joined, the bands I was in were trying to be more musical."
But Burke still seethed, "The second record was more of a transitional experience - I was pissed that he [Valentine] left. I brought Frank into the fold, but it wasn't really a unit [yet]. I remember doing the photo session, going, 'Somebody's missing.'"
Somewhat predictably, the drummer quit, but soon came to his senses. "The weird thing about Chris and Debbie was, they always needed a scapegoat - I spent a lot of time trying to keep people in the band. Somebody was always on the outs." A month later, Chrysalis bought out Blondie's Private Stock contract, followed by the band's decision to buy out its deal with Gottehrer, who still produced Plastic Letters. ("Richard didn't know what was going on, but we did," said Burke.) Chrysalis promptly reissued both albums in October 1977.
"It all got totally done behind closed doors," said Burke. "Production deals are pretty dubious. I can't say enough about Richard, because he really helped us, but he had us tied up, basically. And we were $500,000 in debt, instantly.
"We were up on this high-rise, 12 floors up, literally trapped in this room, and Jimmy said, 'Here's the phones! Let's call England, let's call France!' Contracts were flying back and forth. I think the sun came up when the deal was done - it was the most cathartic experience for us."
So was Plastic Letters (Chrysalis CHR 1166, 1978), which wound up darker than its predecessor, thanks to Destri's growing army of synthesizers, and songs like his "No Imagination," whose nightclub decadence borrowed from Lou Reed's "Lady Day." Clever lyric twists abounded, such as Stein's "I'm On E," which talks about inner emptiness, he told Trouser Press (note the driving references). Still, titles like "Bermuda Triangle Blues" or "Youth Nabbed As Sniper" ensured not everything turned out heavy and meaningful.
Gottehrer's offhand approach sometimes jarred with the band's yearning for more fleshed-out arrangements. "His idea of production was to put handclaps on it [a song]," said Burke. "He wasn't real precise, he was more into creating a mood."
"That was another trip," agrees Infante. "His approach was, 'You do four takes, and pick the one you like.'"
Yet the songs that stuck the longest came from unexpected sources. Figuring that DJs needed a proper calling card, Harry suggested redoing Randy & The Rainbows' 1963 #10 U.S. hit "Denise." It became Blondie's first genuine hit in February 1978, peaking at #2 U.K. (Chrysalis CHS 2204), after a gender change to "Denis." It didn't trouble the U.S. Top 40.
In April, Valentine's parting shot, "I'm Always Touched (By Your Presence, Dear)" (Chrysalis/EMI CHS 2266) - which had remained on Plastic Letters, as a tribute to his departed energy - reached #10 U.K. "Blondiemania" had begun. "Plastic Letters has a lot of interesting songs, some of Jimmy's, particularly," said Burke. "Debbie had the brilliant idea to cover 'Denise' - I guess she knew it when she was a kid, and it became a big hit."
That led to a funny experience miming "Denis" for the U.K.'s "Top Of The Pops," whose guests were not allowed to play live. "You'd pretend to record your backing track, and they already had this multitrack recorder," said Burke. "I remember the English MU [Musicians' Union] guy [asking] in the control room, 'Can't you guys stomp in time a little more?'"
Plastic Letters peaked at #10 U.K. and #72 U.S. Emerging regional magazines like the Illinois Entertainer predicted stardom, "Coupled with her denim sexuality, Harry possesses all the ingredients needed for media personality status." (Not a bad call, since that March 1978 write-up came a full year before "Heart Of Glass" broke.)
Figuring it needed a full-time bassist, Blondie hired its sole English member, Nigel Harrison, best known from the glam band Silverhead (of the immortal couplet: "16 and savaged/so young and so ravaged!"), and Nite City, keyboardist Ray Manzarek's last real band project (after The Doors). Harrison's November 1977 arrival permitted Infante to move back to guitar. "Sometimes, Jimmy used to do the bass, and we'd have two guitars; sometimes Chris would play bass. There was no rhythm and lead guitar approach, we just played parts. It wasn't like one guy played rhythm, and held it down."
To warm up for recording, the band revisited Los Angeles, where Infante met such larger-than-life characters as singer Tomata DuPlenty of The Screamers, who made videos, as they considered records a "dead medium." "That was their concept, because they were film guys. I remember when we played The Greek Theatre, and our manager hired a Sherman tank, and we drove through the streets with it! That was insane, but pretty fun.
"A lot of good things were happening - then it became, 'You're not allowed to do this, you're not allowed to do that.'" Blondie then returned for a short U.K. tour, whose ads now centered around Harry, captioned, "Wouldn't you like to rip her to shreds?" The taste and timing of such moves surely escaped the woman who'd survived Ted Bundy's raunchy interior, but if Harry has a grudge, her Q interview didn't say, "It's press, as they say in the business."
From there it was six lengthy months of touring, wherever Blondie could snatch a foothold - Australia, Japan and Thailand, all sandwiched between forays back to Britain. When the band finally caught its breath in March 1978, the red ink had deepened - but so had the international fan base so crucial to stardom. "It meant you were [now] in debt for $750,000, but I had a great time," said Burke.
Some truly surreal moments came in Australia, whose isolation (16 hours from America alone) means trends take longer to penetrate. "People were afraid of us, and everything was magnified," said Infante. "They thought we were this punk rock thing from outer space. It was good, because it was new to everyone."
Stranger still, "In The Flesh" (Chrysalis/EMI K-6973) became a #2 hit there, though no connivance of the band. "This guy had a show, the 'Top Of The Pops' of Australia, 15 years before MTV," said Burke. "They had a video for 'X Offender,' but played the 'In The Flesh' video instead, which was to our benefit - because it was a more commercial song, and it featured Debbie a little more."
To crack the big time, Blondie needed someone who could translate their quirky diversity into mainstream success. They met that person in Mike Chapman, whom the band would find an exacting, sometimes exasperating taskmaster. Best known as the hand who guided glam acts like Mud, Suzi Quatro and The Sweet, Chapman's philosophy was simple: if the first take sounded fine, the second might sound better. If a song lacked the right hook, find one.
From his perspective, Blondie seemed like an exciting challenge. He caught them during a three-night stand at Los Angeles' Whiskey A Go Go, and became hooked. "Mike was a songwriter - I mean, he wrote [The Sweet's] 'Little Willy,' one of the most bubblegum songs of all time," said Burke. "He appreciated a lot of qualities that other people didn't really appreciate."
In contrast to Gottehrer's bare-bones style, Chapman drove Blondie to double or triple their parts, doing and redoing them multiple times as the occasion demanded. "He definitely drove us nuts at the beginning," said Infante, "because we weren't into stuff like that. He was really into getting the timing right, even the guitar parts. I'd do it over and over to get it pretty precise. The basic tracks were always me, Clem and Nigel."
As might be guessed, such exactitude often made Chapman unpopular. "I once threw my keyboard at the guy - a $50,000 synthesizer. I picked it up, threw it," Destri confessed to Trouser Press in September 1982, "and said, 'You play it.' But he could do the same thing to me. That's how we battle it out, and that's why it works."
The resulting album, Parallel Lines (Chrysalis CHR 1192), catapulted Blondie to the big time. Chapman's philosophy captured layered guitars, keyboards and vocals that practically stopped on a dime. In his hands, the unexpected served as punctuation, such as the multiple Harry vocals on the free-for-all ending of "One Way Or Another" ("where I can see it all/find out who ya call"), or former King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp's glacial blast in Stein's "Fade Away And Radiate" ("I hear how you spend nite-time/wrapped like candy in the blue blue neon glow").
But Parallel Lines was Blondie's show, and sharpest tunes yet, including Destri's moonily dramatic "11:59" ("Lock up all your memories/get outta here, you know that we can run"), and Infante's cryptic "I Know But I Don't Know" ("I lose but I don't bet/I'm your dog but not your pet"). "I was in a room one night, and it just came out. It's a Zen thing."
Stein's songs exuded edginess, such as "Sunday Girl"'s love turned sour ("Live in dreams Sunday girl"), while Harry's emotional expressions were more direct ("Just Go Away," "Pretty Baby"). The group tore up Buddy Holly's "I'm Gonna Love You Too," and a moody pair of songs from Jack Lee, whose own band, The Nerves, had broken up. "Hangin' On The Telephone" lamented long-distance romance ("I'd like to talk when I could show you my affection"), while "Will Anything Happen" waxed ambivalence about success ("I always said you could make it/Just don't forget that I said it").
"He [Lee] just came down to the studio in a taxi, and he had those two songs - I haven't heard anything since, but I don't think that he has any complaints," said Infante. (When Burke joined the reunited Plimsouls, "Hangin' On The Telephone" still packed enough staying power to make their setlist, too.)
Without a doubt, though, the center-piece of Parallel Lines was Blondie's unlikeliest - "Heart Of Glass," a Harry-Stein collaboration which had been performed since 1975 as "The Disco Song." What had begun as a funk spoof yielded Blondie's first major hit, as Harry spat out her disappointment ("Once I had a love/and it was a gas/soon turned out had a heart of glass") over a glistening, six-minute disco-pop sheen.
The group wanted a "Kraftwerk-meets-Bee-Gees" sound. "Jimmy had that Kraftwerk synthesizer, by that time, he had a cheap Roland synth," said Burke. "There's a weird 6/8 [time signature] skip in the middle - that was Mike's idea." Vocals came last when Harry made her lyrics official, leaving Chapman free to improvise guide vocals. "It was fun, because he'd sing, make in-jokes as he went along," said Burke. (The ever-prepared Chapman made sure to record an alternate lyric for "soon turned out/to be a pain in the ass," which certainly soothed many a skittish DJ.)
Chapman's work yielded lightning results in Britain. "Picture This"/"Fade Away And Radiate" (Chrysalis CHS 2275) shot to #12 in September 1978 (with a limited 12" "Blonde" vinyl sleeve), while "Hangin' On The Telephone"/"Will Anything Happen?" (Chrysalis CHS 2266) went to #5 in December, without trying hard. Parallel Lines did equally well, selling a million copies by February 1979, when it topped the U.K. charts for four weeks.
Back home the enthusiasm seemed cooler. "When we handed in Parallel Lines, the A&R people decided there was no single - and wound up issuing 'I'm Gonna Love You Too,' because of the Buddy Holly revival," Burke recalls.
Gary Busey's epic performance as the late '50s rocker in "The Buddy Holly Story" (1978) did not salvage "I'm Gonna Love You Too," which bombed. Chrysalis tried "Hangin' On The Telephone" (Chrysalis CHS 22771), when that single flopped, "Heart Of Glass" (Chrysalis CHS 2295) finally turned the trick, soaring to #1 on the U.S. and U.K. charts. It also revived Parallel Lines' sagging fortunes. Where the album had taken an agonizing 35 weeks to break the U.S. Top 40, it had peaked at #6 by March 1979.
Such was the song's mystique that the late conceptual artist Andy Warhol threw a party to celebrate its success at (where else?) New York's disco bastion, Studio 54. (The band was reportedly playing Milan, Italy, when they learned of their success.) For a week, "Heart Of Glass" bested other disco smashes like Peaches & Herb's "Reunited" (#2),
Amii Stewart's overheated remake of "Knock On Wood" (#3), and Gloria Gaynor's classic, "I Will Survive" (#5). The irony of winning the pop lottery with an overhauled demo hardly needs any elaboration. "Heart Of Glass" was the final straw for those who'd cheered the New York Dolls or Ramones. Here lay proof, if anybody still needed it, of Blondie's treasonous ambitions.
The criticism especially stung when every major band tried disco songs in 1978-79. The Rolling Stones too little flack for "Miss You" (1978), nor Lou Reed, who used "Disco Mystic" to showcase his touring band on The Bells (1979). Donna Summer, then considered the genre's reigning diva, returned the favor by using The Doobie Brothers' lead guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter on her crossover smash, "Hot Stuff."
Whatever Blondie did would never please its old crowd, especially as labels shied away from the "p"-word (punk) and switched to "New Wave" (borrowed from the '50s French cinema school) in marketing bands. As critics picked up the direction, Blondie found itself treated less deferentially than artists mining pure rock tradition, such as The Clash.
If so, they weren't listening when Blondie started, Burke maintains, as early sets had included such well-known R&B gems as Labelle's "Lady Marmalade." "Chris was always trying to get it ['Heart Of Glass'] where it would be a disco song. He and Debbie listened to a lot of black music, in fact."
At the same time, "Heart Of Glass" shot Harry into the pole position. Where the roadies' T-shirts had declaimed, "Blondie Is A Group," fans and journalists took Harry to be Blondie, a conflict that has been blamed for its demise.
Although some publications - notably Trouser Press, a supporter from way back - still mentioned all band members on equal terms, the "Blondiemania" tornado had little trouble sucking Harry and Stein down its funnel, and leaving everyone else in the cold.
Harry blames Leeds for playing the band against each other, enough reason to fire him despite a well-earned reputation for efficiency. "He told the boys they could all be replaced. I was the only one that was important. From then on they were always a bit afraid of what might happen." (Alice Cooper's longtime manager Shep Gordon replaced Leeds.)
Burke has a different take. "It [Harry's media profile] was never really a nuisance. If you're a drummer, you have to accept a lot of things," he said. "The drummer's only as good as the people he's working with. I needed Debbie, and I accepted that. I was never going to be successful on my own."
"They [fans] heard the word 'Blondie,' and think she was Blondie," said Infante. "It didn't cause a problem with me; it might have caused a problem for someone else. But I said, 'If it's not broke, don't fix it.'"
Blondie singles experienced mixed fortunes as spring became summer 1979. In April, "Sunday Girl"/"I Know But I Don't Know" (Chrysalis CHS 2302) reached #1 U.K., but never made the U.S. charts (the U.K. 12" treated fans to a French-language "Sunday Girl"). But in August, "One Way Or Another" made #24 U.S. (Chrysalis CHS 2236), proving that when it comes to rock'n'roll formats, both countries are totally different planets. The band was probably too busy to ponder the difference, as Blondie kicked off a major tour in Scranton, PA, on July 4, 1979, supported by Rockpile (Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds' loose aggregation), which ran much of the summer. The ride had begun, the challenge now lay in keeping the momentum going.
The Frantic Years: 1979-80
Blondie's next album benefited from some much-needed spontaneity, and ended up showcasing some of its most committed rock'n'roll. Working in three top New York studios (Media Sound, Power Sound and and Jimi Hendrix's creative playground, Electric Lady), Blondie banged out Eat To The Beat (Chrysalis CHR 1225) in three weeks. Where Parallel Lines had been a take-by-take affair, Eat To The Beat sidelined Chapman's infamous click-track, except for the permafrost disco-funk of "Atomic." This time, Blondie worked up songs in the studio. This development pleased Infante, since "there was lots of guitar, and I was free to do what I wanted.
"For me, they're [the albums] so good, because they're all so different - 'Victor' was a good song, because I wrote it. The musical idea came from Russia, somehow. The theme there was a Russian thing. 'The Hardest Part' was a good song, too. 'Die Young, Stay Pretty' - Debbie came up with the concept." Yet Eat To The Beat spun off no major hits while marching to platinum
status at #17 U.S. "Dreaming" (Chrysalis CHS 2379) reached #27 U.S. in October 1979, while "The Hardest Part" flatlined at #84 U.S. in February 1980; an America knowing little about reggae could not, apparently, embrace it commercially.
Eat To The Beat topped the U.K. charts in September 1979, and sold healthily for nine months (300,000 initial copies, NME noted that fall) - no small factor in "Atomic"'s #1 (Chrysalis/EMI CHAS 2410) in March 1980 (versus #39 U.S.). "Dreaming" (Chrysalis/EMI CHS 2350) also topped #2 U.K. for a breath-taking eight-week run. "Blondiemania" continued unabated on NBC-TV's "Saturday Night Live," as a gallop through "Dreaming" saw Destri frug madly behind his keyboards and Burke - clad in a Mod-style T-shirt, with a target design - simply couldn't be contained. A subsequent stab at "Union City Blues" proved no less intense.
"They [NBC] lock you in a room for 10 hours. I remember [comedian/host] Steve Martin coming and saying, 'Hi,'" said Burke. "There was a really good party afterward."
Eat To The Beat also yielded a full-length filmed version (Warner Home Video, 1980), which Blondie called its "video album," the first such project in rock. While The Kinks' live One For The Road reached consumers first, Blondie's effort had been ready months earlier, only to be stalled by union disputes. Burke doesn't know if the filming ("We spent a long weekend doing 12 songs") or the dispute ended up more tiring. "The weird thing was, we had this guy on harmonica, and invited him to be in the video. But there were no ground rules for that, so there was a big holdup."
Blondie adopted what many regarded as a curious strategy for such a visual band; alternating between rough concept videos, and dubbing album tracks over live takes for a handpicked studio crowd. Trouser Press suggested saving the $39.95 for Blondie tickets: "There should still be money left over for a good film, if you want visual entertainment."
Still, Eat To The Beat's video version came nearly 18 months before MTV made it mandatory for performers to exploit their visual side; the same might be said of Harry's film debut, "Union City Blue," whose title cut reached #13 U.K. in December 1979. It was a remarkable performance, considering the project had started as a home movie involving herself and Stein. Harry's role as a frustrated housewife broke no box office ground, but won major distribution after Blondie broke big. "Union City" marked the first in a string of film roles, and confirmed that Harry's appeal extended beyond Blondie. The following summer, she appeared beside Meatloaf in "Roadie," a quirky rock comedy whose soundtrack included Blondie covering Johnny Cash's standard "Ring Of Fire."
Blondie's multi-media profile also produced the theme song for "American Gigolo," which starred Richard Gere as a male prostitute; "Call Me" (Chrysalis/EMI CHS 2414) rocketed to #1 U.S. and U.K. in spring 1980, with a different producer in Giorgio Moroder, known for his Eurodisco slant (and "Midnight Express" film soundtrack). "He [Moroder] had this basic synth track, Debbie had the vocal thing - I did the guitar part that goes 'duddle-a-dah, duddle-a-dah,'" said Infante. "All of a sudden, the song took on a whole new thing."
"Frankie played some great stuff on it," said Burke. "'Call Me' was something that we really needed; it got us to the next level, and another #1 [single]."
The band hoped "Call Me" would stretch Blondie beyond Chapman's orbit, but reports of a Moroder-produced album came to nothing, because his Continental tastes didn't match their own. "Richard Gere came around, and it was a good time, but I don't think we could have done a whole album with Giorgio - he just didn't have any rock'n'roll roots," said Burke. Blondie was in the catbird seat that summer; its million-selling albums and singles opened immediate entry into the celebrity fishbowl, with the usual mixed results.
The Cryptic Years: 1981-82
While Eat To The Beat had partially thrown off the old constituency, nothing had prepared them for Autoamerican (Chrysalis CHE 1290), whose overriding diversity made pundits wonder if Blondie had lost its collective marbles. Enlisting a 30-man orchestra on Stein's brooding baroque instrumental "Europa" threatened to make Blondie seem like guest stars on its material, along with illustrious alumni like saxophonist Tom Scott, percussionist Ollie Brown, and guitarist Wah-Wah Watson. Mutters of "pretentious" greeted the murky cover painting of Blondie standing on a roof, admiring Harry from afar - a perfect if unintentionally ironic, visual report of the band's increasing disconnection from each other.
Other disquieting signals loomed beyond covers or credits. Touring had stopped after a sold-out U.K. swing in December 1979/January 1980, igniting suspicions the group felt it no longer needed the work. The never-ending internal friction was likely a more pressing reason (Burke has recalled not seeing anyone in Blondie from 1980 to 1982). Side projects were also frittering momentum. When Trouser Press profiled the band for its June 1981 cover ("Solo Albums, Outside Projects... But Blondie Is Still A Group!"), Harry and Stein were hunkered in New York City's Power Station - where Bruce Springsteen had camped for two years delivering The River - on a bold joint album with Chic's mainmen, the late Bernard Edwards, and his partner, Nile Rodgers. Burke was producing local bands (The Colors, The Speedies); Destri was making a solo album.
Valentine himself surfaced that fall as guitarist in Iggy Pop's touring band for the latter's Party album. Once again, old contacts just fell into place. "It's another of those strange links - [guitarist] Ivan Kral, who played in Blondie before me, jumped ship at the last minute, so they asked me, did I want to go? I learned the songs going up to Buffalo [New York], or something like that." (The band also included Burke, guitarist Rob Duprey, who'd been in The Mumps so long ago, and Carlos Alomar, David Bowie's guitarist/musical director.)
Not surprisingly, Blondie spent much of its time downplaying breakup rumors, as well as accusations that acceptance had stripped away its former urgency. Harry, herself weathering criticism for a three-year deal endorsing Murjani jeans on TV, alluded to dueling egos. "I don't feel any responsibility to go out and give a bad show right now. We'll work again, but we'll only tour where we want to."
To pretend the band had never thrived on conflict seemed ridiculous, when Burke recalled "a great fistfight" with Stein at a 1978 U.K. gig. Not quite, responded Stein, he'd really targeted Destri, "I pushed his Polymoog." If that was the price to pay for hits, the comments implied, so be it. Ever the company of men, Burke acknowledged Blondie had no illusions about its new role as pop phenomenon. "The only place left for us to go where people think we are crazy is to hang out with Chuck Mangione." (Or, perhaps, Harry's duet with Kermit The Frog on "The Muppet Show," singing "Rainbow Connection.")
Stein had bigger concerns, "We put out a whacko album with all kinds of crazy shit to open everyone's head up a little bit, and half the critics freaked out." He probably meant Rolling Stone, which had accused him of "trying to destroy pop music." Seeing that arrow flung at the minds behind "The Attack Of The Giant Ants" was too much to tolerate. Yet, as Stein well knew, the gap between direction and expectations is pop-rock's oldest soap opera. For some fans, covering "Follow Me" from the Broadway musical "Camelot" confirmed the Blondie they loved barely existed. (Studio personnel must have thought so too, judging by this comment clearly audible after the fadeout, "You're not going to put this on the album, are you?")
Reviewers were equally unforgiving. "Can't someone stop these people?" groused Sounds, whose one-star drubbing smarted from the Britain who'd embraced Blondie long before anyone else. ("Rapture" is over six minutes long, I only survived four.") Yet Autoamerican deserved a fairer shake, especially for "T-Birds," a spirited Harry/Harrison stab at '60s trash-pop; "Go Through It" and "Here's Looking At You," solid Harry/Stein pop confections, and Stein's funk-oriented "Live It Up." Destri contributed his own distinct songs, including "Do The Dark," which cast Satan as a disco dancer ("walk on glass with the master"), the sprightly "Angels On The Balcony," and "Walk Like Me," which revisited the scene's old jealousies.
Schizoid or not ("I think I'm the only musician that plays on every song."), Burke sticks by Autoamerican. "It's my favorite album. When it came out, I was in a club in London, and 'Europa' came on, and it really set the mood."
But Infante felt hamstrung dubbing parts he hadn't created, "Debbie and Chris were pulling away from the whole band situation. I guess Chris wanted to be the only guitar player, I don't know. There was a lot of friction at the time; I don't want to get into that."
Yet the carping meant little when "The Tide Is High," flipped with the "Suzy And Jeffrey" (Chrysalis CHS 2465) camp car crash drama, shot to #1 in the U.S. and U.K. in October 1980. It held the top slot for one glorious week in January 1981 - besting John Lennon's "Just Like Starting Over" (#2) and Kool & The Gang's "Celebration" (#3) - on the way to selling one million copies. Despite gloomy prognoses for a country still reeling from economic recessions, the public wasn't having any of the tastemakers' food for thought.
Where Blondie's own reggae attempt ("The Hardest Part") had bombed in the U.S. singles charts, its imaginative remake of The Paragons' 1966 Jamaican hit - floating atop glistening organ, mariachi horns and burbling percussion - pulled fans towards the style like few other musicians had done. (The Paragons even reformed to capitalize, earning a Rolling Stone "Random Note" in the process.) "Michael took that whole demo and orchestrated it. That was the 'kitchen sink' song - I thought it was a good song," said Burke.
"Rapture" (Chrysalis CHS 2485) had the same impact on hip-hop, exposing white listeners to the latest underground genre - three years before Eddie Van Halen's guitar solo on the Michael Jackson crossover smash, "Beat It." In six breathtaking minutes, Harry and company saluted their new friends, Fab Five Freddy (Fred Brathwaite), Grandmaster Flash (Joseph Saddler, DJ for The Furious Five) - and, near the fadeout, an otherworldly "man from Mars" whose diet happened to include cars and guitars.
Flash returned the compliment by including "Rapture" on his 1981 single, "The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel," which cut that song - and other popular DJ showcases, like Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust" - to create a devastating audio montage, firmly grounded by Flash's distinct scratch style. Harry and Stein dipped further into the crossover sweepstakes by providing theme music for Charlie Ahearn's groundbreaking hip-hop film, "Wild Style" (1982). Harry played a trendy journalist trying to enter its graffiti artists' and rappers' world, only to be treated with cool B-boy disdain (appropriately introduced by snippets of "Rapture").
By March 1981, "Rapture"/"Walk Like Me" (Chrysalis CHS 2485) reached #1 U.S., beating competition like Styx's "The Best Of Times" (#2), and REO Speedwagon's "Keep On Loving You" (#3) - and #5 U.K. (flipped with "Live It Up"). It easily sold one million copies, the last time Blondie ever did so. "That was fun - I remember collaborating on that handclapping we were doing," said Burke. "That was so ahead of its time; Debbie and Chris were true innovators in the sense that Bowie was."
Even without a quorum on every track, or tour to push it, Autoamerican delivered the goods, peaking at #3 U.S., and #7 U.K. The Blondie brand name still packed a wallop; whether the proposed Chic summit could hit the same crossover grand slam remained an unknown question.
The answer to Harry's KooKoo album (Chrysalis CHR 1347) boiled down to "no way" on its August 1981 release. To Harry's and Stein's utter disappointment, the chasm of black and white radio - which had also recently sunk "Protection," a proud rocker that Bruce Springsteen had written for Donna Summer - yawned as wide as ever.
KooKoo seemed misbegotten from the start - not least for its H.R. Giger cover (of "Aliens" fame) showing ten-foot spikes piercing Harry's immaculate complexion. London Underground Limited promptly deemed it "too upsetting" for subways, causing Harry to sigh, "People should be more sophisticated in their art."
When Harry attended a party for rapper Kurtis Blow ("The Breaks"), Rolling Stone reported, she wouldn't permit the resulting photos to be used, after hearing they'd appear in New Musical Express, whose attention the band no longer welcomed. KooKoo got a warmer welcome in Britain; it peaked there at #6, but struggled to reach #43 U.S. - where rock fans had never forgotten disco's dominance of the singles chart, and disco singles had frequently occupied half the Top 10 slots. The trailblazing hip-hop singles Harry and Stein so admired rarely reached beyond the black audiences who bought them. (Remember, hip-hop's premiere label, Sugar Hill Records, never got another Top 40 pop hit after The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" peaked there at #36 in autumn 1979.)
KooKoo landed firmly between two chairs. So did its singles, "Backfired" (#43 U.S., #32 U.K.), and "The Jam Was Moving," which limped to #82 U.S. in November 1981. Trouser Press pronounced the album "more snack than feast," with its featured artists too eager to tailor their styles to Chic's ("The shoe just doesn't fit").
"Things were really getting into decline at that point," said Burke. "I don't think that album was very good. I don't think that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were the best producers for her."
"Piss off. I love that record," Harry responded in Q to one reader's query. "The mix is bad, but the material is great." In truth, KooKoo deserved a fairer shake than it got, and contains several killer tracks, including "Jump Jump," "Military Rap" and "Under Arrest," in which the foundations of Harry's solo style can clearly be seen. Like it or not, she was outgrowing the boundaries of her day job. No such ambivalence greeted The Best Of Blondie in October 1981 (Chrysalis CHR 1337), a repackaging to plug the gap between albums. Subtitled The Singles-Only Album by some wags for its hit-oriented focus - which did include three remixes, and the other-wise non-LP "Call Me" - the album still reached #4 U.K. and #30 U.S.
With future activity still a rumor, Destri's Heart On A Wall (Chrysalis) crept out to unanimous razzes in January 1982. Despite impressive support from Burke, guitarists Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar (David Bowie), and keyboardist Tommy Morrongiello (of Ian Hunter's band), Destri's wobbly warble does little to uplift beyond the doo wop-style title track and the amusing stab at neo-metal of "King Of Steam." "It was a real horrible record, for a lot of reasons - because Jimmy can't sing for starters," said Burke, "and I don't think the timing was right for any of that stuff."
Blondie returned to action in February 1982, with a recut "Rapture" featuring Fab Five Freddy and Harry trading lines on a free flexidisc (then a popular format, thanks to its novelty and low production costs). Originally slated as a Christmas record, delay on delay pushed that idea into the new year. So ran Blondie's fortunes. Sessions for its new album started on New York turf, at the Hit Factory, with Chapman back at the controls, and idea tapes bouncing around, as always. To Infante, the unanimity smelled like a front when nobody invited him. "All I know is, the record was going down without me being involved in the basic tracks, and I got the lawyer involved."
An out-of-court settlement left Infante a member, and allowed him to overdub his parts - but only after everybody had gone home. Not surprisingly, he remembers little of recording The Hunter. "You could play me stuff, and I could say, 'What is that?' I don't even remember where I did it!"
The best moments - Harry's plaintive "English Boys," Destri's story-so-far of his band ("Danceway"), and the bubbling Latin mannerisms of "The Orchid Club" - harnessed the old playfulness. So did an understated, lovely remake of Smokey Robinson's "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game," to which Harrison told trouser press, "When I hear it I keep waiting for the whole drum kit to come in."
The Hunter had little else going for it. The opaque, six-minute sci-fi wordplay of "Dragonfly" might have fared better without such bloated fodder as "The Beast," which paled unfavorably to "Rapture" and "Island Of Lost Souls" (Chrysalis CHS 2063), a blatant "Tide Is High" knockoff. Issued as a single, it withered at #33 U.S. in June 1982, but still managed a #11 U.K. peak.
"That's when I was traveling separately," said Infante. "When we did the video - talk about island of lost souls, man, lemme tell you! When I was there, nobody would talk to anybody else; my lawyer said, 'Don't talk to anybody, [and] don't hit anybody.'" A month later, "War Child"/"Little Caesar" became Blondie's final chart entry, peaking at #39 U.K., and nowhere in America.
Only two years earlier, Blondie was consistently topping the singles charts, they now had to watch their album limp to #33 U.S. and #49 U.K., and earn a pounding from the British press ("Blondie could hardly sound any safer, stodgier and more senile"), or Mark Roland of Musician, who blasted the lyrics ("which often seem to borrow their syntax from [U.S. Secretary of State] Alexander Haig," he wrote. "In the end, The Hunter is all hot sauce and no enchilada."
Burke doesn't think the band sold itself short, "It was the first time I'd ever felt confident, I really thought I was at the top of my game, playing well. We made a good record, in a lot of ways." He cites "English Boys" ("Debbie did a good job with the lyrics, there's a lot of imagery"), and "War Child" ("the Falklands War was going on [between Argentina and Britain], which didn't ring true for a lot of people") as the standouts.
Professional as always, Blondie pressed ahead, even after slow sales had scuttled the upcoming U.K. tour. Instead, they decided to retake America, sponsored by Pioneer Stereo (earning little of the flack that greeted the Rolling Stones' deal with Jovan cologne for their own fall 1982 outing; ironically, their hit, "Start Me Up," ended up on Blondie's fall tour setlist).
Infante watched sessioneer Eddie Martinez (of Run-DMC's "Rock Box" single) replace him. "It was, 'Frank, there's a problem,' and I said, 'Get somebody else, and pay me as if I was there.' The vibe wasn't the same. I didn't go to any shows, but that's what I heard from people who did." Gordon's pre-tour pep rally had little more success. "He said, 'You can go out and be millionaires, or sit at home on your ass, and sell a lot of records,'" said Burke. "And Chris said, 'Well, I'll just stay home, then.'"
Armed with a set that had long banished the older hits, Blondie's "Tracks Across America" slid through half-empty halls, to crumbling morale. "It was like a changing of the guard," said Burke. "Nigel and I got Duran Duran to open for us; by the end of the tour, they were the success, we were the failure." Stein himself was in no shape to remedy matters. When his rapid weight loss and emaciated condition became too frightening to overlook any longer, the tour folded, and so did Blondie, joining a distinguished roll call of bands closing up shop that year - The Jam, Squeeze and Theatre Of Hate. (Stein's illness was soon diagnosed as pemphigus vulgaris, a rare near-fatal skin disease that is mainly caused, it seems, by stress.)
The final, prolonged tailspin marked a sad end to one of pop's smartest, most relentlessly melodic bands, though the outcome wasn't a shock, given Blondie's trouble with reconciling success and democracy - which bedevils bands in their sunniest periods. And while the Duran Durans were giving Blondie a run for its money, that wasn't the decisive factor. As Destri had so cannily predicted in 1981's Trouser Press feature, if Harry went solo, everyone would have to fend for themselves. "As a member of Blondie she's tied down; she deserves to be let loose."
"It's frightening to see how successful the band could have been," said Burke. "It was a great
success, and a great experience, but a lot of things could have been done a lot better." He would wait almost 20 years to see that promise pan out.
Back To The Bleach
With Harry and Stein out of sight, Blondie quietly dissolved, and its members scattered to find gainful employment.
After the Heart On A Wall debacle, Destri bounced around Europe, taking the odd production job. Ironically, the one he desired most eluded him. "I met U2's manager [Paul McGuinness] one night and we sat around dropping hints to each other," Destri told Trouser Press in spring 1982. "If he reads this he'll know I'd really like to produce U2." It didn't happen, and Destri returned to Brooklyn, where he became a contractor before rejoining Blondie.
Iggy Pop's band became something of a refuge for ex-Blondie members. Before his illness, Stein had formed Animal Records, an imprint label for artists not falling into the mainstream, such as avant-garde violinist Walter Steding. Stein accordingly produced Zombie Birdhouse (Animal CHR 1399), one of Pop's quirkiest, least-selling albums, to which Burke and Duprey also contributed. The touring band again featured Duprey, as well as Infante, who spent fall 1982 promoting the album. They followed up with yet more roadwork in spring and summer 1983, where Pop visited Australia and Japan for the first time.
"I didn't call him [Pop], he called me," said Infante. "He just let you do what you wanted, everything was real cool. He'd encourage you to get wild. He wasn't a maniac to where he made you feel intimidated, or bad about it. He was the boss, but he wasn't a tyrant about it." Infante reunited with Iggy Pop years later, blasting through the latter's "Five Foot One" with Hunt (drums) and Tony Sales (bass) on a "Tales From The Crypt" show that featured the late comic Sam Kinison as promoter Marty Slash, who gets his comeuppance after committing a murder at his club. "We did that in an afternoon, just one take; it was a good little thing," said Infante.
Since Blondie's demise, Infante has lent his guitar to a variety of one-off projects and sessions, most recently on Sylvain Sylvain's Sleep Baby Doll (Fishhead FCD 02142: 1997). He plays on the haunting "Your Society Makes Me Sad," the late Thunders' final song, and a frantic remake of the Dolls standard "Trash." Infante also supported ex-Dolls bassist Arthur Kane on 1994's I Only Wrote This Song For You, a Thunders tribute album, and has backed readings for the likes of ex-T.Rex publicist B.P. Fallon, and Mick Farren. He's also writing for himself, though only one thing holds him back, "I'm not as prolific with lyrics as I'd like to be, whereas with the guitar, I could sit down, and all kinds of parts come out."
Burke and Harrison collaborated once more, providing the rhythmic backbone for Chequered Past, a sort of punk supergroup featuring ex-Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones and ex-Silverhead/Detective vocalist Michael Des Barres. "You have to owe somebody a million dollars to be in this band," Des Barres said at a New York gig (that also featured Infante) reviewed in Trouser Press. Having been together all of four days, Chequered Past's material ranged from a crunching rendition of the Go-Gos' "Vacation," Waylon Jennings' "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? and highlights from each member's past resumes. "With a few more original tunes - and depending on how serious they are - they could go far," Jim Green nodded approvingly.
But Chequered Past's 1984 EMI America album turned out to be embarrassing poodle-metal fodder, proving that the best resumes are no guarantee against the worst excesses; Infante wasn't present for Clichè Hall of Fame titles like "Let Me Rock You" (as opposed to doing homework, perhaps?). When the album thudded into bargain bins, Burke joined the Eurythmics - the first among many bands to use his services - while Harrison went into management. In 1988, the Illinois Entertainer featured him touting Tami Show, a Chicago band whose time never came, "The fact that they had two great looking girls fronting the band was a bonus." Sounds familiar,
doesn't it? Harrison soon moved into A&R for Capitol, then Interscope.
Thanks to a regimen of steroids, Stein recovered by the mid-'80s, although a barrage of tasteless death rumors forced Harry to declare, "Stories of my sainthood have been much exaggerated." Harry kept acting, chalking up notable turns in David Cronenberg's "Videodrome" (1982), as the late Sonny Bono's wife in "Hairspray" (1988), and the odd TV gig, including the CBS-TV drama "Wiseguy" in March 1989, and July 1989's "Mother Goose Rock'n'Rhymes," in which Harry played "The Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe" on the Disney Channel. There have been numerous one-off projects, too, including her AIDS benefit duet with Iggy Pop, "What A Swell Party This Is," and a romp through the Castaways' '60s nugget "Liar Liar," which wound up on the soundtrack for Jonathan Demme's comedy, "Married To The Mob" (1988). (Others are better off forgotten, such as "Teaneck Tanzi," a play which cast her as a female wrestler beside the late comedian Andy Kaufman, and closed on April 20, 1983, after just one night.)
Harry's post-Blondie outings have been a more mixed bag. After a low-key start with "Rush Rush" on the Krush Groove (1985) soundtrack, Harry returned to action with Rockbird in December 1986. Its results were inconclusive, despite crisp production from J. Geils Band keyboardist Seth Justman. "Secret Love" is typical in hinting of an impending revelation, then dropping the matter, while other lyrics ("got you on my mind and it's mind over manners") make little melodic impact. The most likeable song, "French Kissin' In The USA," got to #8 U.K., #57 U.S. in January 1987, but Harry didn't write it. (Other singles fared less well, such as "In Love With Love," which peaked at #70 U.S. in July 1987.)
Somewhere along the way, Harry's personal relationship with Stein ended, but they stayed friendly, and collaborated on Def, Dumb And Blonde (1989) - which yielded a #13 U.K. hit, "I Want That Man," while the album got to #12, leading her to tour Britain after a nine-year break. American fans stayed away, allowing the Mike Chapman/Tom Bailey (Thompson Twins) produced affair to peak at #123. Stein also helped on 1993's Debravation, which made little discernable impact.
Part of the problem understandably lay in the Blondie remixes and compilations that flooded the market and forced Harry to compete against her old peroxide persona - such as December 1998's remix collection, Once More Into The Bleach, which peaked at #50 U.K. Its single "Denis," peaked in the same spot, while a remix of "Call Me" got to #61 U.S. in February 1989. Such tactics almost predestined the current Blondie reunion before Harry and company reached the same conclusion.
The problem was Harry's competition, most notably Madonna, whose platinum blonde image was unimaginable without the trails her predecessor had blazed. "I think she caused me a few problems at my American label, Warners, because they were so heavily involved in Madonna it affected the level of promotion I got from them," Harry told Q readers. Other threats came from Britain's Transvision Vamp and its singer Wendy James, The Primitives and Kim Wilde. In America, the closest equivalents remain Hole's Courtney Love and Gwen Stefani, the centerpiece of No Doubt - a band whose internecine struggles eerily recall those of Blondie.
The biggest boost to Harry's cause came from The Jazz Passengers' Individually Twisted (32 Records, 1997), distinguished by a duet with Elvis Costello ("Doncha Go Away Mad"), and a funked-up remake of "The Tide Is High"; a live album is imminent. The loose-knit, low-key ensemble approach allows Harry to concentrate on jazz singing, which fits her newly-husky range like the proverbial glove. She has surely earned that right, after remaining one of rock's strongest, most distinctive presences.
After touring with Iggy Pop, Valentine hung up his guitar to pursue an academic and writing career. Now living in London, he'd just returned in October 1996 to find a message on his answering machine left by one of Stein's friends. Playing pop music was the last thing on his mind, as Valentine had just returned from covering an arts festival in Bosnia, and playing with gypsy bands in Istanbul and Macedonia.
"She said, 'Chris is desperate to speak with you,'" said Valentine. "Now, I hadn't seen or spoken to Chris in 10 years - I call him, and he's ecstatic, 'I want you to come to New York, because I wanna put the band back together.' I thought, 'what the hell, it's 20 years, let's just do it!'" Valentine flew to New York a month later, only to find "nothing happening - he [Stein] wasn't in the best [physical] shape, and there wasn't any rehearsals," he said. "I literally was sticking around a couple of months before we got anything done."
Then again, Blondie's best and worst work has happened under the gun. When rehearsals finally began, Valentine felt pleased his "Amor Fati" ("Love Of Fate"), a song The Know had done, was among three demos cut at the Hit Factory - where the reunited Blondie had already been working with members of Duran Duran. "The sweetener was, 'we'll do these songs [with Duran Duran], but we also get to work on songs of our own, mine, one of Jimmy's, and a song of Chris'," said Valentine. "I wound up playing guitar and bass, 'cause Chris never showed up to the studio, and it seemed great."
Valentine rejoined the reunited Blondie in spring 1997, for a showcase in New York City, followed by festivals in Washington, D.C., Dallas and Connecticut. "Those went well," he said, "everyone liked it, we were getting along fine, and the word was, 'OK, work on some songs, and we'll bring you back in a couple months."
Two months stretched to five. When Valentine returned to sort out immigration rules in New York, he again visited Stein. "He said, 'Well, we don't know if you're the right person for the live shows' - he wouldn't give me a straight answer why - 'but we still want you on the album, and we still wanna do your song.' So I went back to London, and I never heard from him again."
The next Valentine knew, he was told flying him over would be too expensive, and No Exit had begun without him. "I called [producer Craig Leon], 'Is my song on?' He said, 'No, it wasn't on the final mix,' he didn't know why. Clem said he fought for it, 'at least make it a B-side." Last fall's U.K. tour went ahead with another bassist. But Valentine, 43, remains undaunted, having recently fathered a son, Joshua, and formed Fire Escape with his partner, Ruth, who plays electric violin. The band is playing around London and hopes to make demos, while Valentine works on a book about occult influences on '60s bands.
Where No Exit will stand among Blondie's work remains to be seen, with reviews being cautiously encouraging. As with most reunions, future activity depends greatly on circumstances, sales and temperaments. The agenda isn't so much a smoke-screen, but a blank screen, which was half the fun of following Blondie in the first place. While Blondie often suffered for being ahead of its audience, Burke never forgets what first appealed to him about Harry's and Stein's original vision.
"Their aesthetic was, 'girl group-meets-Velvet-Underground-meets-New York Dolls.' I mean, the first album is probably the campiest," he said. "[The late critic] Lester Bangs loved the first album, and hated everything else. So did Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons [of New Musical Express]. I loved those kinds of bands, where you hate 'em, or you love 'em. Extremes are the best."
Infante is of two minds about the issue. "That was one of the best things about the band," he said. "We would do anything we wanted. We could have done a heavy metal song. We have five people that could write, so it was a different thing. That might have been one of the problems that became too much to contain." To him, it's not surprising that Parallel Lines looms largest in people's memory banks. "All I know is, when the band was the band, that's when it was successful - because we had the producer, the hit songs and the sound. That was the pure power of Blondie."
That power tasted especially sweet after "Heart Of Glass" ended those nights of chocolate milk and chicken salad sandwiches after a poor take. "There's so many bands now," said Infante, "so many good bands, too - whereas, when we did it, there were no blueprints, because the whole music business hadn't become what it is today." Looking back, the whole story seems like a casting director's fantasy, because its members could not have had less in common. In the end, the band tabbed "least likely to succeed" prevailed over its detractors through inspiration, and some good old-fashioned perspiration, too. "She [Harry] was really working hard, and it paid off," Childers believes. "I've been on tours with older, more professional bands, and after four weeks, they've wound down. The shows become sloppy, they begin to complain, they want to go home.
"She did a world tour that went on and on. Being on the road is hard work, much less in places with weird food, weird culture, and hotel rooms with scorpions in 'em - she never, ever complained. I always admired people who said they're going to do it [succeed], and they just do it, they don't pay attention to anything else. And she did that... Debbie dug her heels [in], and would not be forgotten - and she went to work."
Valentine, who still earns steady royalties from "I'm Always Touched (By Your Presence, Dear)," remains proud of his Blondie days, despite his recent experiences. "The early days were some of the best times of my life - I followed a dream, it came true, and that time made me confident about pursuing other dreams. What 18-year-old kid doesn't want to be a rock star?" he said. "I've done many different things, and Blondie is just one of them, but it's a good one."
Just how good became clear after Valentine got 100 emails from "people saying, 'Oh, it's really great to see you're around. Let me tell you, 'Presence, Dear' meant a lot to me, it's one of my favorite songs,'" he said. "People would say, 'When we met, that was the song that was on.' It's a small contribution to the culture, but to know that it did have an effect on people is very gratifying."
The author thanks Clem Burke, Lee Black Childers, Nigel Harrison, Frank Infante and Gary Valentine for sharing their insights. Additional thanks goes to Dave Bianco, Stacy Fox, Don Hargraves, Lisa D. Heibutzki, Barney Hoskins and Anthony Salazar for technical/informational support.