Your guide to summer music
This booklet came with The Times Newspaper 28th April 2007.
Also included with this publication was a free CD "Festival Sounds", which contains various tracks from artists who were to be appearing at music festivals in the UK 2007. Track 2 is Blondie - Hanging On The Telephone (Live) - A concert version taken from the album Live by Request. This CD and supplement were heavily advertised on British TV stations the day before.
Pages 10, 11, 12, 13
Never fade away
When Debbie Harry re-formed Blondie it was for cash. Now she sings out of love, she tells Stephen Dalton.
Before Madonna, before Courtney Love and Shirley Manson, before Karen O and Beth Ditto, there was Debbie Harry. In the late 1970s, the Blondie singer was a beacon of otherworldly glamour in an otherwise drab post-punk planet. Combining movie-star beauty with street-smart attitude, Helmut Newton cool with Patti Smith credibility, she was one of the first pop sex symbols that earnest feminists and drooling schoolboys could admire in equal measure. With mouthy divas such as Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse in the ascendant, Harry's iconic influence is ever present.
Now 61, Harry is no longer the peroxide-punk sex kitten of yesteryear. But she has matured into rock's answer to Catherine Deneuve, an enigmatic and slightly eccentric queen in exile. Meanwhile, Blondie anthems such as Sunday Girl, Hanging on the Telephone and Atomic enjoy an evergreen indie-disco afterlife thanks to their groundbreaking fusion of pop, rap, disco and reggae. Everyone from Britney Spears to Gwen Stefani to Atomic Kitten has covered these design classics. Lily Allen currently includes a ska version of Heart of Glass in her live set. Since their late 1990s reunion, Blondie now tour on a semi-regular basis. They return to Britain in July to play a string of shows, including the Cornbury festival in Oxfordshire and Lovebox in London. The most successful American act in the history of the UK charts, the band enjoyed their first big success over here, scoring six No 1 singles in their post-punk heyday. Harry claims that Blondie have always had a special relationship with Britain.
"The audiences are a little different," she says. "Not necessarily because of us being better known in Britain, although that has something to do with it. But I also think they react differently. It's more of an interactive thing."
The songs remain the same, Harry says, but the music business has changed beyond recognition in 30 years.
"It's a lot easier," she insists. "Back in the 1970s a lot of things were hit-and-miss technically, and promoters were overnight sensations. It was more of a Wild West kind of business, but now the industry is very sophisticated."
At Blondie's peak, Harry and her then boyfriend, the band's guitarist Chris Stein, were the royal couple of downtown Manhattan. Andy Warhol, Nancy Spungen and William Burroughs moved in the same scuzzy superstar circles. Naturally, drugs played a supporting role. "The drug experience was edifying and illuminating," Harry admits, "but the other side is that it was habitual and destroys brain cells. Did I have a drug of choice? Well, I chose a lot of drugs."
Inevitably, Blondie imploded in 1983. Harry laid low for three years while she nursed Stein through a potentially fatal battle with the skin condition Pemphigus vulgaris. He recovered, but the relationship did not, and they split in 1986. She now admits that she suffered a "minor nervous breakdown" during this dark period.
After the split, Harry carved a respectable career as a solo artist and actor. But she and Stein remained friends, eventually re-forming Blondie after a 15-year gap. Admitting frankly that they were regrouping for financial reasons, this belated reunion could have been a disaster. Instead, it spawned a worldwide No 1 single in Maria, a classic Blondie power-pop anthem.
Blondie were finally rewarded for their long service and 40 million album sales last year with induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fittingly, for local legends who helped to put 1970s New York on the rock map, Harry and Stein were also one of the last acts to play at the notoriously squalid downtown club CBGBs before it was forced to close in October 2006.
Would the once and future queen of Manhattan's arty party scene ever consider leaving New York? "Well, I don't know," Harry splutters, as if being invited to relocate to Mars. "I travel so much that I see a lot of different places anyway. New York is where a lot of my friends are, but I guess if I was to fall madly in love with a Spaniard I would consider moving to Spain. You never know, right?"
Since the Blondie reunion, Harry has admitted to a facelift and an ill-advised flirtation with Botox, but her private life remains a closed book. There have been "a few intimacies", but she still lives alone in Manhattan, doting mainly on her two dogs. "My private life is pretty much my public life," she sighs. "My down time I spend with friends. Occasionally I have a date, which I really don't like to admit to..."
A former waitress and Playboy bunny, Harry was already in her thirties when fame arrived. If the singer could offer some advice to her 30-year-old self, she says wistfully, "I would just tell her to relax and enjoy it a little bit more."
Harry believes many modern pop starlets become too famous too young. She cites the example of the Kentucky Fried Chicken founder, Colonel Sanders. "He had a terrific philosophy of life," she says. "He did a lot of odd jobs up until he reached his sixties, and then after he reached retirement age he became world famous as Colonel Sanders. This idea that everybody has a schedule to follow that is the same as everybody else's is a big mistake."
Harry herself clearly follows her own regal schedule.
Aside from her Blondie commitments, the 61-year-old has a new solo album ready for release. She also tours America this summer under the True Colors banner, Cyndi Lauper's package show in support of gay rights. And she continues to sing sporadically with her former band the Jazz Passengers, although she is a semi-detached member nowadays.
"They will probably go on into eternity," Harry laughs. "I did a set with them a couple of months ago, which was a terrific experience as ever. Every once in a while I join them. I like working with these jazz guys because they're terrific musicians and it's challenging for me. But I'm definitely a rock'n'roll person."
Blondie play Cornbury, July 8; Lovebox, July 21.