Hot Press - 24th November 1999
OLAF TYARANSEN sings the reunion city blues as an unhappy DEBBIE HARRY forces him to take the scenic route through the rise, fall and rise of BLONDIE. But, hey, it all ends happily ever after...
ALTHOUGH I had been promised a full forty-five minute interview with Blondie, our encounter barely lasted eight minutes in total. That's Blondie the blonde, mind, not Blondie the group.
I could hear Debbie Harry about 30 seconds before I actually saw her, standing outside the door moaning loudly to her highly stressed press agent about having to do an interview while I fidgeted uncomfortably with my tape recorder waiting for her to enter the bedroom of her Berkley Court Hotel suite ("I don't wanna do an interview! Nobody told me about it!"). It wasn't the most auspicious of beginnings. And when she finally did enter the room, I swear to God the temperature dropped.
Still quite pretty, but certainly looking all of her 53 years, she immediately sat down on a footstool, making it quite difficult for me to record her. When I asked her to join me at the table, she shrugged and growled, "I'm happy enough here." And it was all downhill from there.
Suffice to say, I'd rather attempt to pull Everlast's teeth out with a pliers than ever interview Debbie Harry again.
OLAF TYARANSEN: Hi Debbie, how are you?
DEBBIE HARRY: I'm sick. I've just flown in from Chicago and I feel awful. I think I've got some kind of virus. Here (leans over to me and blows all over my face). Now you'll have it too!
OT: Er, thanks. Shall we just get on with it?
DH: If we have to (pulls face). I'm falling apart here.
OT: Are you enjoying the reunion?
DH: Is that the best question you can think of? You'll have to think of a better question than that.
OT: Well, it was just an ice-breaker. So how did you spend the interim years?
DH: I did three solo albums, a couple of world tours. I did a couple of jazz albums and a couple of other tours. I've been working (shrugs).
OT: Any plans to make more movies?
DH: Sure. I'm sick. I don't feel well.
OT: Do you generally enjoy the interview process?
DH: Sometimes (shrugs).
OT: Are you doing a lot of it at the moment?
OT: So I'm privileged...
DH: I'm surprised we're doing any interviews. We haven't had anything scheduled. I wasn't aware of any press.
OT: Is it a change this time around?
DH: A change?
OT: Just in terms of your attitude to the whole thing. Being that bit older and now being back in the middle of it all again.
DH: Oh, I don't know (shrugs).
OT: So you're taking it all in your stride?
DH: I guess I'm more focused on the music now. It's not as distracting as all the asides. The press business can be quite distracting. I think at one time I was much more aware of doing press and I worked harder at doing it. I really concentrate more on doing what I like to do now.
OT: Would you say that Blondie are more of a studio band than a live act?
DH: It's hard to say what we are right now. I think we like to make records very much. We also like to play live. We've been doing a lot of touring this past year-and-a-half, a lot of playing and a lot of touring. Have you ever been on the road?
OT: A few times, yeah.
DH: Well, you know what it's like then. It's kind of gruelling and playing is the reward and the pay-off.
OT: So playing is your two hours of release?
DH: Yeah. That's what you're there for really.
OT: Do you like Dublin?
DH: Yes. Dublin is fabulous. It took us so many years to play in Ireland because of all the trouble. Back in the '70s it was quite fierce. So we always regretted we could never get here. We had been scheduled to come here many times and then we had to cancel. Something would always come up.
OT: Or blow up...
DH: Yeah, exactly (smiles for the first time). So then when we finally did get here to play it's very nice to be here. The audiences are so wonderful. I actually prefer to play in Belfast, though.
OT: What do you think of people like Courtney Love? She's basically doing in the '90s what you were doing in the '70s.
DH: I actually like Courtney. I do. I think she's really funny. She's really quick in some ways, you know. I don't think she's the greatest musical talent but I think she's really authentic. She's really got feeling. I like her.
OT: How about Madonna? She kind of snatched the baton from you and ran with it in the early '80s...
DH: I think Madonna's much more of a showbiz person. She's much more polished. I do respect her for her achievement and her sense of taste. She really has her finger on the pulse. She really knows where to go with what she's doing.
OT: How are relations within the band now?
DH: They suck! (laughs and throws piece of paper at Chris Stein as he enters the room)
OT: Do things ever get childish between you all? Like you're all 19 again?
DH: Does life ever become childish? You've been on the road. Why are you asking me these questions? We should put a filter on your head!
OT: Het, it's still pretty early in the day for me as well.
DH: OK - you're forgiven!
OT: Are you living a healthier lifestyle now than you were in the '70s?
DH: I was very healthy in the '70s.
OT: I thought you were using heroin.
DH: I was not into drugs at all then. Where did you get that idea from?
OT: The interview you gave in Mojo recently.
DH: No, that Mojo piece was misconstrued. All the quotes were given to different people. Most of the stuff that Chris said was attributed to Clem and most of the stuff I said was attributed to Jimmy. And it was all mixed up. The person who did that interview was extremely stoned. Chris, will you talk to this guy? I'm tired of this.
And with that, she got up and walked (actually, flounced) out of the room. Chris Stein, eyes shielded behind a pair of Ray-Bans, pulled a puzzled face and wandered over to me. "Who are you writing this for?" he asked, in a somewhat geeky New York accent. "HOT PRESS? Are they into culture? Cos all I wanna talk about is the Hannibal Lecter book. Have you read it?"
As it happens, I hadn't, but seeing as Harry had both shortchanged me in the quote department and completely phased me, I was prepared to tape anything at that stage.
"The Doctor Lecter book is great!" he enthused. "It's the first one I have a series of quotes about. With all the sections about violence and morbidity it really is the ultimate thing or whatever. I've always used the association of James Bond as the hero versus Rambo. One of the differences between the '60s and now - we had the hero who could kill anybody but who was also sophisticated and intellectual, but Rambo and all those guys later on were just thugs. So here we have Dr. Lecter who is the monster as the hero and he's the hero who's psychotic. It definitely says something about the tone of our times and our obsession with morbidity and violence. And also the fact that we have the monster as sophisticated and intellectual..."
He continued in that vein until I ran out of tape. And aside from revealing that he'd gotten married in Las Vegas recently, telling me a couple of stories about things like Jerry Nolan getting knifed in The Bowery in New York and bitching about various long-forgotten '70s celebs (apparently hip young artists like Basquait only ever slept in the park so they could boast about it later and enhance their street cred), Chris Stein told me even less about the return of Blondie than Harry had.
All of which left the promotional duties in the (thankfully) capable hands of drummer Clem Burke. Looking relaxed, tanned and far healthier than any fortysomething sticksman should - particularly one whose star first began to shoot in the rock and raucous '70s - Burke seemed a lot keener to talk about the second coming of Blondie than either of his fellow bandmates.
"I wouldn't worry about Debbie," he reassured me. "She's just feeling a little frustrated today. Actually, this new record is really about feeling frustrated. The title, 'No Exit' came from a day of sitting around in the studio and feeling as though there was no escaping what we were doing. There's a play by Jean Paul Sartre called No Exit and one of the quotes is "Hell is other people". And that sort of described what it's like to be in a band sometimes or to be in any sort of job."
Like music journalism...
OLAF TYARANSEN: So how are you Clem?
Hopefully in better form...
CLEM BURKE: I'm well. We've been on a really hectic schedule which is really great. The band is getting really resilient. We spent quite a few hours in a van together the other day which is kind of unusual because we're either on a tour bus or in a couple of cars, usually. It's unusual that we're all lumped together in a van. And it could have went either way but it was actually a very bonding experience for all of us. It felt like we were really a band.
OT: How are the band getting on at this stage because it all ended quite badly, didn't it?
CB: We're getting on really well. That's the point I'm trying to make. With the schedule being so heavy it could be a really volatile situation. But everyone seems to be getting on very well and the reception has been really great. And we did the UK tour here in October/November and the response was tremendous. We're seeing the same sort of response in the States. The record's not doing quite as well in the States as it was doing in the rest of the world which is kind of interesting because it's reminiscent of the way it was the last time around. It kind of took time for the States to catch up. But it's been going well.
OT: Was there much nervousness about the idea of getting back together?
CB: No, because it was all in steps. It wasn't any grand plan. It wasn't any five-year plan or 18-month plan. It was like 'can we get back together and make music together again?'. And initially it was presented to us that we would go and do a couple of new songs and put out another re-issue record. And we were all adamantly against that. We decided that if we were going to endeavour to do this we would have to become a band and make new music.
So we went to a little place on the Lower Eastside in a basement and rehearsed a little bit. And then we moved to Chris' loft and went about trying to make new music. And we really didn't even have a record deal. We all agreed we would try to be a band. So it wasn't like any kind of pressure of 'you guys are back together and you're going on tour in six weeks from now. Get a Greatest Hits set together and let's go'.
OT: Are you playing many of the old hits?
CB: Yes, we do. We play 75% of our old songs. We're proud of our old songs. They've stood the test of time and that's the reason we're still here. The songs lived on and if anything they've apparently got better with age, like a fine wine. I think there's a lot of appreciation for what Blondie did now in retrospect. At the time I think a lot of people really didn't make out what we were doing a lot. It was very new. Just the whole idea of someone like Debbie fronting a band of guys and using her glamour in a particular way.
I think people were used to Patti Smith or Janis Joplin and they really weren't used to a woman being feminine and showing her sexuality, albeit in a very innocent way. And a bunch of punk rockers or whatever you want to call us - guys dressed in black with a bit of a gunslinger mentality wanting to make a name for themselves with this cacophonous noise happening on stage.
OT: Kind of like seeing a '70s Courtney Love?
CB: Yeah, you know, Debbie and Blondie were the forerunners of the sound of music today. It just comes into focus that way. And at the time when we did something like 'Rapture' it was unheard of. It was in this whole disco era and when we did 'Heart Of Glass'. And with 'Heart Of Glass' we were trying to emulate Kraftwerk. We were big fans of Kraftwerk. I worked with Connie who produced Kraftwerk who has since died, on the first Eurythmics record and also in the Eurythmics live record and he told me he was so happy when he heard 'Heart Of Glass' when he realised that that sound - this was the man who kind of created that sort of sound using synthesisers and sequencing and things. And he said when he realised that song was a commercial hit he was really happy because for him it was a very innovative sound.
OT: Did commercial success alienate some of your original fanbase?
CB: I guess. But I love for people to hate us. I would hate to think everybody really likes Blondie. I know there's plenty of people sitting around saying 'they suck'. That's a good thing because our fans are so rabid. They're such avid fans and they really love Debbie and they love the music and the band. And so you know there's got to be a backlash to that. I wouldn't sit here and pretend everyone loves us. We're getting a lot of adulation right now. Everybody's trying to get us all this positive flow for order for us to expound on our greatness as it were.
So I wouldn't pretend that everyone thought we were so great or even that we think we're that great. We are sincerely happy for this opportunity we have right now and we're all really amazed and that really gives up the impetus to continue. I think if we had come back and everyone had said 'this is no good' or 'we don't like it', I don't think we'd have been able to continue.
OT: How did the split happen originally?
CB: Well, our very last show was auspicious in that it was a really terrible show. Unbeknownst to us, it was our very last show. It was in Philadelphia. It was Genesis headlining, Elvis Costello, Blondie and Flock Of Seagulls. There about 50,000-60,000 people in the stadium and what had happened was we went on stage and our crew had been locked in our trailer by the Elvis Costello road crew.
OT: Was it an accident?
CB: Deliberately, which we found out later. We were very friendly with those guys and it was a friendly rivalry. I heard Elvis Costello had been taking the piss out of us in concerts recently, quoting some of our lyrics. Have you heard about that?
OT: No. Doesn't sound like him though.
CB: I think it's a little stage repartee that he's doing. So we get on stage and things begin to go wrong very quickly. The first song was 'Rapture' and at the time I was playing to a hand-clap click track which started the song off. And I began playing and I realised, if you can follow this, it's a metronome that I was playing to and a programme which was only going to the front-of-house PA but not through the monitors. So I wasn't hearing it and I was just getting the echo of the delay of it. So everything was going in and out of time and I was searching around for my drum tech or for somebody from the crew and none of the crew were onstage with us. And you know when you're in that concert environment, you're thrown to the lions. I don't think we had a soundcheck even.
So there was no road crew and it was just a big disaster. And actually my girlfriend at the time was videotaping it, and Chris was going like this (waves hands), he was making like a stop sign towards the camera, but he was doing it to tell the monitor guy to cut off the click track or something, and she misinterpreted it as 'shut off the camera'. So the very last thing on the camera is Chris making the sign to stop, otherwise she would have had the last concert documented. But I went on holiday right after that and we were supposed to go to Japan and I got the call that we weren't going and that Chris wasn't feeling well. And that was it.
Also on that tour we were flying around in a private jet, the idea being that we would spend more time at home and away from each other, I guess on the road. And the irony of that is, if you've ever been on a small jet, it's not very big. So we would do these shows and everyone would be pretty uptight anyway. They were only kind of half selling out. We were booked into 20,000-seat venues and on a good day we would have 15,000. Which was great. We could have been doing a great theatre tour, because we hadn't played at that point for a few years.
So after the shows we would be kind of disappointed and we would go onto the jet and the seats were quite small and they faced each other. So all of a sudden we would be in this very small, enclosed environment and looking at each other in the eye and sitting three feet away from one another and all not very happy.
If we were thrown on a commercial we could have hidden. We were in these very close quarters and it felt like something out of a movie. So I don't think that when the band stopped anybody really cared that it stopped. It was almost like a relief. We never really formally broke up. We didn't put out any great statements - Blondie Have Split. Our companies that we had over the years we maintained and kept intact. That was one of the ways we kept communication with one another over the years through business.
OT: Do you mean record companies or businesses you'd invested in?
CB: I mean through our publishing companies, through our holding company - the company that collects our royalties, things like that. So it wasn't like - a lot of times bands split there's a letter of direction to the record company that this is how it's split, send the money direct - we didn't do all that. We kept it all intact. So we weren't in constant touch but there were things we were aware of. We were estranged really. We weren't completely cut off from one another.
OT: What was the longest period of non-communication?
CB: Oh, years... I mean between '80 and '82 when the band was together we didn't really communicate that much. And, ironically once again, it was our most successful period. We put out one American record and I think the only thing we did in two years was make two videos. And we had two worldwide No. 1s with 'High Tide' and 'Rapture'. I don't think 'Rapture' was No. 1 here but it was around the rest of the world. And that's when I began going off and doing other things. I started playing with Eurythmics in 1980. But we were together for eight years. And the first four years we were struggling and the last four years were the success and it's debatable which were the better times.
OT: Did things change much in the '80s in rock & roll terms?
CB: I think prior to AIDS people were taking a lot more chances with their lives, sexuality and with drugs. And I think AIDS was a big wake-up call for a lot of people. And I think there was a period when a lot of people were wondering if they were going to survive. And now you have this kind of, I think amongst older people, people my age, people in their forties and late thirties, there's a kind of survival instinct. I certainly think I'm a survivor. Not that I was that decadent at the time, but with the lifestyle in general anything could have happened. I read a poem Pete Townshend wrote about Keith Moon dying. When he heard that Keith died, he just thought 'Well, I've survived'. Because they were living the same life. And essentially to a lesser or greater degrees we were all living the same life that Johnny Thunders, for instance, was living and he's not here anymore. And a lot of people that no-one would really know have fallen by the wayside.
You always hear about somebody dying, and what was wrong, they had AIDS or whatever. I think that sex/drugs/rock'n'roll lifestyle existed back then and still does exist actually. I've been around a lot of young bands and that seems to be their credo. And I used to warn them. Such is the impetuousness of youth.
OT: Do you live a very healthy lifestyle now?
CB: Yeah, I've been a vegetarian for a very long time. I exercise and actually when I moved to California in the early '80s my lifestyle did change quite a bit. I'm more health conscious. It's just a healthier lifestyle. You're outdoors a lot more. For what I do at this point for a living, as it were, I kind of need to be at the top of my game physically. So, I think you get more spiritual and more aware of your body as you get older anyway.
OT: How do you feel about Madonna? How does Debbie feel about Madonna?
CB: You should ask Debbie about that. I think Madonna obviously carried on in the tradition that Debbie started. That's the way music is. There's an evolution. I was influenced by The Beatles and The Who and The Sex Pistols and whatever. And that's just the way it goes.
It's like a musical food-chain. It just continues. I think that true of a lot of art. Everybody taking from other sources. That's what we did - we took from B movie soundtracks, The Shangri-Las, The New York Dolls. We assimilated all that stuff into our sounds. And being Blondie we came from an urban environment which is kind of a melting pot and I think our music reflects that a lot. Which is why you saw us doing a rap song or a reggae song or doing, you know, like '50s do-wap sounding stuff.
And you know, American Top 40 radio in the '60s was very eclectic - it was The Beach Boys next to Frank Sinatra next to The Rolling Stones next to Dean Martin or some type of novelty song. It was all coming at you at once. I think we all assimilated that into our sound and we always wanted to be played on the radio anyway and we had this natural aesthetic about what it might take to get played on the radio.
We weren't ever really essentially interested in being an underground band. The whole CBGBs/Max's thing, the clubs in New York in the '70s was a kind of forum for us. A kind of launching pad. We really didn't fit in for a long time there, because maybe our aspirations were different from Television, for instance, or The Ramones or whatever.
OT: How did the decision to use Coolio on the record come about?
CB: Yeah, Coolio's on the title song. I think the song had started to sound like 'Gangster's Paradise' and Debbie had worked with Coolio in Europe on some sort of thing in Belgium where they use an orchestra to play your hits. And Coolio was involved with that and Debbie was and think there was some connection with management as well. And we did want to have someone rap on that song. That song really evolved.
OT: It's quite a varied record.
CB: No Exit? Yeah, I mean it reminds me of America in a lot of ways. It's really a continuation into the whole Blondie story. It's not really where we decided to make a certain kind of record. When we got that together that was the primary thing for us, to become a band.
OT: Thematically does the band have a message at all?
CB: I think the messages are very subliminal and I think they speak for themselves in a lot of ways.
OT: Have you decided to make a second album?
CB: Yeah, we're going to make another record. We signed a record contract for two albums but it really was 'let's see how it goes'. But if anything I think what we enjoy most is being in the studio. We like creating, you know.
As the interview wraps up, Debbie and Chris return to the room to say their goodbyes. Curiously, they're both far more open and happier to talk when the tape's off. We chat about New York for a few minutes and then it's time for me to go.
"Sorry about earlier," she smiles as I pack up my things. "I just feel really shit today, haven't had much sleep, y'know."
Hmmm. Maybe she doesn't have a heart of glass after all...
Blondie play The Point, Dublin on Friday, 19th November.