HOT PRESS - April 28th - May 11th 1978
Vol 1 - No 23
Close encounters of the telephone kind - never the most satisfactory form of interview. But BLONDIE are in L.A. and we're in Dublin and the band are No. 1 in Britain. You want the scam. We want the scam. Bill Graham got it down as best he can.
Pages 10 & 11
FROM NEW YORK TO L.A. - AND ONWARDS?
"I wonder, who, who, who - who wrote the book of love". It doesn't matter, anymore. Blondie are re-writing it.
Bill Graham makes a connection with DEBBIE HARRY in the U.S. of A. and they discuss the future of BLONDIE
At three o'clock on a Saturday morning, a telephone assignment with Debbie Harry. It's nine hours earlier in her Los Angeles hotel bedroom. She's just been finishing off a day of promo interviews and appearances, all intended to persuade lackadasical Californians that Hollywood stars aren't the last word in glamour.
"Denis" is of course the reason. The single has been on American release a month now but the West Coast - indeed the nation itself - has still to be charmed into falling under its very spell.
It's still all upstream for Blondie, even if the B & I charting of "Denis" might be awakening the more perceptive of U.S. radio-programmers to Blondie's worth for air-play. New York bands face this one intimidating hurdle, you see. They don't sell records.
Norman Mailer once ran for Mayor of New York on the not-unintelligent proposition that the city should secede from the state and set up on its own. If musical tastes mean anything, the man was right. Indeed the geographical divide of the Atlantic might as well be between the city and the other LA states, for all the past commercial achievements of its rock bands.
As for production pop, it can't be ashamed. Through the fifties with The Drifters to bubblegum and now to disco and the likes of Barry Manilow, the New York stables have trained sufficient winners to attract the most cautious of punters.
Not so with their own rock bands. Ever since the advent of The Velvet Underground, New York has been out of tune with America, its combination of urban sleaze and chic unappetizing to the suburbans, who've preferred other recipes. Springsteen is about the only exception and even his unhappy interlude of litigation has prevented the absolute breakthrough he so patently deserves. He's still second division. Like Lou Reed.
And they call Ireland unhip?
Walking down to the office for the phone-call, the discophiles are returning from Zhivargo's and I know that there's those in their number humming "Denis". The secretaries tread or taxi home. Fifteen years ago, they'd have bought The Supremes. Oh baby love!
It's been a long march from their tentative origins. Deborah Harry herself began with a band called Wind In The Willows. Signed to Capitol, they were a hippie folkie band, all flaws and incense. Long long ago, I once picked up a cheapo single by them.
I played it once and once only and if Capitol should ever exploit the connection by re-releasing it, buy it to pose with, not play. It'll be an embarassment to both you and her. Notwithstanding, she sweetly offers to autograph it if she could.
An unfavourable initiation indeed - and her long fall down from the Wind In The Willows included both a self-admitted joust with junk and a period as waitress in Max's Kansas City. It's a tribute to her stamina that she didn't end up as one of those peripheral butterflies that haunt the neon nightlife of rock. It's also a clue to both the intelligence and subtleties that underpin Blondie's funtime philosophy.
The Blondie past is quite a thread to unravel. The embryo was a '72 band, The Stilettos, which included both her and guitarist Chris Stein. It broke up a year later to be followed by an outfit which went under the title of either Angel or Snake as the mood took them, a sign of the less than serious spirit they were playing in. What's possibly more important is that the aggregation included, on various occassions, Fred Smith, the current bassist with Television and one-time Patti Smith keyboardsperson, Ivan Kral.
Blondie finally was born in August '75 and didn't have to wait long till they signed with Private Stock, who released their first album at the end of '76.
Actually that signing led to the first squall in the band's career - yet one they negotiated with a panache well in line with the polished worldliness of their image. Relations with Private Stock went sour, the label not supporting them with the conviction they desired, so they persuaded Chrysalis to buy them - a transfer move more in line with soccer than the music business.
They could have been stymied but their comeback with "Denis" suggests there's a resilience in the band that will serve them well as they endeavour to convert their compatriots. After all "Denis" shares with "God Save The Queen" the status of being the top-ranking New Wave single, only the lemming-like instincts that sent Kate Bush over the brink preventing Blondie from attaining a deserved position at the top of the greasy pile.
For those who hadn't previously heard the band, it isn't one of those freak "Whiskey In The Jar" unrepresentative singles, instead a happy distillation of Blondie's sweet essence.
What's even more heartening is that record-buyers beyond the punk ghetto have picked up on Blondie's unique and unaccustomed sound. Tinkertoy organ, drums splashing like a freestyle swimmer escaping "Jaws" and above it all, Debbie's casual blow-wave voice. The Doors' Ray Manzarek trails Abba down a rag-trade street, while the Shangri-La's commentate from a boutique. "Telstar" is the theme tune. Blondie are Iveagh Market pop for now people.
Besides any brief glance at the band's song-titles will reveal Blondie the band, to have a personality that goes beyond Deborah Harry. This magazine's more than the cover-girl. Wilko Johnson used to explain "Cell Block No. 9" in James Cagney B-movie terms; Blondie are the ultimate Curzon and Astor band.
"The Attack Of The Giant Ants", "X Offender", "Kung Fu Girls", "Detroit 442", "Contact In Red Square" - the boys feel out the titles, while Debbie doles up the pop-corn and soda-pop.
There's a taste of Angosturas, as well.
I can reach Los Angeles at three in the morning but I can't ring Galway at three in the afternoon - that's the random distortions of our telephone strike. We aren't cut off; there's no hiccups on the line; the conversation proceeds without distraction.
Ms. Harry's presence in Los Angeles supplies the first topic - and the disproportion between Blondie's British and American status. Like a trooper, she takes the question in her stride pointing to the sheer scale of America. Getting into the big stadia and convincing the radio programmers is like breaking a magic circle, although she admits to being disheartened in that "There's only three or four stations giving a break and airspace to the new music, to the New Wave you know."
"It's a bit like the years of Lyndon Johnson," she adds, a telling remark in that the New York bands are perhaps the most unorthodox constellation of talent to arise from one American city since San Francisco and just as original in that each band has its own
Of all the New Yorkers, Blondie are the current favourites to cut through the prevailing apathy about bands from the city. Debbie concedes the onerous nature of the task but is contented with Blondie's progress in the larger cities - and she doesn't just mean places like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston, towns where there's already a sizeable and committed contingent body of New Waves loyalists.
"In a place like St. Louis say, we're doing well" she announces and I only hope the optimism is well-founded. I've been having dire forebodings that America isn't yet prepared to put cash on the barrelhead for Blondie and their comrades. The prospect for rock'n'roll is just too awful to contemplate. Debbie may fear that the spirit of Lyndon Johnson is abroad in the land again; I'd substitute the anaesthetic presence of Dwight Eizenhower. America swings like a golf-club do.
But there's one healthy sign of subversion.
"You know we're beginning to get some play in discos," she says though not in any way associating Blondie musically with that Fare. "Not a great deal, but it's a help," she adds.
If Blondie have the most favourable odds, it's partially due to her centre-spread looks - without in any way de-emphasizing the comparative mellowness of their sound. Her own sex-appeal and the undisguised glee with which music papers have used her attraction to sell their wares can be controversial topics. Three front-covers in the same week is a formidable feat.
But as with everything about Blondie, ambiguity lurks beneath the lip-gloss surface. Elsewhere, she's admitted to studying drag-queens for her act and there's a protective distance and coolness about her act. "Don't touch; I'll touch you" she seems to be saying.
She doesn't admit to any major influence, just that the styles of any number of woman singers of the last fifteen years have been
subliminated into her persona. She perks up at the mention of Janis Joplin, whose tragic competition with male macho games burnt her out.
"Yeah, you could say I'm coming from an opposite extreme, trying to do something different."
Something with a bit more humour, a bit more irony?
"Yeah, that's coming close."
Additionally, her appeal isn't just male-centred. She gets to talk to female fans, as well; she's a potential model for them, not a figure to enviously ignore. There's even a Blondie copy-band now operating on the West Coast.
Withal, some of the snaps have had her dangerously dicing with her dignity and close to toppling off her tightrope. She confirms an earlier statement that she wants greater control over her publicity shots and also mentions Linda Ronstadt as another lady who's become aware of the traps the media will lay for a juicy body.
Nevertheless, ambiguity cuts both ways and there must be some element of co-operation in any pose. One of Deborah Harry's most prized possessions, till it was burgled, was Marilyn Monroe's dress from "The Seven Year Itch" and she strikes me as a Marilyn twenty years on, wiser more detached, happy to be beautiful for herself and not solely for men. If she ever makes it to mega-stardom, the evolution of the Blondie character
is going to be tantalizing.
That's future games. Meantime, the New Yorkers prepare themselves for the spring campaign to subvert America's sons and daughters; What's the state of morale? It's been hazarded that the early C.B.G.B.'s - Max's comradeship was shattered once contract-competition began, the rivalry in the rush to be signed denting the unity of a once comradely and co-operative scene. That wouldn't help the cause when all must needs pull together.
Debbie explains it as a circular process.
"Yeah we all used to be friends and sure there was rivalry once the record companies came looking to sign us but that's over a year ago and it's behind us. I think everybody has come back together again. The old comradeship has returned."
But Tom Verlaine's just been criticizing everybody in a "Guardian" interview?
She rationalises: "He's always been a little apart, Tom's always been different. He's a loner."
Be there one dissident, one sniper in his foxhole, the future survival, nay, prosperity of the New York bands is crucial to rock's future health. Only they can stimulate America to a greater openess and tolerance in its tastes. If they don't succeed, it's likely few, if any British acts, will break out either.
It's almost comparable, albeit on a grander scale to a well-worn Irish predicament, the devitalising process whereby a band that doesn't or can't leave becomes demoralized and it's music ingrown and inbred. On this larger front, the self-same process could operate.
The bands need the stimulus extra audiences can give them and the increased self-confidence success breeds. Otherwise entropy could occur, energy levels decline and the pressures mount up as the day of reckoning threatens, with record companies balefully complaining that the beneficiaries of their investments aren't producing the profits.
Get on board with Blondie. Their opening album was a silver arrow to both heart and head, and euphoriant that endures beyond the first cheap thrills.
It's successor "Plastic Letters" is more diverse and taking its time about replacing its predecessor on the turntable, a response possibly due to the fact that some tracks are more an acquired taste without the former's instant karma.
I'll just have to work my ears harder. But not as hard as their countrymen - or more accurately their radio-dictators. They can hear that Debbie's so 20th century, the whole band topic for the troops. Deborah Harry is indeed a 20th century Fox riding the big dipper of Blondie's music.
Life is their carnival, Blondie the sideshow illusionists. America don't let them disappear.