Hot Press - 5th November 2003
Pages 33 + 92
Bleach of the Peace
Stuart Clark talks rowdy rock'n'roll with Blondie
My mum reckons that honesty is the best policy but I'm sorry, I'm not starting my Blondie interview by telling Debbie Harry how she fuelled all my pubescent sexual fantasies. Instead, I compliment her narration of the Alternative Rock'N'Roll Years documentary series that aired recently on the Discovery Channel.
"We thought we were being pretty radical in the '70s, but nobody got sent to a gulag for owning a Beatles record like happened in Russia," says Harry who's in better nick than anyone born in 1945 has a right to be. "Then there was the musician in Argentina who was blindfolded and beaten because the authorities didn't like his lyrics... do you want a cookie?"
I can feel my testicles dropping all over again. Chocolate chip - but nothing else - in hand, I ask Harry and her Blondie colleagues about the genuinely confrontational bands they've encountered.
"Suicide were in your face to the point where you thought their gigs were going to end in a riot," reflects Chris Stein, Debbie's guitarist ex and the only group member who looks their age. "Alan Vega would jump on tables and knock drinks over, which didn't go down well in places like CBGB's where people were so broke that a beer had to last all night. James Chance, of The Contortions fame, is another guy who was just asking to be beaten up."
"Iggy's still kind of threatening," volunteers the drummer with the most gravity-defying hair in rockdom, Clem Burke. "I went to see him the other day and half-way through the show he decides to upend all the tables in the VIP area."
"Did you ever hear of G. G. Allin?" Debbie inquires. "He used to roll around in broken glass and smear the audience with excrement. I've always felt that defecating on stage is a line that shouldn't be crossed."
Suddenly I've gone right off my cookie.
"Didn't Wayne/Jayne Country almost kill somebody on stage?" joins in bassist Jimmy Destri. "There were some very extreme characters knocking round New York in the '70s."
Ditto Detroit. Having toured with his pick up group, Mad For The Racket, what does Burke make of former MC5 man Wayne Kramer?
"Wayne, me, Mani from Stone Roses and Brian James, who was the original guitarist with The Damned, did a show a couple of years back in Whelan's that was awesome," he enthuses. "I remember thinking, 'Fuck me, I'm getting
paid to play 'Kick Out The Jams' with one of the MC5!'"
"A journalist told me that Wayne's going round emphasising their radical roots which is a little bit disingenuous," Chris Stein butts in. "I always found the MC5 to be more image-driven than anything else."
"John Sinclair spending however-many-years-he-did in prison wasn't 'image-driven'," Clem disagrees. "His radicalism was definitely for real."
While no participants have done hard jail time recently, Detroit and New York are still blessed with music scenes that challenge the top 40 norm. And retain a
respect for bands like Blondie who were rattling cages when Jack White, Julian Casablancas, Karen O et al were still in pre-school.
"I applaud anybody who, having put a band together, comes up from the bottom," Harry resumes. The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs are always being referenced back to us, but there wouldn't be a Blondie without The Young Rascals or The Velvet Underground. We're all continuations of a spirit that's been in New York for years."
"The way we've influenced those bands is through our do-it-yourself attitude," Jimmy Destri proffers. "People recognise that the success we had was on our terms and we weren't really dictated to by anybody. We all had our ideas about what the perfect band should be and, of course, the first ingredient is to have a great lead singer. It was the persona Debbie created, together with her amazing charisma, that got us noticed."
While happy to wallow in nostalgia, the reason the quartet have been flown to Dublin at considerable record company expense is to promote their new album. Don't listen to that meanie Phil Udell - The Curse Of Blondie still manages to push all the right power pop buttons. With her well-documented chemical excesses a thing of the past, Harry sounds better than at any point in the band's 29-year career. The songwriting ain't half bad either, with at least five tunes that wouldn't disgrace Parallel Lines or Eat To The Beat. Much has been made of their retro roots, but lead single 'Good Boys' is a reminder of Blondie being the first band to cross hip-hop over to the mainstream.
"You would not believe the difficulty I had explaining 'scratching' and 'rapping' to those fucking record company dickbrains," Chris Stein sighs. "The whole thing was going under their nose, but they had too much cocaine up there to notice."
"We were constantly being told that it was going to go away, which patently wasn't the case," Harry picks up. "'Rapture' was us reflecting what had been happening for years in places like The Bronx. The fact that it was perceived as being so groundbreaking shows how out of touch the industry was."
And still is?
"We had to search our cool bands out, whereas 14 and 15-year-olds now can walk into Wal-Mart and buy The White Stripes," she concludes. "That's definitely a step in the right direction."
The Curse Of Blondie is out now in Sony. You can also catch Debbie Harry & Co. live at Vicar St. Dublin (November 9) and The Waterfront, Belfast (10)