Jack - October 2003
"I'm a punk, I have a
Debbie Harry - Sydney, 2003.
Written by: Michael Holden
Blondie were, without a doubt, the perfect combination of sex, art and pop. Even Andy Warhol, quantifiably obsessed with all three, said that his ambition, were he to have a facelift, would be "to come out like Debbie". Rock'n'roll remains a steadfastly masculine occupation, but Debbie does it better. Throughout the death of the Seventies and the birth of the Eighties, the spectacular Debbie Harry (and, apparently, some blokes) kept our hearts and charts ablaze with a machine gun volley of genius-level singles (back when they mattered) and albums. And the legend lives on. At 58, Debbie Harry is still as savage, soft, hilarious and beautiful as ever. She talked to Jack from her hotel in Australia, where Blondie are midway through their world tour.
There's a big resurgence of interest in Blondie at the moment, even beyond the new album.
DH: "I think it's kind of a (laughing), kind of a miracle really. But the record's really good. I'm really pleased with it."
Do you feel like you're finally getting your due?
DH: "It does seem that Blondie has been overlooked a lot, although we've always gotten credit for being groundbreaking in certain areas. But I don't know if we've ever really got the audience that that would imply."
The live audience?
DH: "I think the live audience. But then the industry has changed to much. I don't think record sales are ever going to be what they were. That's what they tell me, because of the internet, downloading and all that stuff."
There seems to be more to Blondie's appeal, though, than simply buying records...
DH: "Well thank you. I think in a lot of ways that's accurate and true. It's sort of like Iggy Pop, a real groundbreaking guy in terms of punk music, and performance-wise, you know he did a lot of things first. I guess The Velvet Underground, too, bands like that. I'm completely overjoyed to be listed with either of those."
Everyone you've mentioned there, including yourselves, suffered tribulation with the music industry or had records that were overlooked in their day, whereas now there's a more abiding appreciation of the importance of those bands.
DH: "Yeah, definitely."
In the course of this feature we've interviewed well-known people of different ages and from various walks of life and everyone's got something to say about you. Blondie seemed to have such an abiding effect on people. Were you aware of it at the time?
DH: "I don't know, how could anyone predict that? We were just struggling to get into the world of popular music, the recording industry or whatever it was we were trying to do that we did. I don't know if we were especially business-minded. We definitely had a firm grasp on what we wanted to do musically. Perhaps that's why I always felt we should be further along in terms of the concert world or whatever. But, no, I think we really had a good - I hate to use the word formula - but our little way of looking at things, we chose elements that make up our style. And it worked out well, seemed to strike a bell."
When you looked in the mirror before you went on stage did you think, 'Now that's an iconic look that people will remember'? Presumably you just thought, 'That'll do,' and got on.
DH: "Just about. I was busy thinking about the job at hand, trying to remember all my cues and things like that."
What do you think when you run into images of your former self on T-shirts, posters and so forth?
DH: "When I see that stuff I think, 'Oh, I remember that!' and either I'll have a flash memory of the specific event or the photo shoot or I'll think, 'God, I was really cute.' Ha! Or just the opposite - 'I can't believe they're using that shot,' or, 'That fuckin' photographer, he never paid me for that. Why is it on that piece of underwear?' All of the above."
You managed to stay famous without becoming a celebrity in all the negative senses of the word. Was that a deliberate thing?
DH: "Fortunately or unfortunately, there's both side of the coin here. I come from a transitional period where rock'n'roll was counter culture and it didn't really have a lot to do with showbiz. It has showbiz elements, of course. As a performer and on stage you're looked at and you present yourself and you present what you're doing. But coming from the art world and coming from a time when rock'n'roll was still this counter culture movement it didn't really hit me that I wanted to be, as I would say, sort of 'Vegas' about it, you know. And I've always laughed at that, these groups of dancers that look like they're cheerleaders, doing all the same movements. It's like a parody, to me it doesn't seem like it's real, it seems like a sort of joke. Hence I never really chose to do that. However, I do condescend in my own way to reach out to the audience and to try to re-enact the sort of emotional core of what I've been writing about or what I feel a piece of music is about, so there's the happy medium."
Wasn't the point of punk about inventing things for yourself?
DH: "Absolutely. I think what really helped me the most were those movie star images, all the blondes were really where I stepped off the runway, as it were. I wanted to bring that silver screen image to the front of a band. It was something that really worked for me, it was something I could really relate to and really loved, yet I could have fun with it and make fun of it. I could use it in ways that were really creative for me."
Do you think that punk's legacy in terms of clothing, attitude and sound is being deployed these days as a marketing device on young artists, particularly female ones?
DH: "Definitely. I think that it's a sort of a desperate time, people are just applying it, kind of like wearing nail polish. Applying these different colours of attitude onto themselves, it's all about style and fashion, it has nothing to do with politics. Perhaps these desperate world times will have an influence on younger people if they choose to go into music. There's a little bit more to reality than taking off or putting on another coat for another day."
You recently made an MTV programme with Kelly Osbourne - how did you get along with her?
DH: "She was really sweet, I was so surprised. I didn't really expect her to be as genuine as she was, I ended up really liking her."
Did you give her any advice?
DH: "No, not really. I think that had I had more of a chance to talk with her I might. One of the things that I asked her, I said, 'Do you think that you'd have gone into a band if it weren't for the fact that you grew up as Ozzy Osbourne's daughter?' And she said definitely not. I think in a way she was being self-deprecating, I don't see how she could possibly know that. I think she feels sort of guilty that she's got the opportunity. I don't know, I'm guessing about that, but I would say that she should just go for it. Anybody who has the guts to do it, and it really is a lot of work, it's a tremendous amount of effort. It's just not an easy job, no matter what anybody may think."
What are your motivations for still doing it?
DH: "I guess I have a lot of different levels of motivation. I love what I do, I especially love writing songs. Ego, I suppose, to prove that I can still do it although that's probably less of a priority than the fact that I really feel that I do it well. Old habits die hard. The funny thing is the second incarnation of Blondie has been together longer than the first time."
Which was only 1975-'82.
DH: "Well it was like a madness really. We worked for seven years without stopping, heh heh. And anything that works like that is gonna explode, I would say. But I think that whole period was like that too. It wasn't just us."
Are you knowledgeable about the current NY music scene? Do you keep an ear to the ground?
DH: "I try to. I just interviewed Julian from The Strokes, and of course I've been to see them. And the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they opened for us on a couple of shows. But New York has always been good at that 'cos it is a mecca for a lot of different cultures. Kids come from all over the country to do their thing."
That famous scene in American Gigolo when Richard Gere's driving along to "Call Me", it always seemed like the LA high life opposite to the NY low life that spawned it.
DH: "Yeah, totally, they have nothing to do with one another culturally. It's a musical thing that just sort of happened. One of the things that makes it true to form for Blondie is that it's a cocktail, it's a blend. But "Call Me" and that movie, that's Paul Schrader, Giorgio Moroder and Blondie. We would probably never have had drinks."
By the time you first experienced huge success things intervened to stop you enjoying it - you
were tied into a ridiculous record deal and then Chris Stein became very ill. Do you feel like you're having a better time these days?
DH: "I think so, definitely. I think it shows in our performance, my performance in particular. I feel much more focused and I do enjoy it a whole lot more. I don't have all the worries that I had. I always had fun on stage and doing songs for people. But I think now I really have a great time."
How different is touring now from how it used to be?
DH: "Well, we're veterans now but I think the business has changed a great deal. Promoters are you know, they're, they've..."
They're paying you.
DH: "Thank you for saying that. I love you. Ha, yeah, it's a lot easier now."
Your appearance on stage was always very confident, sexually confident. Was that how you felt?
DH: "I was quite nervous about doing shows back then. I think as a person I do have a confident nature and an optimistic nature. As for going on stage I always felt that anything could happen, technical problems whatever, that used to weigh on me. I do feel much freer now. I used to over-sing just so I could hear myself. Nowadays you don't have to do that."
Movie actresses are very vocal about the fact that once they pass a certain age there are no decent parts for them. Is that true in the music business?
DH: "Ageism is one of the most serious prejudices that people face. When I was younger I felt the same way like, 'OK you old fart get outta the fucking the way, it's my turn now.' I certainly understand that. It's a survival mechanism. But now that I'm in that dangerous position, I think I have something to offer because I've got much better at what I do than I ever was. I think experience really counts. Coming from that punk world, having a stubborn attitude and being a punk, as it were, that definitely works in my favour because I have that attitude of, 'You fuck, just try it!' I have a rebellious attitude and nature. That's part of my make up."
Was the fact that you were in your early 30s when Blondie took off instrumental to its success?
DH: "Maybe. We weren't all convinced that it was gonna happen. Well, we definitely didn't come from showbiz families where we were counselled or tutored for our entire adolescent lives. We weren't groomed for success, that's for sure. Rock'n'roll is such a mainstream event at this time, and coming from the age group where it really was counter culture, forbidden fruit, the clandestine world of the teenager. That gave us a certain strength and power that seems to have diminished now. Things have become so commercial."
Rock'n'roll and punk were both initially seen as music for misfits and outsiders...
DH: "One thing I've said before, which may have been misconstrued, is that were I to go into a business at this point, the only business that really hold those elements is the sex industry. Perhaps computers at one point, software, ha!"
Could you foresee a situation where people in the sex industry are publicly auditioned on TV the way that pop stars are today?
DH: "Well, it's so bizarre now, you really feel like anything can happen. I'm not the first to say this, but when you look at some of the videos today they're so close to soft-core. It's just amazing to me."
DH: (Laughing) "What do you mean, 'Mmm'? Are you getting off on this?"
It's late, I try to avoid sexual thoughts before bedtime.
DH: "Just have the phrase 'Yum yum' in your head and you'll be OK."
Coming from a generation that was sexually awakened by you on the TV, nothing you can say will be any help at all.
DH: "Ha! Well you get the double yum yums then."
Much obliged, have a good morning.
The genius of Blondie
(Aug 1978. UK Chart: 12)
A place where permission to call Ms Harry is equal to "a sky full of thunder". You know when you feel the dangerous, erotic promise she breathes into the words, "My telephone number." Powerpop with enough hooks for five hits, and delicious innuendo - "All I want is a picture in my wallet/A small remembrance... of something more solid".
"Hanging On The
(Nov 1978. UK Chart: 5)
A cover of an obscure new wave rocker by The Nerves evolved their unerring ability to make wanting a little romance sound like a thriller chase scene.
"Heart Of Glass"
(Jan 1979. UK Chart: 1)
Blondie's first trans-Atlantic No. 1 saw a perfect electro intro and Clem Burke's inspired dance-rock drums throw off Blondie's vestiges of punk and transcend late Seventies pop - when pop was at its very best. Vulnerability and a knee in the bollocks.
(Sept 1979. UK Chart: 2)
Man, could Debs do opening lines: "When I met you in the restaurant/You could tell I was no debutante". It's all in the pauses, and the knowing sluttiness conjured by our heroine is equal to two seasons of Sex And The City, and is what people mean when they say they don't write chart pop like they used to.
(Feb 1980. UK Chart: 1)
Came in a sleeve only Debbie could get away with - a coldly smiling Debs in front of a mushroom cloud. If her sexually daunting image was a ruse by Chris Stein to keep us away from his bird, he shouldn't have made that geetar so inviting.
(Jan 1981. UK Chart: 5)
Harry's love of Manhattan hip hop culture made her instrumental in bringing it downtown to the Village. A No. 1 in the States, it took rap from cult to cultural phenomenon.
What Debbie means to me
"I had posters of her on my walls, because she's beautiful and always had the right attitude. She was always cool, always the way you wanted her to be. She's getting older, but her beauty's still there. She's very laid back. There's something about her way of talking that's just fascinating. And she's very funny... she has more enthusiasm than most young artists I work with. Debbie would never sell out or do something she didn't believe in. She's one of the few that never did - Iggy Pop never did, Debbie Harry never did. That's why they're icons. They don't rip off - they get ripped off. They don't follow - they create."
Jonas Akerlund, music video maker and director of Spun
"I think she's fucking cool, and how can you not think that? She's just an insane icon. It was the first time you saw someone who was so sexy but also completely mad. I remember the first time I heard them, I was 13 and I was on this boring ski trip with my class. They said we could have a dance party and they just played Parallel Lines over and over."
"The first time I heard Blondie I was in my Mum's car
driving to my cousin's house. It was 'Denis' on the radio and I don't think my mum approved. I mean what a fucking great band! Just a bunch of idiots and a pretty girl making the best music you've ever heard and that's all you can ask for from a band. It doesn't have to be more complicated than that. No one could chew gum like that. If she could chew gum for a living, fucking go for it. Her head is too big they say, proportioned like a little doll - that's what I read somewhere! She only had to move a tiny bit onstage because the whole world was already watching."
Alex James, Blur
"Her first few records were a big influence, even Blondie the name - it was just so clever. She was sexy, but also ironic with a sense of humour. I don't really see anyone who has done that since, certainly not in terms of coolness. Madonna played around with all these different images but she sort of became a victim of them. Debbie just made it look so easy. You know, when she wore underwear with fishnets it was cool, whereas when Courtney Love does it, it's insane. Like the way Debbie always had dark hair at the back and blonde at the front, it's because she could never get round to doing the back and it became this look. Whether Stephen Sprouse dressed her or what, it always looked like she just threw something on. Her style was playful and it didn't take itself too seriously. Blondie deconstructed pop music better than anyone, they added disco beats, and embodied both punk and new wave which were supposed to be against each other. And her image as a woman was the central core of their deconstruction of pop. My daughter has the same birthday as her, July 1."
Kim Gordon, Sonic Youth
"The first Blondie song I heard was 'Denis' in this youth club in Essex. It was astonishing. I was 11 and I could dance to it. They were singing lyrics in French and I just thought, how cosmopolitan! When I first saw her I just had to pick my chin off the floor - just the coolest girl you've ever seen and very streetwise. Then there was the 'Heart Of Glass' video, which was the first time a lot of guys of my generation saw lipgloss and boy, that's when she became seriously sexy. I still have a photo of her on my wall in my office. There used to be this paper called Record Mirror. Mostly it was black and white, but for four weeks they ran colour posters of Debbie Harry and those issues flew off the shelves."
Steve Lamacq, Radio 1
"She was the first girl I fell in love with, when I was 12. I had her posters everywhere. She was utterly beautiful. She had a real softness to her, even though she was hard. She managed to use her sexuality and not be criticised for it - but maybe that was the era."
Justine Frischmann, ex-Elastica
"I was 17 when I saw/met/heard Debbie Harry and it was like seeing an ambulatory archive of every great blonde legend in the world. Garbo's alone-ness, Monroe's sweetness, Bardot's wantonness - and a whole new thing of her own. She'd have been better off solo from the start, I think. Blondie the band drained her, swamped her genius with their bog-standard sound. But I still listen to that first album when I'm in my boyfriend's car, and it always makes me feel like something brilliant is just around the corner. Which is just about the best thing pop can do for us."
"I loved her, but it wasn't a sex thing. Much. Obviously I'd have loved to have gone out with Debbie. Does she know she caused the end of my marriage? Well, we were only having a cuddle. The wife walked in. But I'd
been cuddling Mick Jones two days earlier."
Kris Needs, DJ and producer
"Blondie really introduced me into how to present a pop song in an interesting way, without it being all fluffy. I guess that's what influenced me most about seeing Blondie."
Mark Linkous, Sparklehorse
"Doesn't every smart woman like Debbie Harry? There are so many who have followed in her footsteps, that don't hold a candle to her. Debbie did it with style, grace and humour, and never took herself too seriously. That's what makes her stand out among the pretenders to her throne."
Shirley Manson, Garbage
"She took the role of being a glamorous rock'n'roll singer, but always with a wink to let you know this was just a part she was playing. She let you know musically and physically this was all kind of a game to her."
"She has more charisma than a phalanx of Sophie Ellis-Bextors."
"I had my first girlfriend aged 19 at university, but my first crushes were on Debbie Harry from Blondie and the blonde one out of Abba. The Police, Dire Straits and Queen were my favourite groups. My brother and I were far too regimented to like anything as outlandish as punk music."
Colin Montgomerie, golf pro
"Debbie Harry. She was a pre-Madonna. Oh! Prima donna! Get it? I loved Blondie. She'd take a garbage bag and put tape on it and wear it like a dress. Of course, she was so beautiful, too."
"Not bad for her age, but she is crap without the war-paint."
"Debbie Harry to me was God. That's who I wanted to be when I was in high school."
"'Denis' was one of the first records I ever bought. She's a great, great performer and she has a wonderful voice. Obviously she was pretty as well. And she was quite unusual - she pulls quite a lot of weird faces when she performs. She's got amazing charisma."
Alison Goldfrapp, Goldfrapp
"I think there was a very obvious sexual energy to her work and to her persona, and speaking as an unapologetic feminist, she was way ahead of the curve in terms of what was going to come later - certainly it was part of what Madonna seized on..."
"When I was starting out as a singer and songwriter I was hugely influenced by Debbie Harry. I thought she was the coolest chick in the universe."
"Parallel Lines was what first inspired me to want to be a pop singer. Debbie Harry was very much a proper member of a band, not just the girl at the front who was there for decoration. All my friends' older brothers had posters of her in their bedrooms. I went to see Blondie after the comeback with 'Maria', and Debbie Harry is still captivating. Even when she's just mooching around the stage, you can't take your eyes off her."
"She's been both an inspiration and a mate. When I told her which of her classic Blondie looks inspired me as a girl, Debbie sent over the actual original dresses from her wardrobe. Everyone now recognises Parallel Lines as an all-time classic album, but both before and after that Blondie were innovating in their own distinctive way. How many other bands could release three million-selling international hits like 'Call Me', 'Rapture' and 'The Tide Is High' all in a row? That's guitar pop made with Giorgio Moroder, a rap-inspired New York groove and a singalong cover of a Treasure Isle rocksteady anthem. Incredible diversity! Certainly Madonna learnt from that, but so did all those MTV stars of the Eighties, right the way up to Michael Jackson. Debbie had the looks, the style, the attitude, the melodies and also the most underrated voice in Eighties pop."
Sharleen Spiteri, Texas
"She's a woman after my own heart - sexy, funny and lives life to the full. Debbie thought it was funny that I was going to be playing her. She's a fan of Eastenders and watches it in the States. I asked her for a tip. She threw back her head, laughed and said, 'All you've got to do is sing out of tune and wiggle your body.' So that's what I tried to do."
Carol Harrison, Tiffany's mum out of Eastenders
The wisdom of Callum Best
"She could do with replacing all the old duffers in the group and get some young blood in, like I did with Salford group Triggerhappy. It worked for me."
Mark E Smith, on Blondie and his manager's band