Melody Maker - 22nd May 1999 - centre
LEADING THE BLONDE
What could be better than a decade-defining blonde pop icon?
Erm, how about two of 'em? We introduce THE CARDIGANS' Nina Persson to her
Seventies prototype, BLONDIE'S Debbie Harry, to find out whether blondes
really do have more fun.
ONE night in Seattle a few months back, loaded up on free beer and whisky and whatever, we wandered along to the King Cat Theater to see those sweet, unassuming Swedish pop stars The Cardigans play. Nina's got a lovely disaffected, cooing voice, yes, but she's not exactly the most striking of rock presences onstage. Or so I thought...
Hours later, drunk beyond all reason, we are phoning England hurling abuse and general profanity down: "What the f***! You f***ing never told us Nina has turned into Debbie Harry, did you?"
And so she had. The cool Sixties Mary Quant-style pop art dresses were a thing of the past. Ms Perrson had become a leather trouser-clad rock vixen extraordinaire, neon light billowing through her hair.
What the f*** happened?
THE similarities between The Cardigans and Blondie are striking.
Both are guitar-led bands of blokes, fronted by ice-cool blondes - teenage pin-ups both, neither adverse to wearing the odd garment of leather and rockin' out. Both bands are connected with films (Debbie Harry starred in several Eighties movies, including John Waters' "Hairspray" and the fururistic "Videodrome"; The Cardigans shot to worldwide fame after "Lovefool" was featured on the soundtrack to the DiCaprio movie "Romeo And Juliet"). Both acts have aspirations towards their marvellously light-of-touch pop music not being disposable, towards it being "art".
Only one, however, has had a Number One hit in the Nineties. Which?
Step forward, Debbie Harry and Blondie.
THE scene down at the N1 photo studio is sheer pandemonium. Wasn't this meant to be a "Melody Maker introduces Seventies blonde pop icon Debbie Harry to Nineties blonde pop icon Nina Perrson" scenario? So who the f*** are the other 30 or so people here? It's more like f***ing King's Cross station than a King's Cross studio: all the assorted designers and assistant designers, personal managers, partners, PRs, hair stylists, make-up artists... To add to the general confusion, Debbie's band have shown up mob-handed ("Blondie is a band", as the old slogan went) and a tape player blasts out old punk '77 hits, including Blondie's seminal Sixties girl-group cover "Denis" - a song which still excites considerable controversy among the group themselves. Oops.
Nina seems remarkably unfazed by all the chaos. She sidles off to a tiny room, and starts doing her own make-up (very little required, actually). Debbie Harry is... scary. Her face looks identical to the way it did 20 years back when she was on our TV screens with her platinum blonde hair and blue disco dress, cruising her way through Number One after Number One after Number One ("Heart of Glass", the deceptively lightweight "Sunday Girl", the reggae-fied "The Tide Is High", the peerless "Atomic", the ground breaking "Rapture" and "Call Me"). Her figure... well, let's be polite and say that neither white nor a bleedin' bum bag round the waist does much to flatter her. Her little bobby-socks and schoolgirl shoes look rather incongruous, too.
Still. The singer of the first band to have UK Number Ones in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties (this year's comeback single, the soaraway "Maria", could've been an outtake from their second album "Plastic Letters") looks damn fine for her age (53).
Photo shoot over, it's time to bring the two singers together for a chat.
IS there any difference between being a pop star in the late Nineties and in the late Seventies?
Debbie: It's become so refined nowadays. There are so many more manufactured groups, like the Spice Girls, Boyzone, 'N-Sync and All Saints."
Wasn't that the same in the Seventies, with disco?
Debbie: "It didn't seem quite the same."
Nina: "They're not our colleagues. Their managers tell them exactly what to do. They don't work in the same way."
You have control over what you do?
Nina: "Yeah. I think so. The reasons why you do it are different. The boy bands are much more about entertainment, promotion - not music."
But you don't have too much control, right? I remember the first, highly controversial, Blondie marketing campaign - posters which read "Wouldn't you like to rip her to shreds?" underneath a picture of a scantily clad Debbie Harry. You must feel manipulated sometimes.
Debbie: "At times. Fortunately, we always had a voice in our material. It makes all the difference. There's nothing like writing songs for yourself. The bands in the old days were counter-culture. Now the music's been absorbed. Everything is a prime target for advertising."
Do you find the way film soundtracks appropriate songs, especially older songs which have attendant personal memories, distasteful? Once they're absorbed, the memories cease to be as personal, and thus another small part of like has been homogenised. "Lovefool" is a good example of what I'm talking about. And, of course, that bleedin' Ford Fiesta ad with that bleedin' riff from "My Favourite Game". Do you feel the way those songs were used altered their original meanings?
Nina: "No. It's just another excuse to make compilations. Sometimes, though, people will tell you of an awful movie which uses your music, and you didn't know! That's bad."
Isn't that record company manipulation?
Debbie: "It's more a merchandising thing, using the catalogue to their advantage. It doesn't have much to do with artistic interpretation."
You both have a problem that because you're strong frontwomen, people ignore your bands. Do you find that irritating?
Debbie: "It used to be abusive. I had a manager early on who tried to separate me from the band, and who told them continually they could be replaced. It wasn't true, and to plant that seed into teenagers like Clem [Burke, drummer]'s mind was very destabilising. Now, of course, everyone's assured of their identities."
OUR two blonde bombshells are now bonding big time.
Debbie plays the old pro who's been there, done it and been badly burnt through bad managerial contracts in the past, dispensing hard-bitten career advice to Nina as if she was an innocent ingenue.
But while their life experience might be very different, there are striking similarities between their two bands. Do they run any deeper than that?
Nina: "Music-wise, both bands have a huge variety of moods. There's not one particular Blondie song. We have that, too."
Debbie: "That's because we're such an urban-influenced band."
Your backgrounds are very different. You come from a small village, Nina...
Nina: "Yeah, although it's a big town by Swedish standards. Everybody knew each other, so we had no choice but to form a band."
It seems like with The Cardigans it would've been a process of discovery incorporating all the different styles of music, whereas with Blondie the influences were already present in their bohemian surroundings - even if they did start off by playing a very specific form of (guitar-led pop) music.
Debbie: "We did actually break some ground. We blended different elements which really up 'til then hadn't been considered as legitimate. We really did get a lot of criticism for 'Heart Of Glass'."
"'Lovefool' was like our 'Heart Of Glass'," sympathises Nina.
"To most people who watch MTV, we were instantly connected with that song, despite our previous three albums. Wasn't it the same with 'Heart Of Glass'?"
"Yeah, definitely," says Debbie. "And it was criticised because it had a techno underbelly, same as 'Lovefool'."
DEBBIE Harry's influence on other female singers is well-documented.
At a time when females were definitely the exception in the music business, Debbie - with her sophisticated sexuality, her pout, her rock chick persona, the way she made it OK for girls to be smart blondes - was a revelation. She pioneered rap. She hung out with Andy Warhol and William S Burroughs and all those seedy literary types back when it wasn't so acceptable to do so. She came from the NYC CBGB's art-punk scene - Ramones, Television, New York Dolls, et al. She was a punk in the pop context.
And that hair! That hair! Glistening strawberry-blonde, always backlit with the light streaming through it, fluffed up and just a fraction mussed, always perfect. While Debbie Harry reigned, there weren't any f***ing supermodels (an Eighties invention), there were no film stars to gawp over. She was the only star in the world.
She was the perfect positive Seventies female icon.
Is there an equivalent nowadays? And how does Nina - the frontrunner in the race to be the Nineties version - perceive the Blondie icon?
"Shall I leave?" quips Debbie, in moch horror at what her youthful counterpart is about to say.
"Yes, I'll leave!"
"What can I say?" smiles Nina. "All I know is what I've been reading and seen on TV. Obviously, Blondie was a very visually strong band. Good style has always been connected with Blondie and Debbie. Aware of street cred, too. I'd like to be perceived as both things myself."
Before we move onto the other Nineties contenders, talks turn to Blondie's old Seventies contemporaries, Abba (also currently topping the charts).
During the photoshoot, the Blondie lads were discussing "Swedish sexuality" and debating whether the Abba girls were sexy. While Clem leered: "They wore tight pants and you could see their...", Jimmy interjected: "No, they were so f***ing wholesome". From there, it was only a matter of time before they started comparing Nina to Agnetha, so Debbie brings up the subject.
Nina: "Abba were like the bands we talked about before [Spice Girls, Boyzone, etc]. I met the guys, and they admitted it was very calculated. Abba was more about the hitmaking, not the lifestyle."
Debbie: "Yeah, they were more of a showbiz entity. They had no position of street credibility."
Is that important?
Debbie: "It depends on the person. Nowadays, there seems to be a huge market for entertainment, and not... What do they call it now?... The alternative mentality. That mentality is essential for me. I appreciate good songs, but I must have emotional investment, too."
Let me run a few other names past you...
Nina: "We might not even know them."
Saffron from Republica.
Debbie looks blank.
Nina: "I don't really know."
Who's the new Debbie Harry, then?
Nina: "There's no one."
Debbie: "Yes, me! I'm the new one."
Is there anybody out there who's doing what you did 20 years ago?
Debbie: "Gee, I don't know. It's so hard to keep track of everything. I sometimes see vestiges of me. Everyone has a different slant on what they do. I see some of my funkiness in what Courtney does. I met her years ago, before she was Courtney. She's a rock kind of girl."
She doesn't exactly have your pop sensibility.
Debbie: "No, it's totally different - but early Blondie was very rough, before we had Jimmy [Destri, keyboard-player]. It was all guitar."
Nina: "It's a weird question. There's loads of great female artists in bands... maybe Catatonia? Cerys is amazing."
Oh yeah. She's a star.
Nina: "Yeah, a total sweetheart - and good for England, too (Erm, Wales, actually - Ed), because you've been stuck with all these pop/rock bands fronted by boring blokes."
Debbie: "I met her at an awards ceremony. Very dynamic."
Nina: "Maybe not as much in-your-face, but definitely her too."
The Spice Girls?
Debbie: "The sales pitch around them is annoying. They have some strong opinions, but it's not coming from within them. It's something that's applied, it's a veneer. Their material all leans on their merchandise persona. It's calculated. There's nothing that takes you by surprise."
Did you feel that the sexual side of Blondie got pushed to the detriment of the music?
Debbie: "Obviously the cute aspect got pushed, but the audiences wouldn't have gone for that alone. Our music was relevent to many people, especially girls."
Do The Cardigans get pushed in that way?
Nina: "Not pushed. It's just the media - and I think we're fortunate to be part of that phenomenon."
Debbie: "There we go. It's the way of the world."
Nina: "It's a good gimmick to have, women making music - even these days. It's just strange to see people reacting to it, because we feel so sexless as a band."
Is there any advice you'd offer, in terms of the experiences you've had, on what not to do as a pop star?
"She doesn't need any tips on how to be a pop star from me," says Debbie, protectively. "No one needs to tell her how to be cool. She's cool enough already. But if I had to say something, it's don't be pushed into anything, and retain control over your energy and your image and your music."
And you cash, presumably. Are you loaded?
Debbie: "Definitely not. I've actually been paying a huge tax debt which has grown and multiplied for 15 years. That's been my personal private nightmare."
Is that part of the reason Blondie are back again?
Debbie: "It is and it isn't. It is a business, and we're older and we know we can make some money from doing it - obviously that's a very attractive thing. Let's make some money, yeah! But we couldn't have done it if we had not come to some creative level of understanding."
Nina: "Was it more fun last time you did it?"
Debbie: "Actually, no. The playing is much more fun this time. We had so many business problems back then. Now, it's like being in a dyslexic, dysfunctional family. We don't have to think about it, it just happens."
One final question: can you see yourself following Debbie's blueprint to the extent where you're reforming The Cardigans in 2019?
Nina: "Because of how we work - the way we hang out together all the time and are each other's best friends - it could be super-cool, real fun. All of us come from academic families, so we still get asked, 'When are you getting a proper job?' by our parents. We still have to try and convince them that this is a proper job, that it's not all about shooting heroin and shagging rock stars..."
I'm sure I see Debbie wince at this point.
"...So if I don't submit to pressure and become a nurse, then we probably will."
MY FAVOURITE DAME
NINA ON DEBBIE'S INFLUENCE
WHAT DOES BLONDIE MEAN TO YOU?
"A great band. A band I like a lot - even though, when I was younger, I was more into their image than their music.
DID YOU EVER WANT TO BE DEBBIE HARRY?
"I think she's an excellent singer and also an excellent example of a front figure for a band. It's like the exact same set-up as we're doing now, so I can relate to that, but I've never had that relation to music, that I wanted to take after someone else."
WHICH OF HER IMAGES DID YOU LIKE THE BEST?
"To be honest, when I first started seeing her records, it was during the 'Hunter' period - a style which maybe wasn't her best, with the lion hair. But on those first few albums, Debbie looked stunning. Especially the 'Eat To The Beat' cover. 'Parallel Lines' is a great record as well."
BLONDIE ON BEING NUMBER ONE AGAIN
DID YOU EXPECT TO COME BACK WITH A NUMBER ONE IN THE UK?
JIMMY DESTRI (keyboards): "That's a loaded question. We didn't expect anything, so everything is pleasing."
CLEM BURKE (drums): "It feels like we've been preserved in a cryogenic capsule, and it's all happening again. The roots we put down here in the UK in the Seventies are sustaining us right now. I like it when magazines give us Most Inspirational Awards, because the music scene here has influenced us so much."
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN NOW AND THEN, APART FROM THE FACT YOU'RE ALL 20 YEARS OLDER?
CHRIS STEIN (guitar): "That's about it."
JD: "It's basically the same shit. It takes you a little longer to get up in the morning, it takes you a little longer to fall asleep at night. You get up and you pee more."
CB: "That whole credibility factor that exists now wouldn't have happened if we'd stuck together for 17 years and made fools of ourselves. We'd have been the Rolling Stones. Our fans at concerts tell us it's like having their album covers come to life."
JD: "Well-dressed raisins, that's the Stones."
ARE YOU ALL TAX EXILES?
JD: "Victims, not exiles."
CS: "To pay our tax bills."
JD: "Because we needed a little confusion in our lives, a little chaos, a little disorder - and some fun."