NME - 19th October 1991
Pages 28 & 29
(ALWAYS LOOK ON)
THE PEROXIDE OF LIFE
Out of the scuzz rock dives of the Bowery they crawled, but '70s New York bubble-punk sensations BLONDIE had a world order-smashing secret weapon - DEBBIE HARRY. Here, bottle brunette BARBARA ELLEN profiles the Woman of Substance who spawned a million
How well I remember that fateful Thursday evening back in the late '70s. As was our custom, the entire family sat in arch solemnity in front of The Pops when - out of the blue - some jug-eared no-mark of a DJ nonchalantly announced "a hot new act from New York - BLONDIE!..."
And there she was - Debbie Harry, the most original, unattainable, subversive, cat-faced human being I'd ever seen. My mother gagged, then yelled at my father to "go and get the coal in". It was only later I saw this as strange - we'd had a gas fire for years - at the time I was transfixed by the vision.
To my 12-year-old eyes, Debbie Harry was purr-fect, from the top of her geometric cobweb of platinum split-ends to the tips of those disgraceful thigh length boots. (And she didn't sound too bad either). The year was '78, the song was 'Denis' and within days my sister had left our two-person 'Debbie Club' and denounced me at the breakfast table as "probably a lezzo". What did I care! She was just a part-timer and - though I didn't know it then - my psyche had just done a 359 degree turn from which it would never fully recover.
Years later, I reviewed 'Deborah' at the Hammersmith Odeon. She was a little chunkier, a mite strangely dressed (OK, she resembled a wrestler with an Axl Rose fixation), a little blurred around the edges maybe, but she was still gorgeous, still enigmatic, still ineffably magnetic. And it occurred to me, as I looked at this most long-distance of stunnas, that even if I wasn't a "lezzo", I could still see that the world and all its Rod Stewarts were missing the point with their Madonnas and Rachels and Britts. For me, and for everyone else with an IQ above 40, Debbie Harry is, always has been and always will be, the definitive blonde.
BORN IN Miami, Florida in 1945 (probably), Deborah Ann was adopted at age three months by a New Jersey couple, Catherine and Richard Harry. Her childhood was disappointingly untinged by signs of genius, rebellion or divinity and after senior schools - where she was voted the prettiest girl in her class - Harry moved to New York, where her hicksville mind was blown to pieces by the musical drama unfolding around her. Says Harry of that period:
"I saw and heard a lot of music that left indelible impressions on me, like Lou Reed at The Electric Circus when he played for hours with the Velvet Underground and Nico, backed by Andy Warhol's light show".
Emboldened by the friendship and balls-out attitude of the spooky Warhol set, Harry joined an (ahem) folk band called Wind In The Willows. Unsurprisingly this depressed her so greatly she began to take a great interest in - and eventually became addicted to - heroin. By 1970 she was 25, had a metabolism like a yo-yo and earned a crust teetering around in a silly outfit pretending to be a Playboy Bunny. After cleaning up at her folks, Harry returned to New York to catch The New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts centre. Also there was Chris Stein, only just released from a three month stint in psycho-stir (in those days you were institutionalised if nabbed taking acid).
They weren't to meet that night, but did so a little later when Stein clocked Harry's new band The Stilettoes. Harry was certainly touched by his presence and said afterwards: "I couldn't see (Stein's) face, only the outline, but I could feel him looking at me and I was very nervous so I delivered a lot of songs to him. We had a psychic connection right away."
Despite talking like the last of the sad hippies, Harry had already made quite an impression on the NY circuit with her - by now-trademark - bleached locks, slashed T-shirts and vulgar, in-your-face make-up.
Considered by many of her associates as "ahead of her time" - remember, this was well before punk reared its unlovely head - not only was Harry already 'selling' the sex-and-cool ethic Madonna was to ape so robotically years later, she was blessed with a shit-hot voice which, if it hasn't been likened to an angel purring mid-orgasm, should have been and now has.
By 1974, Stein and Harry were 'an item', forming Blondie - allegedly after Harry kept being cat-called thus by groin-brained construction workers - and playing their first gig at famed NY niterie CBGB's supported by The Ramones. An instant smash, Blondie went on to record demos - which included a raw version of 'Heart Of Glass', then titled 'The Disco Song' - a single on Private Stock records called 'X-Offender' (about jailbait sex) and their debut eponymously titled album.
By this time Harry was well into her (rather crap) 'French look' - daft beret, PVC mac, the odd string of onions - but still found a new friend in Iggy Pop who invited the band to support him on his US tour. By 1977, Blondie had had their first (minor) hit with 'In The Flesh' and were over here in Britain playing the Bournemouth Village Bowl with Squeeze.
Despite drawing outraged looks and accusations of being "no better than a prostitute" from some quarters, on this tour Harry was to start a two-way love affair with British audiences that was to out-last Blondie. Not only did we think she was the first genie of merit since Monroe to rise out of the US bleach bottle, she returned the compliment with statements like the following:
"English kids are much more literate and sophisticated than Americans. They caught on to all the nuances in the phrasing of the music and words straightaway. Britain is Blondie's second home."
Despite this, the band hot-footed it back to the US to record the disappointing 'Plastic Letters' album before setting off for Australia, where Harry pissed off the puritan audiences with an impromptu strip-tease during 'Rip Her To Shreds'. After swearing like a fishwife from hell at the Oz press for her entire stay, Harry left in a huff, refusing to apologise for "selling her sexuality". This - after all - was later to become the ultimate press 'compliment' in the Madonna Age.
BY 1978 Blondie had recorded their signature album 'Parallel Lines' and topped the singles charts in the US and the UK with 'Heart Of Glass'. Despite a steady stream of UK hits including 'Denis', 'Presence' ...and 'Hanging On The Telephone', before 'Heart Of Glass', Blondie were having a hard time cracking their own market. Apparently most radio stations thought they were "punks". Amused though they were, Blondie decided to launch a huge merchandising campaign with T-shirts, badges and posters screaming the legend 'Blondie Is A Band'. Little was Harry et al to know that years later that most boring, witless and marginal of blondes Wendy James would nick this 'I'm just one of the lads' idea and exploit it for her own ends.
At this point Blondie were riding high. 'Parallel Lines' was to stay in the British charts for two years, and tracks like 'Sunday Girl', 'Union City Blue', 'Dreaming', 'Atomic', 'Rapture' and 'The Tide Is High' were worldwide hits.
Then, as now, Debbie Harry was worshipped by millions for being cooler than Patti Smith, poppier than Siouxsie and prettier than any other pop star had a right to be. Her voice was the most copied sound in pop.
Furthermore, Harry never lost 'it'. With Auto-American' Blondie disappeared up their own experimental back passages a bit (having to be convinced that having Harry sing under the influence of helium was NOT a great idea). And their last album 'The Hunter' was - to be frank - a pile of unmitigated crap.
But Debbie never lost the plot completely and even managed to salvage for herself a credible solo career. Snatches here and there of 'Rockbird', 'KooKoo' and more recently 'Def, Dumb And Blondie' have proved conclusively that there is life in the old rockbird yet, and her 'Red, Hot, And Blue' duet with Iggy Pop - 'Did you Evah' - was a riot, the best thing on an overstuffed, humourless charity album.
As for extra-curricular activities, hardcore Harry fans will already have winced at her performance in Videodrome (What about Roadie - Ed) and cheered her on in Hairspray, but it is music that has defined her place in cultural history. Debbie Harry was and is a one-off. A shrewd, frighteningly beautiful blonde whose slinky, highly-sexed onstage demeanour proved to be less pathetic than prophetic. If Madonna in later years could be congratulated for manipulating her sexuality to the point where people didn't know whether they were buying a record or an 'erotic massage' then Harry should be credited for giving her the idea in the first place. Not only was Debs a pioneer of the wild, bad blonde pop ethic she was also streets ahead of her crass imitators.
But to say Harry is the definitive blonde is like saying Kate Bush was the definitive wearer of ballet-dresses. Whatever the colour of her hair, La Harry is the First Woman of Pop, a performer par excellence and that most old fashioned of things - a woman of substance.
TEN BLONDIE WANNABES
(whether they know it or not)
MS CICONNE has never actually come clean about her sudden switch to the blonde bombshell slut look, her occasional statements about 'Monroe' only serving to emphasise that this sly businesswoman is determined to ignore La Harry's influence all together.
MID-'80s leader of the Indie Bleach pack who had her moments and knew how to put on a mean bit of slap.
ANDREA (DARLING BUDS)
AS ABOVE, but a plump, maternal version.
BRIXIE MARRIED Mark E Smith in a desperate bid to emulate the Harry/Stein lovematch.
A DAFT bastard who took some time to realise he was the wrong sex.
LIKEWISE AND, if anything, even sadder than the Idol idiot.
TURNED ONTO sex-pop by the evil Hutchence, Sexkylie took to miming to Blondie records in her hotel room to perfect that Eat You For Breakfast, Mate pout.
THAT BIRD FROM ROXETTE
APPEARS TO have missed the point completely.
STOP PRESS: Birdland have just dyed their hair black. Losers!