NME - 2nd September 1978 - Pages 7-8-38
Debbie Harry & Co. Meet Market Penetration Uptown and Live To Tell The Tale.
PAUL MORLEY (typewriter)
PENNIE SMITH (camera)
DEBBIE HARRY: a few more brisk calculations in the dry equation, and she will be a star. A household name. An object. An illusion. Well designed, well marketed. It's a modern story of manipulation and desires, of repression and escapism, of cosmetics, the media, sex... and short, sharp pop music/muzak.
It's fun to observe. You can buy buy buy a series if shiny bedroom-dominating posters of her face and half-hidden body areas. The pulp dailies consider her worth exploiting... Judith Simons of the Daily Express decides with relief that Harry and her boyfriend Chris Stein are just like any other well brought up couple - articulate, polite... in reality just bored and tolerant.
"They are getting married," the Express article blushes, falsely.
"That story'll probably cause a suicide," Harry carelessly remarks.
Debbie Harry is 33, a sequin over five foot and a trifle podgy. Her nails are different lengths, her ragged, bleached hair almost black around the back. Her face is wide, slightly oriental, with tired eyes and features at odds with each other. She spits. She burps. She looks like the girl who sits next to you at college. Boyfriend Chris Stein thinks she's pretty.
She slouches next to me on a sofa in a plush, decorative flat off Kings Rd and seems pretty dowdy. "I may not look real good now," she generously concedes, "but some make-up..."
Ah. Yes. The transformation!
"Most of what I do is wear tons of make-up around the eyes to make me look mysterious... my skin isn't that bad, it's not that I have to cover up huge pits in my face or something - I don't look horrendous. I don't think. I just look like regular y'know. I become glamorous when I put the make-up on."
Let's dwell on the glamour... for without this ingredient it's dubious that as many consumers would be attached to Blondie's abreviated pop music. Blondie is a group... but that's now how it works. Without Harry's visual pull Blondie would be lucky to be similarly placed.
Debbie Harry, with her looks of luminous vacancy, her glossy, colourful mask, the coyly risque clothes, the air of innocence with the beginnings of an inviting grin, is a caricatured idea of femininity based on the product of a masculine society.
She borders on the grotesque - like the adrogynous face of Dietrich or Garbo - yet shimmers and emanates a symbol that challenges the male position of secure chauvinism. And the little girls, they've got a crush on her.
This wild, sweet doll with the decorated eyes and masses of carefully disordered hair, has dragged Blondie to an all but American world-wide success.
IT'S DIFFICULT to determine Blondie's role in the creation of all this. It's admitted that it was no accident that the group was named after the artificial colour of the vocalist's hair. The group ruefully recall early New York Days when the Soho News would use large pictures of Harry to accompany a gig guide without mentioning the band.
Yet it does seem that when the group appreciated the centralisation of the media in smaller countries they used Harry to gain attention. There are piles of carefully posed pictures that exist for the dailies to use. Last week it was Harry as a schoolgirl in the Mirror.
The early attempt to gain attention has got out of hand. The group are now at pains to convey the feeling that Harry is just a legitimate front person. They did not create a symbol, they merely wanted their vocalist to look as sharp as the rest of the band. The media did the rest.
Keyboardsman James Destri argues: "Like if the Rolling Stones were called The Big Lips after Mick Jagger, it'd still be the same unit of energy. It's just like identifying with the singer and she's the focal point. It's worth the occasional slagging from the press that the band are just her backing musicians, which we know personally is not true. After a while the press will realise there's something else here."
Harry herself emits little care about anything. The curiously glazed, self-contained look of the illusion apparently represents her attitude. Slouched on the sofa in the flat hired for Blondie's brief British stay, she laconically outlines her heavy schedule: meeting the press and rehearsing... "I've been doing a lot. I'd feel better having more social life, just hanging out..." Her thoughts begin to wander. "I'm beginning to wonder about my inspiration, whether I'll have any again. Rock'n'roll inspiration. Street level inspiration." Her washed out pessimism is pitiful.
There's an upward curl at the corners of her thick pale lips when her new-found fame is mentioned, but it's still the answer of a caged animal. "It's really funny, most of the time, going out - the punks, the kids, they're ok, it's people like shopkeepers and stuff like that, y'know, they have a different attitude, they have a tendancy to yell obscene things at me. More so than before."
She considers the concentration on her sexuality to be the result of honesty. "Yeah, it's my own fault. By talking. By being real. If I was unreal it would be much easier. Unreal about what I was..." Images of days of choosy promiscuity surely flicker through her mind, but her blank look remains. "... about what I am. It's nerve-racking now. I should have kept my big mouth shut."
But surely it's how she looks, dresses and what she implies that's the problem. "Yeah" she glumly agrees, "my image is really strong. But y'know, that's like a gift. That's my gift." The gift of a second rate beautician. "Y'know, the glamour is part of Blondie, the best sort of groups have always had that visual plus music plus entertaining."
But, hasn't, in this case, the visual, the image, got out of hand? "I don't think so."
Well, for example, you can get four separate types of Debbie Harry posters - that's more than Farrah Fawcett-Majors or Cheryl Ladd, and that seems entirely alien to where the band come from, what they're trying to do.
"Well, all those posters are independent. I get no money from them."
Sure. But that's the image people are getting, and you don't seem to have hindered the process.
"Well I'm going to have to stop that. Unfortunately I'm going to have to make a rule that there's going to be no photographers at my gigs whatever." There's a trace of a sigh. "I know a lot of people are going to be upset by that, but I also know that a lot of people are probably sick of seeing my picture in the paper. That's the way it's going to have to be."
SHE KEEPS herself at a distance from all the exposure, both through the pressure of work and desire. "When I see things about me I go like THIS!" she gestures, unusually extrovert, depicting cracking up. - "If I read anything cruel I have to have a couple of days to get over it or else I freak out. If it came at me all the time I'd go around throwing acid in people's faces or become a sniper."
As coincidental proof, Chris Stein, who'd been sitting a few feet away perhaps in silent protection, interrupts out halting conversation in mock urgency. He's holding a copy of last week's NME. "We have a message for Danny Baker." The lad had breathlessly non-reviewed their single. He wasn't keen. "Go fuck yourself!! You want to know what he says?"
No, don't tell me anything," Debbie implores. "We didn't choose the single," she mumbles, to no one in particular, "so at least that's on our side. Blame somebody else! Yes, that's it, it wasn't our selection, though we do like the song."
So why did they let Chrysalis put it out? She turns to me, a little shocked. "Why? We've nothing to say about it. It's not in our contract." She turns to Stein. "I think it's time to slag off Blondie. They were nice to us for a while..."
Stein: "They build them up then they knock them down. Hey' there's something about the cover."
Harry: "The licking."
Stein: "Yeah." he reads a bit, ending with Danny's lights outside the church witticism. "What's he mean?"
Harry: "He means we have bingo in the basement."
Stein: "The difficulty is, when we're slagged off, it's not so much the music but, well, here it's the picture sleeve, he's given one sentence about the music."
Harry; meanwhile, is getting angry. "That guy wants to put on a blonde wig and do what I do and see how good he is. I could write Danny Baker's column but he couldn't do what I do."
Stein: "Right on!"
Her resentment erupts into a verbal challenge. "..and you can quote me on that. Tell him he can take me on, he can come on stage and sing a Damned song and I'll write his damned column for him!"
It seemed a good place to conclude conversation with Debbie Harry, me musing if only she could sing like Petula Clark.
MY MEETING with the group Blondie was in three parts, which superficially signifies the breakdown of the unit: first with three members of the band in a flat above Debbie and Chris's, then Stein, then Harry.
Stein had hinted at derision and division within the group provoked by media attention centering on Harry, and inevitably through that, to a lesser extent on himself. "It happens, yeah" he shrugs, "It's bound to. It's there, what can you do? But it doesn't get in the way, there are more demanding outside group tensions... like bureaucratic difficulties," he trails off.
Actually, keyboardsman and founder member James Destri, recent recruits guitarist Frank Infante and bassist Nigel Harrison, (drummer Clem Burke was out of the room discovering he had German measles) have an admiration and affection for their vocalist that goes deeper than any mere diplomatic disguising of the rifts for press purposes.
Destri, of boyish charm, who writes a lot of the groups material and who spoke with unhurried articulation, summed up the group's opinion on the unevenness of attention: "The thing about Debbie getting the press is hard, especially early on, but we eventually decided that if we're good, it will come to us in time.
"But the thing is, there's two sides to it. I probably would never have had music published as early as I did if it wasn't for Debbie's charisma. Debbie's charisma is helping me get 'Picture This', a song I co-wrote, up into the charts. There's two sides to the coin - people ask isn't it really hard working with Debbie Harry, people never ask isn't it nice, isn't it good - which it is.
"We gave a star, we're glad to have a star, but you must remember we would never have got as far if the representation within ourselves had been stifled - which it's never been. The thing that makes Blondie albums good - which they are - is the fact that they are six people."
SO BLONDIE are a group of musicians. Let's dwell on the music. Blondie music has always been a leisurely nostalgia combined with slumming, primitive modern charge and approach. Their pop songs are multi-levelled pieces, slightly more than a minor listening experience. Details of adventure are few, but compatible with the prime necessities: hooks, melody and impact. Harry's flimsy vocals emphasise an aspect of delicacy. It's a very easy sound, smooth, shiny and hollow, like a china egg. It's superior radio music, and Blondie's new album "Parallel Lines" sees them further entrenched into the ideology of the radio record, with major emphasis on depth and beat for the American market. A consolidation of position at one end, and in terms of the sound of the record, a direct aim at the crucial, almost impregnable American barrier.
It is produced by Mike Chapman, whose surname will be more familiar if you couple it with Chinn. On paper this seems as interesting a move as Talking Heads and Devo using Brian Eno. In Blondie's instance maybe there was a lack of conflict between the two parties, Chapman's own ideas dominating over Blondie's more experimental desires. Stein commented: "The new album is very definable, normal stuff. We had a few ideas that Chapman didn't want to go on... spacier parts that were left off the final mix. Everyone asks if we're selling out by going commercial, but I view it as a challenge to try to produce something that has mass appeal. To me it's more a challenge to try and write hit songs than to do something esoteric."
Destri: "The electronics on the album suffered, but the clarity is so good. Chapman's very perceptive and hardworking. A good pop production, and Chapman's excellent for that. The electronics are subdued, I'm really sorry about that, but if we'd made an album with Brian Eno I don't think we'd have had the commercial accessibility we're going to get with this."
Two apparent opposites emerge: Eno to Chapman, conflict to composure, chaos to cool, experimentation to accessibility. Two different formulae. Blondie maybe wish to balance these two lines?
Destri: "Yeah, I want exactly that. With this album I wanted a cut that would please the artists - I wanted the album to jump around. I think the rest of the group wanted to... but Mike was asked to do a clean pop job by Chrysalis and I can't blame Chrysalis for wanting him to do that."
Marks of a compromise that don't seem to hurt Blondie's feelings too much. It's a compromise that gives them a direction, and a purpose, that they seem pleased to take. Destri has no hang ups about calling Blondie a pop group. "I consider Roxy Music a pop group. A different definition of 'pop'."
The group take very seriously the processes of creating what Chris Stein calls 'mass appeal' music, an ulterior motive is a further sweetening of the bitter compromise pill. Their purpose? "What we want to do," Destri charms "is to get as many people interested in Blondie as possible so we can show them what we really believe! Not exactly any means to an end, but we'll use as many hooks as possible to get an audience and then show them what we really want to do!"
Infante and Harrison, slightly taken aback at Destri's candid impetuousness, chorus "But we're doing what we want to do now," and Destri hurriedly agrees. But the message is across.
This is the Bowie Theory. Here is an important influence on the group. The shrewd and planned attitude of building the large audience, and then to some extent freewheeling whilst still creatively active. What Blondie would love to do is prepare a record of music less rounded, less pretty. More spontaneous, not produced to schedules and demands. Certainly Destri appears a little restless within the group's current format, and Stein's mildly subdued idealism blanches a little faced with the limitations of their current output, yet will not deny that the music is from their hearts. Destri eagerly looks forward to 'The Shift' (from pampering to innovating) - proud that they form part of a new pop idiom, excited that they are capable of other things.
AMERICA rears its ugly head. America has failed to respond to a new wave influence, have resisted the melting of a 'dangerous' movement into The New Pop Music, so Blondie have had minimal impact in the national charts, despite regional success. Destri admits that for dull, economic reasons they cannot shift without cracking America, an almost impossible proposition. Blondie, 'safe' in the rest of the world market, must concentrate on America: Chapman's production is direct and full, and Blondie music becomes very straight. They tour there later this year, hopeful.
Destri views the problem simply: "I really don't think we have to dilute what Blondie is to crack America. I think we just have to plan what singles we release over there, and continue as we are without changing." Nigel Harrison butts in... "What we have to do is wait for the audience over there to change."
Stein views it typically sinisterly: "There is no new wave in America. I was told by a pretty heavy rock person that Jimmy Carter has actually put a stop to the new wave 'cos he considers it politically dangerous. Kids tell us they ask for Blondie records on their local radio station and are told the stations don't play new wave. There's just been one new wave hit, the Patti Smith song. Nothing else. Everything in America is set, it's just a fucking big system. The radio is locked into the group format, record companies are great multi-million dollar systems, it's all a massive system and there's very little room to change it. The audience are conditioned to the radio, the music press are so far behind, like The Dead Boys are Rolling Stones' token punk group. It's a joke!"
So Blondie boast subversive motives. Soften their music, level it out, aim it low, crack America, then twist back to something less, er, palatable. It's a good excuse for compromise. The Patti Smith group use a similar one. We'll see.
AFTER chats in the flats, everyone - group, assistants, pr, press - bundle into three cars to drive to the BBC. Blondie are on Top Of The Pops, members of the fab-fast regular new rosta (B.Rats, Sham 69, X-Ray Spex, Jam, Rezillos, Buzzcocks, soon the Banshees (who'd have thought), Boyfriends, Lurkers, Rich Kids, XTC.
Chris and Debbie snuggle up together. Chris, concerned mightily with the paranormal, tells me I should write that all students take up psychic research. "The Russians have a grip on the Astral Plane," he announces. "Naah," gripes Debbie.
"Really, you may groan now but in 20 years you're gonna know it. The Russians will be able to block American politicians' thoughts." Debbie ponders for a while, but is more concerned that she hasn't been sick for weeks. "Ever since I stopped eating sugar."
Blondie must rehearse, eat and record at the BBC from 3 till 9. Debbie plaintively trundles off, dragging a shopping trolley behind her full of the goodies of transformation. Stein, meanwhile, complains to me. He's producing a New York violinist called Walter Stedding for Red Star Records, improvised music: "I'll get knocked for the commercialism of Blondie's new album, and at the other end I'll get slagged for working with Stedding for being too oblique! Huh!"
Stein is quite the angry young man. Not much pleases him. Top of the Pops does. He has the smug look of satisfaction as we chat in the labrynthine corridors of the Beeb, not far from where Jilted John gibberishly looks forward to meeting his heroine Debbie, who is busy becoming the illusion. "Top of the Pops is working through the system, working with the system. We'd be happy to do free concerts, but we can't, we'd do two and that would be it, we'd be out of money, it would be all over. So we work with the system. I don't think TOTP is bad."
At 7:30 the group queue up ingloriously outside studio number one, with The Jam, Hi-Tension, Bilbo and Jilted John. Burke had given record company people moments of panic by turning up at the very last minute: he'd been in Carnaby Street getting a new suit.
This fashion conscious, this group. The group have broken away from black, white and red. Stein looks a little uncomfortable in a candy pink suit, Harrison in tight green pants, Infante in sharp black and white patterned trews. This is where the fun comes in!
Just before Blondie record their spot - Harry dramatically emerging with seconds to spare suitably flawless, teased, artificial, all in yellow - Stein has me know how much Dr. Feelgood figured in what we were about to receive. Yeah? "Yeah. The important influence in New York. They came over just to play a few brief college dates and stuff, and the audience was totally made up of other bands and musicians. Just the thing of the short hair, the clothes, the shortness and starkness of the songs, the direction of the 3 piece, created a terrific buzz."
Blondie are after David Essex and before Jilted John. Blondie on Top Of The Pops - illusion within illusion.
Top of the Pops jumps out at millions of people fast, colourful, funny, alive. It's put together in a massive studio with 50 nervous kids cumbersomely shoved from podium to podium, self-consciously shaking as the group grotesquely and foolishly mime to their current sound.
It's dead and cumbersome. Legs and Co. are all about three foot 11 and must work in Woolies in the day.
Blondie run through 'Picture This' three times before getting it right. The group look embarrassed. Harry looks confused. On the screen it looks complete, a surreal cartoon. The phrase is larger than life, although that doesn't cover it. It's even nasty.
And 'Picture This' is the group's third hit in what looks like a steady run. They flew off that night to Europe and will be back in September to tour Britain in undoubted triumph. Stein attempts to qualify it: "I mean, I see Bob Marley being slagged off for being too commercial and I think that's really sad because what he's doing now is really pulling people together more than ever. He's finally going out on American radio. We saw him in Boston playing to 35,000 straight white college kids and everyone was going bananas and that to me is an actual revolutionary act, the fact that he's doing music that will pull people together, and if we can just bring people together with music, that's the real politics. We want to bring people together."
Blondie are a pop group. How they develop depends on how well they cope. You want to know more?