NYROCKER - June 1981 - Pages 31, 32, 33
The Chic Side of Blondie
by Andy Schwartz
...And so it came to pass, in the first months of 1981, that the white rock and roll band called Blondie appeared in the Top Ten with not one but two hit singles directly rooted in black music: a reggae remake, "The Tide Is High," and a rapper's tribute, "Rapture." The international impact of the former was enough to revive the Paragons, the Jamaican vocal group that originally cut the tune a dozen years ago (and which will soon release a new album through Island/Mango). The crossover reverberations of the latter produced another "Blondie" - a member of the all-girl black group Sequence, who donned the name along with a platinum wig.
Hard upon the heels of these hits came the news that Deborah would record her debut solo album with songwriter/producers Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of The Chic Organization, and that Harlem's own Funky Four Plus One More would be Blondie's honored guests on Saturday Night Live. To discuss these and other pertinent matters, Blondie's Chris Stein and I met late one afternoon in the lavish midtown office of the group's management. A few notes on the dialogue which follows:
(1) The interview was in part prompted by Stein's resentment at those of you who responded to the Readers Poll essay question with disparaging remarks about his group, i.e., as "Band Most Likely To Make You Heave," or by lumping Blondie in with such tarpit behemoths as Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd, et al. (see NYR #38/April, '81). In truth, most people I've queried don't think Blondie ever had that much to "sell out" in the first place, save a certain poppin' freshness, and many long-time supporters (such as Roy Trakin) rate the controversial Autoamerican album as the group's best and most adventurous work.
(2) Stein is quick to criticize "cliques," "in-groups," and the narrow world views to which they cling. Presumably, his own closely-knit circle of friends (including Interview columnist Glenn O'Brien, avant fiddler Walter Steding, saxophonist John Lurie, and others) doesn't count. No doubt all these people are interesting and likeable as individuals, but when they huddle together on an upper floor of the Mudd Club or grope around in somebody's home movie or video, I have an inexplicable urge to run for the nearest express train.
(3) By his own account and others, Stein has been variously portrayed as a scheming media freak, a Machiavellian manipulator of innocent womanhood, and/or a money-loving empire builder. Yet for a supposed master of multi-media, his efforts via Blondie have not been especially innovative or successful: the Eat To The Beat video album could have been directed by Don Kirshner, while the "Tide Is High" video came off (on Merv Griffin) as almost intentionally crude and aimless. (Perhaps the pending "official" Blondie book, with photos by Stein and text by Harry and writer Victor Bokris, will prove a better-realized extension of the group into non-musical realms.) As for Point #2, it should be obvious by now that Ms. Harry is very much her own woman in all endeavors, whether penning song lyrics, talking to People magazine, or introducing Chuck Berry on TV.
Finally, for one so devoted to mammon-worship, the in-person Chris Stein came off as something of an absent-minded professor, in scuffed shoes and a black shirt torn in two places, not so much concerned about money and what it can buy as about his work and the public and critical reaction to it. Despite his occasional crankiness and spates of paranoia, I rather liked him.
New York Rocker: You said you've been pretty busy for the last few months with a number of projects. Such as what?
Chris Stein: Well, everything sort of came at once. I just finished working on Polyester, the new John Waters movie with Stiv Bators, Divine and Tab Hunter. I got into that through the guy who's sound man on New York Beat, which is Glenn O'Brien's and Edo's movie. That movie could be really exciting, it's what should've been done in 1975. Everybody talked about it constantly then, and Amos [Poe] tried to do it, but he didn't have color or good synched sound. New York Beat is like a communal movie, so right now it's pretty chaotic, they're trying to edit down 40 hours of film. And I've worked on that soundtrack. The idea is to get a lot of people who are in the movie involved in the soundtrack, like John [Lurie], James [Chance]. So Bob Mayer, the sound guy, got me involved in Polyester.
They first wanted Debbie to sing lead but it didn't really work, it was kind of incongruous... so finally we said, "Well, let's get Tab to do it," and he just jumped at it. It's sort of this MOR ballad called "Polyester", Debbie wrote the words and I wrote the music, and Michael Kamen produced it... and Tab came in and sang it, did a fantastic job.
The film should be out very soon, through New Line Cinema. It's like a Donna Reed movie, or Leave It To Beaver for freaks.
Then we wrote a couple of songs for this Canadian cartoon called Drats, kind of a sci-fi thing for a pretty young audience. "Drats" are dogs and rats, or a combination of dogs and rats... They're gonna get actors to copy the real voices, but all the characters are kind of based on real people, kind of look like them. Lou Reed is the villain, Debbie's the heroine, Cheap Trick is the band... and Iggy is the demon. I produced this track for Iggy, it's called "Armageddon." We put on bombs going off and all kinds of crazy noises, it's quite a production. Then we're doing two songs with Debbie, and we haven't quite figured out how they'll come out or who's gonna play on them... I'm trying to get Marty Rev involved, get him to fill out the soundtrack album. I heard some of his new stuff that Marty Thau produced and I think it would work.
I also wrote an article for Creem about the making of Autoamerican, and we did a lot of press and promotion around the album. So we've been working pretty hard and pretty consistently since the album was finished, since last summer.
NYR: In the course of that promotion, you went to Los Angeles...
CS: We went to L.A. to do a TV show, Solid Gold.
NYR: And also Rodney Bingenheimer's radio show on KROQ. I'm curious about your response to the reactions you got from kids listening to that show.
CS: Well, we started out playing a few records, and we took a couple of phone calls that were, like, "you fuckin' bastards, using your jeans money for heroin, you assholes" - so then we couldn't take any more phone calls on the air. But a couple of people called and said, "Well, a lot of kids out here feel like you let them down, that you were their own personal band, and you don't do any surf music anymore" - I think it was basically down to not doing any surf music, no rave-up guitar solos. So we tried to address ourselves to that on the air, that we like to break things up, that this album was an experimental album made in a spirit of open-mindedness, that we could have made an experimental album like the Clash's experimental album, but that for us, doing like MOR stuff was the same sort of approach.
I see a lot of punk and new wave people getting as stuffy as opera fans about what they will and will not listen to. I mean, what's the difference if you've got some guy who'll only listen to something that sounds like the Ramones and totally writes off everything else? Like rapping music. Now it's catching on and everybody likes it, but when we were on Rodney's show it was like (nasal, disdainful California accent), "Oh, rapping music, ecch."
NYR: Writing in the New York Times, Robert Palmer talked about a "fake aesthetic" in New York music, and said that Autoamerican contained a variety of "fake" musics including "fake MOR," "fake soundtrack music," "fake R&B," etc. How did you react to that statement?
CS: Well, it's accurate but at the same time it's not accurate. It has to be taken in the context of both him writing a piece on pop music for the New York Times and the context of pop music in general. If you took the opening track from the album and stuck it on the front of a movie, he obviously wouldn't react the same way. If the Lounge Lizards came from Tuscaloosa and were all 40 years old, they could be playing exactly the same music, the same note-for-note thing, and it would be a different context and it wouldn't be fake anymore, right? So it's all relative... I mean, [bassist] Ray Brown didn't think that "Faces" was not serious when he played it. He was into it!
NYR: Whatever happened to the film Union City?
CS: It's being re-released through a better distributor, and we're gonna try and get the soundtrack album out, but there's no vocals on it so it's kinda hard to get it out... I really like the film, I think it stands up to the test of time. It got more favorable than unfavorable reviews, especially since it was so obviously a low-budget production...
There's a few other things in the works. There's a Warner Bros. script, American Rhapsody, that's been being developed for Debbie for quite a while now... She's been up for just about every major movie that's been out this year... like Raging Bull. Debbie read for that with DeNiro... The Postman Always Rings Twice...
NYR: In your promotional rounds for Autoamerican, I saw you on Solid Gold and also on The Merv Griffin Show. That was, uh...
CS: That was just - to do it, y'know? I mean, there you go, are you Establishment or anti-Establishment? I think you gotta try to cross over in both areas. New York Rocker thinks we're Establishment, but to Merv it's like having Morticia and Gomez Adams sitting there.
NYR: But you have an avowed intention, if not to overthrow or drastically change mediums like TV, then at least to use them in distinctive or unusual ways. What's the difference between the way you and Debbie come off and the way, say, Crystal Gayle comes off in the context of Merv Griffin?
CS: Yeah, those things happen - what can I tell you? Truthfully, I've learned to be less harsh on people like Crystal Gayle by actually meeting them, and by the stuff that happens to us and the way we get twisted around. I don't think somebody's music being wimpy is reason to condemn them to the damnation of eternal fire...
I mean, shows like [Merv Griffin] are inexcusable in a way. But you can't change anything drastically. I think that's one of the frustrations among kids, that things move so abysmally slow, but that's just the way it is... It's like gridlock, especially now, the way the world is escalating and things are being broken down more and more into categories, where good and bad are separated by more gradations. There's almost no Good and Bad anymore, it's almost all gradations of one or the other.
NYR: I can't agree. I see some really monstrous evil loose in the world today.
CS: Yeah, but you and Alexander Haig think evil is two different things. It all becomes a kind of gray area, where it doesn't seem like there's any room for any sweeping change at this point... The fucking arts in this country are definitely gridlocked. It's really true, there's a tremendous resistance to change in the rock establishment, just to look at one area. The whole Rolling Stone mentality has things locked up into its format.
NYR: Don't you think it sounds a little glib to simply say that I've got my viewpoint and Alexander Haig's got his? I mean, people like Haig - not me - are responsible for the suffering and death that goes on in countries like El Salvador.
CS: Well, if it means anything, we're hoping to do something for the Vietnam vets, some kind of supportive move. I think in terms of getting the country back together - that's why I'm interested in black music, too, because if it helps pull things together socially... I can't, I mean there's no way I can fucking deal with Haig and the Pentagon, there's nothing I can do about it. But by trying to cross a few racial barriers and maybe ease some of that tension, which really tears up the country, especially in the eyes of the rest of the world... There has to be a general consciousness-raising in the country. If America's going to be stronger, black people have to be accepted into the society. People have to clean out the closets of all this garbage that's in there. The Vietnam situation is definitely something that people just want to forget about...
I'm concerned about the racial issue, which is very heavy. It's heavy to me, for one thing, because I've always kept my Jewish name and there've been associations, coloring me as money-grubbing and stuff like that, and that's definitely related to the fact that I didn't change my name to an Anglo name back in 1974 when I was supposed to. Because the mentality that says you have to have that kind of name is definitely in the rock establishment, just as the racism and sexism that exist everywhere else exists in rock and roll.
NYR: This seems like a good point to talk about the Deborah Harry album you're making with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edward of Chic.
CS: Well, I should point out that this album is more of a collaboration than a solo album for Debbie. It is with Chic, and the material is divided in half between us and them.
NYR: Can you offer any clue as to what the result will sound like?
CS: Well, it's still shaping up. But it'll be danceable, dance material, probably more so than Autoamerican. This will be more hard-edged - those guys are ready for something a little more aggressive, 'cause they've been doing more laid-back R&B stuff, like with Johnny Mathis... We have five tracks that are pretty close to finished now, but Debbie and I are behind on our material because of all these other things we've been doing...
Y'know, I think there's racism in the rock community that says white people can't make black music because they're trying to sound black. That was never our point - we're not trying to be anything, just trying to make music. And there's another sort of racism that says contemporary black music is not acceptable - that after it's sat around for ten years, it's safe and it's cool. I mean, at the time of Motown, in the mid-Sixties, the blues were accepted, but Motown itself was considered, like, background music. I remember how kids felt about the Four Tops back then.
NYR: People sold those albums to buy Iron Butterfly records...
CS: Yeah, I mean a lot of stuff now called "classic" by the rock establishment was just considered, y'know, background music. And now with "Rapture," that's a double-edged sword too. Because obviously it would be great for a rapping group to hit Number One on the pop charts...
NYR: That's the crux of the contradiction: this is about as black a form of pop music that has come along in years, but it's a white artist who gets the radio exposure and the mass audience.
CS: Well, I know, that's the story. But I haven't found that taken as a negative from any black people. I mean, Autoamerican just climbed like twenty places in the R&B charts... Look, I equate this with Mick Jagger doing a record with the Four Tops in 1970 - which would have been a lot different than waiting for ten years. I'm happy to stir up the controversy. I found, for the most part, that the rapping kids really like the record. We didn't mean it as any sort of rip-off; we meant it to support this movement and be positive about the form.
NYR: It seems almost certain that this "collaboration" album will be an enormous commercial success. So what's to keep you and Debbie making more group records with Blondie?
CS: I dunno. I mean, the same thing happened with Blondie records, right?
CS: As long as it's attractive to try to juggle everything and do everything, which it certainly still is... I mean, the Blondie thing has been day-to-day from Day One. It's always been "okay, maybe next week we'll keep it up," it's always been like that, really. We never had a solid future ahead of us and we've never made a lot of money from it, despite out "world-wide success."
NYR: I can't understand how you could have sold millions of records and say you're not wealthy.
CS: I can't imagine where it goes. They throw all these strange phrases at you, like "it's in the pipeline," meaning you'll get it in five years or something. I mean, we have more money than the people downtown but not that much.
NYR: How about Blondie's relationship with Mike Chapman? Are you committed to recording again with him as producer?
CS: Yeah, I'm pretty committed to doing stuff with Chapman again in the future. This last record was really good, I think it really strengthened and solidified the relationship, for me anyway... Everyone involved was getting a little bored with the whole rock thing. I mean, there's this sort of MOR rock phenomena coming up in the country right now, with the heavy chords... I don't know who it is exactly...
NYR: Well, REO Speedwagon is Number One this week.
CS: No, I mean what's come from new wave - Pat Benatar or something. Y'know, bring back boogie riffs but making them "new wave." We all wanted to get away from that, and Mike was especially conscious of it since he's the main purveyor of a lot of that middle-American rock!
NYR: One thing that precipitated this interview was your reaction to some rather disparaging comments from NYR readers in the Readers Poll...
CS: I just hate to see everybody getting into these isolationist positions, where just by virtue of the fact that Blondie is big and sells a lotta records, that writes us off. It's just not right. Comparing us to Fleetwood Mac is just ridiculous. Fleetwood Mac got to a certain point and just kind of stayed there, and we do try to do something interesting and different. I can't say what happened to Fleetwood Mac - they were at it for a fucking ten-year roll, maybe they're just kinda burnt out. I'm not burnt out, I want to keep striving and trying to do things, but it's easy to see how you could get sick of doing anything and just wanna sit around and get stoned...
I'm determined not to stagnate in the music we produce. It's always easy to accept the unsuccessful artists and say, "Well, he's more pure because he's not successful and has nothing to lose." But we're still trying to turn things over and make a change. As far as the political situation goes, I just don't think there's that much that can be done through music. Because first off, it's only music, and second because of the fucking record companies... a little band can make the most fantastic, most idealistic music, but if they're not being distributed by a record company and nobody gets to hear it, then what does it amount to? It's like the tree falling in the woods. If nobody's there to hear it, does it make a noise?
NYR: Okay. But what you see as irrational resentment and anger, as negativity and factionalism, I can see as the opposite of apathy, disengagement, and passive acceptance by people of whatever's fed them over the radio or through the media in general.
CS: Well, I certainly don't think that what was going on in the Sixties was complacent and uninvolved. And I really miss those sort of sentiments, of huge groups of people getting together with no other focal point except to freak out. Which is something that can't exist now. There has to be a focal point now, you have to be paying to see a group, you have to go to a club to get stoned or pick up a girl or whatever. I mean, "turn on, tune in, drop out" was certainly not so far removed from everything as the whole nihilistic punk trip. And that's definitely not doing anybody any good... I mean, it's okay to have your group that you like and only 20 people know about, but you shouldn't write off, you shouldn't make the rest of the world into an "out" group just because you have your "in" group.
NYR: You said the other day that modern funk is "the closest thing to punk rock."
CS: Yeah, like when we brought the Funky Four Plus One More on Saturday Night Live - they just freaked everybody out. But if we'd brought, I dunno, the fuckin' Dickies or the Damned on, it would've just been "well, here they are, nice boys, super-loud though, turn it down, would you, boys?" and that would've been it. When you bring in four black kids with microphones and a dee-jay, it's "uh-oh, what is this?"
And as far as a generation of kids who are literally finding their own voice, which is what the rapping literally is... the technology of the thing is fascinating, the turntables and that stuff. Where the C.B.G.B. crowd, lower-middle and middle-class kids, had access to guitars and stuff, these guys don't have access to anything - all they have is microphones and voices.
NYR: One last question: I've read that your father was a socialist labor organizer.
CS: Well, not when I was growing up. That was in the Thirties and Forties.
NYR: Does that make you a "Red baby?"
CS: Yeah, I remember the F.B.I. coming to our house when I was a kid. And I used to listen to my parents' Leadbelly records, and they had black friends, which was a little unusual at that time.
NYR: I just wondered which, if any, of your father's beliefs influenced or stayed with you.
CS: Well, he just generally believed in freedom and peace, that was it really. He died 'cause he was frustrated, being locked into his day-to-day existence, his job... he was frustrated into an early grave. My mother is very supportive. She was kind of a beatnik, but mostly the usual Jewish mother...
NYR: Has your success come as a surprise to her?
CS: No, she always told me what a genius I was!