PUNK ROCK - February 1978
Written by: Michael Musto
Dynamic Debbie: When the leering gets too loud, she tells 'em that the "Strip Joint is down the street."!!!!!!!!!
They've been described as everything from "a flashy version of the Shangri-Las meet Lou Reed" to "a cross between early Jefferson Airplane and Lesley Gore." She's been described, aptly, as "looking like Miss Teenage Staten Island, 1968."
They are Blondie, and so is she - Debbie Harry, the group's eccentric chanteuse who lends the group its name, as well as much of its style. With her frazzled peroxide hair, her pushbutton nose and her haughty-adorable personalities, Blondie has become a major sex symbol of her generation - the Punk movement's Marilyn Monroe. And while the group Blondie - with members Chris Stein, lead guitarist; Clement Burke, drummer; Gary Valentine, bassist; and Jimmy Destri, keyboard artist - insist they're serious musicians who've worked hard to achieve their own distinct sound, it's been Debbie Harry's cute "tough girl" image that has caught the punk fans' fancy and put the group into the spotlight.
At the core of that image is one thing - sex. "Rock and roll is all sex," Debbie says nonchalantly. "One hundred percent. Sometimes music can make you come.
"I don't know if people jerk off to my music. I hope so... I try to use my sex and my looks and my personality to enhance my delivery and my art. I'd hate to think I was turning anybody off."
Debbie's view of stage performing is unusual; she's up there to titillate as much as to entertain. In the course of one show, her extravagant carryings-on will include tearing off a wedding gown to Rip Her To Shreds, succumbing to ray guns and robots to Attack of the Giant Ants, unbuttoning her raincoat to Look Good in Blue, and bending down on all fours and sticking her tongue out spasmodically whenever she feels like it.
Debbie's uninhibited stage behavior is a far cry from her behavior as a child, when she was considerably more restrained and less happy. "I was really, really miserable," she pouts. "I hated school. I felt sexually inhibited. Painful time in my life."
But it was in her childhood that Debbie first became attracted to the idea of performing as a means of overcoming her inhibitions. "I always had secret ambitions to do what I'm doing now, she admits, then makes clear that success didn't come immediately; there were years of uncertainty and rejection while the ambitions simply smoldered.
She may look like a teenager who's just experienced overnight success, but actually Debbie's come up through the ranks of rock. She cut her first record in the late sixties with a group called Wind In The Willows, and after stints as a waitress, beautician and Playboy bunny, she joined The Stillettoes, a mildly successful group which also featured Chris Stein, her current boyfriend. When that group broke up, she and Chris formed Blondie, a new band which would showcase Debbie's considerable stage presence.
After acquiring three new members, the group set out to conquer Rock - but it wasn't as idyllic as that.
"We used to do one thing wrong," sneers Debbie, "and everybody'd go 'Yeccch!' Meanwhile, Television fucked up more times than I can count, and The Ramones would do three songs and walk off. I don't get it... You wouldn't believe the shit I go through."
The group's first album, on Private Stock Records, was the turning point in their attempt to get people to sit up and take notice. With its amusing, suggestive blends of contemporary punk and sixties nostalgia, it established Blondie as not just another punk rock group.
"I think the biggest thing that held us back," sayd Debbie, "is we had no one hyping us. There wasn't any Blondie machine in New York."
Now, not only is there a "Blondie machine," there's a whole factory. Blondie has played to sell - out crowds at Max's and CBGB's, and even made the pop charts with a single, X Offender. And Debbie Harry, whose acting career has been limited to parts in the film Unmade Beds and the play Vain Victory (by Andy Warhol protege Jackie Curtis), has been treated by the adoring press like a combination Dietrich-Harlow-Lombard. Her fashionable instincts, meanwhile, have been displayed in many a fashion spread.
But there's a disconcerting element to the success of Blondie. It's significant that the group "made it" only when Debbie's sexy image - not the group's music - caught on. And while Blondie has come a long way in overcoming resentment towards female rock stars, it has also proven that a lot more advancement could be made in that area.
Reviewers' attitudes towards the group have been favorable, but often unappreciated of anything but Debbie's feminime charm. "Given her predilection for appearing in tiger-striped miniskirts, decolletage and swaggering female variants of punk attire," wrote John Rockwell in a New York Times review, "sound seemed almost irrelevant."
In other words, when a band's centerpiece is so pleasant to look at, who cares what the band sounds like? Is that Success? Perhaps, but only in a very limited sense.
"It freaks out some of the people in the band a little," Chris Stein admitted, referring to the notoriety Debbie has achieved, while he and the other members of Blondie remain virtually anonymous.
"They're getting over it," adds Debbie. "Something is better than nothing."
So, as long as some publicity, however misguided, is better than none, Debbie continues to cultivate the sexy broad character she does so well.
About her stage technique, for example, she has this to say: "I really don't have a great gift for gab. I just dance around and shake my tits and my ass."
And about her tour with David Bowie and Iggy Pop, this: "If it wasn't for respect and love for my boyfriend here, I would have fucked Bowie and Iggy on tour!"
Pretty forward, you say? Yes, but it's only fair to note that Debbie isn't always playing the sexpot role. In fact, sometimes she can be quite a Puritan. "The audience yells, 'Take off your clothes!'" she says with obvious displeasure. "I tell 'em, 'The strip joint's down the street!'"
It's refreshing to know that even Blondie has her limits.