Q - December 1986
Written by: Dave Rimmer
"It's about time, isn't it?"
They were once the world's most famous set of
finely-chiselled cheekbones. And they're back.
So why, we must ask, is Debbie Harry back right now, exactly? Has she brought out her brand new single, French Kissing In The USA, simply because she's got herself a new US recording contract? Did she have time to make
Rockbird, the album French Kissing is from, because after spending the last few years nursing him back to health, her boyfriend and collaborator Chris Stein is finally better now? Did the time just feel right? What?
"Um... all of the above. It felt right. The business aspects were in line and I wanted to do it. It's about time, isn't it?"
Yes indeed. Apart from a couple of tracks for film soundtracks
(Scarface, Krush Groove) and an appearance as the lead in a Broadway production of Trafford Tanzi that opened and closed in one night, Debbie Harry hasn't done very much at all since Blondie went the way of all flesh in 1982 after their last LP The Hunter.
"That was just one of those things. That's how groups go. They come and they go."
Blondie went after their enormous success of the late '70s refused to carry over into the '80s. They were in any case struck by an epidemic of solo projects with Debbie moving into film work (Union City,
Videodrome) and solo recording (the Koo Koo LP), Chris Stein into production
(Iggy Pop, The Gun Club, Fab Five Freddy etc) and the rest into "different things". Then Chris Stein fell seriously ill with a disease that attacks the nervous system and Debbie spent what must have been a harrowing few years looking after him. Attempts to elicit information about this get no further than one question, however. What exactly was the disease?
"Perhaps you should talk to him about that," replies Debbie intimating that she doesn't want to use up her interview talking about him, thank you very much, and that anyway he's much better now and back to work on the soundtrack of a film called Tales From The Dark Side.
"I went to a hardcore matinee at CBGBs yesterday," she continues, deftly changing the subject. "That was a lot of fun."
That place is still going, is it?
"Not only is it still open, it has a new awning."
And Ms Harry is a hardcore aficianado?
"Well, it's like everything. I like some of it. There's good stuff in everything."
In the late '70s, Blondie were sussing good stuff in disco and rap and hip hop, becoming the first rock group to take it all on board and sailing off to considerable success thereby. In these days when Run DMC can have a hit with an Aerosmith song and every rock group seems to indulge in some kind of 12-inch hip
hoppery, the ideas Blondie were then playing with seem to have taken over the whole musical middle ground. How about that, then?
"I'm glad we did it. It was Mr Stein's influence really. He should take all the credit for that."
The new single and the horribly-titled LP Rockbird seem to have been targeted firmly at that dance rock MTV mainstream. Featuring about half and half musicians and machines, it was all put together earlier this year with the help of a chap called Seth
Justman. Tell us about him.
"He was producer, arranger, writer and keyboard player for... for..."
The J. Geils Band?
"That's right. I was going to say Jethro Tull. I knew it began with a 'J'..."
Justman and Harry met each other through the good offices of her new American record company, Geffen. Some of the songs were written with
Justman, some with Chris Stein. Nile Rodgers contributed one. A chap called Chuck Lorre wrote French Kissing. Still another was written with Toni C., a woman who's done songs for Jocelyn Brown.
"I met her through Jellybean. It's the first time I've written a song with another woman."
And how does she feel all this compares with her old material?
"Well I guess this is like mostly mine. I wrote all the lyrics, except for the Chuck Lorre song, and I've got no one else to blame... except for him. I think it's very commercial but it has some weird stuff in it though not like... what do you call them? Um... not like Sigue Sigue Sputnik. I don't know what to say. I like it."
The other side of Blondie's success was of course that a quite considerable section of the general public had the hots for Ms Harry. Does she feel that Madonna now occupies the space she once did?
"I don't think so. I was never as big as she is. We did have a lot of
number ones but it wasn't such a... um, such a..."
"Phenomenon, that's right... Listen. I sort of have to go now..."
Debbie Harry in search of her Blondie roots.
Album review by Mark Cooper
CHRYSALIS CDL 1540 LP/Cass
Debbie Harry has been away a long time. Madonna has long since transformed Blondie's nonchalant cool into an altogether brasher sexual invitation, replacing knowing irony with the art of the bald come-on. Meanwhile Blondie's last, disastrous LP (remember Debbie's balefully clumsy wig?) and Harry's 1981 solo outing Koo-Koo, best remembered for its Geiger sleeve, have faded kindly into oblivion. A new Harry LP sounds like a good idea.
The unfortunately titled Rockbird is an attempt to take Debbie back to the zestful rock trash of early Blondie. Initial listening suggests she has almost pulled it off. As that dreamy ice-cream voice floats into the current 45, French Kissin' (In The USA, the shimmering pleasures of Parallel Lines seem only moments ago. By the time producer Seth Justman of The J Geils Band has finished with the song, Debbie's light touch has long since vanished under massed backing vocals and the kind of sax and guitar solos designed to draw applause in American stadia.
Justman has contrived to build Debbie into a wedding cake production that is never content to let the lady call the shots. As if to reassure Harry that she's getting across,
Justman constantly over-elaborates, digging the listener in the ribs like a man telling a joke to a foreigner. From the exaggerated zany piano which crashes all over the LP's opener I Want You to the brass cliches that click in You Get Me In Trouble, Justman works pedantically hard to earn his keep.
Blondie at their best were blessed with an unerring pop sensibility. The songs here strain to recapture the ease of the old days and occasionally come close, particularly on slower tunes like In Love With Love. Yet even on these sites of earlier triumphs, Harry can't quite capture her old throwaway confidence, or sense of fun. While French Kissin' has a fairly unforgettable chorus and will probably be a hit, it is neither as silly or as sexy as it ought to be.
Debbie Harry used to be charmingly moderne. Now she sounds like she's feeding her greatest hits into a computer. Rockbird is the result of a faulty memory's struggle to piece together the old secrets. She's remembered enough to remind us how much she's forgotten.