Record Mirror - October 13th 1979
Pages 10 & 11
Hi, I'm back. Did you miss me?
JAMIE JAMES talks to Blondie
DEBORAH Harry's mother loves to tell the story of her daughter's singing debut. It seems that Debbie's sixth-grade class in Hawthorne, New Jersey, once staged a "Tom Thumb" wedding. "One kid would be the groom, one the bride and one the bridesmaid. Debbie sang the solo at the end; she sang 'I Love You Truly' all by herself!"
Richard and Catherine Harry run a gift shop called Around the House in Cooperstown, New York, a sleepy little burg best known as the home of the baseball Hall of Fame. The Harrys are a tightknit family. "The only Christmas she wasn't here was the time she was on tour in Australia," says Mrs Harry of Debbie. "She was so depressed, and I was so depressed. She said, 'I'll never be away for Christmas again.' Debbie's a wonderful daughter."
When Mrs Harry - or Cag, as she prefers to be called - is asked if Debbie was popular with the boys, she erupts with laughter. "Are you kidding?" she asks. Mama tells about the time Debbie was approached to enter the high-school beauty pageant: "She didn't particularly want to go in; they called her in. And she asked me, 'What do you think?' And I said, 'I think it's ridiculous.' Her remark was, 'I have no talent. All I can do is twirl a baton.'
"She was always beautiful," Cag Harry says with pride. "When she was a baby, my friends used to tell me I should send her picture in to Gerber's, because she would be picked as one of the Gerber babies.
"But I didn't send it in," she adds solemnly. "I didn't believe in her being exploited."
DEBBIE Harry, 34, is the star of Blondie, and she looks the part. However much it rankles the band members, however much their past press releases strived to ignore it, Blondie's initial notoriety stemmed directly from the public's response to Debbie. To put it another way, she's the only one in the hot new rock package who can't be replaced. That big, wide, angular face, with its innocent pout that somehow combines worldly glamour and naivete, is the group's most familiar symbol. Many people think Blondie is Debbie's nickname, a confusion that infuriates the band. There are even lapel buttons that announce, Blondie Is A Group. But so long as they work in a musical genre still dominated by men, she will remain the focal point.
Blondie is one of the big success stories of 1979. After releasing two well-regarded but sparse-selling albums (1976's 'Blondie' and 1977's 'Plastic Letters'), the band shattered the new wave's stigma of noncommercialism with 'Parallel Lines', an epic sleeper that spent six months inching up the charts.
The album's first two US singles, 'I'm Gonna Love You Too' and 'Hanging On The Telephone' (a hit in Europe), sank without a trace, but 'Heart Of Glass', a sexy, pulsating love lament propelled by Debbie's stark vocals, became a surprise favourite that hit Number One nationwide in late April. The record, issued as both a 45 and a 12-inch extended-play version, pleased the fickle disco crowd as much as the band's die-hard rock devotees. As a result, the members of Blondie have become important figures, if not heroes, to the dozens of new wave acts seeking widespread acceptance in this country, and the latest overnight sensations in a diverse late-Seventies rock boom that includes Elvis Costello, the Police, the Cars, Dire Straits, Van Halen and Supertramp.
As for Debbie Harry herself, the underground "punk Harlow" is not only a bright new star, but also the first rock pinup in recent memory. Since Blondie's inception in 1975, Debbie has been a fashion trend-setter as well as a sex symbol. She contributed to the vogue of the thrift-shop look as much as anyone, once appearing onstage in a tacky wedding gown and telling the audience, "It's the only dress my mother wanted me to wear."
At that time, Patti Smith was the other big female rock star in New York. Patti's bedraggled guttersnipe look was much more fashionable in those circles. There was pressure on Debbie to go dirty, but she stuck by her mini skirts and spike heels. With the passing of hard-core punk, it was Debbie's campy, Sixties nostalgia trip that came out on top, the strong visuals complemented by some of the best rock on the radio in a good long time. As Debbie warns in the band's new single: "One way or another, I'm gonna find ya/I'm gonna getcha, getcha, getcha, getcha."
BLONDIE has just finished up a day in Manhattan rehearsal studio preparing to record its fourth album. The atmosphere is chaotic, gofers and girlfriends wander around the room. Across the hall, there's a big roast beef and champagne bash for Carly Simon, who has just done a television commercial or something.
Nigel Harrison, Blondie's mop-haired English bass player, guides me to the champagne, then introduces me to keyboard player Jimmy Destri and lead singer Deborah Harry. I can tell the moment Debbie lays eyes on me that she hates my guts.
Back in the studio, drummer Clem Burke and guitarists Chris Stein and Frank Infante are jamming. Stein segues into 'Rock Lobster', a tune by the B-52's, the new Wave group from Georgia. Mike Chapman, their producer, volunteers to round everyone up. I ask him if it's a good time for an interview; he replies with a winning smile. "Leave it to me. They do whatever I say."
Stein, who with his owlish specs (he rarely wears them in public) and prematurely greying hair looks like a young Allen Ginsberg, starts off with a message for everyone who has criticised the group for selling out: "**** you!" Debbie bursts into the room, wrings her hands and gives me pale, withering looks. "Why am I here at all?" she seems to be asking. Having cast her pall over the room, she rushes out again. Stein trots after her to see what's up.
The rest of us talk about the rock press. They all hate the rock press.
Debbie slouches back in, looking more tempest-tossed than ever. Her face is chalky with anxiety. Chapman tells her, "It's your turn. Say something controversial, Debbie."
She sits down on the edge of the stage and emits a morose, "Yeah."
"Good," Chapman beams. "That was it. 'Yeah'."
The problem is that she wasn't expecting an interview; all she had been told was that she was to meet this writer - me. There is a short discussion of whose fault this mess is. Debbie hates me, she hates Chris, right now she hates the world. She's just feeling rotten. I try to cheer her up, congratulate her for 'Heart Of Glass' being Number One.
This makes her even glummer.
Now the storm breaks. Debbie hollers at me. Everyone looks down at the floor. I'm afraid she's either going to cry or pull a deringer out of her raincoat and shoot me. This is a roomful of miserable people. It's like a wake for somebody no one liked.
THE second time I see Debbie, a week later, the atmosphere is better, but then it's hard to go downhill from a debacle. We are at Power Station Recording Studios.
Debbie refuses to be interviewed without Stein, but he keeps wandering off to fiddle with dials. The couple never seem to be separated for very long. Even those in their inner circle say they don't really understand the relationship. One insider told me, "She can't do anything without him. It's kind of spooky." Debbie is curled up in a dusty alcove. The window is boarded up rather clumsily, so a single bar of sunlight steaks across her. I ask about her image as a fashion plate.
"I don't do the campy stuff anymore," she replies. "I've eliminated all that, the secondhand store look. I've outgrown it, you know? I can afford to buy clothes and to have them made, so now it's more what I would specifically choose to wear." Her voice is very soft. "What I do now is more of an image. It sticks in people's minds." Which isn't to say that she doesn't look funky nowadays. Today she's wearing red tights, red high heels and a childish, embroidered smock that she is continually tugging on and smoothing out.
The daughter of a salesman in Manhattan's fashion district, Deborah Ann Harry was born in Miami and raised in New Jersey. She has one younger sister, Martha, and a cousin, Bill, now in college, who has lived with the family since his early teens. When Debbie left home and moved to Manhattan, her first apartment was on St. Marks Place in the East Village, down the street from poet W. H. Auden's residence. Her initial stab at a musical career, a brief and ill-starred effort, was with a Mamas-and-Papas-esque group called Wind in the Willows.
Next came a long stretch as a New York survivor. She kept her artistic credentials alive by hanging out on the periphery of the Warhol crowd, writing and painting while supporting herself with a succession of jobs - as a beautician, Playboy Bunny and barmaid at Max's Kansas City, the rock bistro where she would eventually be a headliner. There was a flirtation with heroin. Then she found her milieu with a campy glitter band called the Stilettoes. Chris Stein joined the band shortly after her first club gig with them.
The Stilettoes went down with everyone else in the Great Glitter Crash that began in the early Seventies. By then, Debbie and Chris were a team, romantically as well as musically, and together they founded Blondie.
Looking back on her career, does it fit together, or was it something more experimental, a case of trial and error? "A lot of people think that everything you do is, like, preconceived," she offers blandly. "Yeah, it's been good, because it's been very inspired - whatever happened was it. Our biggest consideration was just to survive, so, like... all art forms are frivolous. That's what 'stay hungry' is all about.
"Now we're sort of at an in-between stage, commercially and artistically. We're at a stage where we are what we are, and we've been clearly defined, and there is a market for us, right? So we're taking steps in our direction, you know. We're moving on, we're doing things, but we're doing things that people can identify. We're not taking a total turn from what we've been classified as. But, like, the next things that we do, we could very well do a total turnaround."
I, for one, find her statements difficult to follow. She alights from the alcove and wanders about restively. She picks up a can of two-penny nails, takes a handful and fretfully stabs them at things. I ask her about something Clem Burke told me the night before at Max's: "We want to be one of the great bands, not like the Grateful Dead." Debbie frowns thoughtfully. "The things we've done to stay together as a group and all are pretty amazing, so I don't see any reason why we shouldn't be one of the greatest rock groups. I mean, to be a rock group, to do what we do and stay together without any, like, real dictatorial leadership, it's pretty strong. It's very strong."
Debbie Harry is elusive, if you look at her too intently, she turns vaporous on you, like a Cheshire cat. I've noticed that she never looks the same in any two photos. In person, she looks like none of them. She is pretty, but she doesn't look like she feels pretty. Rather, she looks tired, spent.
"It smells like a dentist's office in here, doesn't it?" she asks. A cigarette butt is smoking in the ashtray, so she fills it up with water from the tap, which doesn't do much for the room's smell. Stein is back. Suddenly we're talking about the Sixties. As usual, Chris is trying to work on one of his radical-alarmist conspiracy theories, while Debbie responds on a personal level. "That's like the pathetic thing," she says. "People have really been dictated to a lot in the past couple of years, tastewise. I mean, eccentricity has been really frowned upon. Really, it's very frightening. You know, it makes you feel really endangered by being any kind of weirdo in this country."
FROM the outset, Blondie's sound was built on a driving, compulsive beat and spacey keyboards, with Debbie's dreamy, almost uninflected vocals drifting over it all. Chris and Debbie found their rhythm section in drummer Clem Burke and bassist Gary Valentine, who knew each other from Jersey school days. With the addition of Jimmy Destri on keyboards, the original lineup was complete.
Early in 1976, Richie Gottehrer, formerly of the Strangeloves, co-author of the 1966 British hit "Sorrow", the man who made the McCoys ("Hang On Sloopy") semi-household words, discovered Blondie at CBGB's, the sleazy dive on the Bowery that was then in the process of becoming famous. He brought Larry Uttal, the president of the small, New York-based Private Stock label, to their show. They heard the jingling of cash registers.
Blondie's first record, the single "X Offender" backed with "In the Sun," was co-produced by Gottehrer, It didn't sell very well but provoked a lot of interest, at least enough to follow it with the first album.
Blondie hired a new manager. Gottehrer had been managing them as well as producing, but he didn't think he had time to do both. He and Larry Uttal put their heads together and nominated Peter Leeds.
Blondie made its West Coast debut in February 1977 at Whisky in Los Angeles, where by all accounts the band went over like gangbusters. While in LA, they were hired to support Iggy Pop on his American tour with David Bowie that spring.
When I asked Clem Burke what was the high point of Blondie's career, he replies, "Aside from all the success, I'd have to say meeting David Bowie. That was good. We are all Bowie freaks. There have been so many things that have taken us over a hump, but that was definitely the first biggie: getting to Toronto and meeting Bowie and Iggy and having them come into the dressing room and introduce themselves and say, 'We're gonna have fun on this tour'. I called myself a rock & roll virgin, which is really what we all were, because we weren't used to meeting rock stars and all that. But they don't like to hear, 'Oh, I grew up on you'."
On July 4th, 1977, Gary Valentine, bass player and co-author of 'X Offender,' split from the group. He still cites the same reason for the split that he used then, "artistic integrity," but when you talk to him about it, that translates into resentment of the despotic concentration of power in Stein and Harry. "I would write six songs, and they would say, 'Okay, we'll do this one."
Blondie then recorded its second album, 'Plastic Letters,' with bassist Frank Infante, an old Jersey chum of the group's. He subsequently joined the band, and moved over to guitar when Nigel Harrison was hired to play bass.
On Labour Day of 1977 came the Big Move, the switch from the small Private Stock label to Chrysalis, an aggressive independent company.
When you ask Leeds or the group what was wrong with the way Private Stock handled them, the answer from all sides is "everything."
There were also internal group problems with the Blondie image (ie, Debbie's image) being projected to promote the records. This culminated in the famous poster of Debbie in a black, beaded, see-through top - very trashy-flashy, very sexy. The group was afraid that it was being packaged behind an image of Debbie as a turn-on for dirty old men. Debbie detested the poster; the group was angry.
Leeds raised $500,000 to buy out Gottehrer and Private Stock - $400,000 for the label and $100,000 for Richie. Then he took them to Chrysalis, where President Terry Ellis was crazy for the act.
ON paper, Leeds is still Blondie's manager. They are now engaged in the legal process of dissolving their relationship. Leeds' office on Madison Avenue is perched way up, on a corner, with a terrific view. "You know I made a little history when I made the Blondie deal," he says. "When in the history of rock and roll music did somebody lay down $500,000 to buy the recording rights to a group that had sold fourteen records?"
Under Leeds' tutelage, Blondie embarked on a five-month, low-budget world tour. They had already toured England in May of 1977, and this globe-trotting trip, including Europe, Australia, Thailand and Japan, confirmed them as international artists.
The rest of the story is, as they say, history: enough gold and platinum Blondie records to tile the bathroom, the awards reflecting their popularity not only in Europe, Australia and practically everywhere else, but also, finally, in America. One big question mark for them now is their management.
Mentioning Leeds' name in the middle of a talk with Debbie and Chris and Jimmy nearly causes total meltdown. Neither side is willing to discuss the split while litigation is still in progess, but it is clearly an extremely acrimonious affair. Both sides hint at deep, dark revelations, monstrous acts on the other side that will make the blood run cold when all is laid bare.
BLONDIE appears to suffer from an acute case of world-weariness. Debbie puts it succinctly: "Success is harder to handle than no success at all."
Chris Stein is more specific. "The hard part about success is that all your friends, all these people that you like, turn against you. It's amazing.
"It's horrendous. It's like all the stuff your old grandmother told you. Shep Gordon, a friend of ours (and manager of Alice Cooper) told us, 'You shouldn't spend all your money on a real expensive straightjacket,' which I think is a great truth of this business."
One gets the feeling that Stein is afraid that this is just what they have done. And to them it is the press, above all, that is this straightjacket. In both of the conversations I had with him, he attacked the press within minutes: in general, how horrible it is; specifically, the effect it has had on Debbie.
"Debbie used to talk very freely," he says. "Just as a result of being abused and misquoted, she cut herself off. She isn't really interested in it anymore. The people that suffer are the fans and the artists. The press gets to sell their newspapers, but the fans don't get to hear what the artists have to say, and the artists can't communicate to their public."
They were very cozy with such New York music fanzines as Trouser Press and New York Rocker, but Blondie can't seem to take the heat of the mainstream press.
If Stein is articulate about his negative feelings toward the Fourth Estate, Debbie's reaction is a muttered admission of terror. When you ask her a question, no matter how innocuous, she reacts like a deer to the smell of gunmetal.
DYNAMICALLY, Blondie seems to be divided into two groups: Debbie and Chris on the one hand and the guys, as they are usually referred to, on the other. These two aren't necessarily adversaries, but their interests aren't always mutual.
One point that was impressed on me by various insiders was, "The money doesn't all go to Debbie, you know," which is a backward way of saying that a lot of it does. Debbie and Chris have formed a production company which Robert Fripp to do a remake of Jean-Luc Godard's 'Alphaville', a classic film from another New Wave. And she has just completed a film tentatively titled 'Union City', in which she plays the housewife of a psychotic killer.
Stein would rather talk about his brand of radical politics than show business or, specifically, music. One senses that this is irksome to the members of the group, who regard themselves totally as musicians and are always itching to play. Burke, Infante and Harrison are for touring; Destri, Stein and Harry are against touring.
According to Debbie, "We always agree on the music. If somebody doesn't want to do a song, we just don't do it, that's all."
BLONDIE is back in the studio again. In today's case, it's a bright, quasi-rustic place on the West Side that resembles a very posh toolshed. The band is laying down basic tracks for a Chris Stein ballad called 'Shayla'. As always, there are a million problems, but everything is going well enough. Debbie flounces into the control room with a bag of pistachios. Chapman sees her, motions through the window for her to give him some. Giggling, she takes a handful of nuts and showers them against the window. Infante, a slightly scaled-down version of Keith Richards, comes by looking a little hungover. Destri, who is sitting this one out, announces to the room, "Will somebody give me a drink, please? I'm desperate." Chapman tells Burke what he wants on the drums: "Make it so straight, so simple, that it's moronic."
Debbie sashays away from the rest of the band, looking like Tuesday Weld in one of her moodier roles. She gazes off vacantly into the empty studio. The next album will probably outsell 'Parallel Lines'. Every date on their tour will likely be a sellout. The boys in the front rows will idolize Debbie, lust after her, and everyone will go out the next day and buy Blondie records. There will be more money, more magazine covers... But Debbie Harry seems to greet the future with a sigh.
I am reminded of something her mother told me about her now-famous daughter. "She is shy," Cag Harry confided. "When she's not performing - and you must know this - she's quiet, with a very pixie sense of humour. She's not real outgoing or loud. She's sort of retiring."
As for the strong hankering for security that I perceive in Debbie, Mrs Harry says, "She's very family-oriented. As a matter of fact, she's more family-oriented than any of the kids. She's the one that got homesick at camp."
That was a long time ago, but as Mike Chapman plays back the band's last session take, I consider Blondie, Debbie's extended family, and I wonder what kind of refuge it offers her now. A line from 'Heart Of Glass' springs to mind: "Once I had a love/And it was a gas/Soon turned out to be a pain in the ass."
Maybe Debbie Harry feels the same way about success.