Rolling Stone [Australian Issue] - March 1999 - Issue 559
Pages 19 & 20
BLONDE ON BLONDE
Blondie - the band, the girl, the phenomenon - is back. Nostalgia my ass.
BY DAVID NICHOLS
I THOUGHT THERE WERE TOO MANY PROBLEMS connected with the past," says Debbie Harry over a mineral water in a cafe on the main drag of the Victorian seaside town of Lorne. "I didn't want to get into that, I'd moved on in my life, and doing jazz for a couple of years - I really felt like the musical experiences would've just changed. "So when Chris called me up and said (here she lapses into an impersonation of a pirate's parrot), 'What do you think about putting the band back together?' I said, 'What are you - NUTS?' (Here she mimes slamming down a phone.) So it took him a while to convince me...
"Truthfully, the problems that were connected with Blondie, the feelings of frustration, anger - you know? There were a lot of bad feelings, and I didn't want to go back to that. It's not necessarily all connected with members of the band, it was a series of tragedies and ripoffs and stuff that left everyone exhausted and left Chris really sick and there you go. So why go back?"
Well, you go back because some members of the band need the money, and some members of the band maybe feel it might be fun to have another go... and wouldn't mind the money. And, like everything to do with Blondie, you do it with a sense of purpose, and to make a point, and with gusto.
Blondie's new album, No Exit - it has to be said - is better than most of the albums they did when they were around the first time. The core foursome of Clem Burke, Chris Stein, Jimmy Destri and of course Deborah Harry are touring with a couple of other guys called Leigh and Paul (and not Frank Infante or Nigel Harrison, but more about them later). The band, average age 48, play brilliantly. And Harry - as no one seems tired of saying, it's almost a mantra - still looks terrific.
THE STORY OF BLONDIE - A story which is far from over - starts with Harry and Stein, a young New York couple swept up in the New York new wave scene of the mid-1970s. Television. Richard Hell. Patti Smith. And Chris and Debbie's band, Blondie.
But where Television, for instance, will forever be a cult legend, Blondie - presumably largely by dint of Harry's beauty and distinctive vocals but also because of the band's irresistible pop sensibility - became a huge success. The measure of that success is that they're still played on the radio now; their own songs "Heart of Glass", "Rapture", "Atomic", "In the Flesh" (their first ever chart hit, by the way - in Australia before anywhere else) and covers, "Hanging on the Telephone", "The Tide is High", and so on. They had six big, outlandish albums, only the last of which, The Hunter, is generally regarded as less than brilliant. The band split in 1982; Chris became extremely sick, and Debbie looked after him. Then Chris and Debbie split up. And Blondie were no more, until late last year, when the group reconvened for a new album, with the witty and probably true title, No Exit.
Backstage at the Falls Festival, Blondie's major Australian appearance, the "Blondie boyz" (their trailer is labelled this way) are seated on couches. Leigh, the bass player, takes me into the
trailer to get me a drink. The Blondie boyz have big tubs of either diet soft drinks or light beer. The audience outside are risking death (mainly by exposure - for, almost mid-summer, it's freezing out here, and it only gets colder) to enjoy You Am I. The Blondie boyz are (a) enjoying You Am I immensely (Clem Burke wants to take them on tour) and (b) marvelling at the freezing weather. "This is like an upstate New York summer," says Jimmy Destri. "Like summer in the Catskills."
Destri, it seems, has been working as a producer to the wide range of new bands (he favours English groups) who, in some way or another, would probably cite Blondie as a formative influence. What he marvels about most, however, is their marathon drug consumption. Or, in the case of Blur, their marathon alcohol consumption.
Burke is red in the face: he fell asleep on the beach. We will soon find out, however, that Burke will not let a little sunburn deter him from delivering the most powerful, cataclysmically straight-down-the-line performance by a drummer ever experienced at the Falls, if not in Victoria altogether. Burke is soon to be a powerhouse. Right now, however, he's in the Blondie boyz trailer detailing an ill-thought-out theory about how a shark will only attack a swimmer who has eaten a lot of fish and farts in the water.
Stein, the initiator of the new Blondie, appears to bring a curmudgeonly aspect to the proceedings. For instance, he is the one in the tour van who always tells the others to turn the stereo down. Stein does not talk to us, although he does at one stage show us the joke of the evening: the lyrics to the hoary old chestnut version of traditional New Year's anthem "Auld Lang Syne", only this one's about an old man called Lang who had a sign. It'd be nice to be able to say that such jokes were the essence of Blondie's appeal, but actually, Blondie are a great band. A band who make their audience feel like they're part of the experiment. And, clichéd as it may be, Blondie is not Debbie Harry. Blondie is a band.
To everybody, that is, but Debbie Harry. "Well, no," she says. "I'm Blondie.
"I'm happy in that, it's a character, it's an embodiment of things we're sharing, and I physicalise it to the audience, and I don't really see a problem. At one time (twenty or so years ago) we had a manager who actually created the problem."
She laughs. "The most bizarre things happened to us. We were just this little band, I was Blondie, the band was Blondie, there was no problem. So the manager wanted me to dump everybody and I said, y'know, 'Well, I can't!' He actually tried to break Chris and me up. I said 'I can't do that. These guys have stood by me all these years for no money, I'd feel naked without a band. I like having a band.' So he comes back a week later with this whole campaign, t-shirts and buttons (badges), saying, 'Blondie is a group'.
Now, of course, a minor coup has taken place in the new Blondie camp, whereby Frank Infante, the rhythm guitarist for quite some portion of the group's career, and Nigel Harrison, bassist, have been excluded from the new version of the group, for reasons Harry won't detail because "we're sort of in a lawsuit with them." (Infante and Harrison are reported to be claiming a million dollars in damages from the group.)
Just to confuse the issue (or does this clarify it?), Harry says that Blondie is also "a sort of a statement. At the time when I first did it there weren't many female lead singers, I don't think there were any female musicians, Tina (Weymouth) came along a coupla years later, she was very androgynous. I sort of had this idea in mind about incorporating the fascination about female blonde film stars - I was always fascinated by why this thing worked, in people's lives, why it affected them.
"It was taking a stance lyrically and in music of more aggression, not being victimised by love. A lot of songs women were singing at that time were pretty downhearted, you know, 'I've been kicked again', y'know, 'Walk all over me', 'Take another little piece of my heart'. I loved Janis Joplin but a lot of her songs were about being brutalised, emotionally brutalised. These things happen, OK, but there are other things. I wanted to have a gutsier position. I don't know if it really came across. Some of it did."
So does she ever feel like girls these days have it easy - and resent them for it?
"No. The problems now are problems I'd never want to face. What attracted me to music and to rock & roll was that it was counter-culture, it was anti-social, it wasn't advertising, it wasn't MTV, it was underground, it was menacing, it was subversion. I mean it was all this stuff. In the '50s, when I grew up, that rock & roll thing was evil, it was the devil's stuff. Of course I thought, 'That's for me, man! Yaah! I'm going for it.' I think now, what's a kid going to do? The only thing you can do now is become a hacker. Or go to outer space."
THIS IS THE WORLD INTO which the new Blondie is born. And it's not just different socially and musically for the group - there are people who aren't around anymore, like Jeffery Lee Pierce, formally of the Gun Club, who has one track on No Exit dedicated to him - the wonderful "Under the Gun".
"Jeffery was an old friend," says Harry. "He sort of hung around Blondie when he was 15, when we first went to LA, he was a real sort of manic depressive teenage kid. He headed up our fan club for a while." Pierce died two years ago. "We knew he had a liver problem - he really was a very sort of depressed guy, and drinking didn't help. We were very sad about it.
"Also, you know who else came around? Anthony - from the Chili Peppers. And Anthony was so cute. Anthony was even younger than Jeffery. Anthony was about 8 or 9 asking me to marry him - and I was so shocked! He was so adorable, I wanted to steal him away. I thought, 'Oh my god, I could really get into trouble with this' - so cute! God!"
There aren't any 8 or 9 year-olds in the audience at the Falls on New Year's Eve, but there are a significant number of people who were a long way off from being born when Blondie's "In the Flesh" hit the Australian charts in 1977. Who wants to be entertained by a bunch of New York dilettantes older than their parents? Apparently, the 12,000 Falls revellers do. And Blondie is magnificent. Deborah Harry is a charismatic frontperson and the crowd can't get enough of the old or the new stuff. This is not nostalgia: it's a band with a special talent making great pop music look easy.
Which it isn't. "Grinding it out on the road..." muses Harry later. "It's fun being in front of an audience. But it's hard work. And I'm old. And lazy!
"I'm not lazy. But it really is hard work."