Sydney Live Magazine - 6th-12th August 2003

regally blonde

Written By: Natalie Hanman

Towards the end of 1975 a little-known garage band, The Sex Pistols, were booed and kicked off stage at their debut gig in London's 100 Club after they'd played just five songs.

They were mad, bad and angry, and the establishment hated them. Their music itself didn't amount to much but from their attitude that night a star was born: punk.

Almost three decades on, you can taste elements of punk in today's music and fashion and see it in ultimate punk pop band, Blondie's return to the stage. While for some it may just be nostalgia - cashing in on a once-loved but almost faded street style - there is a definite trend akin to the halcyon days.

The Sex Pistols may have sung of No Future, but 30 years on, punk is enjoying another day in the sun. Look at the fashion on the street or listen to the disco punk tunes filling dance floors: it's punk for a new century. And while many of punk's heroes have long since gone, Blondie have stood the test of time and are back on the road. The band which in the late '70s carved a swathe through the old remnants of hardcore punk with their New York-style disco punk are in Sydney this week, playing old hits and supporting their new album, The Curse Of Blondie.

While they may be more like a museum exhibit than a band for anyone born after 1980, Blondie are responsible for some of the most memorable songs from a decade often best forgotten for its frilly shirts and Adam Ant's crimes against white zinc.

The release of Blondie's Parallel Lines, in 1978 pushed New Wave firmly into the mainstream and sent punk purists mad. Opening with the ringing of Hanging On The Telephone, it delivered 11 floor-filling pop songs and the monster Heart Of Glass. The album cover and accompanying videos launched the sexy black-and-white style that became a symbol of New Wave fashion. Even Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry's black roots through her peroxide locks kicked off a two-tone hair craze.

And Debbie has flirted on and off with nostalgia-celebrity in the three decades since Blondie danced punk into the mainstream. "Blondie took punk and polished it, made it shiny and gorgeous and glamorous," remembers Neil Tennant, one half of British electro band The Pet Shop Boys, "That's why it worked. It took all the best bits of punk, the dicipline, the three minute songs, the ...'We don't care attitude', but made it glamorous."

Blondie's slightly more polished punk certainly found favour after "the wretched punk thing," says their record producer, Mike Chapman.

But their roots were as dirty as punk. During Blondie's debut gigs at New York club, CBGBs, Debbie made ends meet by selling pot out of the boot of her car. "Those were fun days at the beginning," she recalls, "before we got famous and all that shit. We were just disreputable and funky and sleazy and smelly in every way. We were jerks."

Debbie, an ex-Playboy Bunny who had been in bed with Joey Ramone, served drinks to Andy Warhol and starred in a David Cronenberg flic, was, in Warhol's words, the first Madonna.

With her trademark nonchalance, however, she fizzles such flattery: "I somehow think that Madonna would have managed on her own no matter what. If she'd been in Yugoslavia in the middle of the f**king war she still would have done what she did."

Debbie, like the original punks, linked the fashion and music of punk to turn it into a way of life. She scorched her way through the last days of the '70s hippie phase, taking flared denims with her. In their place she brought tight-fitting leggings and a glossy pout, then surrounded herself with skinny men in skinny ties.

She was "always drawn to the exotic," and her sassy confidence challenged the secondary status of women in rock. "Attitude," she says, "is important." And if anything drove the punk culture from which Blondie was born, it was attitude.

Angry kids of the late '70s were disillusioned with their music icons. Industrial riots plagued the UK and creativity seemed dead. Into this blazed The Sex Pistols, the brainchild of Malcom McLaren who masterminded their fortune from his Kings Rd shop, Sex, which he ran with the anti-fashion icon Vivienne Westwood.

There, disenchanted youth found solace in playing records in the offbeat store: a mix-mash of jumble cast-offs, DIY-styled risque T-shirts and rubber bondage suits.

"Sex was more than a shop," says Siouxsie and the Banshees' Steve Severin. "It was a concept." This concept defined the anti-ideals of punk as an attitude rather than something to wear or listen to. But like all fads, the blaze of anti-establishment eventually began to burn out. Selling out became a byword for punk bands who made it big.

Today's punks can't shock us like they used to and after three decades, we can look back at punk for what it was: a cultural firecracker that set off a chain of change that ultimately sold its soul for top price.

Blondie is also where the styles and times of past and present meet. Dolce and Gabbana's autumn/winter 2001 collection waS inspired by her (bottled) blonde ambition, with stretch cut-off tees spelling out her name. One featured the words Call Me (one of the biggest hits) and a mobile phone motif.

Current street fashion has resurrected the punk style, adding modern twists to the original trends. Then, punk brought fashion to the masses, who customised their clothes to reflect their individuality.

Today's designers like Sass and Bide and Stella McCartney hark back to punk; even the fluoro stockings, leg-warmers and trashy mesh singlets filling Sportsgirl tell their tale.

"[Debbie Harry] was a style icon, definitely, when she used to wear the French beret and the trench coat and the little black dress," says Melanie Greensmith, founder of Australia's posh punk label, Wheels and Dolls Baby.

There's also been a surge in DIY, independent labels, producing custom-made T-shirts. Melbourne designers Flux translate fierce morals onto fluoro political prints and label Shem ironically adorns T-shirts with the Queen's head.

But as a whole, Greensmith says, fashion is becoming more mainstream and consumerist.
"I did a T-shirt about five years ago which says 'F**k off I'm with the band' written in gold writing across the front and we released it and no one wanted to know about it. It was just too much. So we put it away. And then I've just done my new collection ...and I released that T-shirt and they've all gone mental over it," she says.

So we're no longer as shocked as we used to be. But can today's music legitimately be seen as a true punk revival in the spirit of the Sex Pistols, who's '76 Anarchy tour with The Clash, The Heartbreakers and The Damned ended with 14 of the 19 tour dates being cancelled because their attitude was so reviled?

If punk was about shocking the establishment, today's closest punk icon must surely be white rapper Eminem. The stand-out track from 2000's Slim Shady EP, Just Don't Give A F**k, has punk in its soul. And if Grandmaster Flash can credit Blondie's Rapture with legitimising their art form, then former DJ Don Letts can't be too far wrong when he says, "Hip-hop is black punk rock."

In this vein, Marilyn Manson can be seen as continuing the punk ethos. He's as hated as The Sex Pistols - and just as successful - with his brazen lyrics and controversial image on tracks like The Beautiful People upsetting US right-wing groups.

Generally, though, punk dissipated into either pop punk bands like Blondie, or punk rock acts. Nirvana was a revival of punk's rebellion, with Kurt Cobain a latter day Sid Vicious and Courtney Love his Nancy.

Today there are even elements of punk in mainstream bands such as Good Charlotte, one of countless groups who use the same chord patterns and vocal inflections.

Their single, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous is anti-establishment if we take celebrity as the modern day equivalent. But their marketability is too well understood now for them to pass themselves off as rebel forces.

Gerling admit to a DIY, electroclash, punk presence in their latest album, Bad Blood. "Early stuff in the '80s like Gang of Four and Wire who were doing this, there's definitely heaps of stuff that we've listened to that's had an effect on us," says Darren Cross.

Disco punk has also been taking over the dance scene of New York, San Francisco, Berlin and London for a few years now. US post punk revivalists, The Rapture, use slashing guitars, repetitive funk bass and yelping vocals to create a sound that only recently broke into the mainstream with their single, House of Jealous Lovers.

Their producers, DFA - an art-punk version of The Neptunes - have brought others, such as Fischerspooner, Le Tigre, Radio 4, towards this disco punk sound.

But it's not all about looking back. Revival also means reform and DFA, who held New York parties when punks dropped their first Es and started dancing, saw a way for disco and punk to merge and progress.

"I don't mind being labelled," says one half of duo, James Murphy. "But I'm not into the post-punk attitude any more than I'm into the 1972 Krautrock attitude. People who make good shit have reference points but we're enough of a filter to make good, new stuff."

Even Debbie Harry is wary of living too much in the past. "People always want to hear the hits, which is a double-edged sword because, after so many years, you just think, 'Oh God, I don't want to play that any more.' So we freshen them up a bit."

She admits today's punk movement is as much to do with souvenir nostalgia as new music.
"A lot of it [music today] has to do with merchandising, selling a product. The people who came through with good music will survive."

So has Blondie survived because of musical talent or do they just know how to market their product? While their new material may not shake the foundations of modern music, it is their legacy of punk turned pop, their original sound and style that still impresses and continues to inspire.

Blondie play Sydney State Theatre on August 8. Their album, The Curse Of Blondie is out September 5.


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