Sydney Live Magazine - 6th-12th August 2003
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.