Smash Hits - 13th-26th November 1980
Pages 4, 5 & 6
Front cover photo by: Allan Ballard
HANGING ON THE TELEPHONE
Mark Ellen accepts the charges
Pics: Virginia Turbett
WITH EVERY hugely successful rock band, there comes a time to step back and survey. A time to resist the mounting pressures or be forced to get cynical before cynical gets you. With Blondie - as you've no doubt gathered lately - that time is NOW.
It's been nine months since they last braved the boards around Britain, and it feels even longer since the days when Debbie Harry's face became the wallpaper of the media and when every radio deejay, disco and boutique owner seemed unaware that music existed outside of "Parallel Lines".
Three years still seems an incredibly short time to have achieved such massive worldwide success and engineered a change of image so natural that it almost slipped by unnoticed. The Blondie of today, in many ways, couldn't be less like the mannered, slightly inept rock unit who first knocked on the British back-door by supporting Television in '77.
It wasn't to be long before the intensely fashion-conscious "street" numbers like "X Offender" and "Rip Her To Shreds" were to give way to the cool classic pop of "Hanging On The Telephone" and "Picture This". Nor was it long before the group image (or, more particularly, the Debbie Harry look) was to move seamlessly from rough-cut experience to the harmless wide-eyed innocence of "Sunday Girl".
The same quarter of the American press who first saw Debbie as "controversial" and "morally threatening" suddenly wreathed her with praise and started comparing her with virtually every blonde-haired screen idol in the whole history of "Entertainment".
And when you get to these precarious heights (and - let's face it - you can't hope to get much higher), it's definitely time to ease down and take stock of the situation.
Coupled with this, the band have been locked in a two-year legal wrangle over a change of label and management. Debbie readily admitted in autumn '79, when asked about the business side of the group, that: "The only good thing about all of this is going into the recording studio. The next best thing to that is the hour or so you're on stage in front of an audience and - take it from me - the rest of it sucks!"
And in the meantime, a lot of people have been wondering whether Blondie hadn't just about exhausted their formula for the irresistible commercial single, despite the recent disco cross-over giving it an added lease of life. These people will be heartened to hear that the new album, "AutoAmerican", is another bottle of pop altogether...
IT'S TEN at night, and it's Hallowe'en. Fireworks are exploding outside your reporter's humble London lodgings when the phone rings from New York. The voice of Chris Stein (Blondie's guitarist, main composer and Debbie's long-time boyfriend) crackles distantly. though it's still hard to believe he's in his rooftop Manhattan apartment over 3,000 miles away.
Were it not three in the afternoon over there he'd probably be hearing fireworks too. He has, however, got a Presidential Election to contend with, and that, plus Hallowe'en Night, is more than enough for any sane soul. Your vote, Chris?
"The Election? Aaaah - it's a big joke."
He assumes a more philosophical tone.
"You know that whoever gets elected is supposed to die in office anyway?"
"It's a fact. Every person since 1840 who's been elected in a year with a zero in it has died in office. Lincoln, Roosevelt, McKinley, Harding, Woodrow Wilson I think, and Kennedy. Maybe Reagan will be elected and get killed in the first 20 minutes. Who knows..?"
We return to the subject of the album, and Kennedy too, a little later but first there's been the time-consuming business of making movies. Debbie's been involved in a couple of films - neither of which have been released on these shores - the first being Union City, a fairly low-budget affair in which she played her debut "dramatic role" as a housewife to a reasonably warm press reception.
The second has had a lot of exposure (or "hype" as Chris curtly suggests), but seems to have failed to capture the heart (or, indeed, the money) of the great American public.
It's called The Roadie and mainly stars that lovable tub of lard, Meatloaf, who hangs around Texas with nothing to do 'til he suddenly falls in love with a groupie and gets mistaken for a roadie on the Rolling Stones tour. He eventually ends up at New York's Madison Square Gardens where he saves the gig from almost certain destruction in the form of alien invaders and acting roles by Mick Jagger and Tatum O'Neil.
Blondie appear as "themselves", except that they're playing an old Johnny Cash number "Ring Of Fire" and wear cowboy hats all the time, the film being "basically a rock'n'roll saga/comedy that's mainly Western-orientated".
Sadly, The Roadie has fallen foul of the standard Hollywood box-office safeguard, which means that, as it didn't do well enough in it's first fortnight of release, it's been withdrawn from the cinemas.
"That's the way these people work," Chris sighs. "If a film doesn't do the projected amount of business - even if, like this one, it's critically well-received - they shelve it for other things like European and foreign release and for cable TV and stuff like that. Anyway, it's great and pretty funny and I'm amazed that it's not out over in England yet."
This reminds Chris of a book of his photos that's due to be published in this country around May.
"Same publishers as Monty Python," he adds with a certain amount of pride. "It's a book of my shots but it'll be like a regular photography book, not a fan book, with a good text that's being put together by Debbie and Victor Bockriss. It's a picture of all the things that have surrounded us in the last seven years. And before. I've been shooting pictures since before I met Debbie."
CHRIS NEXT reveals the band have done some video work recently: a new sequence for the current single "The Tide Is High" which he says should be on Top Of The Pops very soon. It extends the kind of techniques they've used so successfully before to enhance the dreamy quality of their melodies and bring an edge of fantasy to the lyrics.
"This one was shot in Soho, New York," he explains, "with a guy directing called Art Perry who's just won an award for short films. It's very weird, even more special effects."
I mention that the single is my only reference to the new album, but that I've heard it's a far broader cross-section than "Eat To The Beat".
"Well, yes, 'The Tide Is High' isn't really representative of the record. We've tried to make it very diverse, tried to put a lot of very different kinds of music on it and all the songs stand up by themselves, I think."
"Diverse" sounds as though it's something of an understatement. The single is the only reggae-based number (originally recorded in '68 by John Holt and the Paragons, and covered later by U-Roy) and they chose it as the first 45 "'cos it was the most obvious one, the most 'up' song".
Chris also explains, in rather confusing terms, that he used horns on the track because "horns to me have always existed in the same musical psychological sphere as guitars".
The new album opens with an instrumental Chris wrote called "Europa" scored for a 30-piece orchestra. There's also a Big Band Swing song, "Here's Looking At You", a heavy disco funk song, "Rapture" - "a homage-to-Chic type thing" - but only two numbers that Chris would actually describe as "rock" songs.
A third "rock" song - but not on the album - is the flipside of the current single, "Susie And Jeffrey", an unlikely slice of romantic drama based around "a blood-test". Perhaps Chris will elucidate?
"There's a great story here. What happened was that we were in the studio one day - it was a weird day, must have been some strange planetary configuration or something - and Perry Como was recording his Israeli Christmas message next door. Orson Welles was there too," he reflects, "making a commercial. And after a while, someone said: 'Come outside and see what's happened!'
"So we went outside and this kid had driven his Audi right into the wall of the studio, completely totalled the car and left a huge gaping hole in the wall, right? So Debbie went over to the kid's girlfriend and started finding out what was happening, and they said they were on their way to get blood-tests for their marriage licence (compulsory in the States) and they'd had a fight.
"But the punch-line of the whole thing was that the kid gave us copies of his single - which was called 'Slammed In The Door' - and it turned out that he was in some S&M (sado-masochist) band where they dressed up in all leather and stuff. And it was just such a classic story that Debbie decided to write it up."
"I think that the centrepiece song on the album is one of Debbie's too," Chris decides when I tell him there are rumours of "cocktail bar jazz" in the air.
"It's not exactly 'cocktail bar', as you put it, I think of it more as a 1980's Depression Era song, like 'Brother Can You Spare A Dime'.
"And, in a way, that sets off the tone for the whole record, although it's also quite different - it's just a combo, a trio; Debbie, sax, bass, piano. That's a jazz song, but I don't think it's 'cocktailly' at all. It's more a traditional jazz ballad blues.
"We do have a song from Camelot which, I think, will be our first 'Easy Listening' hit. It's called 'Follow Me' and it's sung by the nymph in Camelot to Merlin when she's coming to take him away. And Merlin doesn't really want to leave because Arthur is in trouble, right?, but she comes and takes him anyway and everything gets screwed up."
So it must have some kind of significance?
"Well, it just seemed really appropriate. I went to see the play - the production with Richard Burton - and the songs just seemed really appropriate on a lot of levels. The story of the play is that there was once this shining moment and then it's all destroyed.
"And when Kennedy came to The White House, he had his shining moment and that was destroyed too. So in a way, I thought it was symbolic of Blondie, which is not the kind of thing that's gonna last forever.
"It's also about people being taken away before their time is up, before they're supposed to go. And that's what happened to Hendrix, and that's what happened to Kennedy, and that's what's gonna happen to a lot of people..."
And you think it might happen to you as a group? That circumstances might force a premature end?
"It's different, y'know," he pauses. "As I said, it won't last for ever."
BUT FOR the present, matters are very definitely under control. The band still work well together, Chris says, his relationship with Debbie he called "stable" - "we're still getting along" is the only insight - but the group's legal problems haven't as yet been resolved.
Chris has developed a hardened professional attitude towards this sort of thing now and reckons, what with the endless amount of negotiations and wheeling and dealing that constantly surrounds him, that "the whole of showbusiness exists on paper".
Much of Chris and Debbie's time of late has been expended in keeping the inevitable pressures at arm's length. He says they don't really get hustled if they walk around New York, that most people are polite to them and that he doesn't think it'll ever get to the stage where they'll have to travel around in limousines.
"I don't really like having some guy run around and open the door for me. Makes me nervous," he says, though with so little humour you can imagine the idea has been seriously entertained.
It's no surprise, then, that the album's so vastly different from what we've come to expect. And there's several reasons for the changes. I've always suspected that "Eat To The Beat" was so strictly geared towards a "live" band sound that it was intended as Blondie's swansong as a touring band, and Chris admits that "we really did try and make it a real band-sounding album".
So "AutoAmerican" was made without any future tours in mind?
"Well, that's one of the reasons it's much more varied. There wasn't any pressure to do an album that we could duplicate 'live'. Also we put a lot more effort into this one (it took two months to record as against three weeks for "Eat To The Beat") because we really felt it was important.
"We felt that Blondie was really falling into a 'Blondie' mould. Much as there are a lot of other groups trying to fall into the 'Blondie' mould, it's the sort of trap you can set for yourself, y'know?"
So it was a conscious decision to escape from that mould?
"Well, it wasn't at first, but now that I see all these other bands... these Blondie clones... y'know, the heavy guitars and the girl vocalist. Like Pat Benatar for one. It's crazy.
"We really had to break away from it, and we did," he concludes. "But how long Blondie will continue as Blondie, I really don't know."