Sound International incorporating BEAT Instrumental - October 1980
Fun with Deborah and Christopher
by Robin Mackie
The stroll from my 33 dollars-a-night hotel past Times Square and up almost to Central Park and Chez Harry and Stein includes: a huge coloured lights ad for Roadie in which the word Blondie and the Harry visage overlook the centre of New York in red and yellow splendour every few minutes, a trailer of excerpts from the film outside the cinema where it's showing and oh, three or four posters of Debbie in living colour. Just another poster blonde except that unlike Farrah and Cheryl and Susan and Bo (not Diddley, you fool), she's the one with the expressions. Ms Harry can look confident, weary, antagonistic, mistrustful or downright bored, but still the pictures become life-size wallpaper. I feel Debbie would not get along particularly well with Farrah and Cheryl and Susan and Bo.
I suspect their lifestyles would be somewhat different too. Chris Stein and Debbie Harry's place is... well, pokey is an unkind word but every time Chris wants to get up from his comfortable slouch on the sofa to put a record on, he has to turn right past the keyboard in the middle of the room, left at the far end of it, being careful not to knock over the newly delivered Capital Radio award and pick his way past the serried ranks of Jim Burns' sinister-looking Scorpions and Strats.
And so amid all the oddity of living surrounded by all these images of oneself (outdoors not in) Debbie and Chris seem to be getting along well with living normally in a cluttered sort of way, exhibiting none of the anti-press paranoia that you may have read about, and none of the sullenly defensive expressions from the Eat To The Beat cover. Stein in a black vest and black tracksuit bottom with holes in it is exceedingly amiable to the latest intruder, conversing in a voice that would be quiet for London and must be inaudible on the streets of Manhattan. Debbie listens quietly for an hour or so, mulling over the day's first coffee and some old copies of SI I've
brought along: not a small-talker, she won't say things
unless she has something to say, but becomes voluble if a topic grabs her. With no make-up and hair a-straggle, she looks altogether pleasanter and more relaxed than usual, like the Poster's friendly sister.
How could we do a rock in video supplement without talking to the World Champion (Panasonic VHS) Portapak-using rock star (Stein even contributes a directorial scene in Roadie, handheld, of course) and the Cheekbones built for video? Are these chaps the most popular rock couple since Ike & Tina Eisenhower?
Arrangements have been made in the approved manner. A rather quaint telephone introduction is made: 'Hi, I'm Debbie Harry of Blondie' (Oh, that Debbie Harry). What is intended as a swift hour stretches into three. Stein makes his barefoot safari around the useful objects in search of storage space. Chris's production of Walter Steding, the slightly-bizarre violinist whose wondrous version of Hound Dog you may have heard is played. The Stein-Harry video machine cranks into action to unveil the celebrated Gloria Vanderbilt jeans commercial, a brief snatch of classy gloss among the non-classy dross of American TV.
Calls beam in every 20 minutes or so, ranging from the Gang of Four's Hugo through someone who likes the radio commercial script but wonders if Debbie could manage to say 'Jeans' in it somewhere though to a Big Offer which calls for a Kitchen Conference.
I'm left briefly to examine the only two photos on view - Bob Dylan in his full '66 mysterioso glory with Albert Grossman in the back of the big black limo; Keith Moon in his underpants cavorting with a team of nubiles in his hotel room; spotting an original Giger drawing I rest my hand inadvertently on what turns out to be two stuffed cobras wrapping themselves round a stuffed mongoose. This last has apparently already had the star treatment in the Daily Express desperate for something to make Chris and Debbie sound glamorous and perverse.
They seem neither. They seem like polite, pleasant humorous, easy company. Which makes their American press savaging seem rather odd. There they are sellouts to (a) Using a pretty face/body; (b) Disco; (c) Mike Chapman; (d) Ted Kennedy, and (e) Murjani jeans. Rolling Stone presented a Debbie so terrified as to practically qualify as a Casualty of the Rock Biz last year. Even the safe old fan book turned and bit them as Lester Bangs, between the lovingly laid-out pics in the recently-published Blondie, finds Chris and Debbie altogether too arty, pretentious and cold-blooded to warm the heart of an aging Ramones fan.
Odd for a couple in a band who have put together a collection of good old-fashioned hooks, used images fit for the video age, tried out a wide variety of styles, pinched a few good riffs and put on fast moving, enjoyable concerts, without, as far as I've noticed, claiming to be doing anything more elevated than that. Maybe if Stein hadn't been to art school and Debbie was less famous and they were still playing at CBGBs. Ah, well...
Chris: 'Songwriting is a strange thing, like a psychic thing. I saw this TV show with the Bee Gees where they asked them how they wrote songs and here were these guys in their fucking mansion in front of a marble fireplace with crystal chandeliers with their silver jumpsuits on and gold chains everywhere, and they said, "Well, we pull them out of the air, it's just like they're drifting." The juxtaposition was very funny, but in a way I have to agree, that's what it's about, like tapping into something that's already there. It's being in the right frame of mind. Sometimes you have spurts like at the moment - six or seven songs, but another time there's nothing at all. I always write music, I'm not too good at lyrics. I never wrote prose or poetry but Debbie always has and I think she's getting better and better at lyrics. She's responsible for all the stuff that really gives it its character I think. All our stuff is taken for granted now, and that's why it's our duty now to find some new avenues."
Debbie: 'I like to sing freestyle into a tape recorder. I improvise and listen to it back. Sometimes I get an idea, I just try to make up embellishments and it's easier with a cassette machine. Nowadays I seem to come up with attitudes and feelings first and just go with that. I just try to ad lib it.'
Chris: 'I think a real standard procedure with most punk bands was just to write out 10 titles and then make up the music.'
Debbie: 'Some of our early ones were like that. In The Flesh definitely was title first. I think that's a good way of training yourself to make a controlled construction. But now I don't think that way anymore because I try to think more on a musical base because when you start on a lyrical base without music it's very limiting and the music tends to be very stilted and confined. I've outgrown that I guess: I think more in terms of music and making music flow. Lyrics basically are on top of the music and I think music should be there first and lyrics come second. I don't know whether I was afraid of that or whether I just didn't know it, but I don't think that way anymore. I've written things that are poetry and that's one thing. Ideas for songs are another thing, because poems are complete, they have like a rhythmic force. I wouldn't think of putting them to music. A lyric is simpler. It embellishes a musical theme and makes it come to life - that's the way I think now.'
(Without hogging the writing credits, the Stein-Harry combine has jointly come up with a number of the band's more interesting songs including Rip Her To Shreds, In The Flesh, Picture This, Heart Of Glass, Die Young Stay Pretty and The Hardest Part.)
Chris: 'You're starting to get, here and in England, video facilities at studios. This guy Moogy Klingman who has his own TV show here, he's got involved with the people at the old Bell recording studios, which were the first recording studios in New York I think, and he's making that into a video recording studio. He's starting out sort of like (Todd) Rundgren did only balancing it out more between the video and the recording.
'But in a small studio for sessions, I think it's great to have the facility. I think every studio should have it. Anybody with a sync-pulse generator that can hook up to video for soundtracking - that's going to come in so much more heavily. If anyone is reading this who owns a studio out there, go out and buy a sync pulse generator.
'It's a simple thing to get so that you can sync up a video machine to your 24-track or 16-track. Over the next few years that's going to be essential in studio work.
'Stereo TV will have to come in pretty soon too. They already make stereo videotape equipment.' (At a pinch a long DIN lead will give you the TV sound coming through in Super Double Mono.)
'On Eat To The Beat, some of the songs came out really good and some of them were just an afterthought, some of them became just filler. There was a big rush to get it out and then it didn't matter anyway because it all got tied up with legal things, so it's ironic. We did have it ready - it's been over a year - but it didn't get out because of certain rates that had to be fixed with the American Federation of Musicians - a union thing. It's never going to replace just plain audio stuff. I can't see everything you go out to buy being heavily visual. It would work for compilations or a whole story that's thought out at the onset.
'Also I have a lot of videotapes I shot on the last couple of tours. I might put all that stuff together into something.' (Despite Stein's apparent lack of enthusiasm, the Eat To The Beat video is a lively and enjoyable object, especially bearing in mind the race for first place and that the album is the least interesting of the band's four to date. Clem Burke sits on his drumstool with all the relaxation of Steve Cauthen in the saddle while displaying a range of Mindbenders shirts, Kinks jackets and the like apparently straight from the Ready Steady Go 1965 wardrobe. Debbie scores on the Sexometer with the traditional mixture of sex and innocence on a circular bed while crooning her lullaby Sound Asleep directly before donning a hooded cloak and screaming her head off in the Strange Victor amid intoning
Rasputin-style Russian monks. Debbie Harridan indeed! In the mind's eye, Blondie's first album with its kung fu girls, giant ants and cartoon/headline ambience was handmade for visual cassette. Another thought that occurs: if the record companies have a headache over home audio taping they'll have a colossal migraine when video recorders are more common. Heaven forbid that it should occur to any of you, but an album video of about 40 minutes currently costs around £30. A blank tape costs about £10 for three hours, which means that with two machines hooked up a copy could be done for around £2.20.)
NOT LIVING IN THE REAL WORLD
Debbie: 'I never have any difficulty making my own decisions about what thing to do next, but in the group it's hard. I think I really have a strong sense of what's right. But it just seems like your mind is travelling at one rate and the physical world is travelling at another rate, the record business, God knows what rate that's travelling at. So by the time a record comes out it's like you're not even there any more. The record comes out and it's like "God, I have to promote this for the next six months?" I feel like hiring a bunch of clones to go out and do it.'
Debbie: 'The show is a special thing, that's a life to itself. See, I would like to have shows that were sloppier in a way, just like funkier where there were areas of annoyance where the audience would want to get up and walk around. Go to the lobby or the washroom or something, and just have chaos on stage. A lot of electronic noise, and I'd like to have video areas... I really enjoy myself in shows but I know I could enjoy myself even more if the show was more fragmented and if I could ad lib more. The way that we structure our shows doesn't permit me to get loose or talk. I'd just like to have freakier things happening. I'd like to have people standing around on the stage for some reason. I'd just like to try different things now.'
Debbie: 'I don't think I would want to jump into the audience because it's been done. Who wants to jump on the audience? I like to jump on bodies but one at a time.'
Debbie: 'A friend of ours just went to see Patti (Smith) and he said that Patti's so feminine now and so friendly and so relaxed that he really likes her again and he says she's much better off now that she's married and her music is really nice. I think it happens to everyone. The pressure of the business really gets to you after a while you know. She's had a really healthy respite 'sgood. Us old broads gotta stick together.' Chris: 'Patti's great really, it's just that she fell on her head, that was the only thing that fucked her up.'
Debbie: 'It's really funny and ridiculous. For some reason a lot of the bands that are coming out now, I don't know where they were when we were sort of laying the groundwork for this scene - not just us but bands like us - they seem to think that it wasn't hard for us. They seem to really hate us for having some success. There are a lot of stupid attitudes from people who weren't around, they were probably leading a cushy life in some high school in suburbia. They come to New York and put on a lot of attitude like they're struggling, starving artists and so on. They have no idea what it was like for us.' (Chris and Debbie were both in bands by 1966, and after being in the Stilettos together, formed the first version of Blondie in '74.)
CABLE TV (Eat yer heart out, Hughie and Lew)
Chris: 'As far as TV here is, cable is the only hope. On 23rd Street, there's an office and a receiving thing with big, powerful antennas. They receive signals from all over the country and they go into the cable and the cables go through the ground into your house, so the signals are much better and stronger, they're really purer signals than if they come through the air bouncing off buildings. Plus they generate their own signals, they have a studio there where we do our cable TV show, a live show every Tuesday night, and they put out a thing called public access. The FCC - that's Federation of Communications and something - the people who regulate all the media - the rule is if you're doing cable TV you have to have some channels for public access. Anybody can put on a tape free of charge, you only have to pay to do a live show and that's very cheap anyway. You can put on pretty much anything and it runs the rank to soft-core - tits'n'ass, a little heavier than what you see in London, but not really. It's really developing and building, cable. Over the last two years it's grown to where there really are now 15 stations going strong that you can tune into that make movies and news - there's a 24-hour news station, which is great cos you can always have a running commentary going and find out what's happening.
It's very cheap, just 19 dollars per month and you get movies too. I think there must be close to a million cable viewers in Manhattan. When we do our stupid show (The Glenn O'Brien TV Show) I've heard there's a potential audience of 50,000. Glenn's a writer who write for Interview and High Times. It has a very loose format, it's like a zoo. We get stoned and everybody freaks out, gets drunk, does impromptu jams, famous people come on... sometimes it's totally boring but sometimes it's very exciting. And we take phone calls. And they can curse you out, you can curse them out. It's the wave of the future all that stuff. You get out of town stations as well as cable, so if there's nothing good on the local stations, you can tune into Atlanta or Boston.
'Soon it'll all get hooked up together as the satellite networks get bigger and the next thing after cable is they're going to have to send signals through the air and you have an unscrambler at your house, and they have a thing with call-back facilities on the box where you press a button so you can do a vote straight off. They have that now with the phone-ins, they rate records and stuff like that.'
Debbie: 'They play the riff from Call Me a lot on sports programme links on TV here and the record gets used on cable to back up X-rated commercials - for escort services and things like that.'
GIORGIO MORODER/MIKE CHAPMAN
Chris: 'Giorgio has some new secret technique he wants to try on us, some sound thing in his head. To do something like (Donna Summer's Moroder-produced) I Feel Love would be great. I thought that was a real milestone, about as revolutionary as any of these bands that went around screaming revolution. It broke a lot of ground, opened up a lot of things. He told us he had the riff and song for years, and nobody thought it was commercial. Giorgio's really rock-oriented, much more than disco. He's connected with that because he was successful at it, but he's done a lot of hard rock stuff. I think it's pretty definite he'll be doing our next album. Giorgio wants us to make demos this time, which is something we've never done before recording. I think that's a good idea. Somebody like Chapman or Moroder become like another member of the group, they're adding a whole other facet.
'Chapman is a real disciplinarian and taskmaster. He makes you work really hard, but he never really told us what to do, he'd just make you develop your own parts. If the going got rough he'd interject, but that wasn't that often. Some of the groups he's doing now I think are totally manufactured. I think the Knack were pretty much how they are now, but some of the girl groups. He's doing some new wave bands as well, Nervus Rex and Shandi and various other things. But all that stuff is what I'm really nauseous of anyway. Not necessarily Chapman and those people, but the 'new wave' generally. (The band is in fact back with Chapman after all.)
NEW WAVE (N.Y. VERSION)
Chris: 'It's nothing. All it is is everybody copying everybody else. The next step is for the innovation and the change to surface. All right, now it's accepted that kids from the street can get record contacts but all the fucking record companies want is more Talking Heads or Blondies, so the innovation is getting squeezed out of it very rapidly. Since the stuff became 'over the counter' and commercial, that's when all that happened.'
ADS, ADS, TELEVISION
Chris: 'We're doing this ad for Murjani - designer jeans. It's not such a big thing in Europe. Gloria Vanderbilt is just the figurehead. We're doing this whole ad campaign ourselves - a commercial TV spot and a radio spot.' Debbie: 'The line is "When you know where you're going, you know what to wear". I'll show you the commercial. It's like a non-commercial. There's no mention of jeans in it. It's just like Debbie walking down the street and her outfits change but that's about it. There's another jeans commercial here with a voice just like Ian Dury, heavy rhythm disco new wave bullshit. It's very funny.'
Chris: 'Union City hasn't been abandoned as I saw in print somewhere. It's out. They took it to distributors and everyone went "Ah, Debbie Harry movie" and they expected this big glamour thing, but it's very low-key and Debbie's role is just a role, plus it's this weird sort of underground movie. The result is they didn't get distribution yet in England. I really like it and the music was great. So far it's just got bought for Spain, which has a real up-and-coming film market now. Then there's Roadie. It'll be great if that's a success. I think that'll definitely be out in England fairly soon.' (Something of an oddity, Roadie features Meat Loaf as the eponymous roadie. Amid a lot of beer and fight scenes and fairly haphazard plotting, he becomes involved with (among others) Alice Cooper and Blondie. The latter get to play themselves in a fight scene with a cafe full of professional Texan dwarves, and sing - of all things - Johnny Cash's Ring Of Fire. While they're onstage, a spectacular stunt involves Meat Loaf crashing 30 feet or so from a gantry on to his head on the stage. The stuntman reputedly got upwards of 2500 dollars for this scene alone. As he's a roadie, the damage is minimal.)
Chris: 'I came close to doing a film soundtrack recently but the deadline was just too tight and I can't work under all that pressure. I really wanted to do it too. I did the Union City soundtrack but that was different and just on a shoestring budget. I hope that movie comes out in England. I think a lot of people would like it. I think it'll have a feminist appeal too.
'Alphaville we never made. It was difficult because it's a remake. I'd still like to make it someday.' Debbie: 'It got stopped before it got started, due to lack of co-operation.' Chris: 'Fripp would be a good actor, though, definitely. Fripp is like Ralph Richardson. He has the exact accent and nose of Ralph Richardson. They sound like they're from a two-block radius.' (And we thought he was a country boy.)
UK v. US
Debbie: 'Nobody in England's a hick for Godsakes. England is sophisticated. People sitting around watching hour-long Pinter plays on TV! You take a lot of things for granted. It's part of your heritage, I guess, it's just like second nature, but it really does a lot for people when they know about all these authors. It's just something you grow up with, but it's not like that here. It's just a very different climate and that's a very nice influence. It makes you much calmer. It makes you have a broad frame of reference.'
Chris: 'Look at the way the record press is, it's like night and day really. The music press here is on the level of comic books, really, elbow in the ribs stuff. The Trouser Press is the only one not like that, and maybe a few small ones, but the big above-ground music press here. At least they attempt some analysis and different levels of criticism over there. The interplay between the audience and the paper that goes back and forth is what I like in England. It would be nice if there was a weekly press, it really would be, on a fan level. In England you either get more respect or more assault, it's more severe one way or the other. Everything gets bland here but that's because they're reaching all these markets and regions here, everything gets more watered-down to reach a common denominator. The weird thing doing shows in London is sometimes it feels like doing an exam, you know, taking a test. But here you can play around for a long time and nobody will ever know about you. At least over there you get some reaction.'
Chris: 'I once carved up a Telecaster very similarly to a Burns Scorpion and sprayed it black. It looks very similar. It's an odd coincidence. It's just a different body shape from the standard Stratocaster or Gibson shape without being too far in left field like some of these new guitar shapes that just get ridiculous. It's a really nice recording guitar. I'm trying to convince them to make a lighter version, it is very heavy. They make the Magpie as well, a consumer guitar, but I wish they'd make a lighter version of the Scorpion, but this one is like a Les Paul and it does have a very nice bell-like tone. Strings I just use 10s, Ernie Ball strings. I do like a Fender guitar, a lead guitar, that's like a consumer guitar, it's only 200 dollars, it might translate to £200 in England, but I guess that's still pretty cheap.
'But Burns could do great, I hope they get the guitars over here pretty soon, cos I know they could sell a lot. People I've showed it to really like it. They just have to get 'em over here. I guess that's what's expensive.'
Chris: 'I really want to do a big band song for our next album with a whole string section and a reed section. We never did that yet, so I'll see if I can get Giorgio to do that.'
Chris: 'We're pretty fast. Parallel Lines took a month and Eat To The Beat three weeks. Springsteen was in there recording his next one when we were doing Eat To The Beat, and he's still in there doing it!
HERE IS THE NEWS
Chris: 'The media is always five jumps behind reality - stretching things, falsifying things. You can't ever tell what's true. Once it gets filtered through newsrooms and all that bullshit. Everything gets so tainted, it's crazy. You should see some of the things they have about Ireland here. The last thing was real pro-IRA. These guys were, Robin Hood, these guys were heroes, the British were cunts.' Debbie: 'They interviewed these real macho soldiers, career soldiers who were all for bashing small children's heads against the pavement because they'd been throwing rocks at a tank, it was just incredible.' Chris: 'Then on another channel they had totally the opposite extreme - it's extremists screaming from both sides.' (Hmmm, what these chaps need is the BBC, balance and fair play.)
Chris: 'Much as you always see Ronald Reagan on TV, he has yet to give anything like a lengthy speech on any topic at all. He's just there. He's just got there by spending millions and millions of dollars. Hardly anybody votes anymore anyway.'
Debbie: 'Everyone is really disgusted. Every election it gets worse and worse. I don't know what the end of it's going to be but the people who are disgusted now are not just college students or high school kids, now it's people who are in their forties and fifties - lawyers, doctors, whatever, a lot of blue collar workers - they're thoroughly disgusted with the choices that they're given. They realise it's just a system of money and payoffs and they realise that somebody who is ethical or idealistic is not going to make it through this without having to pet the hand that feeds them. I think a lot of the older people had a lot of faith in the system. But now the candidates are obvious puppets. Carter advocates solar energy and gives all the grants to nuclear energy. He said a lot of things that people wanted to hear, but he didn't carry them through...'
(Debbie's political diatribe is interrupted, somewhat comically, by a phone call about the jeans commercial.)
A few weeks after this lengthy discussion on the meaning of life, a severely jet-lagged Stein leaves Debbie to the rigours of the AVT canteen, Elstree and the monsters of The Muppet Show and slumbers his way in the back seat to Littleport, unassuming emporium of Jim Burns.
Stein is well-known as a Burns endorsee, but the relationship certainly extends beyond the usual financial deal. A violent opponent of factory line guitars, he's clearly pleased to be able to get involved with a real craftsman who he considers vastly underrated in terms of contribution to the history of. I suspect also the combination of Burns' maverick and eccentric qualities and the fact that his factory is in a particularly charming neck of the woods, surrounded by antique buildings and place names that W. C. Fields would have loved have a little to do with his enthusiasm.
Burns has spent three months putting together a special version of the Scorpion, complete with machine heads in one line, a peculiar curved head, and a slight weight loss (the instrument's weight has kept Stein from using a Burns on stage thus far).
It's the first time Blondie's guitarist has had a unique instrument of his own. His jet-lag thaws visibly. The longer head means that the guitar doesn't fit any of Burns' cases, so Stein leaves with a suspiciously machine gun-like object wrapped in corrugated paper. This year's version of the Jim Burns hat, I notice, is held together only by telepathy.
Stein takes obligatory photos of object and proud maker, distributes some signed photos, autographs some album sleeves, avoids noticing a Sounds photo of Debbie blowing gum on the factory wall captioned 'Every schoolboy's dream: a blow-job from Debbie Harry', and departs for London a happier and half-awake man.