Sounds - 12th January 1980
H A R R Y K I R I
ARE BLONDIE ON THE VERGE OF ARTISTIC SUICIDE? NO, SEZ SLANT-EYED GARRY BUSHELL
Written by: Garry Bushell
Photos by: Virginia Turbett
FROM WHERE I'm sitting Chris Stein looks like a chubbier version of Paul Foot, his tousled hair spilling over the thick black frames of his thick black glasses, matching the thick black greatcoat the crypt-like cold of Newcastle City Hall has forced him to wear for the soundcheck. Down the front someone's had the bright idea of bringing in two huge red Calor gas heaters, but the logical leap involved from installing them to switching them on has obviously proved too much for them and my teeth are making like castanets on the Costa Packet.
Outside about 30 teenagers are huddled round the stage door like flies round a manure heap, defying double pneumonia for a glimpse of Debbi. About one if five school leavers up here are on the dole. A lot of them wander round the big indoor shopping centre in gangs by day, looking bored and demoralised. Many of them will be here tonight and tomorrow night and Blondie will inject some light and glamour into sad, drab lives.
At the side of the hall some enterprising girls have found an open window and poke smiling faces and cheap cameras at the stage as Debbi materialises, hidden behind dark glasses, and matching beret, gloves and inky quilted mac. She's serious and eager to get things over with. Two stop-start numbers in and the only problem is a niggling buzz. The band play 'hunt the hum' for a few minutes before leaving the aggravation for the roadies to sort out and fighting a path out onto the plush tour bus.
An unshaven Chris Stein comes down to greet us smiling like he's known us all his life. We shake and start jawing like the clappers devouring idle chitchat and the meaning of life stuff in a magnum two hour session that flits past like five minutes, with breaks just for him to clean up and pose with Debbie and Anti-pop's Wavis O'Shave for the celebrated local loonie's scrapbook.
Our hotel's at Gosforth Park, sensibly a good five miles from the gig. This is the posh end of the area far from the heavy industry and terraced houses that characterise most of Geordie land. My room's the flashest place I've ever crashed in my life though due to a desperate hunt for pens when Chris arrives it looks like I've just had it turned over by a Mafia hit squad. Unruffled, he settles down amongst the mess on the settee for 'the interview proper'.
Born 30 years ago to radical Jewish parents and weaned on Leadbelly lullabies, Chris grew up in Brooklyn in an open and irreligious atmosphere. He got his Vietnam call-up just before Woodstock but a physique not exactly akin to a walking advert for the Royal Marines and experiments with "acid and all that shit" left him labelled '4F' and he spent the weekend at Yasgur's farm instead of Bilko's barracks.
He wasn't exactly what you'd call career-motivated and apart from the obligatory European hike and a brief period living in London's Portobello Road in the early Seventies just around the corner from Eno who shared his predeliction for glitter and extravagent eye make-up, Stein spent his post-school years "fucking around" on the New York music scene.
'73 was the turning point when he met Deborah through an old mate, NY 'glitter cock' hero Eric Emerson. Emerson's wife sang with Debs in a high-camp, prop-happy girl-trio called the Stilettos. Chris played guitar with them, embarking on a musical and monogamous relationship with everyone's favourite peroxide blonde that's still going strong.
STEIN AND Harry formed Blondie after one Stilleto left for porn and the other left for prams. The Private Stock import album 'Blondie' which followed their excellent import 45 'X Offender' was the vinyl proof of the band's potential backed up with Rainbow and Hammy Odeon appearances in '77. 'Blondie' was a classic, stuffed silly with achingly commercial songs, catchy and melodic, with more snap, crackle and pop than 20 lorry loads of Rice Krispies. Jane Suck called it 'necrophilia that didn't hurt.' With considerable foresight Chrysalis snapped up the band from the dying Private Stock for a quarter of a million quid in Autumn '77, and released 'X Offender'/'Rip Her To Shreds' here in October. Criminally it failed to chart. But the follow-up, a sprightly cover of Levenson's 'Denis', released February '78, fared much better and was the first of an unbroken string of hits.
Like 'Presence Dear', 'Denis' came off the less inspiring 'Plastic Letters' album, but as you know it was their third album 'Parallel Lines' that really established the band. It was Blondie's finest achievement to date, a maelstorm of melodies, tunes and catchy lyrics containing no less than four British Top Ten singles, and the biggest selling UK album of 1979. The follow-up album 'Eat To The Beat' was relatively disappointing, containing fewer real gems, but by now nothing could stop Deborah's beautiful, photogenic features being adopted by the mass media to such an extent that The Sun for example over Xmas might as well have been a Blondie fan club circular. In Britain Debbi Harry is a superstar.
In the States the band's 'punk' connotations kept them out of the mainstream limelight 'till last year's disco smash 'Heart Of Glass' (originally conceived as an urban disco-r'n'b number in '75) captured the elusive US number one spot, with follow-up 'Dreaming' creaming into the Top 20 too. With conservative biz resistance to change eroded by promise of mountainous moolah from the likes of the knackered Knack and the clapped-out Cars, 'New Wave' of a kind has become commercially viable Stateside, and with Blondie's legal and managerial problems sorted out at a cost to the band of a cool million dollars, plus the recent move into the movies, and Clem Burke's famous skinny tie theory, it must be odds-on that Deb and the boys will achieve equal status back home in the foreseeable future.
But as the band's success grows so does the angry flack from their detractors to the effect that Debbi has sold her integrity for a quick buck, chosen to become a sex object and is thus reactionary, even 'dangerous'. Now personally I don't hold with this at all, not seeing how beholding a beautiful woman is gonna make you go out and rape someone any more than watching The Sweeny's gonna make you have a pop at the nearest cat-burglar, and besides no one breathed a word about Ronnie Spector or Diana Ross.
Chris agrees. "I feel that everyone in rock tries to look as good as they can, even the Clash do, it's just an obvious thing. I like taking pin-up shots of Debbie. I like the idea of the rock star as a pin-up. Bowie was. Bowie appealed to people on a sexual level as did the Stones, the Bay City Rollers, even the Sex Pistols. But our success is obviously to do with more than her looks because lots of women have tried to make it on just their looks and failed." I say it's another double standard, OK for Sting to look handsome but not Debbi, but Virginia argues that Debbi presents a 'rape me' image, which is harmful to women in general. Chris is surprised.
"I don't think Debbi has ever presented herself as a woman being abused. She has an open sexuality, but I don't think we're selling sex. In fact I think Debbie represents a certain amount of power on stage. She's also showing that women can get to the top."
THIS ARGUMENT between him and Turbett will continue in a matey fashion throughout the evening. Personally I was more concerned with ways the New Wave Establishment, of which Blondie are indisputably a part, can avoid duplicating the bad old way of the last establishment.
"I think the most concrete thing you can do is help young artists. I'd like to get a deal like the Specials so we can give bands a start. So far I've produced Casino Music and I hope I can get to do the Lounge Lizards too. We also give free legal advice to young bands which y'know, we wouldn't have got from Keith Richards or anyone like that. As for songs with messages I don't think the time is right for us to do them yet. I'd rather save politics for interviews."
How about benefit gigs? The anti-nuclear thing seems big in the States.
"I think the anti-nuclear thing is misguided. I'm for disarmament, if there were CND gigs I'd play them, but I'm not sure about power plants. If big business is involved y'know it must stink somewhere, but at the same time the first I heard about the anti-nuclear protest there were 10 companies fighting over the record.
"I don't think any one group can change the mechanisms of the industry because to me the music industry is a microcosm of the society as a whole. You're talking about a wider social thing. But I am really excited about the 2-Tone band thing because that is really saying something. It's great seeing black and white kids on stage together. In America blacks have contributed so much to our culture and they're still treated as second class citizens. I hate that racist shit. And over here the battle between Mods and skins and punks is just stupid. It's missing the point that there is a common enemy, the greedy power mad politicians and the fat bastard businessmen who sap our strength and steal our art."
I ask him whether the current jingoistic upsurge around Iran bothered him.
"Yeah, but not as much as that Afghanistan shit, that really scares me. I don't think the Soviet system is any better than this one. I think we have to find an alternative to all the old sick systems."
With that agreed I try and suss out the band's own financial status. Chris says they're on about 100 quid a week now. Certainly this tour will lose them money despite being a sell-out. The British baker's dozen and the two Paris dates it consists of are a promotional device for the new album as well as being a thank you to the fans.
Stein is aware of the star system syndrome that success duplicates and goes out of his way to encourage fans. For Debbi it's harder. Imagine what it'd be like if every time you went out you were as conspicuous as a rhino in the Savoy. In Edinburgh last week she was thumped twice by friendly crowds and so they've had to fly up a bodyguard (a big guy, like Chandler's Moose Malloy, not more than six foot five tall and not wider than a beer truck).
But according to Chris it's the press rather than the people who've affected Debs most, people who were as nice as pie to her face to win her confidence and then stitched her up in print. We're just about to swap mutual hatreds of the music press when we realise the coach goes for the gig in five minutes and I've missed a rare shot at some posh nosh in favour of a Newcastle City Hall beef roll that's more cordoned off than Cordon Bleu. Oh well.
THE GIG attracts a crowd as mixed as a Jamboree Bag with all the current youth cults well represented plus a lot of 'straight' couples, some of the girls seemingly trying to exhibit the entire Woolworths cosemetics catalogue in one senses-shattering go. I go up the back with PR Sooni and Newcastle RAR man the Newham Recorder's favourite Red Andy, who's sort of cross between Ronnie Barker and Trotsky, and gets a mention for having the shortest legs known to medical science.
The band kick off with 'Dreaming' and the sound is good and clear. It's been said that they rarely come up to scratch live, but their performance tonight begged to differ, a marked knack for the crack being in evidence. Sure they ain't gonna make Segovia lose any beauty sleep but you don't need me to tell you that's not what's it's all about.
Debbi is the viaul mainstay of course, challenged on the eyeball grabbing front only by Clem Burke's exhibition drumming. She's sporting a thinnish light green jumpsuit affair and proudly dominates the stage with her hands on her hips and that smile on her lips because she knows that it kills you. And what I noticed more than anything was the power of her pipes, her vocals ranging delightly from the fragile purity of 'Shayla' the factory girl to the wild banshee screaming of 'Victor' the defector.
Sadly the crowd screw things up a bit, staying as cold as an eskimo's outside lav during 'Eat To The Beat' first half of the set, only unfreezing when Deb says "I can't believe it, the front row is empty," and the band strike up a medley of old favourites, everyone is bullseye. By the end there's as much chance of them not getting an encore as there is of Mary Whitehouse getting nicked outside for soliciting.
Arriving back at the hotel in a mood not far off the well chuffed I find time working against me again and though I get a chance to chat with Farfisa grinder Jimmy Destri about his plans to work on Bowie's next album and New York as the next musical explosion with the likes of Neighbours And Allies, the Revlons, the Bloodless Pharoahs and the Student Teachers, I don't get time to talk to Clem about Mod and skinny ties, or bassist Nigel Harrison about what it's like being 'the English one' or ask guitarist Frank Infante why he's called 'The Freak' before Virge has rushed them all off for a photo session and before I know it I'm slap bang in front of Debbi and tongue tied.
DEBORAH HARRY was born on Independence Day, 1945, in a middle class home in boring New Jersey. At high school she was an outsider with a penchant for black clothes and dying her mousey hair in pastel strips. Almost inevitably in her late teens she was drawn across the river to New York for the junkie/groupie experiences we all know about. "And I think it's irresponsible for the dailies to plug that," she says, "cos it's encouraging young kids to emulate me. I don't regret the experiences but they're not right for everybody."
Now the woman The Sun always calls 'the platinum blonde with the Jean Harlow looks' perches forward on the couch opposite me wearing a coarser version of the parachute type suit she wore on stage, white socks and black loafers. In the flesh she's as attractive as the photos suggest with haystack hair, full sensual lips, Colgate teeth and a skin that'd do a woman 10 years her junior proud (only her hands look her age). Yet she looks about as friendly as a Kray Twins debt collecting squad at the moment, and I must admit with her giving two word answers, Virge taking pics and the rest of the band trying to watch Ian Dury on the telly I ain't exactly pulling a Robin Day out of the bag.
But suddenly the telly goes off, the band apart from Chris wander out and Debbi just unfreezes 'cos I think she senses my predicament. Either that or she couldn't decide if I was gonna stitch her up as well and figured there was no reason to give me any reason to. So let rabbit commence.
"There sexism charges are ridiculous. I like to do what I do and that's why I do it. The most important thing is the audience and they seem to like it to.
"Blondie's evolution has been natural and organic. Never forced. We were just at the right place in the right time with the right product. Like just now we're happening in the States which is great, but it's difficult because of the size obviously.
"The establishment is very diversified too, but I think they're happy to have a group with a fresh identity. It is hard to make a total impact there, and we're still more of a cult thing but it's changing. Bands like the Bee Gees don't deliver any more. They just pose, they have no heart left. I don't feel that way on stage at all. Sometimes I even fall over.
"I don't think we can avoid becoming like the establishment. Well there is a way, probably to be innovative and stylistic. To be a setter of trends, and metamorphise. Y'know, I can see the band doing something different, but I don't think there's anything left in the world for us to do that'd be completely off the wall. Except politics and I don't think anyone would vote for me. Would you vote for me instead of Maggie Thatcher?"
I say yes, emphatically.
"Okay I'll run, I'll run."
OUTSIDE OF music, Blondie have taken the almost obligatory step into films proper as opposed to Debbi's past underground movie appearances.
There are two films scheduled for release this year in the States, the £3 million comedy Roadie starring Meatloaf and the band as themselves involved in fight scenes with dwarves(!) and Union City Blue where Debbi plays a Thirties housewife slowly losing her marbles. Chris Stein wrote the theme music to it, jazzy period stuff, and has expressed an interest in writing more of the same. And I wondered after that and the video disc which the band rate, whether Debbi herself was well into the idea of a multi-media future, and the consequent step closer to the glacial screen goddesses, 'Marilyn and Jean, Jayne, Mae and Marlene' she so obviously admire.
"I guess so, but I don't feel I'm in any high pressure situation. As I said the whole Blondie thing has evolved naturally and will continue to. I'm a character, not just another pretty face in line for a part."
Which is the sort of quote you end articles on except we've forgotten the obligatory Blondie message to Sounds readers: "I'm very happy that we made it back here. I don't think people realised the litigation we've been through and how we've been ripped off and plundered. I'm glad people still like us. The audience still treat us great and that's why we're doing this tour - for the people. And I want all the critics to do their worst and all the fans to love the shows."
I asked for some autographs and went home.