Sunday Herald Magazine - 26th December 2004
Photograph: Lorenzo Agius/Corbis
Montage: Damian Shield
As Blondie prepare to headline Edinburgh's extravaganza Hogmanay bash, Peter Ross talks to Deborah Harry, Chris Stein and Clem Burke about sex, art and pop stardom. All the good stuff...
DEBORAH HARRY lives in the Manhattan apartment block on which Hitchcock based Rear Window. She likes to watch the people opposite making love. "I don't know if that's weird," she sniggers, "but it's a very sexy building."
What an enjoyable ironic image that is - Harry, one of the 20th-Century's eternal objects of desire, gazing, enraptured, at horny New Yorkers with eyes only for each other. It's also highly appropriate. Harry's band, Blondie, formed back in the days when she was still calling herself Debbie, have always been about voyeursim; their lyrics veered from creepily awestruck ("Oh, your hair is beautiful") to sneering ("Yeah, she's so dull/Come on, rip her to shreds") to wistfully lustful ("I will give you my finest hour/The one I spent watching you shower"). And the band themselves were a visual phenomenon, mostly because of Harry's pin-up status, but the other members also had a strong collective image, a punkish update on mod which The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand have clearly studied.
Blondie formed in 1974 and split in 1982, having notched up five number one singles in Britain, one better than in their native America. They got back together in 1998 ("For the money," says drummer Clem Burke), scored a further UK number one with Maria and have release two new albums, No Exit and The Curse Of Blondie. One of the greatest singles bands ever, they have a gilt-edged back catalogue, making them a worldwide live draw. On Friday night, they will headline Edinburgh's New year festivities. It will not be the first time they have played Scotland on Hogmanay; they saw in the Eighties with a wild concert at Glasgow's Apollo Theatre, a pipe band accompanying them during Sunday Girl. "If a pipe band in Edinburgh would like to join us," says Harry. "I think it would be appropriate, don't you?"
Talking to Blondie is weird. Seeing Debbie Harry on Top Of The Pops was the first time I was aware that there was a type of person called a pop star (they had their first UK hit when I was four years old) and it has always been difficult for other singers to measure up. So to be having an actual conversation with this face from the telly is an odd thing. But more than that, Blondie are weird, full stop. In Cathy Che's biography of Harry, Platinum Blonde, she quotes Michael Schmidt, who designs the singer's clothes, as saying, "Debbie is so smart she borders on genius level. Chris too. They are like aliens, people from another world."
Chris is Chris Stein, Blondie's guitarist and chief songwriter. Throughout the band's glory years, he and Harry were a couple, and although they split in the mid-Eighties they remain close friends and collaborators. "She is like my closest relative," says Stein. They have always shared a love of the avant-garde and esoteric, which continues to this day. So while Harry turns up at award ceremonies in dresses decorated with razor blades and sings songs alluding to old Vincent Price movies, Stein is into UFOs and plays a guitar designed by HR Giger, the German artist responsible for look of the Alien movies. Back in the old days, Harry befriended Andy Warhol, while Stein hung out with William Burroughs. They are Blondie's arty edge.
"It was all very fast-moving back then," says Harry, when asked to describe what it was like to have a creative relationship with her lover. "We took things for granted, although we were of course forced to analyse ourselves in the press. So we did figure out that we really complemented each other and were the kind of people who could work as a team. There are solo artists who couldn't possibly work in conjunction with another person, but Chris and I were natural collaborators. It was a joy for us and still is."
According to Stein, "Romantic relationships tend to become competitive, so I think it's for the best when you are both working on something together. It was always a positive thing for us." Did it feel that they had each found an intellectual equal? "Yeah, yeah, sure. I've always been accused of being Debbie's mentor or Svengali or some shit like that. It came from people who obviously weren't seeing what was going on. Debbie was a powerful force by herself. She was pushing me too."
Stein first clapped eyes on Harry when he saw her performing with a band called The Stilettoes at The Boburn Tavern, New York, in 1974. She had short brown hair and a long personal history - a former waitress at legendary venue Max's Kansas City, Playboy Bunny, hippychick and junkie, she was 29 years old. "I was flabbergasted," says Stein of that first sighting. "I was impressed and knocked out by her." He joined the band and got the girl. When The Stilettoes split, Stein and Harry formed Blondie.
Clem Burke, then aged 19, was recruited via an advert in the Village Voice. "The first time I met Debbie I was completely drawn to her charisma," he recalls. "She was undoubtedly a star, a diamond in the rough, a tremendously charismatic person. I had already liked girl group stuff, Shangri-Las, Ronettes, I was already tuned into that. And for me she was of that ilk. I had always been searching for my Mick Jagger or my Marc Bolan, the frontperson who would allow me to go forward with what I wanted to do with a band. So Debbie fit the bill. She was just great from day one."
By this time Harry had grown her hair and died it platinum blonde. They started gigging, notably at CBGB's, the venue in New York's Bowery that also served as a crucible for Television, Talking Heads, Patti Smith and the Ramones. Had there been a yearbook, Blondie would have been voted least likely to succeed; they weren't taken seriously among their peers, which may have had something to do with the way Harry looked. Punk was about ugliness and tension; Blondie - Marilyn Monroe and four Jack Lemmons - didn't seem to have that going on at all.
In fact, the starlet look was chosen quite deliberately by Harry. "Those were the images that were really exciting to me and I could relate to," she recalls. "I felt like that's what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a movie star, that incandescent, iridescent creature, glowing with that lightness of being. I always wanted to be that, but since it never worked out that I became a movie star, it was just the obvious thing for me to carry it through and do it in front of a band."
She had been adopted at three months old by Catherine and Richard Harry, and it is often said that she once believed Marilyn Monroe was her natural mother. She denies this now, but admits to taking certain aspects of her Blondie image from the actress. "She had this wonderful vulnerability about her, and femininity and strength all at the same time. And also seemingly a sense of humour. I thought those were all very powerful things."
It is often not appreciated, especially in the soft focus of nostalgia, that Harry was playing a role in her public appearances. Just as her friends David Bowie and Jimmy Osterberg had Ziggy Stardust and Iggy Pop, Harry had Blondie - a trashier, flashier, sexed up version of herself.
With a drug addiction and two failed bands behind her, she was insecure and paranoid, and the notion of singing-as-acting helped.
"It made me feel comfortable at the time," she says. "With my affection for those actresses, and that screen persona that was so attractive to me, I thought that other people might be excited by that as well. That was the strongest choice I could make at the time. I felt it was a good starting point for me, and it really worked. It got me going in a strong direction, and from there, little by little, I made it become much more personal."
Now, when she sings with Blondie, Harry isn't hiding behind a mask; she's being herself, a 59-year-old who has lived a life. "That was just a veneer, a thin coating. All the substance behind that had to come from somewhere else."
Blondie toured the UK in support of Television in 1979, playing their first British concert at Glasgow's Apollo. "I was amazed by how physical everyone was compared to the States," Stein recalls. "At CBGB's nobody was physical at all. They would just stand there. It was that beatnik coffee house thing. But when we came to Britain everyone was pogoing and going crazy."
It was generally thought by New York punkoscenti that Television - hip, pretentious, serious musicians - would be the CBGB's band to break the mainstream. But like some Disney movie, it turned out to be those runts of the litter, Blondie. Following a surprise hit in Australia with X-Offender, they went to number two in the UK with Denis, the first of 13 top 20 singles between 1978 and 1982. Heart Of Glass went to number one in America in 1979, and Debbie Harry became the fantasy of horny teens on at least three continents. Did Stein feel threatened by the level of lust for his girlfriend? "Not really," he says. "I think it probably helped my interest."
Blondie do not deny that they used Harry's looks as a way of softening up the public before hitting them with the combination punches of Picture This, Hanging On The Telephone, Dreaming, etc. There was an almost tangible eroticism to Blondie that had not been present before in a popular female-fronted band. Harry could talk dirty too. In the late Seventies, she wrote an essay called I Wish I'd Invented Sex, and 20 years later gave an interview in which she recalled that as a teenager in New Jersey she would go to a nearby town, then walk up and down a certain notorious street until she was picked up by guys in cars. She was "oversexed", and it's hardly surprising that her priapic side found expression on stage.
"I didn't have a problem with it, and I felt that it was totally natural, that one should just be who you were," she says. "That's what all the guys [in rock] were doing. There was a double standard. I did get a lot of criticism for being too overtly sexual and trying to use my sexuality, which was absurd. We all express ourselves sexually. It's one of the primary objectives of the human race."
Did she ever resent the focus that the public and media put on her beauty? "In some ways, yes. Because other things were overlooked. I was working very hard to be a good performer, a good singer and to write interesting things. To have that overshadowed by one's looks can be a little bit damaging. But I never paid much attention to criticism unless it was constructive and I could put it to good use. Why would I want to listen to someone else's opinion when I knew what I wanted to do?"
Of course, the focus on Harry as a sex symbol not only overshadowed her musical chops but also the rest of Blondie. Clem Burke recalls a rumour that they were all on $50 a week to be her backing band, and at one point they actually resorted to having badges made asserting that Blondie Is A Group. "We were a bunch of kids whose life's dream this was, and we were just being pushed aside," says Burke.
This sort of resentment contributed to the split in 1982, as did Chris Stein's illness. He developed a potentially fatal skin disease, and Harry took a few years off to nurse him back to health. This is often interpreted as her sacrificing her solo career. Does she regard it as such? "No, I don't," she says. "Not at all."
In the 16 years between the split and the reunion, Harry appeared in films and had a sporadic solo career, Stein worked in her records and on getting his mind and body back together, and Burke went off to play drums for Bob Dylan and the Eurythmics. All three are now back in the band, as is keyboardist Jimmy Destri (along with Burke, Destri represents Blondie's pop axis, perfectly balancing Stein and Harry's bohemian tendancies).
As well as filthy lucre, one of the reasons for the reunion was that the various members of Blondie could see that they had become a big influence on a whole new generation of bands. One example is the Scissor Sisters (see page 22), friends of Harry's, who will be supporting Blondie in Edinburgh. In many ways it's the perfect bill for Hogmanay - both bands make pop music that is clever, sexy, glamorous and above all fun.
That, I think, is my favourite thing about Blondie - they are one of the very few all-time classic bands whose music is upbeat rather than rooted in darkness. They make you want to party. "We've always tried to be positive," agrees Stein. "It's our way of being political. The world is f**ked up, so in lieu of actually making political statements we just try to make people feel better. That's a good job."
Blondie play the Concert in the Gardens (sold out) as part of Edinburgh's Hogmanay. West Princes Street, from 10pm, gates open 9pm; Blondie also play the Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, on December 8, 2005.
WILD ABOUT HARRY...
"If Debbie Harry was just some blonde, nobody would think she was the epitome of sex. It's because she's androgynous that they do think that. She's tough and sexy and beautiful, and she isn't scared of just being a person rather than acting like a woman. When you're a woman in a band of men, and working with men every day, there's a certain persona you take on. I don't know if I'd call it a toughness, you just have to be a member of the band; got to be a person before you're a woman. I think Debbie Harry had that, and that's probably why men find her very sexy. She's not playing on being a woman. She never showed a lot of flesh. There's no tits and ass with her. I have never felt in all the years that I've been a fan of Debbie and Blondie that she ever sold out. I just don't think it was in her make-up."
"Doesn't every smart woman like Debbie Harry? She has exceptional character and intelligence yet she was one of the most beautiful pop icons that we'd ever had. There are so many now who have followed in her footsteps, that don't hold a candle to her. Debbie did it with such style, grace and humour, and she never took herself too seriously. That's what makes her stand out among all the pretenders to her throne."
"Although I didn't know Debbie very well, I saw her perform many times before Blondie. My main impression was that she worked very hard. I was honestly surprised they became so successful but really glad. They wrote unusual pop songs. People sometimes write there was rivalry between us which is absolutely false. It's great they did well. We all struggled. We all did our time. And Debbie certainly did hers."
"When Blondie first came to Britain, Debbie was very beautiful, sweet and approachable. We were all in awe of her. To us English punks, even though we used to put down Americans, we secretly loved the 'glamour' of the Yanks - remember in the Seventies no ordinary people went to the US, only jet-setters - to the extent that Sid Vicious found Nancy Spungen glamorous, and we all found those ratty old junkies The Heartbreakers glamourous! Then this vision turned up - and she was nice, too! It was just too much. She was very friendly, but not a bit slutty. Very faithful to that ugly sod she was going out with. No one ever got off with her - wasn't for want of trying."
Shirley Manson interview from Cathy Che's Deborah Harry: Platinum Blonde (Andre Deutsch)