The Age EG - 25th December 1998 - Page 10 + 11
Back from hell
>It's 11.59, Blondie are still alive, and ready to touch you with their presence. Guitarist Chris Stein tells PATRICK DONOVAN why the band got back together.
In Jean-Paul Sartre's novel No Exit, the existential philosopher writes about three very dissimilar people, who are sent to hell. They sit around a table in a small room believing themselves to be in purgatory. As they slowly drive each other mad, they realise they are already in hell. Hell, is in fact, other people.
But, although they send each other around the twist, by the end of the novel they realise the door had always been open, yet they had chosen not to leave because they couldn't exist without each other.
After six albums and a string of international hits between 1974 and 1982, the members of Blondie, realising they could no longer co-exist, called it a day. But, 12 years later, on the back of a huge retro music revival, four of the original members; Deborah Harry, 53, Guitarist Chris Stein, 48, keyboard player Jimmy Destri, 44, and drummer Clem Burke, 43 discovered that they couldn't exist without each other. They had all worked on other projects, but none with the magic of Blondie. Their first album in 16 years, to be released in February, is called No Exit.
Stein says Sartre's novel captured the band's feelings.
"Initially, it came out of angst. And Clem was raving about seeing an exit sign and said that whenever anyone sees an exit sign they'll think of the record," says Stein, who with Harry, was the chief songwriter for the band.
"We get on great, but it's like brothers or sisters, or any bunch of people - there's always some conflict. And the doors are always open all of the time, but they never tried to get out. I like that aspect of it, too, because everybody feels like they're stuck together without ever testing the exit sign," says the former art student.
Stein knows he enjoyed the band's first trip to Australia in 1977, even if he can't remember much about it. They had their first hit here, when In the Flesh reached number two on the charts after Countdown screened the video clip.
So, can the band thank Molly Meldrum for kick starting their career?
"I'm still not sure if it was really a fluke or not that they played In the Flesh. The legend is that they got the song wrong and instead of playing the A side of the single they played In the Flesh by mistake."
But this time around, it will all be much easier. Stein is "sober and much more organised", and the band has been "accepted".
"When we used to play, it felt like an exam. Those were the days when ankle-length floral dresses were in, and we didn't really fit in. I remember that the mayor of Perth turned up to our show, and then he never came backstage."
Stein enjoys observing the development of Australia's culture with every visit.
"The first time we came out was really weird, because what we were doing was not really commonplace. But I remember the second time I came down there, with Debbie in the mid-'80s, I was amazed at how much it had changed so rapidly. The music and the whole culture had changed. The first time we were there we asked people, 'Where are the Aborigines?' and everybody would say, 'Oh they're all drunk, you don't want to see those guys.' But the second time, they were part of the heritage. It was a whole different mentality, I think younger people were coming into their own."
Blondie were the most successful band to emerge from the New York New Wave scene in the late '70s. But by 1982, an unrelenting touring and recording schedule had taken as much toll on Stein's health as on band members' nerves. The potentially fatal genetic disease that struck him was the catalyst for the band's split.
"We were handled terribly, and our deals were awful. We were on the road pretty much non-stop for five years and I don't think we ever had a month off. You'll find that the business has changed a lot now and people aren't treated like farm animals."
Stein said it was hard to resist the climate which seemed very conductive to a Blondie comeback.
"I finally started to look at it more realistically. After we stopped in '82, there was a pretty long period when we weren't on the radio that much. But, from the end of the '80s and all through the '90s, it just kept building up and there was more and more interest."
"People ask what it was like back with things like CBGBs (the seminal New York band venue) and all that stuff, but we didn't have the billions of rock and roll radio shows, periodicals and television shows around today."
The reunited Blondie are minus Frank Infante (who unsuccessfully tried to stop the rest of the band reforming and Nigel Harrison. They have been replaced by Leigh Lisowski and Paul Carbonara, both of whom have had a close working relationship with Harry and Stein.
No Exit is classic Blondie. It reeks of their trademark pop sensibilities, driven by an addictive beat, layered guitar lines, lush keyboards and Harry's seductive reading of irony-laden lyrics and moves effortlessly from rap to reggae to ska.
To recapture their distinct sound, they enlisted the services of producer Craig Leon, who worked on their first album. But Stein stresses that No Exit is no comeback album.
"I really didn't want to do anything that sounded like the old stuff. It's a lot more minimal sounding, its not as dense as the old stuff. Our personal style still comes through - it's like the same but different - we used to have that saying in the '60s."
The sound is such pure Blondie, that the band could have been living in a vacuum for the past 14 years; No Exit sounds like the perfect follow-up to 1982's The Hunter.
"I've taken in a lot of stuff in the last 15 years, so that's all in there in a way. But I don't pay any attention to the current musical trends, I mean I've never heard anything by Oasis or REM. All my references are eternal and personal."
But he gives much credit to Harry.
"Debbie was the first one to put all these trends together in a female rock perspective. She definitely put the whole idea together of the movie star and the rock star. No one had done that before. All of the woman in rock and roll were coming out from a male point of view.
Debbie was the first one to put blatant femininity into it and she got a lot of criticism for it in the early days for using her sexuality in that way. Even though no one criticised Mick Jagger for taking his shirt off."
So was the image contrived?
"Nah, we just fell into it. It seemed like the right thing to do."
Blondie have just completed a tour of Europe that had generations of critics and fans raving. Stein says the new songs blended in well with the old material and thinks the band never sounded so good.
"Live, it sounds as close as it ever has to the original recordings. In the past, it was kind of cool, what was going on, but it didn't have very much to do with the record. It sounded more like Jefferson Airplane mixed with Grand Funk Railroad."
And it was hard to resist bringing in the New Year in a rainforest setting.
"We always play on New Year's Eve. It's sort of tradition. In 1975 we played one of our first shows on New Year's Eve in Central Park, outdoors in the freezing cold. It was one of the first times we ever got paid."
For Stein, playing a good show is the ultimate celebration.
"If I'm going to go to a party, I'd rather be the centre of attention."
Blondie headline the Falls Festival in Lorne on New Year's Eve.