Total Guitar - April 1999 - Issue 55
Pages 5, 20, 21, 22, 23, 25, 26, 28, 30, 31, 32, 33, 142
Some 14 years after their last studio release, Blondie are right back in the limelight. HENRIK TUXEN talked to Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein about the band's incredible return to the top.
Portraits: MORTEN LARSEN
THEY were the mavericks in the CBGB cradle of punk. Blondie, with the mysterious sexbomb Debbie Harry in front and Chris Stein on guitar, conquered the world of pop. They were way ahead of their time and after 16 years in the dark, they're back again.
In the early '70s Deborah Harry was one of three female vocalists in the New York group The Stilettos. One day the band recruited guitar player Chris Stein. As the story goes, Stein immediately fell madly in love with the blonde, some five years his senior. Pretty soon the affection was mutual. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein were the unseparable couple of the emerging New York punk/art scene, with a passion so intense, that their heated love even took place in the toilets of New York's infamous CBGB club.
In the early '70s Chris Stein was involved in everything from black magic to voodoo and photography, apart from his music - a multi-artist to be. He was a strange and mysterious man - the Jew who'd perform with nazi symbols, and the occultist who created beautiful pop music.
Then there's keyboard player Jimmy Destri, who has always contributed to Blondie's sound, with his atmospheric keyboards and a fine ear from writing pop tunes. Drummer Clem Burke is the true pop star and entertainer of the group, who has played with Eurythmics among others, and been involved with producing new bands. At one time Gary Valentine played bass and was replaced by Nigel Harrison in the heyday of Blondie's commercial success, times which also featured guitarist Frank Infante. These people have all left their fingerprint on the unique Blondie sound, but the top of the hierarchy has never been in doubt, not then nor today. The charismatic and seductive Debbie Harry in front, and the musical mastermind, Chris Stein, on guitar.
Total Guitar met the former couple before, during and after Blondie's recent Top Of The Pops performance of their current hit single - the Jimmy Destri composition Maria. A song which Chris Stein wasn't too convinced about in the beginning. Chris: "I wasn't so sure about some of the songs this time. Like the Maria song, when I finally heard the finished version I realised how great it was, but I was still in doubt up until then."
Maria, as well as the rest of the current album No Exit, actually sounds like a continuation of Blondie from the early '80s, ranging from the crystal clear hit singles, to experimentations with a mix of musical styles. It seems pretty logical to Debbie Harry, "What else could it possibly be than a Blondie record?" she says. "We worked on this record very much from internal sources, from the inside out, we wanted to do a Blondie album."
The album title is No Exit, does that suggest that Blondie will stick around for ever? "Probably," she smiles. "It means that Blondie seems to be an inescapable identity. There is no exit, there is no escape."
And talking about eternity, the longevity of Blondie's music has been quite astonishing. Years after the band split up, sales of their albums have been consistent and have even risen in the '90s. What's the secret behind this apparently timeless success? "I could say the songs are good, they still hold up. We were adventurous in our combination of styles, in using different electronic styles and combining different instruments. I guess it was just genius," Debbie laughs. "I don't know, we just did it. It's hard to say about yourself that you're a genius, but I guess it has a lot to do with the combination of all the elements and also Chris' ideas were very futuristic."
Chris continues, "We just seemed to have hit that thing, its very intangible and hard to talk about, but it's something about archetypes. You hear something and it sounds familiar, like something you've heard before, like certain scales or melodies which are in your brain already. A little kid sings 'la la la la' and where does it come from? It's just in his head. Certain groups of people sort of tap into that. It sounds corny but sometimes I feel like I'm just filtering the music which is coming through me, it's like I'm a computer and I listen to things and then I clip them together just like that."
So what inspires you to write music? Chris: "Inspiration is a hard thing to define, I could never force a song. If I sit down and try and write a song it just doesn't work like that, and then sometimes it's just right there, something which comes immediately, or very quickly. Often I'll be in the middle of fucking nowhere, and something comes in my head and I know it's a good song, but...
"If I could write music it might be better, because a million of songs just get lost because I don't remember them."
GET TOGETHER AGAIN
Jimmy Destri left music completely for a while and for many years Chris Stein suffered from a rare genetic skin disease. Besides this the original members of Blondie have been engaged in all kinds of different musical activities. Chris Stein has actually been involved with a lot of the Debbie Harry solo material - so why wasn't Blondie reformed earlier?
Chris takes up the story: "When we stopped playing in 1982, there was a period where we weren't really on the radio, and then from the middle and the end of the '80s and all through the '90s it's been building up. Plus, we kept being in touch with kids who were excessive fans who encouraged us to reform. It just felt like a good time to do it now."
"It was basically Chris' idea," Debbie concedes. "He felt that if we didn't grab the opportunity now, we'd might regret it later in life. It's pretty obvious that people are referring to Blondie as an inspiration for their music, and then there are a lot of females and lady singers in the business today, and I think that's very good."
These days band reunions have become a pretty frequent phenomenon, especially when solo careers or new band constellations are running low, or not running at all. And very often these reunions only feature one or two of the original members. Nigel Harrison and Frank Infante unsuccessfully tried to prevent Blondie from using the band name through a law suit, since they were not asked to join the reunion. Gary Valentine wasn't either, but besides this, the core of band in 1999 are the original band members. Was it either the original line-up or no reunion at all? "Well," begins Debbie pragmatically "According to our agreement in the band, we can't call the band Blondie unless the original members are in it, so that's the determining factor. But band reunions with hardly any original band members are not a good thing, it had to be the four of us."
With this in mind, what's been the greatest thing about the comeback?
Chris: "I'd say the acceptance now, people are kind of understanding us now. When we started out people didn't know what the fuck we were doing." Debbie continues: "The response from the audience coming to our live shows has been truly wonderful. All over Europe, UK and Australia, we all felt so good about it. I don't think that it could ever happen again, quite like that. Just coming out again after such a long period of time."
THE ARCHITECT OF STYLE
Listening to an old Blondie album is like a voyage through all the different musical styles which were present at the time - reggae, rock, punk, disco, Latin, and even rap - squeezed into well-crafted pop songs. Was it an international desire of the band as a whole to construct crossover music or was it merely coincidental?
"I just did what I liked to do," shrugs Chris. "Almost nothing was planned out, we just did things automatically, because we felt like it. None of the stuff was studied and we never had a plan. We didn't for this album either. It's just that I like all this different stuff. As when I originally heard reggae music back in 1973, which went on to become a big movement and a style in the USA, I got really excited about it. Something also happened when I heard Dr John's first album - stuff like that."
Debbie: "Chris was very influential in the sense that he wanted to include certain elements he admired. We really liked Chic, Kraftwerk, Kid Creole & the Coconuts and a lot of bands which were around, and also the Saturday Night Fever album hit big with us. But it's just as much about being from New York. There are all these ethnic groups around and they all sort of become a part of you - and then you start to synthesise everything together in your own way."
Considering this, what music has an impact on Blondie's today?
"I really don't listen to a lot of modern stuff. I really don't," admits Stein. "I mean Clem especially listens to everything but I'd never heard Oasis and the only reason that I heard REM was because Clem had the new CD on the bus. My fans days were sort of over when I started being in a band. I was a fan in the '60s hearing the Stones and Jefferson Airplane, which I was most enthusiastic about. Then there were the new wave stuff, like Ramones and the Sex Pistols album, but my fan time sort of went away. I always had something internal around my head, you know bits and pieces. I hear a lot of modern music driving around in taxis."
Jimmy Destri also writes a lot of songs, but Stein is known as the arranger or architect in Blondie. Is that so? Chris: "I sort of push everything, yeah. I try to be democratic, but in bands there's just no such thing as a democracy. Somebody has to make the final decision to get things going."
Would you say that Jimmy is the pophead and you're the experimentalist? "Maybe, on this record it's true," Chris says. "For instance the No Exit song sounded really differently in the beginning. I was the one who made it sound like a gothic, big sort of metal crash. People said it sounded like Gangster's Paradise, which I don't even know that well - but I'm excited now about working with all the rap kids. Coolio is on the record, and lately we've done this song with some of the guys from Wu Tang Clan. Those guys are really cutting edge to me, they sort of take the place of the punk movement today, as white rock'n'roll bands are all pretty safe now.
"In America there's the whole racial thing which takes it another step. In England there is nothing like the tension in America which is still there, and it will probably take another 50 years before it goes away."
THERE'S ONLY ONE JIMI
Although Debbie Harry always had a magnetic effect on the cameras as well as the worldwide music press, Blondie was always a very guitar-oriented band with great articulated guitar lines, designed by Chris Stein, for whom there was always one guitarist above everybody else.
"Jimi Hendrix," he says immediately. "There's never been anyone like him. I'd also mention John Fogerty from Creedence Clearwater Revival. Then there are certain performances by guitar players like Junior Melvin, he did the solo on Bob Marley & the Wailers' Concrete Jungle."
Do you basically see yourself as a guitar player or rather an overall musician? "Not even a musician," Stein answers honestly. "I do photography and all this stuff, I don't even know what the fuck I do, some kind of media thing I suppose."
Guitar-wise, Chris has been seen with many different models, but here at Top Of The Pops he's playing a Stratocaster.
"That's just what I borrowed to play for this show," Chris smiles. "I've been thinking that when I go back to New York, I might get a deal with Fender to get some free guitars. I like the Stratocaster, but for a long time I used the Steinberger, like last night (album launch party at the Sound Republic... Ed). It's a weird black one, with the horns pointing upwards. I keep falling back in that one, but I'd like to try decent Fender Stratocasters. All through the Blondie time I had a 1965 with a maple neck. It was great, I shouldn't have sold it probably, it's still right at heart."
If you should name some new great guitar players who would you pick? Chris: "I really don't listen to enough people, but I don't think that anyone has come close to the stuff that Hendrix was doing and I don't think that there's any of the new records which are as good as those old records.
The stuff from Beck is kind of original, but for the most part it sound the same. I just saw these guys from Divine Comedy, I thought they were fantastic, I like them a lot. We saw them on another show, but I know that they're here today. Massive Attack are a different band that are really good. I see things that I really like, but I think I saw too many MTV videos for a while and somehow the stuff on video is worse than what's on the radio."
Lots of stuff has been happening since Blondie called it a day back in 1982. Chart music today is primarily electronic and guitar music seems to go in and out of style and some people even claim that rock is dead. Is that something Chris agrees with?
"For me the 'rock is dead' thing comes from the fact that it has become so mainstream and safe, plus it's background music for everything in life," he says. "You wouldn't see a rock'n'roll song for a milk or a car commercial 20 years ago, and now everything is fucking rock'n'roll. And because it's everywhere, it has become less mysterious and less dangerous.
"It's different with jazz, also the newer stuff. There are a few people who are very enthusiastic about it and they sort of study it. Jazz never was a really big movement, maybe it had its high point in the early '60s but it was still never as big a thing as rock'n'roll, with the Beatles and everything."
ANALOGUE CUT AND PASTE
Listening to songs like Heart Of Glass, The Tide Is High and Rapture today, suggests that there's more to Blondie than the obvious hit quality. The band sold 40 million albums and were known for their fashionable mod style, with the magnetic blonde fashion model in front. And the music was innovative and fresh, especially as Chris Stein really knew how to experiment in a recording studio. Craig Leon was originally in the A&R team which signed Blondie in '75 and later co-produced their debut album. On No Exit he's been the man behind the Blondie knobs again. Total Guitar spoke to him about the new sound.
Craig Leon: "Blondie were way ahead of their time, not only musically but also technologically. The technological level of today finally matches the way that the band always wanted to record. They used the principle of cut and paste way back in the '70s, which was very time consuming with the available analogue technology.
In the '70s they defined the modern way of working, and the modern sound - but without the modern technology. As with Abba, it took a long time before people acknowledged how brilliant their music was because it was pop. I think that Blondie will get that recognition now musically, but also for their way of working in a studio."
Not surprisingly then, recording No Exit, was an entire different experience. Chris: "Yeah it's very exciting that the whole thing is digital now. We were able to capture a lot of inspiration, in the past we had to play something a hundred times just to get it and that would be the take for the whole song. It's really exciting what you can do with the digital stuff which you couldn't do on tape. Heart Of Glass is a song that you could do with MIDI now, but it was all done manually, almost like the reverse process."
Debbie Harry similarly welcomes the technological revolution, "I used to hate making records," she admits candidly. "I've always liked the writing process and the creativity of it, but the grind and the repetition and the slow process of analogue recording was always very tedious and very uninteresting and boring. But this time it suited me very very well, I really enjoyed myself in the studio this time."
The technological aspect has flavoured the songwriting process as well "I don't have a set way of writing songs," Chris states. "It's changing all the time and I've probably tried every possible way, but most of the time I use sequencers and MIDI. Sometimes I go back and try to write on the guitar. Often I'll start with bass and drums, though. When I write I always concentrate on playing and refining one piece. I never play through jams and then chop them up. Rather than making more from less, I'll make less from more."
THE FEELING IS GONE
Blondie emerged in the heyday of the CBGBs scene in New York. In a scant few years, artists like New York Dolls, Television, Talking Heads, Patti Smith and the Ramones defined the American punk, with new and powerful words and music, and a strong and alternative cultural identity.
Regarded as a joke, Blondie were the support group during whose concerts - something always went wrong. Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine of Television literally looked down on Blondie, something which still bugs Chris Stein. As Blondie took on the world the other groups slowly vanished or had limited success, and over the years the special CBGB atmosphere has disappeared. Chris is blunt, "The CBGB feeling is gone." Debbie continues, "CBGBs is very straight rock'n'roll nowadays. I have played there for old time sakes with the Jazz Passengers, we wouldn't do it with Blondie it's too small."
When Blondie broke up it was partly because of bad business people, Chris Stein's illness and the explosive atmosphere between the band members. Have things cooled down here at the end of the millennium or is it the same as it ever was?
Debbie: "Well we know each other so well and the intensity increases when you're always close together. When you're on the road, you have no one else to go to. I've been in other bands and it's the same - you get sick and tired of other people's stupid habits. But I think everybody now is a little more mature - you live and you learn."
After years of being so close, is it odd for you to work with Chris just on a professional level. "It doesn't feel odd," Debbie says. "We had a cooling off period when we separated. He married and has since had a divorce, but we have remained friends and he's my best friend. It's unusual since separation is often full of anger and hate. But we've always stayed in touch. We would've been best friends whether we'd lived together or not - if I'd just met him and we'd never been together, we'd instantly become friends." And hopefully that guarantees Blondie's future for a while yet.
IN THE BOX WITH DEBBIE
I'm in the phonebox it's the one across the hall, the classic hookline from Hanging On The Telephone, which makes 'Ich bin ein Berliner' and 'I did it my way' - sound like washing powder adverts. It's Debbie Harry's opening line, January 20th 1999 in Sound Republic on Wardour Street, London. It's the official launch party for Blondie's impressive comeback, No Exit. As indicated, the party kicks off with the 2.17 minute powerpop anthem Hanging On The Telephone, from Blondie's 1978 album, Parallel Lines - which has sold no less than 20 million copies around the globe. The sound is remarkably good and Debbie's voice is convincing, although she appears somewhat shaken and misses a couple of phone messages here and there. The BBC is on the spot and after a very strong eight song set, there are requests for the phonebox intro once again! Back in the old days Debbie was known to skip a line here and there, and in many ways everything is just like it used to be. The words just won't come out in the correct order, and after a triple run on the Telephone, the BBC allegedly gives up. In many ways symptomatic of the evening.
Blondie and the boys have grown older, they look a bit tired and a little uneasy with being the centre of one of the biggest pop hypes at the moment. But, when on a roll, Blondie sound as timeless and intoxicating, and Debbie's voice as seductive as ever. Best expressed by her comment to the young audience. 'It's a strange new old world here in clubland tonight'.
Going Blonde at CBGBs
With Blondie's return to live performance and the release of No Exit, RUSSELL WHITE takes a brief look at the CBGB scene and assesses the origins of the most successful band of the American new wave.
IN today's pop climate, where nostalgic reunions are increasingly commonplace, the return of Blondie is as welcome as any. Blondie's punk pedigree had been established by their links to New York venues such as Max's Kansas City, the Mercer Arts Center and most famously the CBGB OMFUG club (the acronym stands Country, Blue Grass and Blues, and Other Music For Urban Gourmets). CBGB's formed a focal point for the new wave scene.
In 1973, club founder Hilly Kristal gave Television the chance to audition for a slot to play at CBGBs. Since that fateful night, the small venue at 315 Bowery at Bleecker Street in New York City has played host to countless anarchic punk bands. Television's manager was the first to suggest that Blondie should play at CBs, and this they did.
In Britain, the combination of tuneful pop songs and Debbie Harry's glamorous image proved a potent commercial combination. The group's five UK number ones, together with a string of top 20 hits represents a level of success which was unmatched by Blondie's new wave CBGB contemporaries. The Ramones, Talking Heads, the Patti Smith Group and Television.
The group formed in 1974 after Stein had seen Harry perform at CBs in the Stilettoes (who debuted there on 5 May 1974). It was a theatrical girl group and Stein joined them as part of the backing band. By August 1974 the group split. Harry and Stein left with the rhythm section of Fred Smith (bass) and Billy O'Connor (drums) to form Angel and the Snake.
After several months playing the New York club circuit, the group changed their name first to Blondie and the Banzai Babes and then to Blondie. By May 1975 O'Connor had left and was replaced by Clem Burke, while Smith left to replace Richard Hell in Television. Smith's departure had a profound effect on both Harry and Stein who felt that this was part of a wider conspiracy against Blondie on the CBGB's scene. As Harry noted: "We were struck dumb by the whole thing, by the whole movement against us. I may be paranoid but I think that whole clique wanted to destroy us."
Avoiding the overt intellectual and artistic pretentions of Television and the Patti Smith Group, many in the CBGB scene shunned them. Yet as Burke told The Guardian's Paul Burston, Blondie had consciously, and successfully, combined art and commerce. Drawing an analogy between Blondie's music and Andy Warhol's artwork, Burke says: "We wanted to reach as many people as possible. That's why Warhol made paintings of Brillo boxes and Campbell's soup cans, because everyone could
relate to that".
Upon Fred Smith's departure, the cosy punk CBGB scene was beginning to falter. In Clinton Heylin's From The Velvets To The Voidoids, Chris Stein is quoted: "Patti [Smith] helped coerce Fred away from us. Everything on the CBGBs scene was cooperative until the tension started and then it got very competitive immediately." But this strife didn't deter them.
Galvanised by Clem Burke's faith in the band, Blondie regrouped after a period of introspection, recruiting bassist Gary Valentine and keyboard player Jimmy Destri. This line up recorded the group's eponymous debut with Private Stock Records. Produced by Richard Gottehrer, Blondie was recorded at the Plaza Sound Studio and Radio City Music Hall in 1976. Although there was animosity between some CBGB regulars and Blondie, there was still a connection. Co-producer Craig Leon had worked with other CBGB stalwarts The Ramones.
Over the next six years Blondie would produce five more records, Plastic Letters, Parallel Lines (their most successful album), Eat To The Beat, Autoamerican and The Hunter. Thanks to the success of many hit singles, the band would go on to become a household name on both sides of the Atlantic.
The group finally went their separate ways in 1982... until recently. Ultimately, though, Blondie will be remembered as the most successful American export of the 1970s - and who knows where 1999 and the next Millennium will take them? A great singles band - and arch survivors of the legendary CBGBs - Blondie were never punk rock, they were the perfect epitome of punk as pop.
On the CD
PLAY FIVE BLONDIE HITS
The young Debbie Harry epitomised Girl Power well before the term was invented. SIMON YOUNG finds out why the bottle-blond bombshell made such an indelible mark.
IN the five years of their heyday between 1978 and 1882, Blondie managed to produced no less than ten top ten singles, with five reaching number one. Blondie was formed back in 1973 when Debbie Harry hooked up with long-term partner and guitarist Chris Stein, forming the songwriting nucleus of the band. They honed their skills at CBGBs, the legendary new wave/punk hang out in New York.
By the time they released their third multi-million selling album, Parallel Lines in 1978, they had largely dropped any vestige of their punk roots, thanks largely to the production of pop maestro Mike Chapman. This album created the classic lineup of Harry and Stein coupled with Clem Burke on drums, Nigel Harrison on bass, Jimmy Destri on organ and Frank Infante on guitar. One of the singles from the album, Heart Of Glass, was a global number one and signalled a new level of success. It also showed the disco influence they were incorporating into their sound with its hypnotic guitar hookline and four-to-the-floor drums.
The follow-up album, Eat To The Beat, was released in 1979 and likewise spawned several hits. Among them were the Shadows/Duane Eddie-inspired Atomic and Dreaming, with its overdriven guitar melody reminiscent of David Bowie's hit, Heroes. The following year saw a collaboration with synth maestro Giorgio Moroder on Call Me, which featured in the popular Richard Gere movie, American Gigolo (1980). At this time Moroder was the Godfather of disco/dance music after writing the seminal Donna Summer hit, I Feel Love and numerous synth-orientated movie soundtracks from the late '70s/early '80s (Midnight Express, Cat People and Flashdance), and Blondie's collaboration with him certainly paid off - hitting the top spot on both sides of the pond. When she went solo, Debbie Harry worked with Moroder again for Rush Rush which featured in the movie Scarface (1983).
However by their fifth album, Autoamerican, Blondie were past their peak and the pressures of touring coupled with personal tensions were taking their toll. They did manage a US number one with the funky, rap-inspired Rapture, but the end seemed inevitable, even if the final split was not until after their sixth rather lacklustre album The Hunter.
WHAT AN ATMOSPHERE
The atmosphere created on Blondie's material was due to their recording methods - along with their engineer, Craig Leon, the band wanted to create a large live sound, in contrast with the dull production that bands used before punk. As guitarist Chris Stein explains, "We made our records on a live stage at Plaza Sound in New York and because of the room's size we could get much bigger sounds than anywhere else in town. We preferred to use the older studios, the budgets were minuscule but that helped the sound."
new releases: albums
NEW RELEASES: REVIEWS
No Exit (BMG)
BACK in the late '70s Blondie were gods. Striking the perfect balance between the punk attitude of the Sex Pistols and the killer melodies of those Swedish supremos Abba, they were four boys with skinny ties and one peroxide iconic frontwoman. They had well-deserved massive success, too, racking up no less than five UK number ones.
Now, some 16 years on, most of the original members (Deborah Harry, guitarist Chris Stein, keyboardist Jimmy Destri and drummer Clem Burke) have returned with No Exit, a far better record than we have any right to expect. Maria and the swoonsome Under The Gun do justice to the group's illustrious past, while Double Take and Night Wind Sent are superior ballads like they just don't make any more. The 50-something Debbie Harry doesn't sound a day over 25 and her vocals are a joy throughout. Granted, No Exit is about three songs too long, and has its share of duff moments, but it's still soddin' great to have them back.
3½ out of 5