Trouser Press - June 1981 - pages 19-20-21-22-23
BLONDIE: STATE OF THE UNION 1981
Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Frank Infante,
Jimmy Destri and Clem Burke
(and Nigel Harrison, not shown in the above photo)
are still a group - they're just not together.
Written by: Scott Isler
Like a few other midtown recording studios, the Power Station is isolated on a long, deserted block on New York's far west side. The out-of-the-way location and unprepossessing exterior are in keeping with a studio's nature; it's a place for gestation, not display, designed to serve the artist and not call attention to itself.
The Power Station's drab facade conceals the activities of some of rock's brightest stars. Bruce Springsteen practically lived here for a couple of years while struggling with The River. Bowie's last album was recorded here. And right now the studio is playing host to a curious fusion: Debbie Harry and Chris Stein - Blondie's commanding presence and main songwriter/guitarist respectively - are engaged on a solo album with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the high profile of suave disco band Chic.
Maybe it's not so curious. Two years ago Blondie broke the tacit enmity between new wave rock and disco music with "Heart of Glass." The irresistible ditty became the group's first number one single, spurred the accompanying Parallel Lines on to platinum status (one million sales) and made sure the group couldn't go back to the New York underground scene, centered around CBGB's on the Bowery, from which they emerged.
Since then Blondie hasn't disappointed its expanded audience. Two subsequent singles, "Call Me" and "The Tide Is High," have also gone to the top of the charts; the latter is from Autoamerican, the current LP and yet another platinum seller (as was the preceding Eat to the Beat). The new album's latest 45 spin-off, "Rapture," seems to be doing for rapping music what "Heart of Glass" did for disco, and "The Tide Is High" for ska: serving a black/esoteric musical form to a white/mass market.
It's logical, then, that Blondie would eventually cross paths with Rodgers and Edwards, who as producers of their own band Chic (and also Diana Ross) are playing Blondie's game, only in reverse: making black music white. The difference is that while Chic's sophisticated crowd will follow Rodgers and Edwards anywhere, Blondie's original core fans - who have been leery ever since "Heart of Glass" - are increasingly confused about the band they thought they knew.
More traumatically, the Power Station project is not going to be a Blondie album but a Debbie Harry album. Blondie has never been known for its united-we-stand camaraderie, and when word leaked out about this declaration of independence the band - shaky in the best of times - seemed gone with the wind.
Chris Stein is 31 and more than a little grey-haired. At the Power Station, he is garbed in a khaki jumpsuit and sports a healthy growth of stubble. My first glimpse of him is a bit unnerving: curled up on a window ledge, Stein is poring over (through the round eyeglasses he always wears except on stage or in front if a camera) the review of Autoamerican in Trouser Press. This last-minute boning up is in keeping with Stein's reputation as a media watcher with a jaundiced view of the fourth estate.
The review is hardly an all-out rave but Stein doesn't seem to mind. At least "it didn't pit various members of the band against each other, or describe our cheap pretentions without going into further detail," he says in his mellifluous baritone.
Not all rock stars are obsessed (or even concerned) with their press clippings, but Blondie has received a more venal dose than most. Mindless cries of "sell-out" greeted the "Heart of Glass" breakthrough and continue to this day, as do snickers that the band coasts on Debbie Harry's good looks, or that Harry herself coasts on her good looks. Blondie is an easy target for rock critics who aren't willing to understand the group's modus operandi.
Debbie Harry, 35, wanders around the Power Station in a black pullover and brown leather pants, having doffed her street camouflage of wraparound coat, oversize glasses (with lenses) and beret under which she piles the famous hair. Her tresses obviously haven't been dyed in a while - no one ever pretended Harry was a natural blonde - and are horribly dishevelled, yet they somehow add to the allure of her face. Stein says she is running on five hours' sleep, which may explain why she appears to be having trouble keeping her eyes open. She becomes more alert after fixing some coffee, sitting down and entering the conversation.
Stein is still smarting from a Rolling Stone review of Autoamerican that took him to task on more personal than musical terms. "I'm not bothered when it's in the fucking [a favorite adjective] New Musical Express or something that everybody knows is sicko, but to see something so hypocritical and moronically stupid in what's supposed to be the voice of youth culture in America disturbs me. There's a difference between criticism and attack."
"The guy who wrote that review," Harry adds, "actually called up Jimmy [Destri, Blondie's keyboard player] and said, 'Listen, I really want to do a feature story on you. Aren't you glad of the things I wrote about you in the album review? I really tried to build you up and I put Chris down badly.'"
"Well, that's what Jimmy said, anyway," Stein adds hastily.
"They're talking about somebody I don't know," Jimmy Destri exclaims about Stein's misrepresentation in the press. "They talk about Chris as some sort of Svengali, and Debbie as somebody who doesn't have brains enough to see through it. It hurts me to see my friends put down."
At 27, Destri is the second youngest member of Blondie. (Drummer Clem Burke is the baby of the group.) Unlike Stein, he still retains a slight accent from his Brooklyn upbringing. Chainsmoking in the offices of the band's publicist, the tousle-headed, black leather jacketed keyboard player comes across as voluble, friendly and selfconfident to a fault.
As a significant contributor to the Blondie songbook - his "Atomic" went to number one in England - Destri is particularly upset by the tendency of critics to blame Stein for everything they don't like. On Autoamerican, "They didn't realize that most of the things they said were bad were my ideas," Destri laughs. He mentions his song "Walk Like Me," castigated by the Stone reviewer as "a Murjani-type thing - 'wear my jeans' - when it's about the absolute opposite: it's 'don't look at anybody to see what they're wearing.' If I ever see [that writer] I'll tell him to his face: 'You're a stupid and lazy individual, and probably want to be a rock star yourself and can't make it.'"
Destri hasn't been idle while Stein and Harry socialize with the Chic set; he's in the process of recording a solo album for himself. As for the other Blondies, drummer Clem Burke has produced sessions for young New York bands the Speedies and the Colors. He's also done a videotape with the latter band, and is helping them get a distributor for their independent 45. Bassist Nigel Harrison is in England with his former companion in Silverhead, Michael Des Barres; guitarist Frank Infante is incommunicado. One can be excused for wondering: Where does all this activity leave Blondie?
"Still together, thank god!" Destri sighs in relief. "Thank god for these projects that Blondie is still a group. You blow off that steam and it makes you want your group."
"We're definitely not breaking up," Burke reaffirms a few hours before running off to England to join Harrison and Des Barres. "There's no reason to break up. The band isn't divided; there's a lot of common ground."
Maybe it's all just image problems. The cool, sleek patina of Blondie's music and the unvaryingly grim band photographs don't communicate the warmth of, say, the Osmond family. According to Destri, though, reports of the band's death are greatly exaggerated.
"I don't care about rumors," he shrugs. "It's funny; I was over at Debbie and Chris's place, sitting around, playing guitar and going through the papers seeing how many times we were breaking up. If only these writers could see us hanging out together. We like each other a lot more since we don't have to work together as often because of Autoamerican's success."
Indeed, Blondie hasn't been seen in the US for a couple of years (or anywhere, for that matter, since a January 1980 date in Britain). The band's live performances have always been spotty, a problem the members are aware of.
"I don't think we've found a communication onstage yet," Destri says. "There was too much ego in the group; we were six musicians thrown on stage and blasting each other out. I don't feel any responsibility to go out and give a bad show right now. We'll work again, but we'll only tour when we want to. We've suffered enough."
Intraband rivalry doesn't help extinguish break-up rumors, although it must make life as a Blondie fairly dramatic. "This band thrives on clashes, personality crises," Burke declares. "Chris and I had a great fistfight onstage at Dingwall's [a London club] in '78."
Stein remembers the incident differently, claiming the fight was with Destri: "I punched his Polymoog." "I attacked Clem," Harry says.
"You get nuts," she continues. "You do these gigs in the most awful circumstances." Now that she's been spoiled by TV appearances, Harry finds rock stagecraft a little less than state-of-the-art. "You go do a sound check and it's like, 'Heyyy, maaan, you got an extension cord?' [Upward inflection ending in the sound of retching] Somebody's vomiting; you step in dogshit; you sit in a dressing room with three inches of water on the floor. That's what makes it so exciting, but that's why people flip out."
"Any band that's successful automatically gets break-up rumors," Stein says. He and Harry deny there's any tension within Blondie.
"The music wouldn't be half as good without the tension," Destri disagrees (naturally?). "It's good to have Chris come up with a brilliant song, and my unspoken reaction is [mumbling], 'Motherfucker! I gotta do something better!' - and visa versa. It gets you off your ass and makes you work hard, especially when there are people in the group who are as smart as you are. It would be a lot easier for ourselves if we were a very laid-back, commune type group, but we're not - and it makes our music better."
Autoamerican was the first Blondie album recorded in Los Angeles rather than the band's New York home turf. Destri says the site was chosen to isolate the group from its encroaching side projects. Despite a mixed critical reception (to put it kindly), Destri feels the album is one of Blondie's best.
"There was a running joke about Autoamerican in the studio: It was going to sell 14 copies and get all these awards from critics, or critics were going to hate it and it would sell millions. There were a couple of hits on the record and the rest was just ecoteric and fun. I loved it. That's one of the few Blondie records I walked away from proud. I thought, finally we took a chance; we did something different. We let go."
"Fans" who thought they had Blondie all figured out might put it differently: The band didn't let go so much as lose it entirely. Only two or three of the album's 12 cuts even vaguely resemble the turbo-pop Blondie of yore. Instead, Autoamerican dabbles in disco (rapping and non-rapping), smoky cabaret, movie music, mock Cole Porter and genuine Lerner and Lowe.
"We put out a whacko album with all kinds of crazy shit to open everybody's head up a little bit," Stein complains, "and half the critics freak out."
"Autoamerican is just an extension of what we've been doing since our first day," Harry notes, "only now it's more obvious because we're better at it. I can link up different songs - like 'Rapture' is a combination of 'Heart of Glass' and 'Attack of the Giant Ants' [from the first Blondie LP]."
Harry may be able to view Blondie's material in a logical progression, but the new album's eclecticism obviously left some people at the post. Even Burke, an unrepentant rocker, claims he didn't "play in my style" on the album. Stein is maddeningly vague about his own musical tastes, claiming to listen to "anything and everything." Pressed for specifics, he mentions New York's post-disco WBLS-FM and "big bands, '30s/'40s jazz. The Stones saved my sanity all through the '70s," he adds. "I never listened to radio, just Exile on Main Street a million times.
"We did 'Follow Me' [the Lerner and Lowe song, from Camelot] 'cause I just got so sick of all these rock people getting so stuffy; they get as bad as classical music fans. It's pathetic! 'If it's not about anguish and teenage suicide, and doesn't have raging guitar and heavy bass drum, I can't listen to music.'" Stein delivers that mock pronouncement in a nerdy voice.
Preconceptions about Blondie's music bothered Stein especially because "I never thought we were that specific. There was definitely a lack of direction in the band; it's always been just a conglomeration of personalities. We always held up David Bowie as an example; he was always turning over his style. We didn't like getting locked into these formats."
To unlock themselves, the band employed outside musicians, including a 30-piece string section for Stein's moody instrumental, "Europa," and a jazzy combo to back Harry on her own ballad, "Faces" - which Stein calls "one of the best things we've [sic] done." Even Destri, no slouch at advertising his own talents, admits that he "can't play that sort of stuff; I said, 'Get a keyboard player to do it.'"
Stein notes that Harry was working on "Faces" for a long time. "Yeah," she deadpans, "I was working on it for five years. I'm lying. Six years." Destri remarks, "'Faces' is totally Debbie. I can tell she's been holding it in for a while, with all those Bowery references."
The diversity was encouraged by Mike Chapman, Blondie's producer since Parallel Lines (except for a brief interlude with Giorgio Moroder on "Call Me"). "He agreed that we should get away from standard rock," Stein says. "We didn't want to do what everybody expected us to do, which would have been 'Call Me' type stuff. We're becoming more and more determined not to fit into molds."
One way to escape a mold is to break out of it - with a solo album, for instance.
"Up front let's say it's not really a solo album," Stein admits, "as much as a collaboration between Debbie and me, and the guys from Chic. I'd make a parallel: What if Mick Jagger had made an album with the Four Tops in 1971?" He says the reason for secrecy about the project at first - including outright denial by Blondie spokespersons - was due to recording having begun before obtaining contracts and permission from both bands' record companies.
Stein is still close-lipped about how the musical summit meeting will sound. The music will be dance-oriented, of course. "I think working with Chic is probably one of the most radical steps we could take. Contemporary black music is not considered safe by white audiences. A lot of resistance to Autoamerican - and all the resistance to 'Rapture' - I believe is racially motivated. I find this obnoxious rock/MOR mentality very white supremacist.
"The whole rapping thing is totally fresh. It's the closet thing I've seen to new wave/punk in a long time. There are millions of one-off singles being produced, the same as rock kids were producing their punk singles. The real stuff is not even available to the general American public."
Revolutionary fervor aside, Destri is glad that Harry is getting a chance to stretch out on her own. "I am totally confident that her record will sound nothing like a Blondie record," he says. "She can do exactly what she wants without having to go through me to Chris or Clem - all our tastes. Debbie and Chris can be really at ends musically. As a member of Blondie she's tied down; she deserves to be let loose."
Harry herself views her album as a means to establish a musical identity. "There came to be a problem in the sense of 'Blondie' - who is 'Blondie,' Blondie, Blondie." Her exaggerated pronunciation and repetition of the band's name expresses the meaninglessness of celebrity. "This gives me a clear head about Blondie - whether I'm Blondie, or the band is."
"That's all the tension ever arose from," Stein interjects. "If Debbie was a guy we would never have had the same situation - or if we were all girls."
"It's very selfish," Destri says, "for me and the other guys to be part of this group when we're all equal partners in someone else's image. Debbie's gotta be the face but we're all collecting off it anyway. Sometimes I think it's a little unfair: Why am I sitting at home building plastic models when she's in LA doing nine interviews in a row? But I never thought she'd be anything less of a star than she is, so I don't feel confused, upset or pushed aside. Debbie wanted to be the face, the focal point. She's got it."
Blondie's focal point may do a lot of interviews, but she probably doesn't enjoy them. She intermittenly strolls away from Stein to check on activity in the recording studio; when present, she lets him do most of the talking, confining her remarks often to playful counterpoint around Stein's litany. When the latter suggests that reviews of the solo album will be headlined Debbie Harry Tries to Be a Negro and Fails, she breaks in, "I think I better get a tan real quick."
If opposites attract, it's no wonder Stein and Harry have been a duo for seven years. He's a Serious Thinker with definite views on politics and society; she says she just wants to entertain people. Returning to the interview after a periodic absence, Harry yells out a cheery "Hi!" before bellywhopping across Stein's lap. He seems unperturbed.
In the status-conscious America of the '80s, it's appropriate that Harry may be more familiar to people through her Murjani jeans TV commercials than her work with Blondie. It's certainly more lucrative. Asked at what point the band started making money, Stein looks at his watch. "What time is it? They keep telling me the big bucks are coming in any minute. Our ex-manager received most of it, and what he didn't get is absorbed by the international record company rip-off scene. Debbie got more money from the jeans deal [reportedly in six figures for three years] than both of us have for our record sales. Now we have good credit. We were so happy to do the commercial, though, we would have done it for nothing."
The TV ad, platinum record sales - even Harry's appearance on The Muppets - indicate Blondie's acceptance by the once-dreaded Establishment. "We're definitely not an underground group anymore," Burke affirms in an understatement. "The only place left for us to go where people think we're crazy is to hang out with Chuck Mangione."
Or attend this year's Grammy awards, where "Call Me" was nominated for best rock performance by a dance or vocal group. Fortunately for Blondie's self-respect, they lost to Bob Seger. The conservative National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which picks the Grammies, has yet to recognize anything even remotely new wave.
And Stein has yet to forsake his down-to-earth New York background, either mentally or literally. He is confounded by rumors that Harry and himself bought a house in Los Angeles. "There's too much cocaine out there," he warns. "The main objective of my life is not to get high on coke."
Blondie's future? Stein can't reveal any strategy; there isn't any. "It does go day by day," he says. "It always has. I think that's one of the reasons we're successful: We've never had any grandiose plans." He can at least project another Blondie LP after the Harry album - one he hopes will be as different from Autoamerican as that was from the preceding Blondie catalogue.
"I don't want to fall into that thing of ignoring the press and becoming a dinosaur rock star who just sits there getting high in his mansion." Stein needn't worry. He and the rest of the band have a way to go before reaching that stage of atrophy. In its demeanor, onstage and off, Blondie can be shockingly unprofessional - in the best sense of the word.
"We fight each other on record; you can hear us," Destri says. "I listen to the first Blondie album and I laugh. I hear five egos fighting the shit out of one another. Every time there's a little gap in the music, somebody fills it in: 'Look at me!'"
Yet Blondie seems no closer to breaking up now than at the time of that first album. "It's a lot more comfortable being part of a group," Destri concedes. "You get the idea there's somebody there going through the same shit you're going through. It gives you somebody to bounce off of."
Burke is more pragmatic: "We've got the Midas touch."
Only Midas never went platinum.