UNCUT Magazine - November 2003
Twenty-five years after
Deborah-nee Debbie-Harry became the Warholian pop art
fantasy made flesh, BLONDIE,
progenitors of New York cool, are back.
Interview by: Chris Roberts
YOU'RE LOOKING as fabulous as
ever, Ms Harry.
"Thanks, and you're...
Here's a birthday card. We're
going to talk about your history.
"Ulp... I don't remember
everything in perfect detail. It's... jumbled."
Well hey, it's probably a better
story your way.
"Right! Like, this is how I
dreamt it was..."
Also The Curse Of Blondie, which
you're saying is your best ever record.
"Always. Don't I always say
that with every record?"
But this time you, like, really
"Aw, you bastard. Twenty
seconds and you're backing me into a corner. Hey, I'll do
the rap from the first track, it goes... uh... 'I used to
get sick with solitude, I was always better with the
multitude/But now I like it up here all alone in my ivory
tower/Hi ho, at the end of my rope, I watch it all
through a telescope/Think I'll have a better chance to
see the Pope...' And so on..."
"Well, it's not so far out
as the man from Mars who eats guitars. Or the giant ants
from space. Y'know, I don't think the Pope would actually
like that, you saying he's as weird as the man from Mars.
You could be in trouble."
Do you ever wish the name of the
band hadn't been Blondie?
"No. Never. I think
Blondie's a terrific name."
RATHER LIKE A RAY of light
imagined by Roy Lichtenstein, Deborah Harry is radiant,
calm and into non sequiturs today. On previous meetings
she's been radiant, twitchy and into non sequiturs, so
this is a very happy day. Her dark garb, necklace of tiny
skulls from Melrose ("cute, huh?") and
"Cursed" sweatshirt only serve to emphasise the
sunshine face. At 58 going on 30, she's in very together
fettle and spends half the interview laughing and
mock-flirting. She rarely rambles, tending to favour
clipped, concise answers or self-effacing quips, thus
keeping the interviewer blowing hard. Fortunately, on
many levels, it's a long interview, so we talk lots about
her past, present and future. She really does think the
new album, The Curse Of Blondie, is a cracker, and she's
right. Blondie came back from the dead in '98, after 17
years. Then and now they've influenced and inspired both
icons and indie stars, from Madonna to the Yeah Yeah
Yeahs, from Transvision Vamp and The Primitives to
Britney and Pink. As the T-shirts at the time of the
comeback proclaimed, "Nobody can say we didn't stick
around for 15 minutes."
The sun now rises again, even if
the new opus often references the noir-goth universe of
cheap horror flicks.
"The curse of Blondie?
People are taking it literally and seriously, though I
meant it tongue in cheek. I mean, I don't feel
particularly cursed any more than any other person. I
just love all that horror movie imagery. I've always been
melodramatic, ha ha. I just love the B-movie stuff -
Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, anything that makes you
go 'Wooh!" They're entertaining. They have a place
in my heart."
In your dark, dark heart?
"In my dark little heart,
Blondie are back to make you go:
"WE THOUGHT WE WERE always
underground, alternative. Nocturnal. Subterranean. We
sorta had this friendly, bubbly facade, I know, but also
this undercurrent of... deeply threatening ideas! Ha!
Whether we were ever truly threatening I can't say, but
we had an understanding of the macabre, the dark side. We
had the pop image, and handled things with a pop
sensibility, but in many songs our subject matter was
seriously dark. Somehow - ha ha ha - it all worked."
It took a while to get across.
When you were the biggest band in the world, and your
face was the planet's most famous, were you frustrated
that your shadowy roots weren't showing through? That the
masses thought you were Ms Relentlessly Chirpy Blonde?
"Nah... as they say, beauty
is in the eye of the beholder. What one gets from a piece
of art or piece of music is up to the individual. And how
closely they listen to it or look at it. From my
experience I find that when I listen to something over
the years, it changes each time. The meaning changes for
me. Meanings do change for people. Also, y'know, I don't
know if I've ever been all that famous."
"I think that we had some
high points, and so forth. But when you look at somebody
like J-Lo, who is so famous, so exposed, that to me is an
extraordinary level of fame..."
Around the time of Parallel
Lines and Eat To The Beat, you were easily that famous...
Yours was the most famous of
"Hmmm... I guess things are
relative. The currency's different today. And a lot of
that profile was to do with the record company. They were
good at their job."
And you were pretty good at
"Well, thank you."
BLONDIE'S PECULIAR, ultimately
heroic story began in the mid-'70s, when the then
highly-camp art student/guitarist Chris Stein saw future
wife Harry fronting short-lived New York band The
Stilettos, who banged out wilfully trashy girl-group
pastiches and were at one point backed by the New York
Dolls. Smitten, Stein joined and then transformed them.
A former folkie hippie with Wind
In The Willows, Playboy bunny and Max's Kansas City
waitress, Miami-born Harry had arrived at the downtown
music scene via circuitous
routes. (She now says she's a Jersey girl, and loves The
Sopranos). The early ads hollered pre-emptively,
"Blondie Is A Group!", but the spotlight loved
Harry, a streetwise pin-up with a cool blend of punkish
attitude and kooky humour. Stein called in bassist Gary
Valentine and drummer Clem Burke, and Burke called in
keyboardist Jimmy Destri. Local peers of the buzzing
CBGB's ear - Television, Patti Smith, Talking Heads,
Ramones - bitched about them for being too poppy, while
envying their commercial nous.
In fact, Blondie were briefly
barred from CBGB's after a row over a double booking, but
when Harry collared '60s hit producer Richard Gottehrer
(and sidekick Craig Leon, with whom they're now reunited)
into working on their debut album, '77's Blondie, cuts
like "X Offender", "In The Flesh" and
"Rip Her To Shreds" proved the band knew what
they were doing. Harry was dubbed "the Garbo of
punk", or "the new wave Marilyn", and her
photogenic qualities didn't go unnoticed. After an
American tour (and a British tour with Television), they
signed to Chrysalis and released Plastic Letters.
"Denis", a cover, gave them a breakthrough UK
hit, and was swiftly followed by "(I'm Always
Touched By Your) Presence Dear". Frank Infante
replaced Valentine, who's since written amusingly of the
period, but switched to guitar when Brit Nigel Harrison
joined on bass.
The classic Blondie line-up was
now in place. Everything about them was getting bigger,
brighter, faster. The world-beating Parallel Lines was
just around the corner.
Was this the golden age of New
York's rock'n'roll lifetime, or has that been reborn with
the Strokes/Yeah Yeah Yeahs generation?
"Oh, I think New York is
always happening," says Deborah, who still lives
there. Wait - are you now Debbie or Deborah? "I've
become Deborah. I've matured nicely. They always called
me Deborah when I was a bad girl, anyway. But in New York
there were the Beats in the '50s, then in the '60s you
had the hippies, bands like Elephant's Memory. There's
always been great jazz. The city's had a lot of golden
ages of music."
Do you remember your rise to
prominence, at the height of punk, fondly?
"Yes. As a matter of fact,
when 9/11 happened... I don't usually bring this up in
normal conversation, but... that was my first real, well,
sadness. I wished more than anything then that it was the
'70s. I'd never really mourned for that, I'm not a person
who cares to live in the past, but that was so sad, it
got me thinking. I'm basically very optimistic and look
forward to the future. But that was such a wonderful
time. It was formative for me - I gave it a lot and it
gave me a lot back. You learn, you move on. It was a very
powerful time and I was very lucky.
"If you ever read back over
all the old press, Chris and I really promoted that New
York scene, y'know. Chris spoke articulately about CBGB's,
and we valued our friends' bands as much as we valued
Blondie! We really flew the flag - toot toot, me and my
bugle. I swear my art teacher told me in high school -
it's 50 per cent talent and 50 per cent promotion. You
write what you write but can you make it available to
commerce? There are some genius creators and composers in
this world who can't sell themselves. We could. We were
popular, but we worked hard at it. It doesn't happen as
if by magic."
To what extent were you a
misunderstood pioneer-rebel trapped in a hot babe's body?
"I don't know that I was
really trying to do anything, except learn how to do what
People have a great fondness for the music from that
time, I know. The essence of punk
rock lingers on, carries on. But maybe not everyone's
aware of the historic importance, the real changes that
occurred then. I mean, you had the women's lib movement.
And also gay lib. That's two pretty major sexual
revolutions that happened in quick succession.
As a front person, was I subversive? I don't know if I
was that in control of everything. I was searching,
trying to express myself. To discover where I fitted into
this whole picture. It was pretty confusing then, more
than it is now, to be a woman or girl in front of a band.
A lot of people were really against it; they hated
You intimidated them?
"Me? Intimidate anyone? Ha!
No, no. It was just not part of the scheme of things, it
was seen as... not
So you broke the mould.
"Not single-handedly. I
looked up to Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, and lots of
English girls in bands at the time. Things bounce back
and forth till they build. Once it became commercially
viable, everyone went: hey, I can do that! And record
companies were willing to run with them. Let's say I was
an idea whose time had come. It was inevitable."
Were Blondie 'pop art'?
"Hmmm, what were we? We
What was the concept?
"To be a good band! Also, I
guess, world domination. Grrr. But there was a great deal
of weirdness. As Chris puts it, we were propelled at the
front of a torpedo. Y'know, just strapped onto the tip of
this thing. And then pushed forward at a speed which
didn't reconcile itself with the amount of time that you
need to be creative. Being force-fed in reverse, having
to spew out quicker than we could ingest things and make
brilliance happen. But that's the nature of the business.
Along with the stress of that comes a great thrill of
excitement and the wonder of it all. You basically still
feel like the same person, but you're suddenly in this
extreme position of both power and vulnerability. It's a
PARALLEL LINES WAS A beautiful
monster. A UK No 1 in late '78, it stayed on the charts
for over two years, spawning such hot-streak glories as
"Hanging On The Telephone", "Picture
This", "Sunday Girl" and "Heart Of
Glass". The last gave them their first US No 1, and
Blondie were simply, globally, massive.
"Actually," corrects Harry, "the first
hits were in Australia, but yes, the UK took off
quickly." Producer Mike Chapman (once of the
Chinnichap team behind The Sweet and Mud) has said that
he drove Blondie hard in the studio, demanding constant
retakes and hammering out their raw live edge in the name
of creating perfect radio pop. The urban myth is that
Blondie hated "Heart Of Glass" and thought it
was a silly sell-out to the prevailing disco wave...
"Oh no no, that's not true
at all!" she exclaims. "Maybe Clem didn't wanna
do the song - being Mr Rock'n'Roll, he hated it and said
he'd never play it live. Then it went to No 1, like,
everywhere, he said: 'Oh God, I have to play it now.' I
had no problem with the song - we'd just had it around
for so long. We'd tried treating it so many ways, in
every genre or format you could think of. We'd called it
'The Disco Song'. One night Mike asked if there was any
other stuff we hadn't even run by him, and we went:
'Well, I guess there's this odd thing...'
"Now we do all those songs
in the show, but we've revamped them, tried to keep them
alive for ourselves as well as the audience. Making them
a little more modern is fun, and challenging. I think
Blondie always gave a real energetic rock'n'roll
performance. Some bands call themselves rock'n'roll but
they're too laid-back. I think rock'n'roll should have an
athletic nature to it. In the thrust and force of it.
It's like a spirit, in a way."
Blondie continued to rule the
airwaves with the dazzling Eat To The Beat
("Atomic", "Dreaming") and its
groundbreaking accompanying video collection. The 1980
album Autoamerican, despite featuring the rap-rock
crossover "Rapture" and "The Tide Is
High", was less successful here (although it did
By now the group was
fragmenting. Solo projects abounded. Harry made 1981's
Koo Koo with Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards (it
bombed). Blondie made '82's The Hunter, a sorry excuse
for a swan song, though some of Stein's art-rock ideas
were engaging. The band split (doubtless to the distress
of their fan club president, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, later of
Gun Club), then in '83 Stein became seriously ill with a
rare genetic disease. Harry took time out to look after
him. In the space of a few years they'd surely
experienced every emotion possible. And, somehow, had
lost all their money. By the mid-'80s Stein was
recovering, while Harry acted in films (notably David
Cronenberg's Videodrome) and relaunched her solo career,
enjoying moderate success with the likes of "French
Kissing (In The USA)" and "I Want That
So, Deborah Harry, as you sit in
London's poshest hotel with a big grin on your face and a
major album and tour ready to go: where did it all go
wrong? Did Blondie get tired of pop back then, or of each
relationships are hard. We get along a lot better now,
and Chris is my favourite person in the world and I adore
The reformed line-up includes
Harry, Stein, Destri and Burke. "Back then... I
think we exploded and imploded simultaneously somehow. It
was a very dark period for us. We wound up with no record
contract, no manager, and we all had tax problems up the
wazoo. It was just this big morass of serious, very adult
problems. All of a sudden we were standing there
Where had all the money gone? On
"Yeah, spent it on candy.
Imagine that. I think we just had bad business people
around us. Unfortunately, it's not that uncommon a story.
Sharks everywhere. We went through it."
Are you smarter now?
"I guess I'm a better judge
of people. More astute about business. The industry's
grown a little more sophisticated. It's a different
generation; perhaps not quite as ridiculously
Were you partying hard at the
"Well... I guess we had
that stage, yeah. Our drug experiences, our wild party
phase. Sure. We were touring all the time and there was
all that hysteria around us. I mean, it just sorta runs
through you, it's just part of the game, y'know? It's...
what befalls you."
Then you wise up?
"You wise up or you burn
out or you get bored. All of the above. All of these
"Everyone has regrets. I'd
be a complete idiot if I didn't have any. It would be a
miracle. Of course I have regrets! But I don't wander
around moaning about them. Or live in my 'regret area'! I
just go, aw shit, and then go on, y'know? Of course we
regret that we had business problems back then. And also
I regret not buying a lot of AT&T stock, or whatever.
"Regrets is silly stuff
when you get right down to it. Chris and I have talked
about this - was it about making money or was it about
making art and expressing ourselves? And it was never
just about one thing. As humans, and artists, we have a
lot of different needs to satisfy.
"Oh, this has all got very
serious!" she says suddenly. "Sorry, I'm
reviewing your interview. Ask something light."
Do you still go dancing?
"Yes, but not enough. I
should go more. I love dancing and I love dancing in a
deliberately screwed-up way."
Is it true that your preferred
social scene involves pervy fetish clubs?
"what?? Ha! Where'd you get
that? But yes, actually. That's where all my friends are.
So I blame my friends! And I love the fashions. They are
art. But, hey, I go to lots of different places, and I
hope I never stop. That's New York for you. It's cool.
Also I'm a voyeuress, I like to watch. But hush, not
good, don't go there at all. Be nice. I even rapped for
Was your heart really in your
"Yes, it was. NIle and
Bernard were so good on Koo Koo. With the jazz singing, I
improved immeasurably, too. But the problem was that I
was on Sire, the same label as Madonna back then, and I
think I suffered from that."
From differing degrees of
"Mmm, because my records
were actually really good."
And you took time off to nurse
Chris (the pair divorced but are still best friends).
Surely rock stars don't do unselfish things like that?
"Yes, they do. All the
time. They're always doing things for charity and
everything. What does a rock ego have to do with not
being humane? I don't understand. Being competitive or
aggressive about your career doesn't mean you have to be
less of a human being. Again, you can be like an athlete
wanting to win - doesn't mean you throw away your
You look in fantastic health.
Blooming! What's your secret?
"I'm medically well! I
don't know if I have a secret: I guess I'm minimalist,
really. I don't overdo anything. I now have minimal
tolerance for liquor, or drugs, or heavy food. I'm
basically a very intolerant person! Physically."
WHEN BLONDIE REFORMED for 1999's
No Exit album (which The Curse is much better than),
extraordinarily they tapped into such a deep wall of
affection that they rocketed straight to No 1 again with
"we'd been fluffing the
get-back-together idea since the mid-'90s, and when it
went so well - oh, God, what a fabulous moment that was.
I mean, ach, make my day! That kind of approval is
unbelievable. 'Maria' was a good song, but for my taste a
little too retro-feeling. I'd never have chosen it. So,
good thing I wasn't in charge, or nobody would have ever
known we were back! I love hip hop and rap, myself. It's
a very conservative era in America, not the most
intellectual or art-loving period, for sure. And rap gets
a lot of good subject matter in there, quite subtly.
"People are probably sick
of us by now. Still hanging around. But doing music
excites me. I love performing, even if the travelling
part sucks. I just wish the world was at peace, and that
we could go everywhere, play everywhere. But, y'know, the
pendulum always swings back."
Recent acting roles have been
alongside Christina Ricci, with Sarah Polley in a Pedro
Almodovar movie, with Peter Greenaway, and with Elijah
Wood: "I keep trying. Elijah has all these dream
sequences in the film, these sexual fantasies, and
strangely I'm one of them. What can I say? He's a healthy
What's new single "Good
Boys" all about?
"I guess it's just saying I
love bad boys. Heh heh."
And "The Tingler" is
about a spooky old movie?
"Yeah - you'd love it.
Start your homework by watching that movie. It's
psychologically curious, and pretty cheap."
What makes you tingle?
"Ooh. Ah. Good, let's go
out on a high. Lots of things. When I was very young,
Marilyn Monroe - a tragic heroine, a comedian, a sex
symbol, a fascinating, beautiful woman, a self-promoter,
whatever. Now? The music. My collection of James Dean
photographs. Painting. And realising that I've had a lot
of really extraordinary things happen to me. And that we
survived. I survived. Blondie survived. I hope something
more than the short, concise, literal version survives,
because that would make no sense at all. It's not just
about the soundbites, it's about the layers."
Good Boys and The Curse Of
Blondie are out now on Columbia.
Debbie Harry in the Big Apple
"New York's home for me,
and all my friends are there. There's a wonderful world
of culture there, but it certainly doesn't have the punk
appeal it once had, and I miss that. It's all very tidy
since Giuliani went down on his knees with a little
toothbrush and cleaned it all up. The entertainment is
too 'general public'. Now that all the strip clubs like
Billy's Topless are closed, these places on 42nd Street
that kinda had the girls doing their thing are illegal.
So you get all these strippers in mainstream Broadway
shows... it's not even under the radar, it's just not
sexy. It's lascivious, but it's not real horny, y'know?
People pretend it's funny ha ha, like they're going along
with a joke, but they won't admit they're getting turned
on. It's fake-wholesome, like the movie Chicago. It's a
whole different experience. People are strange! But LA is
even stranger. You can walk for about three blocks,
that's sorta OK, but any more than that - you're a
hooker. And that's just the guys, right. Oh, hush."
Life on the road with Blondie
"Yeah, we had some rough
tours back then. The Television one, our first ever UK
visit, was prickly. Patti Smith was with Tom Verlaine at
some point around then, and yes, there was some tension.
The tour with Iggy and David Bowie was a wild time. A
colourful mixture in more ways than one. I saw David at a
benefit for a downtown arts school in New York recently,
there with Iman. Are we still friends? Absolutely! We
kiss. Lovely person. I last saw Iggy rehearsing in LA -
he's always working, always playing. I'd love to have
seen the reunion with the Stooges guy but we had a show
the same night...
"The new song 'Hello Joe'
is about Joey Ramone. It's a tribute, about witnessing
Joey down the years, and saying his memory will never
die. He'll always be alive for me. I always loved that
band and thought Joey was... a nice person."
Album Review - page 110
Blondie - THE CURSE OF BLONDIE
Pop perfectionists follow up 1999's comeback album,
Seventeen years passed between
Blondie's sixth and seventh albums.
The eighth has taken a mere four. Even so, its protracted
gestation involved record company calamities and lost
tapes, hence the tongue-in-cheek title. Standard practice
for the New York nonpareils, whose work with long-time
cohort Craig Leon here is, despite everything, a pop
masterclass from raunch-rock to reggae to boho jazz. The
opener, "Shakedown", with Harry rapping of New
Jersey roots and witches in ditches, is so powerful and
beguiling - "signed: don't forget me, lots of
love from Adrenalin" -
that the tide's high the minute you dip your toe in.
"Good Boys" and "Undone" are
inch-perfect and sky-large. The whole thing tingles:
you're in the presence of diamond-hard greatness. They
make it sound easy.