UNCUT Magazine - November 2003
ART OF
CLASS

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... sunburned."

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 mean it...?

"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..."

Wow. Surreal.

"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, yes."

Blondie are back to make you go: 'WooH!'

"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."

Oh, c'mon!

"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...

"You think?"

Yours was the most famous of faces.

"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 yours.

"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 I do. 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 it."

You intimidated them?

"Me? Intimidate anyone? Ha! No, no. It was just not part of the scheme of things, it was seen as... not right."

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 were... conceptual."

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 strange dichotomy."

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 well Stateside).

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 Man".

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 other?

"Close personal relationships are hard. We get along a lot better now, and Chris is my favourite person in the world and I adore him."

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 legless."

Where had all the money gone? On candy?

"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 shark-like."

Were you partying hard at the time?

"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 things."

Any regrets?

"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 you."

Was your heart really in your solo career?

"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 promotion?

"Yes."

How annoying.

"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 soul."

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 "Maria".

"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 young boy."

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.

 

UNION CITY
BLUE

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."

 

WILD TIMES
WITH IGGY

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, Last Exit.

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.

CHRIS ROBERTS

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