weekend - 23rd January 1999
Magazine supplement that came free with The Guardian newspaper
Pages 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 15
After 16 years' absence, Blondie are back where they began - on the road and playing in small halls for slim pickings. The hate that made the band split is long forgotten, audiences are as ecstatic as ever, and Debbie Harry, icon of cool, is still the embodiment of blonde ambition. Life is good, they tell Paul Burston. Main photograph by Chris Floyd
Debbie Harry is debating whether to buy a shirt she has seen in Joseph. "It's really beautiful," she sighs, running a gentle hand over her bleached-blond tresses and smiling happily. It's a smile so wide it looks almost painful, a smile so familiar it immediately brings back memories of school discos, skinny ties and Heart Of Glass. Then it's gone. She frowns, and fixes me with those sleepy, blue eyes. "But, y'know what?" she says. "It's very expensive. I'm not sure. What would you do?"
I tell her that I would probably buy it now and worry about it later, and she snorts with laughter. "He's a great believer in that," she says, gesturing towards Chris Stein, who is sitting to her right. Stein has been at Harry's right-hand side, on and off, for the best part of 25 years - first as her live-in boyfriend and co-founder of Blondie, then as an occasional songwriting partner during her solo career. More recently, he has been the driving force behind the much-publicised Blondie reunion. Naturally, she takes a lot of notice of what he thinks.
"I think you should buy it," says Chris in a voice that sounds like Woody Allen at full speed. "You never know what could happen. You could die in a minute. A meteor could come through this ceiling and kill you right now."
"That's so true!" Debbie says, becoming animated. "Y'know, I gotta tell you. I was in Amsterdam, and the damned hotel was struck by lightning! While I was there! I was sitting there, in an atrium just like this, in the best hotel in Amsterdam, and it was hit by a lightning bolt. And I felt it! It sorta went wah! And then whoosh!"
"I was walking through Central Park once," Chris announces. "It was raining, and I had an umbrella, and a lightning bolt hit very near me. And that was exciting. The air crackled, and I felt like a kinda shock. It was really exciting. People have their psychic abilities kicked up a lot when they're hit by lightning. I wouldn't mind doing it."
But, by now, Debbie has lost interest. Without warning, the original silky-smooth, ambitious blonde pop goddess, now 53, brandishes her soup spoon and waves it in the air. "No profiteroles for you!" she shouts in a strange German accent, stabbing away furiously. "No profiteroles for yoooo!" On the opposite side of the table, Jimmy Destri, the keyboard player, pats his stomach guiltily and confesses that, yes, he is supposed to be on a diet.
It's Saturday afternoon at Conran's Bibendum restaurant on London's Fulham Road, and Blondie are in high spirits. Last night, the band were honoured for their lifetime contribution to the music industry at the Q Magazine Awards.
"It was wonderful," says drummer Clem Burke.
"It was great," Debbie agrees. "Very straightforward. They were concentrating on the awards, not making it into a TV show. Unlike the US, where everything is a TV show and it just drags on and on. But this was very down to business. So there was some spontaneity to it."
"And I do find Q to be a very credible magazine," Clem chips in.
Chris looks confused. "Really? I've never heard of it."
Debbie slams her soup spoon down on the table and laughs. "Q?" she says incredulously. "You've never heard of Q?"
Chris shrugs. "I'm not in the loop, you know."
For the awards ceremony, Debbie wore a skin-tight black dress covered with razor blades - because, she says, "fashion should always be a little dangerous". And she ought to know, better than anyone. This is the only woman who ever looked good in a Day-Glo yellow jumpsuit, the same woman who once sported a rather fetching dustbin liner and very little else for the video they made to promote the single Atomic. Today, she's opted for something slightly more demure - a blue check two-piece, complete with bum-bag and chunky boots.
"Still, it was nice what they said in the paper today," Chris says.
"Really?" Debbie asks. "What did they say?"
"Oh, you know. That we had been cruelly overlooked, and all this shit."
Debbie catches my eye and giggles nervously. "Really?" she says. "Is that what they said? About us? Ha ha ha ha!"
It's hard to imagine that anyone could have overlooked Blondie in their heyday. Between 1978 and 1981, they clocked up five number-one singles in Britain (Heart Of Glass, Sunday Girl, Atomic, Call Me, The Tide Is High), plus a string of top-20 hits that guaranteed their place in pop history (Denis, Picture This, Hanging On The Telephone, Union City Blue). Their musical range was extraordinary, combining the sweet sounds of Sixties girl bands and surf music with the harsher elements of New York punk, disco, reggae and rap. Although nobody thanked them for it at the time, Blondie were the first to introduce rap music to a mainstream, white audience with their 1980 American chart-topper, Rapture. What's more, they pulled off a difficult balancing act, somehow managing to be both spectacularly popular and extremely hip at the same time. Posters of Debbie adorned bedroom walls everywhere. She was even guest of honour on the Muppet Show, which was about as big as anyone got in those days. On the other hand, Blondie were Andy Warhol's favourite group, and close cohorts of such well-known arbiters of cool as David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith. You could say they were the original pop-art group.
The Blondie story began in 1974, when art student Chris Stein met former Kansas City waitress and one-time Playboy bunny Debbie Harry. In 1975, they were joined by Clem Burke and Jimmy Destri, and started playing the New York downtown circuit centred on the legendary CBGBs club, where bands as diverse as the Ramones, Talking Heads, the New York Dolls and Television would draw small but loyal crowds. "The initial CBGBs scene involved about a hundred people," recalls Clem. "There was a real sense of solidarity. Then as time went on, it became a business. People started to feel a real animosity towards one another about who was going to make it."
Nobody seriously expected Blondie to be the ones who made it big. When it started to look as if they might just be in with a chance, some people accused them of selling out. "Which was ridiculous," says Clem. "Our whole aesthetic was about being successful. It was more analogous with Andy Warhol on a way, mixing art and commerce together. 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. It was about finding a common denominator, which is also what Blondie has always been about in a way. Some people at CBGBs had more artistic pretensions, which we had, too, of course. But we were also very focused on the commercial aspect of it."
And nobody more so than Debbie Harry. An adopted child who grew up in New Jersey dreaming that her real mother was none other than Marilyn Monroe, she was hungry for attention from the outset. She had previously been a member of an all-girl trio called The Stilettoes, and a large part of Blondie's commercial success was centred on her sexually upfront stage persona. So too was much of the criticism that followed. Long before Madonna started flaunting her underwear and offering to teach us about sex, Debbie was going on stage without any knickers, acting out the part of the sexually assertive, blonde bombshell, and being condemned for it.
"All the things that Debbie got rapped for are really commonplace now," Clem says. "To be a beautiful woman, and to play rock music, and to use her sexuality like that - people really came down hard on her. I remember there was one picture of Debbie with her tongue sticking out, licking a record. That caused so much trouble."
"I did it all very consciously," Debbie asserts. "I wanted to inject some of that film-star glamour. And I didn't want to be portrayed as a victim. I felt that a lot of women in music sang songs about being victimised. I mean, I love Janis Joplin, and I love a lot of the old soul singers, but I really didn't want to do that. I'd had enough, y'know? So it just seemed, especially since I was in front of a rock band, and especially a rock band of all men, like the perfect opportunity to sing songs that were a little more playful about the situation. At the end of the day, it is all about the war between the sexes. But I wanted to be more playful about it. And also to sing in the third person, like with Sunday Girl. It was more like telling a story. My training, or my initiation into singing, came from this man I knew in New York who was a director and who taught Method acting. We worked together for a while, and he got me into this whole Method thing. I really applied that to what I was doing on stage. It gave me an additional fuel, that I had all these points of view that I could play with. I think that distance is what gave it that extra aggression."
Ultimately, it is also what led to Blondie's untimely demise. Slowly but surely, the distance between the real Debbie and the persona she adopted on stage created a distance between her and the rest of the band. People began to assume that Blondie was simply Debbie's alter-ego, that Debbie was Blondie, and that Chris, Clem and Jimmy (and, later, guitarist Frank Infante and bass player Nigel Harrison) were little more than backing musicians - despite the fact that they all shared the songwriting credits.
By the time Blondie released their fourth album, Eat To The Beat, in 1979, ardent fans had taken to wearing button badges proclaiming "Blondie Is A Group". But, by then, it was already too late. The band's 1980 offering, Autoamerican, was quickly followed by Debbie's first solo album, Koo Koo, sparking rumours that Blondie were about to split. In the event, they battled on for two more years, releasing their sixth and last album, The Hunter, in 1982 before internal tensions drove them apart.
By this time, Chris had fallen ill with a rare and often fatal genetic disease known as pemphigus. The story goes that Debbie spent the next few years putting her career on hold while she nursed Chris back to health - although later she would tell a journalist that rumours of her sainthood during this period had been "greatly exaggerated". Clem enjoyed a brief stint with the Eurythmics, while the rest of the band drifted into obscurity.
Debbie is the first to admit that the past 17 years haven't seen her reach quite the same heights she achieved with Blondie. Still, she didn't exactly sit around waiting for something to happen. She made a few inroads as an actress, most memorably as the deranged mother in John Waters' Fifties retro-kitsch film Hairspray. And she had some success as a solo recording artist with hits such as French Kissing In The USA and I Want That Man.
"But I was sort of on the B-list," she says. "I mean, French Kissing was a massive hit, but my relationship with Warners was really over by then. They were too busy pushing some other blonde. I felt overshadowed by their commitment to Madonna, and this feeling that I was being viewed as some sort of competitive thing that they couldn't devote much time or energy to. Those songs sort of happened on their own. They weren't really promoted." She claims not to feel any real resentment towards Madonna, despite the fact that Madonna effectively stole her act. "But she did it so well," she says, without a trace of bitterness, or even a hint of sarcasm. "She's a very smart woman, actually. I really respect her."
By the mid-Nineties, Harry had more or less turned her back on pop, settling for the role of featured vocalist with the contemporary free-jazz outfit the Jazz Passengers. "I think I've been kind of lucky with that. I've had the chance to do a bit of experimentation, retreat from the spotlight of being a pop star, and just work as a singer and as an artist. Working with the Jazz Passengers is like what CBGBs offered to all of us in the beginning, sort of a workshop to experiment in. All artists need to hide behind closed doors sometimes." Still, when people started turning up at Jazz Passengers gigs dressed in faded Blondie T-shirts, she couldn't resist the thrill of nostalgia. "It was wonderful," she says dreamily.
Somewhere along the way, she started calling herself Deborah ("I thought I was getting too old for Debbie"), and developed a reputation for being rather eccentric. In fact, reading some of the interviews she's given over the years, you could be forgiven for thinking that she was stark raving mad. She once spent an entire interview trying to slip the word "masterbation" into the conversation as many times as possible. On another occasion, and for no obvious reason, she challenged the man interviewing her to a fist fight - over the telephone. "But I say these things as jokes, y'know. Some of the people they send to interview you are so straight. I say these things to amuse myself, and then they start scribbling them down." So it isn't true that she once planned to run away with Patti Smith and live in a lesbian commune?
"I do live in a lesbian commune," she says, trying her best to sound convincing. "Write that down. Debbie Harry lives in a lesbian commune." Moments later, she starts howling like a dog, before announcing that she recently made a film about bestiality called Zoo. I'm not sure whether to believe her. "You have a dog, don't you?" I say, nervously. "Oh yeah," she replies. "I have a dog. A lovely dog called Chi Chi. She's a lap dog. She sits right on my crotch. Just like a big penis."
She admits that some of the things written about her over the years have got to her. "A few things have upset me, and that's when I've been at the end of my emotional tether. I mean, I get depressed about it all sometimes." But surely, after all these years, she must be used to the pressures of being famous? "Well, I've sort of been out of the game for a while," she drawls. "But I see stuff in the paper, and I have a good laugh. Stuff about Geri and the Spice Girls. All the stuff about royalty in this country. And Clinton, of course. It's like, 'Oh my god!' But yeah, I suppose it's great to be back in the hot seat. It keeps your ass warm."
Today, Debbie Harry's ass is warmer than it has been in a long time. The idea of a Blondie reunion was first suggested to her by Chris Stein three years ago. Debbie took some convincing at first, but now that things are up and running, she says she couldn't be happier. She's happy to be back in Britain, where Blondie enjoyed such widespread popularity that first time around and where she feels she has always been given a fair hearing. "It's a good feeling," she says brightly. "Not bad. Doesn't hurt." She's happy to be going back on the road with Chris, Clem and Jimmy. (Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison were excluded from the reunion plans, and are currently contesting the decision in court.)
Most of all, she's happy to talk about the new Blondie album, No Exit. It is, she thinks, a very good record, a fitting continuation of the Blondie story. If anything, No Exit sounds like the album Blondie should have made after Autoamerican, but didn't. And because Blondie's influence can be heard just about everywhere these days, especially in bands such as Garbage and
Republica, the album sounds contemporary.
But doesn't it worry her that people are bound to measure it against former glories, that a band with Blondie's track record are destined to be forever haunted by their past? "Not at all. What's really kind of interesting is that when we did those records, we created a formula that went on to be sort of a standard in the industry. But, at the time, when we handed in those records, often they were rejected. What I think we've done on this record is the best, the essence, or the most powerful versions of all the things we have stood for and done in the past. It's the ultimate Blondie record."
And the title? "The title came from Clem," she explains. "Well, it came from Jean Paul Sartre. But Clem appropriated it."
"'Hell is other people'," Chris says, quoting from the Sartre play No Exit. "I think that really defines what it's like being in a rock and roll band."
Of course, they are all willing to admit that there was a time when hell was other members of Blondie. "I can't speak for everyone," Debbie says, choosing her words carefully, "but Chris and I were certainly estranged for a while." In the past, she has been less tactful about the split, saying that "hate had a lot to do with it".
Still, all that is in the past now. "I think everybody's enjoying it a lot more this time around," says Chris. "Coming back into it, I think we all know what's involved. The first time around, you don't know what a pain in the ass it can all be. Looking back, I think we really took it for granted. We thought we had all the answers. When you're a kid, you think you know everything."
Only, they weren't exactly kids. Chris was 30 when Blondie notched up their first number-one single. And when Debbie sang Die Young, Stay Pretty, one of the classic cuts from the Eat To The Beat album, it wasn't without some sense of irony. She was 34 at the time. Ironically enough, this does the reunited Blondie no harm whatsoever. Unlike the recent Sex Pistols reunion tour, nobody is going along expecting Blondie to act like disaffected 20-year-olds. In an odd way, time is on their side. Besides, Debbie has little time for people who suggest that she is getting too old for this game. "I just get better at it," she says firmly. "Right now, I am better than ever. Why shouldn't I be? It's the same thing I resisted before, about being considered a victim. It's all about traditional roles. But they are changing. Look around. It's a radically changing world."
"No Exit is simply the next Blondie record," says Clem. "It just took 16 years to make, that's all. And we're very fortunate to have Debbie here to convey the whole thing."
Hearing this, Debbie blushes slightly, rolls her eyes and lets out a little laugh. "You're right about that!," she says. "You're damned right!"
Three weeks have gone by, and I'm waiting for Blondie to arrive at the studio where the photoshoot is to take place. For Debbie and the others, it's been a hectic three weeks. They have performed in no fewer than nine different European countries. Reviews of the tour have been extremely encouraging. On the other hand, their schedule has been little short of punishing, involving long hauls through the night on the tour bus with very little sleep.
Two hours later, there is a slight commotion outside and Chris walks in, closely followed by Clem and Jimmy. They all disappear to a dressing room. Another five minutes pass before Debbie wanders in, dressed in a leather pirate coat and biker boots, with a scarf wrapped tightly around her head.
"How are you?" I ask.
"Beat," she answers quickly. It turned out that two days ago, Blondie were on a plane from Dublin, destined for Glasgow. Halfway across the Irish sea, the plane developed a technical fault and was diverted back to Dublin, where they were told there would be a slight delay and offered the usual - food vouchers. This "slight delay" turned into seven hours, by which time Debbie had fallen asleep in the airport departure lounge.
Later, with Chris again at her side, she re-enacts the scene, sprawling across the nearest chair, head hanging back, mouth open. "I was probably drooling as well," she giggles.
"The thing is, we're on a tight budget," Debbie explains. "Regardless of all the exposure and all the interest, it's been small halls and not a lot of money. We're doing this in a very traditional fashion." The way she describes it, it sounds as thought it's only the adrenaline from the shows that has kept them all going. "It really has been extraordinarily good," she says. "I just can't believe it. And the audiences have been right there with us. In Scotland, they sang along to everything, except the new songs. And they even tried to sing along to them."
"Last night, they all started singing Union City Blue before she opened her mouth," says Chris.
"They sang over the guitar intro," says Debbie. "These guys usually frown at me when I do that, but they let the audience get away with it. But y'know, if we never do anything again after this, it'll be fine. We decided very early on to document it all ourselves, so we're filming everything as we go along. So, if we never do it again, we've always got that."
At this point, Clem and Jimmy reappear, dressed and ready for their close-up. (Debbie has insisted on doing her own hair and make-up, although she does consent to a little retouching). Jimmy is describing an episode that occurred five days ago at the Campione d'Italia, near Lugano. The band had won an Italian entertainment award, and were invited to perform in the middle of a casino, before an invited audience of film and music industry executives all dressed in dinner suits. "It was like being in a Fellini film," Jimmy says. "We did a lip synch, which we're very loath to do as a rule." He points at Clem. "For some reason, this idiot decides to hop over the drums. So he hops over his drum kit, doing his middle-aged Keith Moon, and knocks down our bass player, who he picks up by the collar. By now he's in his 1977 'I'm a punk rocker' vibe. So he goes out into the audience, picks up a chair, and starts swinging it above his head. And there's this little Italian guy, who must have been a film producer or something, and he's screaming, 'No! no! no!'"
"He's exaggerating," Clem says. "I just freaked out a little, that's all."
"The food was amazing," Jimmy says. "There was lobster, all these amazing sauces, profiteroles..."
So Jimmy finally got his profiteroles?
"Oh yeah," he says, grinning. "I went through the whole thing just eating."
As soon as the photo-shoot is over, Debbie lights up a cigarette. As a rule, she allows herself only one cigarette a day when she's performing, but since today is her first day off in almost a week she has upped it to three. Still, she feels guilty - she has a show to do tomorrow.
Chris, Clem and Jimmy are discussing where to go for dinner. Clem suggests going to the Groucho Club afterwards. Debbie groans at the thought. She has some friends visiting from New York, and would really like to spend some time with them, but thinks she'll probably just go back to her hotel and have an early night.
"I'll just tuck myself," she says. "I'll tuck into some food, and then tuck myself up in bed." She laughs. " double tuck! I'm gonna have a double tuck!"
As she prepares to leave, I compliment her on her leather pirate coat. "It's cool, isn't it," she says happily, hugging the coat against her body and swinging her hips from side to side. "I bought it in Berlin. This shop has two branches - one in Berlin and one in Miami. Figure that out. But you know what? It just gets better the older it gets. It's a bit more chewed up, a bit more funky."
The following night, an older, funkier Debbie Harry struts out on to the stage at London's Lyceum Theatre, dressed in a sharp tailored jacket and slinky pencil skirt. She has the audience in the palm of her hand right from the opening bars of Dreaming, but she doesn't take anything for granted. She's been around long enough to know better than that. Behind her, supported by a second guitarist and a new bass player, the original pop art, New Wave punk rockers storm through their back catalogue like the seasoned professionals they are, whipping the mostly thirty-something crowd into a frenzy. And, sure enough, even the new songs are met with pockets of wild applause.
Afterwards, there's a small celebration back stage. I spot Jimmy first. He tells me he isn't at all happy with the show, that the sound was awful. "We'll have to do a proper sound-check tomorrow," he says. Clem and Chris arrive together, looking mournful. Evidently they're not very happy either.
Finally, Debbie walks in, dressed in the outfit she wore for yesterday's photo-shoot, and surrounded by a host of admirers. Saffron, the lead singer with Republica, is hovering close by, autograph book at the ready. Debbie stops and chats with her for a while, before turning to me. Her face is expressionless, almost glacial. "So what did you think of the show?" she asks. I tell her it sounded great from where I was sitting.
"That's good," she says, rolling her eyes and heaving a sigh of relief. "I need to hear that."
Something tells me that she isn't entirely convinced, which seems rather a shame. Because, tonight, Blondie proved that they can still make it magnificent - even if only for a short while.
No Exit is released on February 15. To reserve a copy for £14.99, plus 99p p&p, call our free credit-card hotline 0500 500102, or send a cheque to Guardian CultureShop, 250 Western Avenue, London W3 6EE.