After forty years existing as figureheads of rock, Blondie is back with a new album, a world tour and enough buzz to have snagged a number of headlining slots at the South By Southwest music festival this past March. During the 1970s, a crop of seminal rock bands burst onto the downtown New York scene, chief among them Blondie. Fronted by co-founder and lead singer Debbie Harry, the band came to embody a new era of genre-melding music, taking elements of new wave and punk, and eventually merging them with pop, rock, reggae and the soon-to-conquer disco scene. The result was a sound definitively their own. The excitement over the band’s recent rekindling should come as no surprise. Co-founder and lead singer Debbie Harry spoke exclusively to The Untitled Magazine about Blondie’s history, their reunion, their new album, and how they all but predicted today’s fusion-heavy musical soundscape.
In their four-decade history, Blondie has sold a collective 40 million records worldwide, garnering enough love and respect from the industry at large to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. Of nearly 300 inductees up to that point, only 38 were women, giving Debbie the distinct honor of being the 39th female inductee. Debbie inarguably possesses the ability to rock with the best of them. “I honestly never expected anything like that to happen, but i think ultimately it was one of the best things that did happen to Blondie because it legitimized us and i think that a lot of people take notice of that.”
Since reuniting in 1997 after a fifteen-year hiatus, during which Debbie pursued a solo career, Blondie has continued to do what they do best: put out work that captures their love for music in its most original form. In the interim years between their breakup and their reunion, the band’s influence pervaded the fabric of popular culture, spawning progeny like Garbage and No Doubt, and influencing eventual contemporaries like Madonna and Courtney Love. Even among artists whose style and sound are direct descendants of Debbie and her bandmates, Blondie occupies a specific niche in the pantheon of great rockers.
Blondie was, first and foremost, a major tenant of New York’s downtown scene, and a pillar of the growing punk movement which would soon burrow itself into the heart of the city, but the band’s various influences had a much wider scope. “We wanted to have the style of each player come through. That’s sort of what made the sound of Blondie, coupled with the sound of my voice, because we considered ourselves an urban band—a New York City band—and we felt the influence of all the different styles of music that were around in the city and we tried to incorporate what we were hearing and what we liked, so it seemed kind of obvious to us.” As for her particular musical influences, she points to the female vocalists of yore. “I got a lot of influence from R&B girl groups—that sort of real singing, and then later on moved into more of the rock thing, and there really weren’t a lot of girls to copy or emulate or imitate.” In the absence of female rock icons from which to draw inspiration, she had to pave her own way. Blondie’s humble beginnings have become the stuff of legend, with the band getting their start playing the Bowery’s seminal music space CBGB & OMFUG, and eventually helping to define the very ethos of the beloved and notorious venue. “I think we played every weekend for seven months,” Debbie says. “But it was just a hangout then. it hadn’t been popularized to any great extent. It was just a local bar, you know?”
CBGB achieved mythic status in its own right, largely thanks to its instrumental role in breaking some of the era’s biggest bands, including The Ramones, The Police and Talking Heads. Back then, superstardom didn’t come quickly or easily. According to Debbie, in the days before instant stardom and label scouting came to shape the industry, it seemed that up-and-coming bands were more often down and out. Debbie, for example, started out as a daytime waitress at the famed Playboy Bunny Club. “Our breakthrough was kind of gradual because there wasn’t a lot of interest in the early days,” she says. “Everybody wanted to record and everybody wanted to move up and into the music business, but at that point there really was no interest from any labels or managers.” Debbie saw a positive side to that reality. “It definitely gave everybody a chance to sort of get their shit together, as it were.”
The endless series of live shows helped Blondie develop their downtown following, but the band’s founding members, Debbie and Chris Stein, were no strangers to the city’s music scene. “I was in a girl group called the Stilettos, and later on Chris joined and at that point…we sort of branched off and decided we wanted to do more of a rock thing,” she says. From there, Debbie and Chris made a point of unifying different sounds previously considered unconventional. “We brought in the synthesizers because that was a relatively new thing at that point…We got Jimmy Destri to play keyboards and synthesizers. I think that that’s what really cemented our sound.”
Blondie’s musical aesthetic has both evolved and endured, consistently sounding fresh even with its historical context firmly in place. Much of this, Debbie says, is thanks to a desire to break through long-established barriers that at the time prevented artists from experimenting across genres. “Everybody was really sort of sectioned off into either straight rock or straight reggae, or they were straight pop,” she remembers. “We sort of mixed it up a little bit.” Debbie gives credit where credit is due, noting that it was Chris’s intuition to experiment that pushed their sound into the forefront of music culture, irrespective of its unconventional appearance to the mainstream.
It was those days at CBGB, as well as Debbie’s presence in the era’s most beloved hotspots (like Max’s Kansas City) that got the band signed to Private Stock Records, who eventually released their self -titled debut in December of 1976. Poor sales and tepid interest from the industry prompted the band to buy out their original contract, and led to their signing with Chrysalis Records. They re-released their first album the following October, and found that their eclectic styles and sounds were finally striking a chord with some of the era’s most revered critics. Rolling Stone compared the band to Phil Spector and The Who, going on to say Debbie had “a bombshell zombie’s voice that can sound dreamily seductive and woodenly Mansonite within the same song.”
Yet it wasn’t until the decade’s end that the band would see mainstream interest intensify. Their third album, 1978’s Parallel Lines, proved to push their sound into increasingly progressive directions, most notably in their worldwide hit “Heart of Glass.” The song topped UK charts in February of 1979 and US charts the following April, and was hailed as the band’s first iconic blending of reggae and disco—the amalgam that would go on to define their sound most ubiquitously. 1980’s “Rapture,” from the band’s fifth studio album, Autoamerican, would receive similar praise for its forward-leaning aesthetic.
For Debbie, these songs are exemplary of their catalogue not simply because of their success on international charts, but because they prophesized musical trends in the decades following. “They were the early crossovers, and they were, I think, instrumental in shaping what people did in the future.” For “Rapture,” Debbie and her bandmates practiced what their music preached by immersing themselves in the various scenes that influenced them sonically. “We made friends with some of the graffiti kids and got influenced by live performances that we saw,” she says. “Also from some of the early recordings of Sugarhill and Grandmaster Flash.”
With hip-hop still a decade from becoming mainstream, the cultural mash-up represented in their music may have had some scratching their heads, but the band found the aesthetic and sonic blend a natural pairing. “Rapture” became one of the era’s first lyrically-driven rap songs, and for Debbie, that was a major push towards the genre’s legitimacy in the mainstream. “I think that what we did was of real importance to the whole rap thing, because until then it had been about scratching and using tracks from other bands. Ours was the first rap song to have its own music that was written specifically to surround a rap.”
It’s this emphasis on freshness and innovation that has allowed Blondie to thrive well into the 21st century. Now, as their 40th anniversary approaches and the band gears up for a new set of releases, their music seems more relevant than ever, thanks in large part to a rapidly diversifying mainstream sound that has Debbie herself experiencing a new series of “firsts” in her live performances. Their SXSW showcases this March showed firsthand just how much culture has evolved past the genre insularity Blondie and its contemporaries helped change. “It’s kind of nutty, I can’t believe what goes on,” she says of the Austin, Texas music scene. “It’s kind of insane but it’s really good. I think the premise is really great. We did three really divergent shows, but I think the audience blend down there is really healthy.”
For Debbie, festivals like SXSW represent the encouraging changes that have occurred in the music industry since Blondie’s rise to fame. “There’s avenues of creativity that didn’t exist previously. I always say to young bands or young musicians that playing live is essential to your development and honing your craft…You have to survive. You have to make a living.” She urges these upstarts to ignore detractors. “People went crazy when Bob Dylan went electric; he was threatened. There were death threats. Anytime there’s any sort of radical change that comes along it’s really met with a lot of resistance. I think nowadays people are a little bit more open-minded because we have so much exposure to so many things.”
After years at the forefront of genre fusion, it seems that the music scene has finally caught up to Blondie. Yet the band’s penchant for experimentation shows no signs of slowing down, with Debbie describing their upcoming album, Ghosts of Download, as having a Latin influence that builds off sounds both familiar and new. “Chris has been very interested in cumbia and reggaeton,” she says. “I think that this is an ongoing influence, because he has always tried to incorporate some of these rhythms.” Debbie is first to admit that much of Blondie’s signature sound has been the result of her former partner’s sonic sensibilities, citing that he “really has a great feeling for swing – not a traditional swing, but sort of a Latin or reggae feel.” This desire to explore the non-traditional is precisely why today’s artists are still banging on Blondie’s door. Their new album features multiple guest appearances, including Gossip frontwoman and icon in her own right, Beth Ditto. “Everybody knows Beth and knows Gossip and what a wonderful singer she is,” Debbie says, describing the collaboration as natural and as easy as it comes. “We reached out to her, and she just said ‘Yes.’”
Along with Blondie’s New York, a documentary slated to air on the Smithsonian Channel late August, fans seem to have no shortage of things to look forward to. The band is about to embark on a world tour to support their tenth studio album, which began with a headlining spot at the world famous Glastonbury Music Festival in England last June. They will release their new, full-length album as part of a two-disc set honoring their four-decade-long career. Blondie 4(0)Ever features the new album Ghosts Of Download, as well as a live performance from a 1977 show at CBGBs, and a Greatest Hits disc featuring some of the band’s original records as well as newly recorded renditions of classics. “They are the original songs, and they’re faithfully reproduced, but we wanted to just do a fresher version,” she says. “I’m very excited about that whole package.”
The record itself will prove to be an artifact of New York’s most quintessential era, with album artwork by none other than Andy Warhol. “It’s a beautiful image,” Debbie says. “Andy told me verbally that I could use it as an album cover, but I never had it in writing, so we had to sort of go through the foundation again and re-negotiate the whole thing.” The legwork proved worth it; as Debbie sees it, linking one of the 20th Century’s most prolific figures as to the band’s 40th anniversary release captures what their music strives to harness—namely, the bustling creative energy that helped define the era. “It’s indicative of the time period, that portrait. It was done in 1980, 1981, which was the high point right before the band broke up, so we thought that it was appropriate for that.”
The album also features songs that fans have been hearing for the better part of a year at the one-off concerts they’ve played, most notably a cover of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s classic “Relax,” which has become a fan favorite at their shows. “We were doing the song live as part of our encore, and when we got in the studio, we thought, well, since everybody knows it, we should just record it… our producer, Jeff Saltzman said ‘well you know, we should really try to do something different with it, so why don’t we make it a ballad.’ So we started out making it much more sinister—kind of menacing,” she says. “It’s such a universal song. I mean everybody in the world knows that song. It’s kind of amazing and it’s gone way beyond the club kids.” Those club kids have grown up, but newer generations are sure to respond to Blondie’s well-established legacy. Blondie’s 40th anniversary may signal their transition into legendary status to some, but to Debbie the band is still made up of outsiders looking for a home beyond the parameters of the establishment. The days between their endless weekends on the dilapidated stage of CBGB and their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held major milestones and accomplishments, yet taken together they tell a singular story about a band ceaselessly fascinated by new sounds.
“It certainly hasn’t been all fun and games, or an easy trip… I think there’s been a consistency in thinking ‘oh what the hell, what am I doing? And why am i doing it?’” The ability to overcome challenges, though, is the attribute Debbie points to that makes someone legendary. “It’s people that… continue regardless, come hell or high water…” Debbie says. “We’ve definitely had our ups and downs, and I think this sounds kind of strange, but because we came from sort of this anti-social, kind of punk scene, we’ve had to fight for our position.” That eternal underdog role that Debbie inhabits has gone a long way in establishing her as one of rock’s most iconic figures, and has helped make Blondie one of the most prolific, genre-bending projects in contemporary music. Yet to Debbie, the most successful element of a 40-year career has been staying true to the band she formed all those years ago. “Of course there are a million things I would do differently but it’s all in hindsight so it’s practically valueless, really… I can’t regret anything because I’m still working and still doing what I love.”
Debbie Harry interview by Indira Cesarine for The “Legendary” Issue 7