During the late 1970s and early ’80s, Debbie Harry was one of the most recognisable faces in music – an icon of the post-punk pop era famed for her stylish image, sharp lyrics and the innovative sounds of Blondie, the band she founded with then-boyfriend and songwriting partner Chris Stein.
Blondie emerged from the New York punk scene in the mid-1970s, but they were never an average punk band. Inspired by the city’s famous musical melting pot and visits to clubs where the music spanned disco and, later, early hip-hop, Harry and Stein wrote distinctive songs that captured the zeitgeist. International acclaim followed, with songs such as “Atomic,” “Hanging On The Telephone,” “Atomic” and “Heart of Glass” all becoming hits. Famously, Harry also became the first “rapper” to score a number-one hit thanks to the band’s 1981 single, “Rapture,” which was famously inspired by visits to Bronx block parties and the emerging hip-hop scene.
Although the original members of Blondie went their separate ways in 1982, the band reunited in 1997, leading to the 1999 release of comeback album No Exit. The band remains active to this day, with their most recent album, Pollinator, appearing in the spring of 2017.
In 2014, Harry spoke to journalist and author Bill Brewster about the band’s latest full-length excursion, Ghosts Of Download, unlikely collaborations and the original new wave scene in New York City.
So tell me about the new album, Ghosts of Download.
It’s terrific. I love it. There have been a lot of contributors to this one, probably more than any other Blondie album before. Lots of different writers. Basically, the musicianship was the Blondie group, but there might have been some additional stuff that our producer Jeff Saltzman put on in San Francisco.
The thing that’s interesting about this one is that it’s been done just through the internet. It was a very computerised delivery – not necessarily the music on it but the way that we did it. We didn’t all get together and live in an area and go into the studio every day. Chris would build up the tracks and then he’d send things off to the producer and the producer would fiddle around with it and back and forth, that kind of thing.
And how does that work creatively? How does it feel from a creative point of view?
It feels fine, actually. It feels pretty much the same for me, because I always get the track sent to me either on a CD or online. I would mull them over, Chris would maybe suggest a melody line or I would add to it or something, work on some kind of a lyric and then send that back, so it’s pretty much the same for me. At the end when all the tracks were done I’d go and put on some vocals.
And how would it be finished?
Oh, he would do that in the studio.
You’ve used a lot of modern dance music techniques to make this and the last album. Is that a conscious thing?
Well, you know, I guess it is. We’ve always admitted to being inspired by our peers and what’s happening. We’re very urban and open-minded listeners. I think it’s not that you’re copying somebody, but the stuff just seeps in. So when you have an idea you think, “I like that,” and then it carries through and becomes part of your thinking.
You do have to be careful not to copy somebody. You think you’re coming up with something original but you’ve actually heard it somewhere before. But I’m not responsible for that. I only wrote one song on this album! So I’m pretty safe.
But New York is such a musical city, you have all these ideas and directions and sounds coming at you all the time. It must have some sort of influence on the music you make.
I don’t know. Growing up that way is one thing, but it’s the state of the world now.
In what sense?
Any kind of music is available instantly.
Is that a good or a bad thing?
I think it’s great.
What music inspires you now?
Well, I listen to music mostly in the car. I really like it there. I put on music when I have people or friends over, but when I’m running round the apartment doing things I don’t like having music on in the background. I like to listen to music. In that sense I listen to whatever’s on the radio. I surf. We have the satellite stations.
Do you still buy music? Do you download?
Occasionally. I have friends who are DJs who say “Listen to this,” or “Listen to that.” I go out, I go to clubs and if I hear something [I might find out what it is]. I’m lazy, I think!
I’m assuming the song “Mother” from your last album [Panic Of Girls] was not about your mum but about the New York club that was opened by Johnny Dynell?
It’s something that I loved and I was bereft when they closed it. And actually, this lyric happens so beautifully that I just think it’s completely succinct and embodied what the club was about. Not in extended detail, but “in a patent-leather life” sums it all up.
I’m assuming you went to the Jackie 60 parties [which took place there] as well, which was a bit before my time [in New York].
I went from the beginning and performed there. It was fun and a great thing. When Mother closed I was really, honestly… It was terrible.
How does it feel in New York now that it has been made a lot safer and more expensive?
Well, you know, I think New York has that tradition of being some kind of a centre for communications and arts. Granted, it has greatly changed and expanded. NYU [New York University] has practically taken over the Lower East Side. But I sort of have faith in the tradition that New York will always excite people to come there, to look for people that are like themselves and do the communications thing or the arts thing.
We were real Anglophiles. There was definitely some sort of symbiotic relationship between New York and London.
For a lot of artists, it’s the only place they can come in the US that makes any sense. Although there are some great galleries in Los Angeles, you know, it’s spoiled in a way. It’s so expensive that you can’t afford to live there unless you share an apartment with a couple of people. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. It has spread out to Williamsburg and Bushwick and places like that.
If Blondie was starting out now do you think they would be living in Manhattan?
Don’t know, can’t say. I think if Blondie were starting off now, we’d probably all just go into computers [laughs]. I dunno, we used to say that in the past because the music business is so dire, but as musicians we’d probably be keen on playing. But starting out now? I don’t know.
Is that what drives you now as an artist, irrespective of an audience?
That’s the fun thing. It’s really satisfying. We like playing and having fun with a lyric that you can play with.
Do you feel under less pressure now than when you had number-one singles and the record company breathing down your neck?
We’re our own worst critics – or best critics. We know when something is good.
Did you feel pressure from record companies?
Occasionally we’d hear a voice that said, “We want another ‘Heart Of Glass,’” or, “We want another ‘Atomic.’” You can hear artists that have tried to replicate one of their hits. It’s never a good idea. It always sounds like a watered-down version.
I don’t think we’ve ever had that kind of ambition or reputation. We’ve always tried to move out and stretch out and I think this album is more of the same thing like that. Chris has been very influenced by some of the Latin beats and rhythms. We also have our keyboard player and he’s a real pop songwriter. We work purposely with him and the Blondie history and he’s written some really great songs. We have collaborated with quite a few people on this, like Los Rakas from Oakland.
Is that one called “I Screwed Up”?
Yes. And then there’s “Sugar On The Side” with Systema Solar and I did that song “Mile High” with Hector Fonesca. He’s a Brazilian DJ. He had a gig and brought the music down at this big rave party where he got the whole audience to sing the “oh’s,” which was just fabulous.
I think we met at the studio when I was working on the vocals. Jeff [Saltzman] said, “Why don’t you make up a song?” I said, “I don’t play an instrument,” and he replied, “Well, if you have any musical lines call me up and put them on my voicemail.” So I did, just three different lines. Then he came back to me and organised them. It was very simple.
Tell me about your partnership with Chris [Stein].
Well, we can’t stand each other. I guess he’s my best friend. I love him dearly. We get it off. And somehow it’s a good balance. It’s effortless.
Has it always been like that over the years?
I think there have been some rough patches and there was a little bit of estrangement when we first split up, but I think both of us were pretty stressed out by that point. We talk every day. He’s a great guy.
Who made the decision to get Blondie back together?
It was his actually. It wasn’t mine. It felt like it had had its day, but he felt that if we didn’t put it back together at some point [it would be a bad thing]. I think he was encouraged by this guy who worked for a management company. He introduced us to [the manager] Allen Kovac and he reassured us and was interested. He specialized in dealing with old contractual problems with bands.
Can you tell me about the first days you started playing at CBGBs and the atmosphere in New York around that time?
It was very fun. There was nothing precious about it. It wasn’t about the money, it was about getting your shit together, basically.
What was your relationship with other bands? Was it a cooperative situation?
In some ways it was, in some ways not. There was competition. It was kind of natural, you know. You liked certain people and you disliked others. It was just a bunch of people trying to make music. The credit should go to Hilly Kristal for allowing bands to play original music and that was probably one of the few places where you could do it.
There was another bar called Monty Python, but CBGBs became this mecca for bands who wanted to do their own material. Eventually Max’s Kansas City opened up as the second one, but by then the ball was rolling. There were bands that were formed and established, though not necessarily as recording artists.
I saw you play at Hammersmith Odeon in London with Television. It must have been a big breakthrough that tour, because suddenly you were playing in front of big audiences.
Sure, it was a big breakthrough. We were real Anglophiles. [The musician] Wilko Johnson came over to New York when the Dr. Feelgood album came out and their success was a real boost, you know. So there was definitely some sort of symbiotic relationship between New York and London.
I know Chris was really influenced by glam bands. I’m wondering whether Mike Chapman’s background in glam was a reason for choosing him [as producer for early Blondie albums]?
We didn’t choose Mike. He moved over to Hollywood and we were playing at the Whisky [a Go Go] for weeks. [Produer] Terry Ellis said [to Mike], “Oh, you gotta come and see this band – I want you to produce them.” So he came over and he said he’d never laughed so hard in his life, so he felt he had to do it. But he was so experienced at making songs and he was such a good songwriter. He made us much more focused. He was strict in the studio about recording techniques, so we all had to knuckle down and work a little harder. He was used to making songs that sounded good on the radio.
And the way the songs seemed to respond to different feels and styles, like “Rapture” and hip-hop, “Heart Of Glass” and disco...
No, that was Chris – it was his responsibility. Chris is a genius.
Both of you were hanging out at hip-hop jams very early on, though.
Well, that’s what I was saying earlier about the beauty of living in a metropolitan area – you have the availability of all these different kinds of music. You know we benefited from that, and it was very inspiring.
When I interviewed Steinski, he said he discovered rap through hearing you and Chris guesting on WPIX and playing early hip-hop.
Yes, and we have heard that before from someone else. I can’t think of the name. Anyway, they were heavy-duty rappers and they said “Rapture” was the first thing they heard.
You’ve often explored the dark side of life in your lyrics, which carries on that tradition started by Velvet Underground.
Yeah. It’s also to do with being in a counterculture situation. We were breaking away from the flower-power era and there was that little section of glam rock that was short-lived and not as big in the US. The [New York] Dolls never really got their full dues in the States.
How does it feel to be regarded as an iconic woman in rock music, someone who inspired and paved the way for Lady Gaga, Madonna and others?
I guess I feel lucky that I got in before them! [laughs] It’s funny, I’m glad it worked.
And it was an incredible time for women breaking through with X-Ray Spex, Raincoats, Slits...
Did it feel like a wave?
Absolutely. On the other side, in New York, there was Wendy O. Williams, Lydia Lunch, Helen Wheels, a bunch of girls that didn’t necessarily translate commercially but they were recorded. Also Annie Golden. A lot of variety, a lot of stuff.
This interview took place on February 28th, 2014. (C) DJ History