Blondie - Biography
By Jeff Hunt
Admit it. It doesn’t matter that she’s 63. Everyone still wants to have sex with Deborah Harry. Young and old; male and female. Blondie were pretty flipping awesome. They were a great pop band, New Wave Argonauts with a sharp, cutting edge, and they did power pop, and quasi-punk, and glam, and even disco with style and flair and dollops of cool and buckets of panache, and even the disco was tolerable when it issued forth from Debbie’s lips. (Okay, there’s the rap song, “Rapture,” but she sounded like Li’l Jon compared to Lou Reed when he “rapped” in 1986 on “The Original Wrapper.”) Blondie were, and are, irresistible. I’m glad Debby got to sashay into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You go, girl. Tear ‘em up. Those cheek bones. Eyes. Voice. Admit it.
It starts in the early 70s. Chris Stein was the guitar player; Deborah Harry was his girlfriend. She was a former Playboy Bunny, working as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City, the Petri dish of punk. Perfect. They liked the New York Dolls, and thought they’d give it a shot themselves. Angel and the Snake was the original name. Jeez. Somebody recycle that as a band name. The drummer was Billy O'Connor and the bassist was Fred Smith (not Fred “Sonic” Smith from the MC5). In 1975, Smith and O'Connor left; Smith joined Television after Richard Hell quit/got kicked out. The band added Clem Burke in drums, Jimmy Destri on keys, and Gary Valentine on bass. They changed the name to Blondie, because Deborah Harry was.
The debut, Blondie (1976), came out on a label called Private Stock. This put the band in some arch company. Private Stock released David “Starsky and Hutch” Soul’s hit single, "Don't Give Up on Us,” Frankie Valli’s "My Eyes Adored You,” and, best of all, Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band’s "A Fifth of Beethoven.” Remember that? It’s the disco version of Beethoven that’s on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. It was a huge hit. Blondie, and the accompanying single, “X-Offender,” were not. Then Chrysalis acquired Private Stock, and re-released the LP in 1977, along with “Rip Her to Shreds” as the single.
This time it took. Rolling Stone picked up on the debut, name checked The Who and Phil Spector, and opined: “Blondie is for the most part a playful exploration of Sixties pop interlarded with trendy nihilism. Everything is sung by Deborah Harry, possessor of a bombshell zombie's voice that can sound dreamily seductive and woodenly Mansonite within the same song. It's an interesting combination and forces all the songs on Blondie to work on at least two levels: as peppy but rough pop, and as distanced, artless avant-rock.” “Bombshell zombie . . . dreamily seductive . . . Mansonite.” As in, Charles Manson. Well, okay. If you say so. Point being, Blondie can go all over the place and they’re still distinctively Blondie. “In the Flesh” is a faintly doo-woppish ballad that got them their initial bit of international notice. More attention would follow.
There were various shake-ups in 1977. Gary Valentine left, so they recorded Plastic Letters (1977 Chrysalis) as a four piece. "Denis,” the single, was a cover version of a 1963 Randy and the Rainbows song. The band added Frank Infante on bass guitar and guitar, then Nigel Harrison on bass. Chrysalis pumped money into promoting the band abroad, and it worked; in the UK, “Denis” and “(I'm Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear" both made it into the top ten. Still, it’s not the best record.
The band breaks big with Parallel Lines (1978 Chrysalis). Mike Chapman (The Knack, Sweet, Suzi Quatro – now there’s some 70s pop flashback for you) produced. “Heart of Glass” was a huge hit, a new version of a previous song called “Once I Had a Love,” reworked with a Bee Gees-influenced disco beat, filtered through a touch of Kraftwerk. There was grousing around the Punk/New Wave campfires, but hey, it was a great song, and it caught fire. The video was shot at Studio 54, and that surely helped, having a video, that is. Debbie looks fabulous, all peroxide and skin and lipstick and silk and one-strap slinky nonchalance. Here’s a great quote, from Pitchfork: “Owning your own copy of “Heart of Glass” may not seem as cool [anymore] ... there's the always luminous Deborah Harry, who would give boiling asparagus an erotic charge, all while looking too bored to live."
Parallel Lines just spewed singles. Of course, the best is the furious, hard-charging “One Way Or Another,” which, bizarrely, was only released as a single in the US, where it went to #24. It’s one of their best-known songs. It’s on the video games Rock Band and Guitar Hero and Rolling Stone ranks it on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. There’s also "Hanging on the Telephone" and "Sunday Girl." Robert Fripp makes an appearance on “Fade Away and Radiate” (what a great title). “Sunday Girl” went to #1 in the UK. Parallel Lines is the definitive Blondie record.
The band went back into the studio with Chapman for the follow-up LP, Eat to the Beat (1979 Chrysalis). Again, stylistically it’s all over the place, dabbling in punk, funk, and reggae; there’s even a lullaby. Strangely, the singles didn’t do very well in the States, but were hugely successful in the UK; over there, the LP went to #1. There was also a music video for every track on the album, and the audio and video versions were released simultaneously.
Shortly thereafter, Deborah Harry was approached by proto-electronica hit maker Giorgio Moroder. He had scored bug with Donna Summer’s epic “Love to Love You Baby” and won an Academy Award for his soundtrack for Midnight Express. Moroder had written a track for a film, and needed someone to add lyrics and vocals; Stevie Nicks had already turned him down. The movie was American Gigolo, which would be a huge hit and establish Richard Gere’s career; the track that emerged was “Call Me” (1980 Chrysalis/Polydor). Ironically, the resulting single, which featured only Harry, not the rest of the band, would be Blondie’s biggest hit. It went to #1 in the US and the UK. It’s a classic.
The fifth Blondie album was a big hit – it charted even higher in the US than it did in the UK. Autoamerican (1980 Chrysalis) runs the gamut. It’s got blues, jazz, rock, ska, and funk. “The Tide Is High,” the first hit single, is a reggae song; “Rapture” features Harry rapping. Rap was underground in 1980, until “Rapture,” that is. A white girl scores the first #1 rap hit. Jean-Michel Basquiat is in the video, which was all over MTV. Blondie were at the peak of their popularity.
And it always goes like this. There were tensions in the band. Jealousies. Deborah Harry got all the attention (well, yeah; I mean, come on). Et cetera. They went on hiatus. Chris Stein helped Debbie make her solo record, Koo Koo (1981 Chrysalis), which was produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of the 70's disco group Chic and blended funk, soul, and rock; the album art and the two music videos, for "Backfired" and "Now I Know You Know,” were both directed by H.R. Giger, who was hot off the production design for the movie Alien. Still, it was only a modest success in the US. Jimmy Destri also made a solo record, Heart on a Wall (1981 Chrysalis). It did so poorly that it’s never even been released on CD.
The band got back together to record The Hunter (1982 Chrysalis). It received poor reviews and failed to crack the top 20. The two singles, "Island of Lost Souls" and "War Child,” barely made it into the top 40. Then Chris Stein was diagnosed with a gruesome, life-threatening illness, and the band dissolved. Stein eventually recovered, and in 1997, the band reformed. Harrison and Infante sued, without success, to prevent the use of the band name. Second verse, same as the first. No Exit (1998 Chrysalis) went to #3 in the UK; “Maria” went to #1. The Curse of Blondie (2003 Sanctuary) was cursed, and bombed. In 2006, Blondie were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When it came time for the obligatory performance, Debbie, on a live microphone, refused to let Nigel Harrison and Frank Infante join the band on stage. Ouch. You don’t want to mess with Debbie Harry.