Blondie guitarist talks about challenges of songwriting and why the tide is high for the band's popularity in Europe
Although Blondie has sold more than 40 million records worldwide, had four No. 1 and four other top 40 hits in the U.S. alone and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, Chris Stein original Blondie guitarist and Deborah Harry's one-time romantic partner and longtime musical collaborator takes pride that they still have a certain credibility with the alternative crowd. Over the phone from a tour stop in Windsor, Ontario, he asserts "the fact that we maintain our cult status. We never quite made it to the A-list." Stein even likens Blondie to their peers and pals the Ramones, who had huge influence but not matching commercial success during that band's life.
The more perspective you have on their remarkable journey, the better you appreciate that Blondie remains a viable creative pop music force in the year 2011; their first studio album in eight years, "Panic of Girls," was released this month, and they play ACL Live tonight.
Like an acrimoniously divorced couple, Blondie's career can be neatly divided into two widely separated parts. Part 1, aka Back in the Day, is their classic period, from formation in the crucible of the Lower Manhattan underground scene in the mid-'70s, through the glory years in the late '70s and early '80s, to abrupt dissolution in 1982 amidst personal and creative crises. (Stein was sidelined for several years with a rare autoimmune skin disease.) Part 2 begins with the band's key players reuniting in 1997 after a 15-year intermission, vowing to create new material to play alongside old hits like "Call Me," "Heart of Glass" and "Rapture" and not be just another act on the rock nostalgia circuit. Longtime fans of the band might be startled to realize that Blondie's second act has now lasted about twice as long as their first. Debbie Harry is now 66, Stein is 61, and the band's original drummer, Clem Burke, 56, is still a Keith Moon-loving, showboating rocker.
But let's begin at the beginning — at least from my perspective. In the spring of '78, my friend Bruce, a music-obsessed hipster from central New Jersey who bunked in a Boston University brownstone dorm next to mine, plopped a copy of a recently released album titled "Plastic Letters" on his turntable. The cover depicted a pinup-grade blonde in a shiny pink minidress sitting on a police car alongside three unsmiling young guys wearing mostly black. The songs on the LP, with titles such as "Youth Nabbed as Sniper," "Contact in Red Square" and "Detroit 442," were even more intriguing and, to us, a breath of fresh air compared with most of the serious first-wave punk and New Wave stuff we were drawn to.
Here was something new: a band with the visual trappings of punk, New York to the core and bred in CBGB's incubator no less, but pop-conscious, with a cinematic eye, a taste for kitsch, a willingness to experiment and a refreshing sense of humor. Using homages to '60s girl-group pop as a starting point but ranging far afield, their originals showed a real creative spark and a desire to test listeners' tolerance for diverse styles. And Harry's deliberately provocative eye-candy factor certainly didn't hurt — the band knew enough to capitalize on it by paying close attention to their videos well before MTV's maiden broadcast.
In their prime, Blondie showed an uncanny ability to not only mirror current musical trends but sometimes lead. Take "Heart of Glass," the song that made it OK for people who loathed disco to admit liking a disco song (it was, in fact, a harbinger of the band's future concentration on dance music). And when it comes to post-modern female pop singers with attitude, in control of their own image rather than being someone's puppet — or at least, seeming to — you can draw a straight line (in bright red lipstick) from Harry through Madonna to Lady Gaga. The band was always more than Debbie, of course, and the reunited Blondie made good on their pledge to write some decent new stuff, topping the U.K. charts in 1999 with the single "Maria." As recently as December 2009, their cover of the Christmas staple "We Three Kings" was a 21st-century power-pop delight that kicked as hard as any classic Blondie track. And "Panic of Girls" fits the band's sampler-platter aesthetic to a T, with Spanish and French vocals and reggae thrown in with the electronica and dance rhythms.
When I ask Stein what he most regrets, he mentions "not paying enough attention to my business" (Harry, Stein and the band lost tons of money to unscrupulous managers and accountants) and drug use. Stein is more settled these days, married to actress Barbara Sicuranza and the father of two young daughters. Besides music, photography is a strong interest (much of which can be seen on his personal website, rednight.net).
So, Chris, tell us: Does Debbie actually speak French and Spanish? "Frankly," says Stein, "we had a really great language coach."
Stein says that Blondie is far better appreciated on foreign soil — Britain, the Netherlands, Spain — than in their own country. "We're playing to 30,000 people in the U.K.," he says. "It's quite the contrast. The U.S. is a fickle market. In Europe, people are more appreciative of what they call ‘heritage acts.' "
Typically Harry writes lyrics and Stein music, though there's a good deal of inter-band collaboration. "It's always a challenge to have the masses like whatever it is you're working on," Stein says. "Beyond just making music you're pleased with, I try to think what will appeal to a large number of people. (Debbie) always embellishes and brings something. Again, all the top music now is dance music, so I think we need to go a little more in that vein. I always think it would end up sounding more like Blondie."
It doesn't appear to bother Stein that Blondie's original postmodern, ironic context was probably lost on the majority of those who bought the records and went to the concerts. Neither does leaving the marketing of the band's image in the hands of others.
"Just in general, we have stylists and a lot of stuff," he says. "Again, the preconception is part of your appeal. All that (stuff) was what it was – how much control does Lady Gaga have?"
As for the band's future after this tour ends and "Panic of Girls" runs its cycle, Stein confirms that another album is in the works. "I don't know, it gets more tiring as you get older," he says. "We'll see what happens. I really love the recording aspect of the whole thing. I just work with the computer, so I do very finished-sounding things. We just sound out guitar chords on a rhythm machine. Every song has a piece I did at home on the computer."
They might play a lot of old songs, but Blondie's no mere nostalgia act.
At the moment, Austin awaits. "I like the bats, and we always wanted to play the festival," says Stein. Plans, one assumes, can be made for both.
My time with Blondie
Below are some notes on Blondie concerts I've attended over the years. Many videos and tapes of Blondie's live shows – both professionally made and fan recordings – are available on YouTube, and you can find an extensive, if not comprehensive, set list online at archive.blondie.net/gig_list.php
My Father's Place, Roslyn, N.Y., June 1, 1978: My first exposure to Blondie live, at this fabled Long Island dive that was among the first clubs in the New York 'burbs to book bands from the CBGB's scene. It was also Blondie's last live show before they headed to the studio to record "Parallel Lines," the LP that would blast them into a new sphere of prominence. After their regular encores the band played perhaps a half-dozen songs from the as-yet-unrecorded album, which few in the audience had heard. I can still see Debbie Harry doing the universal "phone" gesture for "Hanging on the Telephone." In retrospect they may have been a bit weary, but they didn't disappoint.
The Paradise, Boston, Mass., Nov. 3, 1978: Blondie's pop masterpiece "Parallel Lines" had been released a little over a month before, and this smallish club (capacity 728) had its hands full with two sold-out shows filled with rabid collegiate fans. The concerts had the charged air of an Event; Harry was radiant in a white dress, and the band was energized. Everyone there realized that Blondie's days playing venues of this size were numbered, which my next concert of theirs proved.
Sunset Series at Belmont Park, Long Island, N.Y., July 8, 1979: It was high summer for power pop, as Blondie and Rockpile (the Nick Lowe-Dave Edmunds supergroup) performed outdoors for 50,000 people who had paid $1 admission to this racetrack venue. Blondie, who by then had polished their live act to a high level, was relishing their moment on top. I was a good way back in the crowd and had brought binoculars, which about 20 strangers borrowed and returned during the course of the show. As at the Paradise, one of Blondie's encores was their down-and-dirty cover of T. Rex's "Bang a Gong (Get It On)." Outside, a pitchman was hawking buttons and other memorabilia with the cry, "Get your junk here! Get your garbage here!"
Great Woods, Mansfield, Mass., July 6, 1990: Seven years before their official comeback, Blondie – technically Debbie Harry solo, but joined by Stein and Burke – reunited in all but name for the "Escape from New York Tour" with the Ramones, Jerry Harrison and Tom Tom Club. It was raucous, uninhibited, trashy and triumphant, with 45-year-old Debbie in particular showing more fire and emotion than I'd ever seen before – as if, now that the rest of the culture was catching up to her act, she was ready to switch it up a bit. She cavorted about the stage, hair flying in her face, at one point grabbed a gift flower bouquet, rubbing it against herself and dashing it to the ground. "Yer all my friends! Yer all my friends!" Chris Stein shouted at the crowd, lifting a plastic cup high and inviting them to pile down front and have a closer look. Many took him up on it, creating a club-like crush in the wide concrete aisles. The kicker is that fewer than 5,500 paying customers showed up for this exemplary show at a venue with a capacity of nearly 20,000 (now known as Comcast Center) in a Boston suburb. Although punk was already some 15 years old at that point, it had yet to reach its commercial peak. (And if you thought Blondie was never really punk, you should've seen this show.)
Hala Tivoli, Ljubljana, Slovenia, Oct. 23, 1999: My only experience seeing Blondie in Europe (if you don't count Debbie's concert with the Jazz Passengers in Budapest on July 12, 1997, which was apparently so low-key that I recall absolutely nothing about it). "Tivoli Hall," which can seat up to 7,000, is usually used for basketball and hockey games and other sporting events, but everyone from Louis Armstrong to Bob Dylan, Nirvana, the Ramones and Green Day have played this venue in the capital of this small central Europe country where I was living at the time. Of Debbie, I wrote in a notebook, "It was somewhat embarrassing to see her prancing around the way she never did 20 years ago (and fortyish Jimmy Destri looks lumpy and forlorn)." Only Clem Burke seemed to have survived the decades relatively little the worse for wear. They played all the hits, including their comeback single "Maria," but the one I enjoyed the most was "Rip Her to Shreds," a number off their debut album, which seemed to be the one song they played just for themselves. As the last notes of the second encore, "Heart of Glass," faded away, I wondered if this would be the last time I'd ever see Blondie.
ACL Live, Sept. 29, 2011. We'll see Thursday. With Nico Vega. 8 p.m. $39-$49. 310 W. Second St. acl-live.com .