Blondie

Blondie

Debbie Harry – circa 1977

“I know a girl from a lonely street / Cold as ice cream but still as sweet” – ‘Sunday Girl’ (Chris Stein)

In 1979 the battle lines are clear.  On one side is new wave, the better-mannered offspring of punk rock.  On the opposing side is disco, a dance-oriented style of music.  “Disco sucks,” proclaim new wave fans, sneering at the vapid dance grooves of disco.  The patrons of disco don’t even bother acknowledging the existence of new wave, being entirely concerned with their own hedonistic pursuits.  However, American new wave band Blondie is poised to bridge these differences with a song called ‘Heart Of Glass’.

The frontperson of Blondie is Debbie Harry.  She is born Angela Tremble on 1 July 1945 in Miami, Florida, U.S.A.  At three months of age, the baby is adopted by Richard Smith Harry and Catherine Harry (nee Peters) and renamed Deborah Ann Harry.  Debbie Harry never knows her biological parents.  “I know who I am, and it would be an insult to the Harrys,” says Debbie of her refusal to seek out her birth parents.  Later she concedes, “I wanted to track them down; I figured I should do it before they were gone.  But I was limited by the legalities of that kind of search in the U.S.”  So the result of Debbie’s efforts is, “Nothing.”

Richard and Catherine Harry are the proprietors of a gift shop in Hawthorne, New Jersey – though Richard is also described as ‘a salesman.’  As a child, Debbie Harry daydreams that Hollywood movie star Marilyn Monroe may be her real mother.  Asked of her youthful ambitions, Debbie claims she wanted, “To be famous, what else?”  Debbie Harry begins dyeing her hair when she is 12, experimenting with various shades of violet before settling on her trademark blonde tresses.  Debbie attends Hawthorne High School from which she graduates in 1963.  Her early musical influences include rock ‘n’ roll pioneers Fats Domino and Bo Diddley.  “What I really wanted was to be a beatnik, I really wanted to be an underground artist,” Debbie recollects.  So her influences also include the beats and their favoured music, jazz.  “I had a boyfriend who was hip.  We’d go to the Village [i.e. Greenwich Village in New York] to see bands.”

Debbie Harry continues her education at Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey.  She graduates in 1965 with an Associate of Arts degree.

In the late 1960s Debbie Harry moves to New York City.  While nurturing musical ambitions, Debbie works at a number of jobs over the next few years.  She is a secretary at the New York office of BBC Radio for a year.  Debbie works as a barmaid and as a waitress at a New York club called Max’s Kansas City.  Debbie Harry is a beautician; a go-go dancer in a Union City, New Jersey, discotheque; and works as a [brunette] Playboy bunny.  “Being hot never hurts,” she acknowledges.  Debbie Harry also works in New York City’s first Head Shop (a store that sells paraphernalia related to the use of cannabis and other recreational drugs).

From early 1967 to late 1968 Debbie Harry provides backing vocals for a folk rock group called Wind In The Willows.  The band’s name is taken from Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book ‘The Wind in the Willows’ (1908).  The other members of Wind In The Willows are: Paul Klein (vocals, guitar), Peter Britain (vocals, guitar), Ida X (a.k.a. Ida Andrews) (flute), Wayne Kirby (keyboards), Steve ‘Marvello’ De Phillips (bass), Gil Fields (drums), Anton Carysforth (drums) and ‘Freddy’ (spiritual advisor).  The band records only one album, ‘Wind In The Willows’ (1968), before breaking up.

Debbie Harry is briefly part of a four-piece female vocal group called The B-Girls.

From October 1973 to July 1974 Debbie Harry is one third of a female vocal group called The Stilettos (sometimes rendered as ‘The Stilettoes’).  The other two girls are Elda Gentile and Amanda Jones (though sometimes Rosie Ross also provides vocals).  With dyed-blonde hair, The Stilettos sing ‘high camp songs’ such as ‘Lady Marmalade’ and ‘Leader Of The Pack’.  One of the customers who attends a Stilettos gig likes the act, but likes Debbie Harry even more.  His name is Chris Stein.

Christopher Stein is born on 5 January 1950 in Brooklyn, New York.  He is the only child of Ben and Estelle Stein, a Jewish couple.  Chris attends PS [Public School] 199 for grades one to six.  He wants to be an Egyptologist until, at age 11, Chris’ parents buy him his first guitar and his focus changes to music.  Chris Stein goes on to junior high at Andres Hudde.  Stein runs into trouble when he moves on to Midwood High School.  “I was thrown out for having long hair.  It was in the 1960s.  That was the reason I was given.  I was probably acting up a little.  It was in the middle of my junior year in high school [1965] and the Dean of the school was a kind of severe fellow.”  Chris Stein and a couple of his fellow students are ejected but various civil liberties pressure groups protest and an offer is extended to return to Midwood “within a week or two.”  However, “My mom found a cheap private school,” so Chris Stein finishes high school at Quintanos School for Young Professionals.  Apparently, Chris Stein then spends some time as an art student.

From early 1973 to October 1973, Chris Stein is in a band called The Magic Tramps.  The group consists of: Eric Emerson (vocals), Chris Stein (guitar), Young Blood (guitar), Larry Chaplin (violin), Walter Ego (bass) and Sesu [no other name] (drums).

So Chris Stein sees Debbie Harry in The Stilettos and a bond forms between the two.  “It was easy to relate to the complete stranger in the audience,” Debbie reports.  “Chris and I first started working together in 1973.”  Chris claims there is “an affinity” between them.  “We’re very much on the same page,” he adds.  Debbie concludes, “I’m an idiot.  He’s a fool.  Perfect!”

Debbie Harry and Chris Stein become lovers and Chris joins The Stilettos backing band.  At this point, Debbie Harry, Elda Gentile and Amanda Jones have a small group of backing musicians: Chris Stein (guitar), Fred Smith (born 10 April 1948) (guitar) and Billy O’Connor (4 October 1953-29 March 2015) (drums).

In July 1974 Debbie Harry and Chris Stein take The Stilettos backing musicians with them and form a new act.  This band is briefly known as Angel And The Snake.  It then becomes Blondie.  The new name is derived from the term of address – “Hey, Blondie!” – truck drivers use when they spy the group’s lead singer with her dyed blonde hair on the streets.

The debut line-up of Blondie in August 1974 is: Debbie Harry (vocals), Chris Stein (guitar), Fred Smith (bass), Billy O’Connor (drums) and two backing vocalists known only as Jackie and Julie.

In October 1974 the membership of Blondie shifts to this configuration: Debbie Harry (vocals), Chris Stein (guitar), Ivan Kral (born 12 May 1948 in Prague, Czechoslovakia) (guitar), Fred Smith (bass), Clem Burke (drums), Tish Bellomo (backing vocals) and her sister, Eileen ‘Snooky’ Bellomo (backing vocals).

(Note: Departing Blondie drummer Billy O’Connor has a stroke in July 2014 and dies of related complications in March of the following year.)

Clem Burke is born Clement Bozewski on 24 November 1955 in Bayonne, New Jersey.  Clem works with the Saint Andrew Bridgmen Drum and Bugle Corps in Bayonne.  In the late 1960s-early 1970s Clem Burke plays drums in Total Environment and The Sweet Willie Jam Band, two cover bands in the Bayonne area.

The line-up of Blondie is further refined.  The backing vocalists are dispensed with and Fred Smith and Ivan Kral move on to other bands – respectively, Television and The Patti Smith Group.  The August 1975 version of Blondie is: Debbie Harry (vocals), Chris Stein (guitar), Jimmy Destri (keyboards), Gary Valentine (bass) and Clem Burke (drums).

Jimmy Destri is born James Mollica on 13 April 1954 in Brooklyn, New York.  He comes from an Italian family background.  Jimmy’s father is a novelist who writes screenplays and, later, advertising copy.  Jimmy’s mother is a housewife.  Jimmy Destri/Mollica has a sister named Donna.  Jimmy grows up in Borough Park in Brooklyn in his grandmother’s house.  Music is part of the family life.  Jimmy’s uncle plays drums in Joey Dee And The Starliters who have a no. 1 single in February 1962 with ‘Peppermint Twist’.  James Mollica teaches himself to play drums, bass and piano.  He then finds gigs with local bands.  True to his Italian background, the lad attends Catholic schools and goes on to Bishop Ford Central Catholic High School in Brooklyn.  Jimmy Destri drops out of high school to join his first band, 86 Proof.  In the early 1970s he plays in a group called Milk And Cookies.

Gary Valentine is born Gary Joseph Lachman on 24 December 1955 in Bayonne, New Jersey.  Gary Valentine is a friend of Blondie’s drummer, Clem Burke (also from Bayonne).  It is Burke who recruits Valentine to join Blondie in April 1975.

Blondie build up ‘a sizable underground following’ playing in New York clubs such as CBGBs, Max’s Kansas City and Club 51.  (Ironically, Debbie Harry had previously worked as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City.)  “In the early days, I often felt that I was taking a math test when we were playing,” recalls Chris Stein.  “It was a profound feeling of having to prove myself.”

Blondie come to the attention of producer Richard Gottehrer who helps them secure a recording contract with the Private Stock label in 1976.

The music of Blondie is usually identified as punk rock or new wave.  While The Stilettos made a virtue out of ‘high camp’ renditions of old songs, in their earliest form Blondie produce ‘an original updating of early 1960s girl group clichés.’  Although there is still a certain arch quality to their songs, it is less blatantly tongue-in-cheek.  Punk rock is a mid-1970s deconstruction of the pretentiousness weighing down rock music.  “We were very minimal when we started, very rough-edged,” explains vocalist Debbie Harry of how Blondie fit into the punk ethos.  “The punk period was about wanting change, having a more urbane kind of sensibility and some weird kind of wit,” she adds.  Actually, this description sounds more like new wave, the genre which succeeds punk and the style which is a more appropriate label for Blondie.  The raw aggression of punk is absent from new wave which shares a similar back-to-basics, hard-and-fast propulsive quality but incorporates a quirkier, wilfully odd worldview.  As time passes, even new wave proves too limiting a tag for Blondie.  More and more strands become woven into their musical tapestry.  Debbie Harry recalls discussions that went, “Let’s do this experiment.  Let’s mix up a bit of disco and techno sounds with a rock beat.  Let’s do it with reggae. Let’s try some rap.”

Although Blondie record some cover versions of songs by other recording artists and occasionally involve outside composers, most of the band’s repertoire is written within the group.  The most prolific songwriting team in Blondie is Debbie Harry and Chris Stein.  “I really, really like writing songs,” asserts Harry.  Just as Stein and Harry are complementary as a romantic couple, the chemistry extends to their songwriting.  “He was fun and interesting and cute.  And we just had a good time together.  Our personalities blend – we spark off each other,” says Debbie.  Unless otherwise stated, all Blondie songs referred to here are co-written by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein.

Much of the focus of Blondie is centred on their lead vocalist and frontperson Debbie Harry.  She is the ‘much-photographed sex symbol of rock.’  Harry is ‘a pop-culture pin-up of the media age.’  Perhaps most notoriously, Blondie’s vocalist is the ‘Marilyn Monroe of rock.’  Debbie’s singing is given significantly less attention by the press, but it is noted that, ‘though Harry’s pretty soprano is seemingly unsuited for rock, she catches the bite of the music in her phrasing.’

Blondie’s first single is ‘X Offender’, released on 17 June 1976.  The song was originally titled ‘Sex Offender’, but is changed to avoid ‘stirring up controversy.’  ‘X Offender’ is co-written by vocalist Debbie Harry and bassist Gary Valentine.  The track is produced by Richard Gottehrer.  It is a witty song with Debbie’s narrator lusting after the “big and fine…public defender” who has arrested her.  The cheesy organ, the sighing backing vocals and twanging guitar solo are all hallmarks of the female vocal group hits of the early 1960s that Blondie is emulating – or parodying.  ‘X Offender’ is ‘commercially ignored’ and fails to chart.

The B side to ‘X Offender’ is a song called ‘In The Flesh’.  The Australian television rock program ‘Countdown’ accidentally plays ‘In The Flesh’ instead of ‘X Offender’ in a characteristically lovable blunder by the show’s music director, Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum.  However, the video gets such a good reaction that ‘In The Flesh’ (AUS no. 2) becomes Blondie’s second single in October 1976.  It becomes a freakish hit in Australia and Blondie’s first hit anywhere in the world.  ‘In The Flesh’ ‘seems naughtier than it really is’ since it is not talking about getting naked, but rather refers to meeting in person.  However, given Debbie Harry’s sex symbol purring, such alternative interpretations are perhaps not important.  Even more so than ‘X Offender’, ‘In The Flesh’ sounds like a lost song from fifteen years earlier with its cooing backing vocals and gently tinkling backing.  Those backing vocals are provided by Micki Harris, Hilda Harris and Ellie Greenwich.  The last-named actually co-wrote hits for The Ronettes and The Crystals, the same female vocal acts Blondie is aping.

The debut album, ‘Blondie’ (1976) (UK no. 75, AUS no. 14), is released on Private Stock in December.  Production duties are divided amongst Richard Gottehrer, Craig Leon and Alan Betrock.  Previous singles ‘X Offender’ and ‘In The Flesh’ are on this album.  Also present is Blondie’s next single, ‘Rip Her To Shreds’ (AUS no. 81).  While the previous singles echoed the sounds of yesteryear, ‘Rip Her To Shreds’ is a spiky slice of punk rock/new wave with a sardonic and sneering vocal from Debbie Harry as she verbally attacks some luckless girl: “Won’t you look at that hair!…Check out those shoes!…She’s so dull…”  It’s impossible to take seriously, so the effect is humorous rather than nasty.  Overall, ‘Blondie’ has a ‘whiff of nostalgia’ and ‘harks back to the girl group sound.’

On 4 July 1977 bassist Gary Valentine leaves Blondie.  He goes on to form his own band, The Know.  This group exists from 1978 to around 1980.  Much later, in 1996 Gary Valentine moves to London, England.  Reverting to his birth name of Gary Lachman, he becomes a full-time writer.  Gary Lachman is perhaps best known for writing about the occult, his work being published in ‘The Fortean Times.’

In August 1977 Frank Infante replaces Gary Valentine as Blondie’s bassist.  Actually it’s a little more complicated than that as will be seen and Infante will not remain on bass but this too will be detailed further at a later stage.

Frank Infante is born on 15 November 1951 in New York.  He begins his career in music playing guitar with ‘heavy electric blues groups’ such as The Elegant End and World War III.  In 1972-1974 Frank Infante is part of the ‘glam punk band’ Sniper.  The other members are: Jeff Starship (vocals), Danny Wray (guitar), Bob Butani (guitar), Peter (Morgan) Morales (bass) and Patrick Franklyn (drums).  Jeff Starship is a pseudonym for Jeffrey Hyman who, under another pseudonym – Joey Ramone – goes on to front The Ramones, perhaps New York’s most famous punk rock band.

On 1 September 1977 Blondie sign a recording contract with Chrysalis Records.  Chrysalis is a much bigger organisation than Private Stock, Blondie’s previous label.  The debut album, ‘Blondie’, is rereleased by Chrysalis.

Blondie tour Australia in December 1977.  Vocalist Debbie Harry notes that, “Australia had the best smack [i.e. heroin] in the world!”

Blondie’s second album, ‘Plastic Letters’ (1978) (US no. 72, UK no. 10, AUS no. 64), is released in February.  This is the group’s first work for Chrysalis who will issue all of Blondie’s albums up to and including 1982.  ‘Plastic Letters’ is produced by Richard Gottehrer.  Blondie’s newest member, Frank Infante, is not shown with the band in the cover photo.  He plays bass on only some of the tracks on this album; the balance feature guitarist Chris Stein pulling double duty as bassist as well as guitarist.  The simplest explanation for these curiosities is that ‘Plastic Letters’ was partially completed before Frank Infante joined the band.  The first single is a cover version of ‘Denise’, a 1963 hit for Randy And The Rainbows.  Blondie’s version is given a sex-change to better suit a female vocalist and titled ‘Denis’ (UK no. 2, AUS no. 12).  ‘Denis’ is pronounced ‘De-NEE’ and is the French version of Dennis.  So it is only fitting that vocalist Debbie Harry lapses into French part way through the song – though she does not speak French and is only following phonetic guidance.  It is Debbie’s idea to record the song, though the rest of Blondie require some convincing.  Debbie says, “Look, if we do an oldie right, the American DJs [disc jockeys] will play it, and I think we could have a hit.”  Well, she’s half right.  ‘Denis’ is a big hit…in the U.K.  “I wasn’t even thinking of foreign countries,” Debbie insists.  “I just wanted to break in the States.”  It is Blondie’s first big U.K. success but that country frequently supports the group from this point, irrespective of America’s reaction.  “It was absolutely thrilling,” Debbie says of the U.K. response.  The other standout from ‘Plastic Letters’ is Gary Valentine’s ‘(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear’ (UK no. 10).  The bassist may be gone, but his song about “levitating lovers” with an “extra sense” who use the “psychic frequencies” maintains an appropriately supernatural contact.  Valentine wrote the song for Lisa Jane Persky, his girlfriend at the time.  ‘Denis’ and ‘(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear’ are still essentially girl group songs with a new wave patina.  ‘Plastic Letters’ is considered ‘darker’ than ‘Blondie’.

Blondie expands to a six-piece band in 1978 with the addition of bassist Nigel Harrison.  This allows Frank Infante to shift to guitar so Blondie has two guitarists: Frank Infante and Chris Stein.

Nigel Harrison is born on 24 April 1951 in Stockport, Cheshire, England – making him the only British-born member of the American group Blondie.  Nigel Harrison starts his music career in the early 1970s in a band called Farm.  He then moves on to Silverhead (1972-1974).  Harrison was playing in a band called Nite City immediately before joining Blondie.

The definitive Blondie line-up is now assembled in 1978: Debbie Harry (vocals), Chris Stein (guitar), Frank Infante (guitar), Jimmy Destri (keyboards), Nigel Harrison (bass) and Clem Burke (drums).

Blondie’s third album, ‘Parallel Lines’ (1978) (US no. 6, UK no. 1, AUS no. 2), is their finest work.  Released in September, this is the first of four consecutive Blondie albums produced by Mike Chapman.  The album title comes from a poem (or the start of a lyric) written by vocalist Debbie Harry and placed with the rest of the album’s lyrics – though there is no song called ‘Parallel Lines’ on the album.  Although there are still traces of the swooning girly songs evoking the past, Blondie’s third album is more aggressively new wave and adds more colours to the group’s musical palette.  At first, ‘Parallel Lines’ follows the pattern of Blondie having hits in the U.K. that go unappreciated in their homeland.  The masterful ‘Picture This’ (UK no. 12, AUS no. 88) navigates a path between a seductive gentleness and a shouted assertiveness.  Keyboardist Jimmy Destri shares songwriting credit on ‘Picture This’ with vocalist Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein.  The hammering ‘Hanging On The Telephone’ (UK no. 5, AUS no. 39) is a cover version of a 1976 song by Los Angeles power pop trio The Nerves.  Also present is a fairly faithful rendition of Buddy Holly’s 1957 song ‘I’m Gonna Love You Too’.  But it is the disco hybrid ‘Heart Of Glass’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1) that really marks a breakthrough for Blondie.  It starts out as a blues song that is in their set for years.  The tune takes on a different style as explained by its new working title, ‘The Disco Song’.  Chris Stein explains, “[It] was kind of like ‘Rock The Boat Baby’ [‘Rock The Boat’, a 1974 hit for The Hues Corporation, is ‘an early example of what will later be called disco’].  It went through a few transformations.  We thought we sounded like Kraftwerk [a German act known for their robotic synthesiser sound].”  Drummer Clem Burke admits, “I was trying to get that groove that the drummer for [disco act] The Bee Gees had.”  In any case, ‘Heart Of Glass’ works very well.  It tops the U.K. singles chart on 10 February 1979 and 24 February 1979 to 2 March 1979 and goes on to top the U.S. singles chart as well on 28 April 1979.  There are some cries of ‘sell-out’ from disgruntled new wave fans but generally Blondie’s balancing act of musical genres is well accepted.  ‘Sunday Girl’ (UK no. 1, AUS no. 1) also tops the U.K. chart on 2 June 1979 – but is overlooked in the U.S.  Written by Chris Stein alone, ‘Sunday Girl’ is allegedly a ‘paean to Debbie’s pet pussycat.’  It may well be the group’s single finest moment.  Though ‘Heart Of Glass’ is more commercially successful, ‘Sunday Girl’ is more representative, showcasing all that is best about Blondie’s blend of art, style and nous.  ‘One Way Or Another’ (US no. 24, UK no. 98), co-written by Debbie Harry and bassist Nigel Harrison, is a stalker anthem given a reversal in the tail.  Other noteworthy tracks on ‘Parallel Lines’ include Chris Stein’s meditative ‘Fade Away And Radiate’, Frank Infante’s rough and ready ‘I Know But I Don’t Know’ and Debbie Harry’s dismissive closing track, ‘Just Go Away’.  ‘Parallel Lines’ is described as ‘a perfect synthesis of raw punk edge, 1960s pop smarts and the cool new wave glamour Blondie invented.’

In the wake of ‘Parallel Lines’, Blondie is arguably ‘the biggest pop band on the planet.’  Success brings its own challenges.  The media attention lavished upon lead singer Debbie Harry creates some tension within the band.  In 1979 members of Blondie take to wearing buttons bearing the slogan ‘Blondie is a group.’

‘Eat To The Beat’ (1979) (US no. 17, UK no. 1, AUS no. 9) is issued in October.  The crashing power pop chords and drum rolls of ‘Dreaming’ (US no. 27, UK no. 2, AUS no. 53) launch the album and Ellie Greenwich provides backing vocals on the song.  ‘Union City Blues’ (UK no. 13) with its ringing endorsement of “Power…Passion” is co-written by vocalist Debbie Harry and bassist Nigel Harrison.  In ‘The Hardest Part’ (US no. 84), a squawking guitar riff and percolating rhythm section underlie a tribute to the “Big men of steel behind the steering wheel” of an armoured car.  With its pulsating groove, ‘Atomic’ (US no. 34, UK no. 1, AUS no. 12) is the most obvious heir to ‘Heart Of Glass’.  Co-written by Debbie Harry and Blondie’s keyboards player Jimmy Destri, it dutifully tops the U.K. charts from 1 March 1980 to 15 March 1980.  The actual subject of ‘Atomic’ is a bit difficult to pin down.  Is it nuclear paranoia?  Something is definitely getting blown up, but…what?  “Oh, your hair is beautiful tonight,” rhapsodises Debbie Harry with Ellie Greenwich again lending vocal support.  ‘Eat To The Beat’ is an album of great stylistic variety.  Chris Stein’s ‘Shayla’ is dreamy.  ‘Slow Motion’, co-written by Jimmy Destri and Laura Davis, is perfect pop with background vocals by Lorna Luft, the daughter of Hollywood movie legend Judy Garland.  Lorna Luft also lends her talents to ‘Accidents Never Happen’, a Jimmy Destri song with a new wave sheen.  The title track, ‘Eat To The Beat’, is a slavering frenzy composed by Debbie Harry and Nigel Harrison.  ‘Die Young, Stay Pretty’ toys with reggae.  The flat-out closing track ‘Living In The Real World’ is written by Jimmy Destri and has his sister, Donna Destri, on backing vocals.

Blondie score another transatlantic no. 1 single with ‘Call Me’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 2) from the soundtrack of the movie ‘American Gigolo’ (1980).  Italian disco producer Giorgio Moroder is tasked with composing the theme.  Originally, he wanted Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac to sing the piece but, instead, Debbie Harry co-writes with Moroder and Blondie (the band) delivers a more muscular, guitar-driven sound than may have been expected, though of course it also reflects the disco experiments of both Moroder and Blondie.  ‘Call Me’ tops the U.K. singles chart from 19 April 1980 to 26 April 1980 and the U.S. singles chart from 19 April 1980 to 24 May 1980.

Blondie contribute to another movie soundtrack in 1980.  ‘Roadie’ (1980), released to cinemas on 13 June, includes Blondie’s cover version of Johnny Cash’s 1963 song, ‘Ring Of Fire’.

‘Autoamerican’ (1980) (US no. 7, UK no. 3, AUS no. 8), the fifth album by Blondie, is issued in November.  “I think it’s a Blondie tradition that all our albums sort of have a wide spread of styles,” observes vocalist Debbie Harry.  The coconut-sweet sort-of-reggae song ‘The Tide Is High’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 4) is a cover version of the 1967 rocksteady piece by The Paragons, a Jamaican male vocal group.  ‘The Tide Is High’ tops the U.K. singles chart from 22 November 1980 to 29 November 1980 and the U.S. singles chart on 31 January 1981.  Although Blondie’s crossover disco hit ‘Heart Of Glass’ is justly acknowledged as pioneering, perhaps an even greater achievement is ‘Rapture’ (US no. 1, UK no. 5, AUS no. 5), the first rap hit by a white recording act.  Over a hypnotic beat, Debbie Harry sings most of the song in an ethereal helium squeak but drops to her natural ‘Noo Yawk’ accent for a bizarre rap about a “Man from Mars who eats guitars.”  ‘Rapture’ reverses the usual pattern of Blondie’s commercial fortunes by topping the U.S. chart from 28 March 1981 to 4 April 1981 and being less successful in the U.K.  Debbie Harry muses over Blondie’s career and decides that, “The one that stands out for me on many levels is ‘Rapture’.  I think that…was a real breakthrough, musically…the first rap song that has its own music [rather than scratching or sampling older music].”  On ‘Autoamerican’, Blondie ‘leave their progressive pop sound behind’ but they ‘introduce different ethnic musical styles to the largely white, hard rock’ audience.  However, on this album ‘the band’s eclectic style reflects a diminished participation by its members.’

Evidence of this ‘diminished participation’ surfaces when guitarist Frank Infante sues Blondie, charging that he isn’t being used on their records.  Infante’s claim is quietly settled and he remains a member of the band.

A potentially more telling blow to Blondie’s future emerges on 12 February 1981 when vocalist Debbie Harry announces she will be making a solo album.  To many, Debbie Harry and Blondie are synonymous.  If she has success as a solo artist, then is there any future for Blondie as a group?

‘Koo Koo’ (1981) (US no. 25, UK no. 6, AUS no. 16), released in July, is the Debbie Harry solo album.  She distances herself from Blondie in two ways.  The cover photo shows the singer with her own naturally dark hair; she is not a blonde.  Additionally, as a solo act, a lot of Debbie Harry’s material is written for her by other songwriters.  In this case, ‘Koo Koo’ is produced by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of disco act Chic.  They also write the disc’s biggest singles, ‘Backfired’ (US no. 43, UK no. 32, AUS no. 23) and ‘The Jam Was Moving’ (US no. 82).

With the group dormant, Chrysalis issues the compilation album ‘The Best Of Blondie’ (1981) (US no. 30, UK no. 4, AUS no. 1) in October.

Blondie’s keyboards player Jimmy Destri issues a solo album, ‘Heart On A Wall’ (1981).

Blondie reconvenes for ‘The Hunter’ (1982) (US no. 33, UK no. 9, AUS no. 15) in May.  Rather than subject her locks to another dose of peroxide, Debbie Harry wears platinum-coloured wigs in the publicity shots for this disc.  ‘Island Of Lost Souls’ (US no. 37, UK no. 11, AUS no. 13) offers ‘catchy calypso charm’ but, although this is an original, it seems very much in the mould of the earlier ‘The Tide Is High’.  ‘War Child’ (UK no. 39, AUS no. 96), co-written by vocalist Debbie Harry and bassist Nigel Harrison, is awash in rippling synthesisers.  A cover version of Smokey Robinson’s 1966 song ‘The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game’ (first recorded in 1966 by Robinson’s group, The Miracles) gives this album its name.  ‘The Hunter’ is ‘a commercial disappointment’ and ‘relatively unsuccessful.’

‘There is a feeling that things have run their course, not to mention internal conflicts and health problems, and Blondie disbands at the end of a North American tour.’  The break-up of Blondie is publicly announced in November 1982.

In 1983 guitarist Chris Stein is diagnosed with Pemphigus Vulgaris – a rare autoimmune disease that affects the skin and mucus membranes.  Due to her lover’s illness, vocalist Debbie Harry ‘takes a few years off to care for him.’  When asked if this was difficult for her, Harry responds, “Difficult for me?  Much more difficult for him, obviously.  People say that I nursed him, but I was his mate, you know, and went to the hospital and stayed with him, but he was under very professional care.”  During this time, some rather unflattering pictures of Debbie Harry appear in the media showing her blonde once more but not looking at her best and having gained weight.  “Being five foot four, it’s important to keep a proportion, because I can get very round very quickly,” she admits.

During Chris Stein’s illness, Debbie Harry performs the song ‘Rush Rush’ (US no. 105, UK no. 87, AUS no. 25) for the soundtrack of the movie ‘Scarface’ (1983).  ‘Rush Rush’ is co-written by Debbie Harry and Giorgio Moroder.

Debbie Harry’s second solo album, ‘Rockbird’ (1986) (US no. 97, UK no. 31, AUS no. 18), is released in November.  This album includes ‘French Kissin’ In The U.S.A.’ (US no. 57, UK no. 8, AUS no. 4) (written by Chuck Lorre), ‘In Love With Love’ (US no. 70) (written by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein) and ‘Free To Fall’ (written by Debbie Harry and Seth Justman).

‘Once More Into The Bleach’ (1988) (UK no. 50, AUS no. 47) is credited to Debbie Harry and Blondie.  It is an album of remixes of old songs.  ‘Denis (remix)’ (UK no. 50) and ‘Call Me (remix)’ (UK no. 61) from this disc are minor showings in the U.K. singles chart.

‘Def, Dumb & Blonde’ (1989) (US no. 123, UK no. 12, AUS no. 10) is credited to Deborah Harry.  It is the first of her solo works to use the full name of Deborah instead of Debbie.  All will subsequently use the full name.  The most successful song from this album is ‘I Want That Man’ (UK no. 13, AUS no. 2), a track penned by Tom Bailey and Alannah Currie, two members of the U.K. pop group The Thompson Twins.  This disc also yields ‘Brite Side’ (UK no. 59) (written by Deborah Harry and Chris Stein), ‘Sweet And Low’ (UK no. 57, AUS no. 30) (written by Toni C. [Antoinette Colandero] and Deborah Harry) and ‘Maybe For Sure’ (UK no. 89, AUS no. 151) (written by Deborah Harry and Chris Stein).

Chris Stein and Debbie Harry break-up as a couple in 1989 but continue to work together in a musical capacity.

The split with Chris Stein is just part of a larger series of problems for Debbie Harry.  She admits that in the late 1980s she was “absolutely” addicted to drugs – including heroin – for “a couple of years.”  What was the trigger for this?  According to Harry, “It was depression…Our record company dropped us, our manager walked out, the Internal Revenue Service [i.e. the U.S. tax office] walked in.  Everything fell apart and I fell apart along with it.  But ice cream was great.”  Stein and Harry both do a stint in a rehab facility to get past their drug problems.

‘The Complete Picture: The Very Best Of Deborah Harry And Blondie’ (1991) (UK no. 3, AUS no. 6) is released in March.  Also in 1991 is ‘Well Did You Evah!’ (UK no. 42, AUS no. 106), a duet between Deborah Harry and proto punk legend Iggy Pop for the AIDS benefit album ‘Red Hot + Blue’ (1991).

Deborah Harry’s fourth solo album is ‘Debravation’ (1993) (UK no. 24).  This disc features ‘I Can See Clearly’ (UK no. 23), a song written by Arthur Baker and Tony McIlwane.

‘Beautiful: The Remix Album’ (1995) (UK no. 25) again reworks Blondie’s past.  Like its remix predecessor, this set also results in some U.K. chart placings for ‘Atomic (remix)’ (UK no. 19), ‘Heart Of Glass (remix)’ (UK no. 15) and ‘Union City Blue (remix)’ (UK no. 31).

In 1995 Deborah Harry plays some shows with The Jazz Passengers.

In 1995-1996 Deborah Harry is romantically linked to magician and comedian Penn Jillette.

In 1997 Deborah Harry and Chris Stein bring Blondie back together again.  But before going into that, let’s look at what the other members of Blondie have been doing since the band broke up in 1982.

Drummer Clem Burke works with a band called Checkered Past (1982-1984).  Another member of this outfit is ex-Blondie bassist Nigel Harrison.  The band records one album, ‘Checkered Past’ (1984).  Clem Burke keeps busy working with The Romantics, Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Dramarama, The Fleshtones, Iggy Pop and Joan Jett.  He is probably best known for a mid-1980s stint with The Eurythmics and a couple of shows in 1987 with The Ramones (under the alias of Elvis Ramone).

Keyboardist Jimmy Destri does something different after Blondie’s 1982 break-up.  He starts a company that buys old buildings, renovates the premises, and then sells the buildings to new owners.

Guitarist Frank Infante works with Joan Jett, Stiv Bators, Sylvain Sylvain, Iggy Pop and The Divinyls.

Bassist Nigel Harrison plays in Checkered Past with Clem Burke as recounted above.

Blondie reunites in 1997 as a five-piece band with a line-up of: Deborah Harry (vocals), Chris Stein (guitar), Jimmy Destri (keyboards), Gary Valentine (bass) and Clem Burke (drums).  The reunited band plays their first gig on 31 May 1997.  A live album, ‘Picture This’ (1997), is released by EMI/Capitol in October.

Ex-Blondie members Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison bring a lawsuit against Blondie because of their exclusion from the reunion – but they are unsuccessful.

Frank Infante goes on to work with The New York Dolls in 2010.  He also forms his own trio, Infante’s Inferno, with Steve Fishman (bass) and Clem Burke (drums) – the latter moonlighting from Blondie.

Nigel Harrison forms an ‘experimental power pop group’ called The Grabs.  They release the album ‘Sex, Fashion And Money’ (2005).

Gary Valentine (a.k.a. Gary Lachman) takes part in the 1997 Blondie reunion – but doesn’t remain with Blondie.  Instead, in 1998 he forms a group called Fire Escape with Ruth Jones (violin).  They record one EP which is issued ‘with little fanfare.’  Gary Lachman resumes his literary career.

The four veteran members of Blondie – Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, Jimmy Destri and Clem Burke – are supplemented in 1997 by Paul Carbonara (guitar) and Leigh Fox (bass).

‘Atomic: The Very Best Of Blondie’ (1998) (UK no. 12) is issued by Chrysalis/EMI to capitalise on the renewed interest in Blondie.

‘No Exit’ (1999) (US no. 18, UK no. 3, AUS no. 72), issued on the Beyond label in February, is the first Blondie album of new material in nearly seventeen years.  ‘No Exit’ is produced by Craig Leon.  The best moments on the album are two songs written by keyboardist Jimmy Destri.  The ‘infectious’ ‘Maria’ (US no. 82, UK no. 1, AUS no. 2) is another U.K. chart topper.  ‘Nothing Is Real But The Girl’ (UK no. 26) is a new wave throwback – and the last Blondie single to chart.  Rapper Coolio is featured on the title track, ‘No Exit’, and is co-credited with the song’s authorship alongside Deborah Harry, Jimmy Destri, Chris Stein and Romy Ashby.

Another concert recording is issued, this one on the Beyond label in November: ‘Live’ (US) / ‘Livid’ (UK) (1999).

In 1999 guitarist Chris Stein marries actress Barbara Sicuranza.  Chris and Barbara have two daughters, Akira and Valentina.

Sometime around 2000 it seems that Blondie’s keyboardist Jimmy Destri marries.  His wife is named Roberta.  They have three children: a son named James (born 2001) and daughters named Rienna (born 2009) and Eileen.

Blondie’s drummer, Clem Burke, marries in 2002.  His wife, Ellen, is a paediatric nurse.

EMI/Capitol issue a ‘Greatest Hits’ (2002) (UK no. 38) album by Blondie in September.

‘The Curse Of Blondie’ (2003) (US no. 160, UK no. 36, AUS no. 83) is released in October by Sanctuary (US) and Epic (UK).  The disc is produced by Steve Thompson.  The best known song from this set is probably ‘Good Boys’ which vocalist Deborah Harry co-writes with Kevin Griffin of U.S. alt-rock act Better Than Ezra.

Blondie’s line-up is further augmented in 2003 with Jimi K. Bones (guitar) and Kevin Patrick (a.k.a. Kevin Topping) (keyboards).  Bones only plays with Blondie in 2003, leaving thereafter.

In 2004 keyboardist Jimmy Destri leaves Blondie ‘to deal with [his] drug addiction.’  Despite a successful stint in rehab, Destri is not invited to return to Blondie.  In December 2010 Destri works as a full-time drug counsellor/therapist at the outpatient recovery centre of the Carnegie Hill Institute of New York City.  In 2012 he starts his own band, Jimmy Destri And The Sound Grenade.

‘Live By Request’ (2004) is a Blondie concert album issued by Sanctuary.  ‘Greatest Hits: Sight And Sound’ (2005) (UK no. 48) is put out by EMI/Capitol.

Deborah Harry takes time out for a new solo album, ‘Necessary Evil’ (2007) (UK no. 86).

Keyboardist Kevin Patrick (a.k.a. Kevin Topping) drops out of Blondie in 2007.  He is replaced in 2008 by Matt Katz-Bohen (keyboards).

‘At The BBC’ (2010) is a set of live Blondie performances prepared for radio broadcast.  Chrysalis issues this disc.

Guitarist Paul Carbonara leaves Blondie in 2010.  His role is filled the same year by Tommy Kessler (guitar).

‘Panic Of Girls’ (2011) (UK no. 73) is a new Blondie album released on the Five Seven label.  The disc is produced by Jeff Saltzman.  The three remaining members of Blondie – Deborah Harry, Chris Stein and Clem Burke – are aided on this disc by Tommy Kessler (guitar), Matt Katz-Bohen (keyboards) and Leigh Fox (bass) (ex-guitarist Paul Carbonara played on some tracks before his departure).  The album generates no hit singles but a couple of the better known tracks are ‘Mother’ and ‘What I Heard’.  ‘Mother’ is co-written by Deborah Harry, Kato Khandwala and Ben Phillips (Khandwala produces this track).  ‘What I Heard’ is co-written by keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen and his wife, Laurel Katz-Bohen (nee Barclay).

In April 2014 Deborah Harry reveals that she is bisexual, but does not name any of her female lovers.  In another interview, she says, “I have had my sexual relationships with women, yes…I am probably more heterosexual than I am homosexual, or even bisexual.”

‘Ghosts Of Download (Blondie 4(0) Ever)’ (2014) (US no. 109, UK no. 16, AUS no. 72) is released in May on Five Seven.  This is a two disc set.  The first disc is ‘Greatest Hits Redux’ with new recordings of past hits.  The second disc, ‘Ghosts Of Download’, is all-new material.  Production credits are shared amongst Matt Katz-Bohen, Kato Khandwala, Craig Leon, Jeff Saltzman and Chris Stein.  ‘A Rose By Any Other Name’ (written by Matt and Laurel Katz-Bohen) is a duet with Beth Ditto of Gossip.  ‘Sugar On The Side’ is a reggae song featuring Systema Solar.  It is written by Chris Stein, Jeff Saltzman, Natalie Hawkins and Systema Solar.  ‘I Want To Drag You Around’ is written by Matthew Barus.

Since Blondie’s 1977 reunion, drummer Clem Burke has kept busy with a number of additional projects.  He is a member of the following groups: Infante’s Inferno; Slinky Vagabond (2007); The International Swingers (December 2011); and The Empty Hearts (2014).  Burke also works with: Wanda Jackson; The Ramones – for a second time (2004); Nancy Sinatra (2004-2005); Kathy Valentine from The Go-Go’s (no relation to ex-Blondie guitarist Gary Valentine) (2005); The Magic Christian; The Hugh Cornwell Band – the group led by the ex-frontman of U.K. punk band The Stranglers; The Split Squad; and Little Steven.

Blondie’s ‘Heart Of Glass’ bridged the vast gulf between new wave and disco.  Other Blondie recordings successfully absorbed such genres as reggae (‘The Tide Is High’) and rap (‘Rapture’).  This ability to assimilate other styles is perhaps not so surprising when it is remembered that, at first, Blondie specialised in creating songs such as ‘In The Flesh’ that were pastiches of girl group records of the early 1960s.  Yet, Blondie were more than just mimics.  Their native punk/new wave approach underlay and informed much of their best work (1976-1982).  Moreover, the artistic sensibilities of Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and their comrades made this sonic patchwork cohesive.  Perhaps Stein put it best when he wittily observed, “We’re a pop art band, not a pop band.”  ‘Blondie was rightly acclaimed as one of the most influential bands of their generation.’  They were ‘the most commercially successful band to emerge from the New York punk/new wave community of the late 1970s.’

Sources:

  1. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 114, 115, 120
  2. wikipedia.org as at 9 March 2016
  3. Internet Movie Database – imdb.com – as at 11 March 2016
  4. ‘Saga Magazine’ (U.K. magazine) – ‘Blondie Bombshell: Debbie Harry Interview’ by Nina Myskow (23 April 2014) (reproduced on saga.co.uk)
  5. ‘The Guardian’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘Don’t Call Me Debbie’ by Sean O’Hagan (12 May 2002) (reproduced on theguardian.com)
  6. brainyquote.com as at 10 March 2016
  7. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 25, 26, 27
  8. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll’, ‘The Sound of New York City’ by John Rockwell (Plexus Publishing Limited,1992) p.554
  9. ‘The One Show’ (U.K. television program, BBC Network) – Deborah Harry and Chris Stein interview conducted by Matt Baker and Alex Jones (June 2013)
  10. interviewmagazine.com ‘Debbie Harry’ by Rick Moody (17 March 2014)
  11. bing.com as at 12 March 2016
  12. ‘The Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 12, 229, 272, 274, 295, 296, 297, 310, 311, 312, 313, 318, 322, 323, 324, 325
  13. ‘Greatest Hits’ – Sleeve notes by Steve Pafford (Chrysalis Records, 2002) p. 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
  14. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 193
  15. ‘People’ (Australian magazine) – ‘Brazen Blondie Bungie’ – no author credited (8 May 1990) (reproduced on rip-her-to-shreds.com)
  16. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 52
  17. allmusic.com, ‘Blondie’ by William Ruhlmann as at 10 March 2016
  18. discogs.com as at 19 March 2016
  19. ‘The Independent’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘Debbie Harry Admits Drug Addiction’ – no author credited (21 March 2011) (reproduced on independent.co.uk)
  20. Notable Names Database – nndb.com – as at 10 March 2016
  21. jimmydestri.com @ 2012
  22. ‘Daily Mail’ (U.K. newspaper) – ‘My “Sensual Nights” with Women by Debbie Harry: Blondie Star Reveals she is Bisexual Despite Relationship with Bandmate’ by Chris Hastings via 2 (above)
  23. ‘Diva’ magazine interview with Deborah Harry via 20 (above)
  24. ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Australia newspaper) – review of ‘Ghosts Of Download (Blondie 4(0) Ever)’ by Cameron Adams (5 June 2014) p. 44
  25. lyricsfreak.com as at 8 September 2014

 

Song lyrics copyright Chrysalis Music Group Inc. with the exception of ‘Sunday Girl’ (Chrysalis Music obo Monster Island Music Pub Corp., Chrysalis Music)

 

Last revised 20 March 2016

 

 

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