Friday 23 February 2018

'I don't know if we recognised the feminist aspects of Blondie at the time'- Chris Stein and Debbie Harry talk life in the band

It's a fine line between nostalgia act and creative force, but Blondie have managed to walk it with aplomb

Hearts of class: Chris Stein and Debbie Harry of Blondie. The band have just released a new album, Pollinator. Photo: Dave J Hogan
Hearts of class: Chris Stein and Debbie Harry of Blondie. The band have just released a new album, Pollinator. Photo: Dave J Hogan
Riding first wave of American Punk: Debbie Harry of Blondie

Neil McCormick

Debbie Harry is surely the most glamorous 71-year-old in music. On a bright spring afternoon, the Blondie frontwoman and punk sex symbol arrives at a London hotel dressed in sporty layers of grey and beige, her bottle-blonde hair artfully unkempt, her heavy eyes and cupid bow lips immaculately made up. The effect is icily cool until she laughs - which is often - and her heart-shaped face lights up with delight, as if she is surprised by her own capacity for amusement.

She looks so fantastic that I can't resist telling her so. "Thank you," she says, beaming. "I like compliments. I have an ego. You know, I've gotten kind of vain over the years with everybody commenting on my being such a beauty!"

Harry has never been coy about the secret behind her apparently eternal youth, freely admitting that she's no stranger to cosmetic surgery. "I'm careful about it, but you need it to stay in the game," she says, adding that a punishing fitness regime, involving thrice-weekly sessions of "diabolical twisting and stretching", is her other chief weapon in the battle against time.

"In some ways I feel better about myself now, more comfortable in my own skin. But it's a tricky business."

Riding first wave of American Punk: Debbie Harry of Blondie
Riding first wave of American Punk: Debbie Harry of Blondie

Sitting beside Harry is Blondie guitarist Chris Stein. At 67, he's slouchy, silver-haired, unshaven, with a shambling, bookish demeanour. I apologise for not also complimenting him on his appearance. "I'm used to it," he shrugs. "I'd be quite content to be a brain in a bottle."

Blondie first emerged on to a 70s New York punk scene that embraced progressive, feminist values - yet Harry's pin-up appeal was always central to their marketing. "The music scene was a boys' club. We saw that early on," says Stein. "Mick Jagger could come out at Madison Square Garden riding on a giant c***," he adds, referring to the notorious inflatable phallus that featured in the Rolling Stones' 1975 tour of America. "If Debbie came out on a giant pussy, everybody would have been running for the exits."

Harry hoots with laughter at this image. "Right from the beginning, I definitely wanted to take a position of strength and not vulnerability. Philosophically that was always my stance and I was quite stubborn about it."

"I don't know if we recognised the feminist aspects of Blondie at the time," says Stein. "But Debbie had her own style and it made men nervous. The same people cheering Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop could be very critical of Debbie's overt sexuality."

Stein and Harry were lovers when they founded Blondie in 1974, along with bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy O'Connnor, both from Harry's previous band, the Stilettos. Within a year, they had evolved into a five-piece, with Jimmy Destri joining on keyboards, Smith replaced by Gary Valentine and O'Connor by Clem Burke, who remains the band's drummer today.

Their pulsing electro beats, teamed with Harry's ice-cool vocals, saw the band ride the first wave of American punk in 1976. They went on to have hits like 'Heart of Glass', 'Call Me' and 'Atomic', before breaking up in 1982 when Stein contracted a rare autoimmune disease. Harry took time off to nurse him back to health and, though the couple separated in 1989, they remain close friends as well as bandmates.

Harry's solo career never quite took off and in the subsequent years she drifted through a series of film, theatre and musical projects. Blondie reunited in 1997 and within two years were back at the top of the charts. In the two decades since, they have trod a fine line between nostalgia act and genuinely creative force, adding five new albums to the six from Blondie's original phase.

Blondie's latest album, Pollinator, is as good as anything from their back catalogue, a punchy, hook-crammed set co-written with a stellar line-up of contemporary artists (including Charli XCX, Sia and Johnny Marr) that draws on musical strands from their glory days. "We have to satisfy an existing audience, so there is a limit to how much spaced-out s*** you can get away with," says Stein. "The point has always been to be creative."

Despite selling over 40 million albums, Blondie insist they have been short-changed by the music business and are far from financially secure. "Within my own psyche, I have always felt like an artist," says Harry. "If I wasn't still doing music, what else would I do? There are times when you wish you didn't have to work... but really, it would be horrible."

Stein describes the dynamic within the band as being like "a democratic monarchy" in which "Debbie is the queen". "Of course, I am," cackles Harry. But it's clear that both she and Blondie rely just as much on Stein. "This is an unusual kind of coupling, I know," acknowledges Harry. "Chris has a strong feminine nature. I have a strong masculine side. It was always a good fit."

Since 1999, Stein has been married to the actress Barbara Sicuranza; they live in New York with their two teenage daughters. Harry lives alone in the city and has no children. "I was afraid of having a family of my own," she says. "I didn't think that I would be a good parent. I came out of such a strenuous home life, the idea of being tied into that was terribly unsettling and made me very unhappy."

Harry was born in Miami, Florida, in 1945 and adopted by a New Jersey couple when she was three years old. "I didn't have blood relatives to see how they were ageing and show me what I was going to turn into," she says. "So I'm ageing my own way."

She left home in the mid-60s, working as a go-go dancer and waitress in Hugh Hefner's Playboy Club (complete with Bunny ears), while releasing one album in 1968 with hippy collective Wind in the Willows.

"I wasn't going to be the kind of woman who raises a family and lives in the suburbs," she says. "I wanted to be my own person. That was a big transgression. I guess that's about as feminist as you can be."

Of her current romantic life, she will only say "I have my moments". She has previously described herself as bisexual but, in a recent interview, said those days were behind her. "As beings, our sexuality is much more fluid than anyone would have thought," she says now. "You could have an identity online now that is no sex at all. Nobody would know."

On Blondie's new single, 'Long Time', written by Harry with digital whizz kid Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange), she repeatedly poses the question "Are you happy?"

"Big, big question, isn't it?" says Harry. So is she? "Sometimes, yes. I sometimes even experience joy, which I found to be miraculous the first time it happened." This epiphany occurred in 2000, while Harry was appearing in an off-Broadway production of the late British playwright Sarah Kane's Crave.

"I have a very clear memory of the moment. I was walking in the West Village, and I realised I am exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to do, something that I had longed for most of my childhood and adult life. Oh God, was that great! I don't expect to experience that all the time. But it makes you feel it's all worthwhile."

Blondie will support Phil Collins at the Aviva Stadium on June 25. Pollinator is released today

Irish Independent

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