“You got a heart of glass, a heart of stone. Just you wait til I get you home…” – Pet Shop Boys
I’m on my way home.
Yesterday I came to the very end of my US travels, for this year and, I’d imagine, for quite some considerable time, especially now that I managed to complete (with one or two hiccups) my long-time-gestated 50-state marathon mission.
I ended the two month travelogue across America having dinner and putting the world to rights at an Italian restaurant in the East Village with two fabulous native New Yorkers that may well be familiar to Blondie and Bowie followers, former MainMan mates and colleagues Donna Destri and Tony Zanetta.
I’ve been coming to New York City since my very first Stateside visit in 1995, but this was the first time I’d stayed in the artsy, ‘edgy’ environs of Alphabet City, a bohemian enclave of Lower Manhattan’s East Village that inspired ABC’s 1987 album of the same name. Coincidentally, the four main north-south thoroughfares through the alphabetical neighbourhood are the lettered Avenues A, B, C… and D, hence the moniker.
According to local legend, back in the latter 20th Century the “A” in Avenue A stood for “alive,” while Avenue “B” was for “breathing,” Avenue “C” for “comatose” and Avenue “D” for “dead.”
You get the picture?
“I remember when everything past Avenue A was taking your life into your hands,” says Lenny Kaye. “There’s scary areas, but you’re taking the subway from 72nd Street through Times Square and in some ways you dig that. Times Square in retrospect was quite a jungle, as I would imagine Soho might have been at some time or some of the far reaches of Notting Hill. This is life in cities. London in the Blitz was much worse than having some no-go zone where drugs were rampant and buildings were on fire.”
Today, in a spiffier era, that guide might need an update. Avenue A, where a single square foot in a new condo can go for more than the monthly rent of an entire apartment elsewhere, “A lot of money” might be more apt. Even the dodgy D is now “developing.”
But critics are focused more on a word beginning with G: gentrification, a ubiquitous lightning-rod term in a middle-class suburb. And while a certain sprucing up has taken place, as always, there’s often a special reverence for the “good old days” when everything was rougher, harder, more real, more raw. Those were days without filler (literally and metaphorically; hi Madonna!) and everything cut closer to the bone.
It’s a curious era to look back on, the New York of the decades immediately preceding my first visit. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, the city was a colourful place, and pretty much the world capital of the music scene. A place where the fringes of society festered and evolved into a creative stew, despite the fact that the city’s unemployment and drug-fuelled crime rates were surging and, uncollected garbage perfumed the streets.
In many parts of town, abandoned buildings seemed to outnumber occupied ones, and the moneyed class rarely ventured below the significant demarcation line of 14th Street. But these grim circumstances, and more specifically the dirt-cheap rent that ensued, were what allowed a bohemian scene to flourish, where there was ample time to experiment with life and art.
In these dark corners, a committed punk and new-wave scene embraced the city’s rustique charm and rejected the poppier disco hits that dominated the airwaves.
The sparsely patrolled streets of the Lower East Side (‘LES’ to locals) was where a lot of America’s early immigrants arrived and settled before moving further afield, making it a true melting pot of cuisines, ideas, and cultures and vultures.
In 1976, LES was famously namechecked in song, by punk power-pop practitioners Blondie, on In The Flesh, a velvety slowie from the band’s self-titled debut album. Debbie Harry’s mooning over a bit of eye candy she sees on the street:
“Went walking one day on the Lower East Side
Met you with a girlfriend, you were so divine
She said, ‘Hands off this one sweetie, this boy is mine.’
I couldn’t resist you, I’m not deaf, dumb, and blind.”
Undeterred by that passive-aggressive “sweetie”, Harry spends the rest of the song yearning to be “warm and soft, hot and close … in the flesh”.
It’s simply gorgeous.
Emerging in 1974 from an embryonic incarnation called the Stilettos/Stillettoes (the spelling fluctuated even more than their wardrobe), Blondie are as inextricable a part of New York as, say, Frank Sinatra, Lou Reed or the Twin Towers. Now he and they have faded away, but Debbie, who turned 74 earlier this month, and the boys continue to radiate and celebrate their 45th anniversary in 2019, their status bolstered by their impressive longevity.
Looking to join a band in lieu with a burgeoning bohemian Greenwich Village scene, Brooklyn boy Chris Stein was a blues obsessive who’d suffered a breakdown while still in his teens, following his father’s death and a period of heavy LSD use.
In 1973, Stein began playing guitar in The Stillettoes and quickly became involved with one of the band’s singers, Deborah Harry, a former Playboy bunny girl who’d grown up in Hawthorne New Jersey. Eventually the couple left the band to start Angel and the Snake, then switched to Blondie in 1975 after Harry’s nickname, who takes up the story.
“We met at the Bobern Tavern, at a Stilettos show. It was a rather incestuous, small scene at the time. And CBGB had just started having bands. Up until that time it had been more bluegrass and folk, and occasionally comedy. There was no interest from record companies. The audiences were small, intimate. We would invite friends. It started with the Warhol Factory, and grew from there. And then it opened up when the Ramones got into town. Talking Heads moved from Providence to the Bowery, where I lived.”
“At the time the Lower East Side was very funky. There were all these empty buildings, people living in squats, and all that kind of stuff. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, but I’ve always been attracted to demolished, broken-down stuff, and that was all around.
“Everybody calls me Blondie, and actually I came up with the name… because I had bleached my hair, and it became obvious. But it just seemed, you know, inappropriate for me to take title to the name. We all shared in the corporation. I told [the boys] to bleach their hair! I tried; in the very beginning I said, “Everybody should bleach their hair!” But they said ‘Noooo! Noooo!’”
Blondie really started to formulate after on-the-hop Bayonner (and future Eurythmic) Clem Burke answered a Voice advert, reading, “Freak energy rock drummer wanted,” and as the last auditioned of forty stickmen, he struck platinum: “He definitely was a wannabe rock star,” Debbie recalled. “He came in looking cool to the audition and he played well. He seemed to know a lot about music, and he was into the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes, and the Ventures, all the stuff we were into.”
As for Burke, he said it wasn’t really much of an audition. “We just talked, more or less,” he said. “I just knew that she was it. I was looking for my Bowie, my Mick Jagger, my Bryan Ferry, and it just turned out to be a woman instead of a guy.”
Blondie had their detractors almost from the get-go, though, most famously being dismissed by local scenesters like the pious punk ‘poetess’ Patti Smith. With typical venom, old horse-face decried that the band’s unashamedly pop aesthetic of frothy glamour didn’t chime with the art punk of grungy downtown Manhattan.
Blondie were too kitsch, too camp, and Debbie Harry too much of a heart-stopping bombshell: new wave’s answer to Marilyn Monroe a petite pin-up with luminous, porcelain skin, killer cheekbones and those famously heart-shaped lips that could give boiling asparagus an erotic charge, all while looking too bored to live.
Patti, on the other hand, had brittle bird’s nest hair, slightly crossed eyes and always liked like she needed a good wash. You do the maths.
In The Flesh encapsulated everything that irritated the early punks: on one level, it’s a swooning tribute to early-‘60s girl groups, with an opiated chorus that instantly embeds itself in the memory; on another, it was a shop window for Debbie Harry’s ‘Blondie’ character – a cool, knowing siren whose deadpan vocals promised heartbreak for anyone who fell for her.
Harry was a fan of groups like the Shangri-Las and Phil Spector’s protégés the Ronettes – hood girls whose toughness concealed their vulnerability – and adapted elements of their image into her Blondie persona.
Fittingly, In the Flesh was a homage to them – steeped in gently cooing girl-group harmonies and simultaneously radiating sweetness, but going several lustful steps further than any early girl group would have dared – and one that could be taken as a daydreamy love song, or as something more base.
Inexplicably, the track also happened to be relegated to the flipside of X Offender, their debut single, though thanks to a characteristically loveable blunder by Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum, head honcho of Australian music programme Countdown, In The Flesh gained the band valuable screen time and became their first hit anywhere in the world.
In the early part of their relationship, Stein had moved into Harry’s no frills apartment at 105 Christopher Street, situated in the West Village gaybourhood (scene of the 1969 Stonewall Riots) of Little Italy – “very small rooms, looking out on an air shaft, nothing very scenic about it,” remembers Harry. “The old guys would be sitting out in front of the social clubs and all that,” says Stein.
“One time, I was downstairs when a bunch of guys from the neighbourhood started beating the hell out of this black kid who had wandered into the block. There was still this heavy racial component and turf mentality going on. Right at that moment, Debbie pulls up in her car and starts yelling, “Stop, stop! Call the police!” That was bad, that was verboten. After that, we were persona non grata in the neighbourhood. The apartment got broken into a couple of times, and we left.”
Chris and Debbie found themselves a LES loft space one block from CBGB, the famed ex-hillbillyjoint-turned-music club which — after the collapse of the nearby Mercer Arts Center — would become the main local dive bar where unsigned bands who played their original songs could play, and to where the members of the fledgling Blondie dragged their instruments down the street on a regular basis.
For such an important, formative venue in the history of Blondie live, pretty much everyone agrees that CBGB’s — formerly Hilly’s On The Bowery — was a dump, a habitué with a piss and shit stench that repulsed even the most hardened rock club customers.
The apartment was hardly all mod cons either; located on one floor of a four-story building at 266 Bowery, above a liquor and restaurant supply store called Globe Slicers, which, despite its slightly disturbing moniker, has been in business since 1947. The liquor licence has long gone, but the rest remains, looking remarkably unchanged. Chris looks back…
“The loft was also definitely haunted. All of that kind of textbook stuff went on, things getting knocked off shelves, tapping in the walls. This was the last big music movement before the digital era maybe on the hardcore scene and the old stuff that came out of CBGB. It was just so different; it took years before we got any attention. That made a difference in the quality. Now as soon as something happens everyone knows about it immediately.”
“A lot of the buildings look the same now as they did then, but the cultural change is much greater. People have to make a lot of money to live there now. I never had a job coming up with Blondie, but it was cheap to live in Manhattan. Whenever I’m in the East Village, there’s always a knot of people looking at the fucking Sex In The City brownstone. There are millions of people here every day just wandering around. That wasn’t happening in the ’70s. The streets were less crowded because there wasn’t as much going on.”
The loft has been described variously as being filthy, decrepit, graffiti-covered and lacking central heating, and would serve as the band’s unofficial headquarters after the band’s new bassist Gary Valentine moved onto the couple’s floor, and thereafter Blondie’s Loft would be where the members would meet up and rehearse, or crash out after a long evening out. Stein has said that the rent for the entire building was a paltry $300 a month. Clem Burke:
“We went to CBGB five to seven days a week. It was a place to go, it was the thing to do, it stayed open late. We would rehearse at the loft and just live there, and sleep on the floor. Or sleep with other girls. Things would happen, you know, anything goes. I was a teenager. But it was primarily Chris and Debbie’s residence.”
The building’s unofficial landlord was Off-Off-Broadway performer Benton Quin, whom Valentine described as “a good artist, a flamboyant creative fellow, with all the eccentricities that go with that.” He rented the bottom loft floor to the bandmates and lived directly above them in a space littered with cans of urine because there was no bathroom on his level.”
“Benton was a real character,” adds Chris. “He made a lot of cartoon-like cutout things that would get pummelled onstage by Debbie, like during Kung Fu Girls. He also made the leather briefs that Debbie wore with that Vultures T‑shirt in Punk magazine.” Clem again:
“It was a close relationship with Benton and the band. It was a little micro world of our own in that loft building. Debbie helped Benton bleach his body hair, because he wanted it to be blond, and he had a lot of body hair—you know, he had all these different strange goings on.” The loft was cluttered with Quin’s large paintings, and Harry and Stein placed occult bric-a-brac on the walls.”
“Chris and I shared some interests,” Gary said, “like horror films and comic books. He was keen on voodoo and pentagrams. Actually, Chris was kind of a goth in the beginning, wearing eyeliner and silver skulls.”
Another designer, Stephen Sprouse, lived on the top floor of their Bowery loft building, and met Debbie after first seeing her feeding a feral cat that lived in the ceiling. They met somewhere near the toaster oven in the building’s communal kitchen, and also shared a bathroom.
A graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design, Sprouse loved working with bright colours, and soon became known for his neon and day-glo Pop Art clothing designs. Indeed, his off-the-cuff punky ideas have been noted as doing for New York what Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood did for London in the mid-‘70s at their Kings Road boutique, Sex.
In perhaps the most obvious signpost of gentrification, CBGB is now a swish John Varvatos clothing boutique, though thankfully they’ve retained a little of the original wall ephemera (below).
One Monday morning in January of 1977, the New York Times wedged a tiny review into the corner of page seventeen. Blondie, it proclaimed, “graduated into full membership in the upper reaches of the New York underground/punk rock circuit this weekend at Max’s Kansas City.”
Contrasting the show with the previous spring, when it “appeared that Blondie was more of a nice idea than a successful band,” Harry is described as “an exact visual counterpart of her band’s eclecticism.”
A month later, in a more thorough report on “that complex of ‘underground’ rock bands spawned in a few lower Manhattan clubs,” the same writer praised the leading groups on the downtown scene, including Patti Smith, the Ramones, and Talking Heads, with Television getting special attention.
But “of all the New York bands, the one that might win commercial success the soonest is Blondie,” the writer states, citing the one-two punch of Harry’s “happy willingness” to use her “striking punk-sexpot good looks” and the band’s “clever, half-parodistic, half-affectionate” approach to their music.
“There was very little preconception with anything that went into Blondie, including what we look like, says Stein. “And certainly the guys were all drawn to the mod look, the mod aesthetic from the UK. I grew up seeing the Rat Pack and James Bond, with all the tailored suits with the thin lapels and everybody was rebelling against the wide lapels that had come out of the disco era and the ’70s. So we were all attracted to narrow lapels.”
“It gave me a ferocious feeling of being antisocial,” says Harry now, remembering the gifts bequeathed to her by the nitty gritty scene of four decades earlier. A brief and sulphurous flare that cemented her in the public mind and left her with a career and an enduring legend. “It enabled me to take a different stand, lyrically, to what most pop songs were about. It was about human nature and society and looking at it in a different light.”
A special mention should be made of the other standout from that delectable debut: Rip Her To Shreds catalogues a female rival’s faults over a tune that sounds like an inept Rolling Stones cover, with some squeaky synth punking up the chorus. The off-hand viciousness of the song was strangely exciting. You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of a woman like this.
The song is the sharpest example of a comic-book spite-fest, made camper by Jimmy Destri’s Farfisa organ and Chris Stein’s surfy guitar; you can picture Debbie on a Bowery street corner in her leather jacket and stilettos, sneering at the retreating figure of Miss Groupie Supreme (very strongly ‘rumoured’ to be Sid Vicious’s soon to be dead girlfriend, Nancy Spungen).
“It’s so dirty and menacing,” Harry later said of the song. “It’s what we all do when we’re getting catty – that’s what the New York scene was like. There’s toughness, but a lot of affection as well. It’s like being roasted.”
Sometime in the fall of ’76, Debbie and Chris would move from their Bowery loft, relocating to the top floor of a brownstone on 17th Street, between Sixth and Seventh, and then a penthouse on West 58th Street between Seventh and Eighth, while Valentine would move in with his girlfriend. He would be leaving the band within the next year too.
The above picture Stein took of Harry in their kitchen, after they’d returned from tour to discover the apartment had been scorched by an electrical fire.
The singer put on an old gown supposedly worn by Marilyn Monroe, which appeared to have melted, and set a frying pan on fire. The inference was clear: the Blondie kitchen was always more of a stage than a staging area.
Enter Frank Infante (guitar, second from right) and Nigel Harrison (far right), a Brit from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, down the road from where I was living at the time.
One of Debbie’s most treasured possessions in those earliest days was a 1967 Chevrolet Camaro coupe, which she used to delight in driving at all hours, despite the dodgy mechanics.
“It was turquoise, teal colour, four on the floor. It originally belonged to my mother. The car got stolen a couple of times and then abandoned. It probably looked a whole lot better than it was. A Camaro was a hot car. One time, I know the car got abandoned because the linkage was bad and it got stuck in reverse. That was interesting, driving round New York in reverse. You took your chances. Of course, New York’s changed now because it’s all very gentrified.”
Unsurprisingly, Blondie recorded every one of their nascent albums in New York: the eponymous debut and Plastic Letters (1977) were produced by Richard Gottehrer at Plaza Sound Studios, on the eighth floor of the Radio City Music Hall building on the Avenue of the Americas.
Kicking off the commercial heights of the four-album Mike Chapman era, Parallel Lines (1978) was a product of the Record Plant at West 44th Street, on the edge of Times Square. After British hits such as Denis and (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear (the latter scribed by outgoing bassist Gary Valentine), Chapman reconstructed the group’s sound primarily for the American market, and Heart of Glass became a huge worldwide hit thanks in no small part to its appeal to club audiences.
The raggedy punk band from CBGBs had made the final step to world domination by crossing over to the huge and lucrative disco market, popularised by Studio 54. Though there was a class distinction between the downtown punk scene and the disco scene, as Stein recalls:
“Yeah, there was definitely a disconnect. The disco scene in Manhattan was a little more high-end with the clubs, but when you went out in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens it was much more funky and working class. A little bit like the movie Saturday Night Fever.”
Nevertheless, the hits continued – Picture This, One Way Or Another, Sunday Girl, Dreaming, Union City Blue, Atomic, to name just a few. And following the all-conquering Parallel Lines, Blondie used both The Power Station in Midtown and Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village for 1979’s Eat To The Beat, of which this filthy faux-funk firecracker was a highlight.
1981’s Autoamerican, Clem Burke’s favourite Blondie album, was recorded in Los Angeles, at the insistence of producer-cum-“dictator” Chapman, who lived there. Get him. However, Blondie maintained a visual link to their hometown with the album’s cover art being taken from a photo shoot of the band posing on a roof at 300 Mercer Street in NoHo, near Broadway and East 8th Street.
Most memorably, though, there was Rapture, with its downtown-blasé, Fab 5 Freddy-saluting bridge. Freddy was a visual artist and filmmaker who helped found not only hip-hop but New York’s street art community, and was the Brooklyn-based bridge between the city’s uptown graffiti and early rap scene and the downtown art and punk movement.
A groundbreaking moment in popular music, Blondie’s final American No.1 single led to it becoming the first hip-hop video to appear on the white-breadiest, earliest iteration of MTV.
The promo for Rapture also featured the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat manning the decks (the fellow Lower East Sider stood in for an absent Grandmaster Flash, who’s also name checked in the song), who Debbie mouths the words to in the video. F5F is there though, spray-painting the word ‘rap’ on a wall in the next sequence where she utters complete gibberish about a man from Mars who “shoots you dead then eats your head.” Quite.
1982’s The Hunter, Blondie’s difficult sixth album (you know, the one that featured a rejected James Bond theme), saw the group return to recording in New York, for a spell at The Hit Factory, the famed studios on West 54th Street where everything from The Stooges’ 1969 debut, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life and, later, bits of Bowie’s Nineties sets Black Tie White Noise and Outside were laid down.
After a 17-year enforced hiatus that spawned a trio of Harry solo albums to varying degrees of success, Blondie returned in 1999 with the solid No Exit, buoyed by its lead single, the infectious Maria (written by the band’s other founder, keyboardist Jimmy Destri) shooting straight to the top of the British charts, a feat they didn’t even manage back in their heyday.
If I can offer a summation, latter day Blondie reunion records seem to alternate between actual band albums (No Exit and Panic of Girls) and EDM-lite programming albums (The Curse of Blondie and Ghosts of Download).
Curse (2003) was an overlong slog, with little standing out other than the single Good Boys, a dynamic ditty that referenced the chorus of Queen’s We Will Rock You and landed the band in a whole host of legal tussles with its writer Brian May.
Panic (2011), recorded in Woodstock and Hoboken rather than the usual Manhattan, was a decent album, albeit with some questionable production choices and a couple of clunkers, not least covers of The Beatles and Michael Jackson chestnuts that were thankfully relegated to bonus tracks.
Ghosts sounded generic because it was largely pieced together on computers. But again, some accomplished songs, particularly first single A Rose By Any Name, which saw Debbie team up with The Gossip’s head honcho Beth Ditto.
A kooky cover of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax was intriguing but ultimately pointless. As a crafty copyright claiming exercise, the album was billed as Blondie 4(0) Ever and paired with Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux, a second album of 10 classic Chrysalis era Blondie songs faithfully re-recorded body-snatch style, plus the effervescent Maria.
2017’s Pollinator, with its punchy production by John Congleton, is a homage to themselves and to their New York roots, unfurling some of the most resonant music Blondie have recorded during their second act. It felt like the band finally learned how to edit themselves for the first time since they reunited.
Blondie’s commitment to tense and jumpy pop is a strong as ever, even though Harry’s voice is more grounded some four decades after the band’s debut. Yet despite the eclectic collaborations in songwriting (Johnny Marr, Sia, Charli XCX) and guest appearances (John Roberts, Joan Jett, Laurie Anderson), the album sounds very much like a ‘band’ record, with some of that classic Blondie sound being injected back into their work.
It’s as if they decided to make a classic Blondie album with a glistening contemporary sheen, but, for whatever reason, didn’t feel like authoring too many of the tunes themselves. In that respect it’s the Heathen of their illustrious catalogue, and the opening four tracks on Pollinator are telling in that respect; all are hook-driven, all put melody before all else.
Talking of which, why the band have never worked with fellow New Yorker Tony Visconti (and producer of said Bowie album) is something of a mystery. He’s practically neighbours with some of them.
Blondie always were a pop group, regardless of how many punk icons they kept the company of in their CBGBs pomp. Generally, their songs usually fall into a few different camps; rock, punk, disco, reggae and Sixties girl groups being the main ones. They went for a kind of nu-old disco with Pollinator’s first single, the fantastically frivolous Fun, co-scribed by David Sitek (TV On The Radio, Beck, Nine Inch Nails).
However, the wonderfully evocative follow-up, Long Time, with its electro echoes of Heart of Glass’ flickering Kraftwerkian riff and youthful “racing down the Bowery” lyrics, is the closest they have come to ‘classic’ in, well, a long time.
A joint effort from Debs and and Dev (Hynes a.k.a Blood Orange, Lightspeed Champion), Long Time was utterly irresistible, and the buzz around the single helped propel Pollinator to No.4 on the UK chart. Blondie got their mojo rising again.
Less doom and more destiny then. And this one chugs along on a simple, brain-Velcro riff, full of winking wordplay.
Pop history hasn’t always been entirely fair to Blondie. Possessors of some of the finest singles their generation, their place in rock’s backpages wasn’t always as set in stone as, say, the Clash or the Sex Pistols.
Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne suggests, in his definitive tome Yeah Yeah Yeah, that some music critics could never accept the suggestion a “cracking blonde was capable of writing some of the best pop songs of the era.”
However, there has been a definite shift in public opinion and, generally, a greater respect for Debbie and the boys. Back in 1985, when I purchased my first record by the band, the honed, immaculate The Best of Blondie, they were an almost forgotten entity. At college I’d get comments like:
“Why did you buy that?”
“Blondie? Isn’t she a leper now?”
Perhaps people are finally realising they should treasure the music legends we still have, since so many A-listers have left us. Indeed, I remember a conversation while staying with my sister in Toronto, just after catching Blondie’s performance at Ottawa Bluesfest in 2014 (which you can read about here), and she remarked, very perceptively:
“Everyone likes Blondie now, don’t they? Just like everyone suddenly likes Bowie.”
Coincidentally, Magic Shop Studios, the SoHo institution where David secretly recorded his last two albums, 2013’s The Next day and 2016’s Blackstar (conveniently close to his home on Lafayette Street) has sadly also closed its doors. Though the studio’s final act were Blondie, with the Pollinator sessions being the last recorded work done there. And for a band that typifies New York City like no other that’s entirely fitting.
Theirs is a rock ‘n’ roll story that has got the lot: serial rip-offs, spiralling drug excesses, intra-band litigation, personal feuds, a weird, potentially fatal illness, and some of the most perfectly formed pop music to have come out of the New York punk era, or any era, come to that. With 11 albums under Blondie’s belt, there’s no danger of them putting their feet up just yet. Unlike some.
Steve Pafford, co-compiler and essayist of Blondie Greatest Hits for Capitol EMI
Face It, the much anticipated autobiography of Debbie Harry (with an introduction by Chris Stein), is published through HarperCollins in October