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The Queen of the USA: why Debbie Harry is still rock’s greatest goddess

Quick quiz: Name the only group to score a bona fide No. 1 single in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s*?

Clue: it’s not The Beatles or the Rolling Stones.

With chart-toppers including Sunday Girl in the ’70s, Call Me in the ’80s and Maria in the ’90s, the correct answer is, of course, the ineffably brilliant Blondie.

Rock’s greatest goddess (with a thousand humble apologies to Kate Bush and Siouxsie Sioux), the feisty blonde ambition of the divine Deborah Harry and her mop-topped male colleagues has certainly paid off. Approaching a whole half century after their debut, Blondie are rightly acclaimed as one of the most influential bands of their generation, and the most commercially successful act of the entire Punk and New Wave scene. Though it didn’t exactly happen overnight.

Deborah Ann Harry (born Angela Trimble in Miami on 1 July 1945) gained entry into the music world as a back up singer for the folk-rock troupe, the Wind In The Willows, which released a self-titled album on Capitol in 1968. But it is in the Manhattan of 1973 that the Blondie story really begins, when, after a ramshackle gig as a member of spiky New York girl trio The Stilettoes, Harry met and fell in love with oddball guitarist Chris Stein, forming a new group out of the club outfit’s remnants, settling on a stable line-up in 1976 with drummer Clem Burke, bassist Gary Valentine and keyboardist Jimmy Destri that would last for a good couple of albums at least.

Building up a sizeable underground following, Harry combined innate sexiness with punk attitude, making her a star for all genders, as much a feminist role model as pop’s ultimate pin-up. Style Icon, Sex Symbol, Punk Goddess but as well as being the much-feted face of Blondie, Debbie Harry has worn many hats. She’s been a Playboy bunny, BBC secretary, Warhol muse, film actress… and she was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar long before The Human League made it sound cool.

And for the record, still, Deborah Harry is not actually called “Blondie,” but there most certainly wouldn’t be a Blondie without her. So cool, so hip, so obviously not a natural blonde but with absolute blonde attitude. All the girls wanted to be her and all the boys wanted to be in her. Well, OK, maybe not all the boys.

In 1986, not long before Debbie had her biggest solo hit with the delicious French Kissin’ In The USA, I bought The Best Of Blondie on a bit of whim. The compilation was a good five years old, the band were on a lengthy hiatus and, like ABBA at the time, had kind of been forgotten about. Not that that bothered contrary young me.

From Atomic to Picture This to Rip Her To Shreds I fell head over heels in love with the diversity of the 14 tracks, and the remainder of my college days at Bletchley Park vibrated to the band’s music incessantly. The Best Of Blondie might actually be the most perfect compilation of pop music ever. So much so that when I was asked by Capitol EMI in Los Angeles to pen some liner notes for the band’s Greatest Hits album in 2002 I didn’t hesitate in pushing them in the direction of an updated version of that meisterwerk, long-deleted mixes and all.

From their modest beginnings in the New York underground of CBGB to their peak of radio and MTV popularity in the early ‘80s, Blondie owed much to their stunning, stellar frontwoman. Just as NYC was embracing the stripped-down, spit-in-your-face ethos of punk music and the oh-so-serious rise of post-punk, Harry somehow made it acceptable for club kids to embrace a wider range of modern music, transforming the eclectic sounds of disco (Heart Of Glass), reggae (The Tide Is High) and hip-hop (Rapture) into radio gold.

Even lesser known tracks like the Sixties girl group pop of In The Flesh (from the band’s 1977 debut album, Blondie) hit a soft spot Down Under and hung around the upper reaches of the Australian chart for a long time, confounding everyone’s expectations and making Oz the first territory in which Blondie achieved a hit single. Debbie was already 32 but could have passed for 22.

While recognition in their homeland was slow off the ground, 1978’s Denis (from the band’s second album, Plastic Letters) raced up the UK charts, only to be halted by Kate’s Bush‘s unstoppable debut Wuthering Heights, though it did hit the top spot in far flung Belgium and New Zealand. Nevertheless, their first entry in the UK charts signalled the beginning of a special relationship between Britain and Blondie that’s still going strong. Debbie would refer to the country as the band’s “second home” and it wasn’t long before the tender timbre of the Valentine special (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear was also making itself felt.

For Parallel Lines, the band’s third album, producer Mike Chapman proved to be a huge boost for the Blondie sound, teaching the band—with second guitarist Frank Infante and Aylesbury’s Nigel Harrison replacing Valentine—the importance of tighter arrangements and backing tracks honed to glossy perfection. Chapman was rather taken with Heart Of Glass, a ragged faux-calypso blues tune which had been around in their live set for years, and reworked the song into a highly commercial disco send-up, one part Kraftwerk two parts Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder. It became a sure-fire No.1 that topped a million sales, not only in the UK, but (hurrah!) in the US as well. Well, if you’re going to have your first hit in your own country you might as well do it in style.

The uniform excellence of the album became such an enormous success that, by the spring and early summer of ’79, they were arguably the biggest pop band on the planet. In Britain there was something approaching Blondiemania when it was estimated one in four homes in the country owned Parallel Lines, its chart dominance prolonged by a succession of hit singles.

The stalker-styled One Way Or Another gave Blondie their second Billboard Top 40 placing, while in Britain three further hits were plucked from this seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of an album: the voyeuristic splendour of Picture This had showed in at No.12, the edgy Hanging On The Telephone (originally recorded by New Wave neurotics The Nerves) crashed at No. 5 in time for Christmas, while the luscious Sunday Girl – Chris Stein’s paean to Debbie’s pet pussy – followed Heart Of Glass to the top that May.

Eat To The Beat, issued in the autumn of 1979, built on Blondie’s all-consuming rise, with expansive American power-pop chords and Clem Burke’s pounding Anglophiliac drumming a noticeable highlight, particularly on the lead track Dreaming, panoramic Brit hit Union City Blue, and the awesome Atomic, a UK No.1 which somehow even managed to make a bass solo sound sexy.

The LP also spawned a US single, The Hardest Part, a surprisingly short faux-funk firecracker featuring Debbie’s filthiest vocal performance, as is evidenced by the sexy Jean Michel Basquiat-daubed video. With pioneering prescience, Blondie made a clip for every track on Eat To The Beat, making them the first band ever to release a full length video album.

Though she was softening the edges of punk, her cooler than cool detachment solidified Harry’s reputation as a confident, versatile frontwoman. Critics didn’t always like it, but Debbie’s drive to adapt Blondie’s sound to changing trends and technologies led to historic experiments and collaborations, like her work with German disco supremo Giorgio Moroder on Call Me, the driving electro-rock theme from American Gigolo.

Call Me spent six weeks at the head of the Hot 100 in spring 1980, and was succeeded by The Tide Is High, a top cover of The Paragons’ reggae classic and another transatlantic No.1. It was an atypically tropical taster for the Autoamerican album, which heralded a more experimental  approach to recording. Ribbit.

The transcendent Rapture followed, becoming the first rap/hip-hop based track to top the Billboard chart (nearly half a decade before Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls), but by 1982’s The Hunter cracks in the band were beginning to show. The singles, Island Of Lost Souls and War Child failed to make the Top 10 (the latter even suffered an airplay ban in Britain thanks to the BBC’s sensitivities over Margaret Thatcher’s controversial Falklands War).

Blondie also suffered the ignominy of the evocative and extremely Bondian For Your Eyes Only, recorded for the James Bond film of the same name, being rejected in favour of Sheena Easton. Just think, that could have been Debs in the movie’s opening credits. By the way, whatever happened to Sheena?

During the band’s subsequent concerts in support of The Hunter there was a feeling that things had run their course, not to mention internal conflicts (second guitarist Frank Infante had been replaced by session musician Eddie Martinez, and bassist Nigel Harrison’s days were numbered) as well as spiralling drug use and Chris Stein‘s worsening health problems.

In a classic case of the changing of the guard, Blondie crashed, burned and disbanded at the end of the Tracks Across America tour, after seeing support band Duran Duran’s popularity skyrocket. Already suffering from low ticket sales, the entire European leg was cancelled.

Shortly after the tour Stein was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease, and Debbie took time out to nurse her partner back to health. After her somewhat experimental solo album Koo Koo, produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers, Harry only released the odd one-off single until the fun and frivolous Rockbird five years later.

1989’s far sharper Def Dumb & Blonde saw her reunited with Mike Chapman in the producer’s chair and spawned her most memorable solo hit, I Want That Man, written by the Thompson Twins. Debbie also starred in the John Waters’ original Hairspray movie with Divine and – with what seemed like pop’s perfect pairing – duetted with Iggy Pop on a cracking cover of Cole Porter’s party standard from High Society, Well, Did You Evah!, which even managed to outclass the Sinatra/Crosby original (no mean feat). The video’s a scream.

A further pair of Debbie (or Deborah as she now prefers) solo albums followed, meeting with fair to piddling degrees of success, the most recent being 2007’s Necessary Evil. In reality, The Most Of All, a fairly comprehensive round-up from 1999 was all most fair-weather fans needed.

On 25 September 1993, Debbie gave a disastrous performance at the brand new G.A.Y. club night at Bang, a Saturday night homo shebang at London’s Astoria 2. Ostensibly to promote her latest LP Debravation and its conveniently named single Strike Me Pink.

Just to put things in perspective, Madonna, the young(er) pretender, was opening her Girlie Show world tour at the 72,000 capacity Wembley Stadium the very same night. In this clip, which aired live the night before, Debbie talks about the two very contrasting shows:

The officious organiser Jeremy Joseph wouldn’t let Debbie on stage until concert goers such as myself and housemates Judi and John had made the journey across town to the intimate venue at Charing Cross Road. Naturally, we were delighted. Well, not for long. Poor Debs used the delay to get absolutely wasted, and eventually stumbled on stage in the small hours barely coherent and barely able to stand up. Something had to give, and that was her solo career.

After a further humiliation when seminal synth duo the Pet Shop Boys declined to produce her, in the mid 1990s Debbie was thrown a lifeline when Chris suggested they put the band back together. They had stopped being a couple in the late ’80s, though their professional working relationship was and is still as busy as ever.

Amid a roll-call of shiny and new female singers and girl-fronted groups who cited Debbie as an important influence (Garbage, Hole, The Cardigans, Annie Lennox and, er, Madonna, to name but a few) – a whopping 17 years after their last album Blondie, with the original core line up of Debbie, Chris, Clem and Jimmy, were back!

The release of No Exit in 1999 proved that Blondie were still a creative force to be reckoned with. The band also managed to achieve something they could never quite manage before: entering the British singles chart straight in at No.1! In a market saturated by manufactured teen pop, the headline-grabbing success of the infectious Maria made the feat all the more remarkable. Blondie were the only group to have UK No.1 songs in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

And as of 2020 they’re still the biggest selling American band in the history of the British charts.

“That wouldn’t surprise me,” sticksmith supremo Clem Burke responded, when I told him of the factoid during my interview with him in Cuba last year.

“I’ve never seen that in print but I would think that’s probably true. Blondie is viewed a little differently in the UK. It’s almost like we’re a cult band in the States, which is strange because we’ve had four Number Ones. It felt like the UK in general were looking for new pop stars; they were looking for a new Bolan, a new Bowie, and I always felt like Debbie filled that void, and it just so happened that she was a woman.

I equate Debbie with a David or a Mick Jagger or a Jim Morrison. She’s just as talented as any of those people, honestly. I truly believe that. The amount of songs she’s written, her voice, her ideas… conceptually. The creative process is an open canvas. If someone has an idea, we work on it as a band, see if it makes sense once the track is completed. We all contribute, and it’s a good mix, but obviously there’s no Blondie without Debbie Harry.” Indeed, what a legacy this band has left behind. They were pioneers in the art of “crossing-over” and combining different styles of music – unprecedented at the time, though it is now very much the norm.

Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Blondie sound has hardly dated at all, and their run of classic pop singles is one of the most accomplished in music history. And they’re still going strong. Many seasoned observers acclaimed 2017’s Pollinator, the band’s 11th studio album, as their most accomplished work since they reformed.

Debbie’s own place in history is immense. She was once called a photogenic suffragette by the writer Julie Burchill, but Harry wasn’t just a pretty face. She possessed style and attitude in abundance, and it made for an irresistible package. So did she want to make feminism sexy?

“Yeah, in a small way. Lyrically, I wasn’t interested in taking the position of the underdog. I find it strange to be considered any kind of role model. I certainly wasn’t the first female singer to have an attitude and do my own thing. But there was definitely a shift around the time of punk and I was part of that shift. Along with Patti Smith and Siouxsie Sioux, I was changing the way women in bands were perceived. It was a whole new era and we were like warriors. I wasn’t going to be told by my record company how to look. I didn’t have a stylist advising me what outfit would make an impact.

“I’d grown up with a fascination for movie stars like Bardot and Monroe, whose sexuality wasn’t manufactured in any way. That naturalness was appealing to me. And it worked. Even at the time I could see that the way I looked was crucial to the appeal of Blondie. I think it’s great what the likes of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus are doing. They take a lot of flak about how they present their sexuality – but we should cherish them, not criticise them.”

Pop history hasn’t always been entirely fair to Debbie and Blondie, though. 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.”

So while we’re on the subject of that famously lustrous hair then: Thanks to Harry’s bleach-blonde locks, the colour became a popular choice for women everywhere, but her natural charisma, sex appeal and freedom haven’t been replicated since. Amazing to behold, she’ll always be beautiful, she’ll always be Blondie.

Happy birthday ma’am.

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), was published through HarperCollins in 2019. Click da link

*Queen did have UK chart-toppers in the same three decades but their 1980s entry Under Pressure was a collaboration with David Bowie, who wrote most of the lyrics so hardly a bona fide entry, sorry and all that. The Bee Gees had been the first band to garner three decade-spanning No.1s in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.

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