Today, March 8, happens to be International Women’s Day. So if I can paraphrase the irrepressible Ali G, one in two people is a woman, so it’s about time you got to know about them. Feminism simply is the desire of equality among women and men. It strives to bring the woman’s oppression to light, and to fix historical inequalities.
Keeping things strictly dancefloor, I’ve decided to list my ten favourite female singers living in the world today. Music makes us who we are and there are certain women that helped shape me, my taste in music… their songs marking many memorable stages of my life. Who made an indelible mark on your life – then and now?
In ranking music’s greatest living women, I weighed up factors including range, style, artistic achievement, impact on future generations, and the popularity of their recorded output. What these formidable females have in common is that without them, music history would look a lot different, and a lot worse.
All of these women are extraordinary, and compiling any kind of list isn’t easy, not just because what makes one performer “better” than another is almost totally subjective. I tried ranking them according to personal preference but had to admit defeat, so I took the easy route and listed them alphabetically. As per usual it’s a personal and pretty eclectic list – some are incontestable, some entirely up to me. Anyway, with added footnotes from the times I’ve been lucky enough to catch each and every one of these grand dames live in concert, here’s my top ten then…
1. Annie Lennox
“The ‘inferior sex’ got a new exterior.”
Who’s that girl? As the song says, cooler than ice cream and warmer than the sun. Utterly unique, striking, spectacular, in the 1980s Annie Lennox gave androgyny a whole new meaning. How could she be so feminine, so beautiful in such ‘boys’ wear like that sharp-cut business suit she wore for Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), the Eurythmics breakthrough record in 1983? That she was quoted as saying “I love to be individual. To step beyond gender.” sums up her entire oeuvre.
And what timing. 1983 was the year of the second British Invasion in the American Billboard charts, spearheaded by David Bowie, Duran Duran, Wham! and, most importantly in this context, Culture Club led by the gender-bending boy-girl-rag-doll, Boy George. Still in their first year of success, it’s easy to forget how deliciously deviant Annie appeared, coming over like the slinky secret lovechild of Grace Jones and Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust alter-ego; an androgynous feline chameleon with a shorn shock of a bright orange buzz-cut, singing and looking like she’d been beamed down from Mars.
The Sweet Dreams album rose to third spot in Britain, and when the deliciously daring Love Is A Stranger – for me the much more impressive single – was re-promoted and hit the top ten the duo’s place in British music history was assured. With its impressively insistent Roland 606 beat, the song sounds as fresh and provocative as ever. After seeing the video to Love Is a Stranger, one aghast US critic branded Lennox “a youth-corrupting transvestite”. I know, right.
Could this “pervy synth duo” (copyright, future Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, writing in Smash Hits) – tempting you to jump into that open car and perform unspeakable acts on the leather seats with that bewigged ‘lady’ of the night – really have risen from the ashes of the critically-derided Tourists? The same flouncy Sixties pastichists known for covering Dusty Springfield songs to get a hit? Oh yes. And how.
Aberdeen native, Ann Lennox had met David Stewart when she was working as a waitress in, not a cocktail bar but Pippins, a health food restaurant in Hampstead, north London. According to legend, the eccentric Sunderland-born Stewart walked into the eatery wearing a fur coat, and carrying two plastic carrier bags, spotted Annie and asked her to marry him. The fact that he was already married to someone, a bride union with a nurse, was a minor detail. The pair started an intense affair and formed a band, The Catch, releasing their only single, Borderline, in 1977.
The Catch evolved into The Tourists, gaining a hit in 1979 with I Only Want To Be With You but the group broke up acrimoniously during an Australian tour the following year. In something of a debt-ridden depression, her four-year relationship with Stewart fell victim to her breakdown and the pressures of working together. Nonetheless, they resumed their professional relationship and went on to form Eurythmics, releasing their debut album In The Garden in 1981.
By the time of the duo’s third long-player, Touch, they were unstoppable. Featuring three memorable Top 10 hits in the UK: the calypso disco Right By Your Side, the haunting Here Comes The Rain Again, and the wonderful Who’s That Girl. The video for the latter took the gender fluidity to another level, introducing the character of Earl, a slick-backed rocker more than a little bit inspired by the clad-in-black Elvis Presley of the ’68 Comeback Special. At the 26th Grammys in 1984 Annie stole the show, giving an utterly inflammatory performance that’s still talked about almost 35 years later.
An often misunderstood duo, Eurythmics released eight great albums between 1981’s experimental In The Garden and 1989’s ironically titled We Two Are One, plus one lacklustre reunion, 1999’s Peace. Yet despite their co-writing credits, it was her collaborator and producer Dave Stewart who was frequently cast as the musical genius, much to her chagrin. I wonder if he knew how she felt?
The seven-million-selling success of Lennox’s entirely self-written solo debut, Diva, in 1992, confirmed her creative independence and her international superstar status. The set is home to her first go-it-alone single, Why, an astonishingly brutal ballad of existentialism and surely one of the most perfectly formed songs ever written. Interestingly, Diva is probably Annie’s most ‘feminine’ record, rivalled only by the dark and chilly masterpiece that is Savage Eurythmics, which just happens to be my favourite album by anyone, ever. Yup, it’s that clever.
Famously one of the greatest untrained voices of all time, Annie’s incredible vocal prowess is strong and ballsy but is so chock-full of emotiveness it could reduce you to tears too. Musically, the Lennox songbook is awash with glorious melodies, seductive harmony and shiny, sophisticated arrangements. It’s intelligent pop music for grown-ups, a work of wisdom and integrity to compare with the very best of other such mature populists Sting, Pet Shop Boys and the dearly departed George Michael.
Although a much admired figure on the streets and in the industry (she holds the record for the female feted with the most Brit awards ever, and second overall to one Robbie Williams), her solo career has been sporadic and never really came close to topping the all-conquering Diva. Her last album of original material was 2007’s Songs of Mass Destruction, featuring the single, Sing (above) that featured a female cast of plenty, including Celine Dion, Gladys Knight and that rebel tart, Madonna.
No matter. Lennox’s place in history is assured. As well as a singer songwriter, she’s a wife (her third husband is a gynaecologist, handily), mum of two, blogger, campaigner and humanitarian. Annie’s widely considered a gay icon for her LGBT, HIV and feminist activism, something she continues to this day making bold statements as she challenges the depictions of women in modern pop culture.
As she told Jo Wiley during her impressive Evening Of Music & Conversation one-off at Sadler’s Wells in London just a few days ago, Annie Lennox thinks everyone should be a feminist, male and female. Who are we to disagree?
Alive — Eurythmics: 1988 (Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute), 1989, 1999; solo*: 1992 (Under Pressure duet with David Bowie at Queen’s Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for Aids Awareness), 2007, 2018 (all London, England)
*In 2003 I was living in The Netherlands and that June my partner, Marcel, and I had tickets to see the Annie Lennox: Solo show (her first solo tour in fact) at RAI in Amsterdam, only we were arguing so much that day we forgot about the concert until it was too late. Needless to say we split somewhat acrimoniously three months later
2. Aretha Franklin
“What you want, baby I got it.”
The First Lady of Soul and arguably the greatest singer of the pop era, Aretha has the power, range and technique, allied with pitch-perfect instincts. Whether she’s ripping it up like a civil rights warrior or laying out emotional truths on Respect, a groundbreaking female empowerment anthem at the time, has there ever been a bad Aretha vocal? Well, OK, there was that Sinatra duet.
With more than her fair share of Atlantic soul classics (Chain of Fools, Think, I Say A Little Prayer), this preacher’s daughter from Detroit epitomised soul at its most gospel-charged. 1967’s sublime (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman is undoubtedly her signature song, written for her by the celebrated partnership of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and the first taster of the Jerry Wexler-produced album, Lady Soul.
The zenith of her remarkable run of records at Atlantic, Lady Soul made Aretha the critical and commercial toast of America and won a set of remarkable statistical achievements that testify to how widely it cast its net. For example, the album peaked at numbers 1, 2 and 3 on Billboard’s Black Album, Pop Album and Jazz Album charts respectively.
Undoubtedly one of the giants of soul music, and indeed of American pop as a whole, she remains the female soloist with the most Hot 100 entries in US history. But if I think back to the other side of the pond in the 1980s, the vast majority of my generation had next to no idea who Aretha was before a) Scritti Politti’s Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin), a slice of pristine pop perfection helmed by Franklin’s former producer Arif Mardin and b) Sisters are Doin’ it for Themselves, her 1985 duet with Eurythmics and one of the great feminist anthems of our times.
Listening to it now Sisters sounds like it might have leaped intact from Lady Soul, which is all the more disquieting when you remember their record label tried to strong-arm them into using the more commercially viable Tina Turner. In retrospect, perhaps only Aretha, the essence of sisterly community and assertive sexuality, could have transformed Annie Lennox’s unintentionally kitschy lyrics about “the conscious liberation of the female state” into such an earthy ode to independence. Although Lennox deserves credit for humanising her lyrics, it’s Aretha’s sly, sassy performance that really makes the song soar.
The promotional video for Sisters was Detroit’s Music Hall and is interspersed with clips from old black and white films highlighting significant women throughout history, although Lennox insisted that the current, and at that point only female Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher, be excluded. Amazingly the song was only Aretha’s third Top 10 hit in the UK. Two years later another duet, I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), this time with George Michael, would give the singer her only British chart-topper, though truth be told, it probably wouldn’t have happened at all if Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart hadn’t rescued her from semi-seclusion.
George wrote about his experience recording this song in his 1991 book, Bare, saying that he and Franklin recorded the song together but did their ad-libs separately. Yog admitted to being nervous, but he knew full well there was no point in trying to copy Franklin’s style. “Nobody can emulate Aretha Franklin,” he said. “It’s stupid to try. I just tried to stay in character, keep it simple – it was very understated in comparison to what she did.”
Funnily enough, as Eurythmics‘ singular predecessor to Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves (There Must Be An Angel Playing With My Heart) was perched in pole position in the UK charts – during the week of Live Aid no less – Aretha had started a tentative chart comeback in the shape of the fabulously funky Freeway of Love, a propulsive sax-fuelled joyride in a pink Cadillac that is way better than its 51 chart placing would suggest.
The song was taken from the Narada Michael Walden-produced Who’s Zoomin’ Who (another great comeback track there, by the way) and it did a whole lot better in the US, eventually reaching No.3, winning a Grammy and became one of the most famous driving songs of all time. The delicious irony of that situation being that Aretha Franklin doesn’t actually drive.
Well, guess what; Aretha doesn’t fly either, so even though in recent years it wasn’t difficult to find her gigging more than was good for her, those appearances are usually restricted to anywhere she can travel by bus from her home in Detroit, Michigan.
In June of 2015 I was staying with my sister Stella at her house in Toronto (where I’d just caught the divine Miss M, Bette Midler in concert, who very nearly made this list) when I read Aretha was on tour. Well, her version of a tour anyway. The singer was headlining a special 4th of July ‘Saturday In The Park’ free festival in Sioux City, the capital of the Native American Siouxland in the Great Plains of the midwest.
Not only was it the chance to see one of America’s most legendary performers on Independence Day, but Iowa was the so-called Hawkeye state where I had indigenous ancestry myself, but had yet to visit. I had to go. Since Bowie had retired from public appearances I made it my duty to see as many of my other fave raves as I possibly could. And talking of The Dame, one can only imagine how he wanted the ground to swallow Aretha up during this infamous Grammy speech…
Regional flights at that short notice were silly money, and it was out of the question to hire a car in Canada to return in the US (I was flying out of Los Angeles back to Australia ten days later), so with no time to lose I hitched a lift to Windsor, the borderline city with the States, then headed to Budget car rental on the other side of the Detroit River in the Motor City (the most famous Detroit music company, Motown, is a contraction of Motor and town, fact fans).
I hired a beautiful white Mustang convertible and sped (literally) the entire 12 hour road trip to get there, stopping for the night in that toddling town, Chicago the windy city, and making the briefest of pit stops in Gary, Indiana to have a nosey at Michael Jackson’s birthplace. I heard a rumour that, despite being a rather dodgy and derelict steel town, MJ always used to enjoy being in Gary.
Some 800 miles later (and only being pulled over once, on the Illinois-Wisconsin border, but let off without a fine, probably because of the day it was) I made the Grandview Park with just a few minutes to spare. Aided by someone’s right arm, Aretha shuffled on stage to the sound of Your Love Keeps Lifting Me (Higher And Higher) and I couldn’t quite believe I was actually seeing and hearing that legendary voice in the flesh (and boy, was there plenty of that).
Franklin’s power came through her timing and easing into lines rather than belting. She displayed this assurance throughout the concert, such as how her vibrato reshaped ’60s R&B hits I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) and a majestic version of the old Diana Ross hit It’s My Turn. Even if she no longer possesses the highest end of her incredible range, that night Aretha showed that her amazing artistry was always about more than the number of octaves. Mariah bloody Carey please take note.
R.E.S.P.E.C.T. is how you spell it
Alive — 2015 (Sioux City, USA)
3. Barbra Streisand
“Just look him in the eye and simply shout. Enough is enough.”
What can you say about Babs? A native New Yorker, Barbra Streisand is the only artist ever to receive Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Grammy, Directors Guild of America, Golden Globe, National Medal of Arts and Peabody Awards and France’s Légion d’honneur as well as the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She’s the only performer to have number one albums in five consecutive decades AND her 51 gold albums, 30 platinum and 18 multi-platinum exceed all other female singers. Impressive much?
Streisand’s status as one of the most successful singers of our time was remarkable not only because her popularity was achieved in the face of a dominant musical trend – rock & roll – which she didn’t follow (preferring to assume the mantle left behind by Judy Garland), but also because she used her vocal skills as a mere stepping stone to other careers, as a stage and film actress and as a film director.
Despite three successful albums by 1964, Streisand turned her back on potentially lucrative concert bookings in favour of a long-term starring role in the Broadway show Funny Girl. People from that show became her first Top Ten single, and the album of the same name her first chart-topping LP. The musical was later adapted into a Hollywood film for which she would win an Academy Award.
In the ’70s, Streisand successfully married her musical and film acting interests, first in The Way We Were, a hit film with a theme song that became her first number one single, and then with A remake of the Judy Garland musical, A Star Is Born, which featured her second number one single, Evergreen, a perennial she co-wrote.
From that point on, every album she released sold at least a million copies. In the late ’70s, she found recording success in collaboration: her duet with Neil Diamond, You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, hit number one, as did 1979’s No More Tears (Enough Is Enough), an epic disco stomper sung with the then-white hot Donna Summer.
Streisand’s histrionic vocal style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but here’s she’s helped along by the much missed Queen of Disco, and the latter’s writing and production team, helmed by electronic maestro, Giorgio Moroder. The lyrics are ostensibly feminist ‘throw-the-bum-out’ in nature, but taken as a whole, it mainly sounds like a song recorded specifically for drag queens to lip-synch to.
Taking Diana Ross‘ two part slow-quick Love Hangover as its original inspiration, the two emote all over the pretty piano prelude that finds both singers blending their voices in a warm, mellifluent fashion that is intriguing – and to Streisand’s metier before gravitating to the the thumping Summer-style dance section.
The vocalists, instrumentation and production all try their hardest to out-disco each other, and on the twelve-inch version, they keep it going for almost 12 (twelve!) minutes, which turns the man-hating chanting of “enough is enough” from hook to ironic statement to near beg-for-mercy. Nevertheless, it’s fun and it’s most definitely camp, and due to the dual star power of both singers, the song effortlessly went to the top in the autumn of 1979, giving Donna her fourth US No.1 record of the year.
Streisand had her biggest-selling album in 1980 with Guilty, which was written and produced by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees and contained the number one hit Woman In Love. In 1983, Streisand’s first directorial effort, Yentl, became a successful film with a Top Ten soundtrack album. In 1996, she directed her third film, The Mirror Has Two Faces, only I hope she didn’t look at either of them. That would have been 14 years bad luck.
Streisand returned to the concert stage in 2006, a move that was documented in the 2007 Sony release Live in Concert. The ticket prices she was charging for a floor seat at the then recently opened London’s o2 Arena were upwards of £550, and that didn’t even mean front block. Thank god I wasn’t paying! But she was entertaining, I’ll give her that, despite the auto-cued between-song ‘banter’ and her refusal to do Woman In Love. Is Streisand over-rated? Let’s be honest, at that price ANYONE is over-rated. Great pair of lungs on her though.
Alive — 2007 (London)
4. Chrissie Hynde
If there had never been such a thing as Chrissie Hynde someone would certainly have needed to invent her. Akron, Ohio, native Christine Ellen Hynde emerged from the teeming hothouse of late ’70s London like Athena cracked forcefully from the skull of Zeus. She’d moved to England in the middle of the decade to work for music rag NME and ingratiate herself with Sex Pistols Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious.
Hynde also spent a short time with The Moors Murderers. Named after the notorious pair of 1960s child-killers, the line-up featured future Visage frontman Steve Strange on vocals and on guitar duties Mark Ryan (a.k.a. The Kid, formerly of Adam & The Ants). After the band failed to take flight, Malcolm McLaren placed her as a guitarist in Masters of the Backside, but she was asked to leave the group just as it became The Damned. A distinctly feminine (and feminist) counterpoint to the nearly overwhelming crush of alpha-male performers, eventually she founded her own band in 1978.
And so into this rock fraternity strode Hynde and her Pretenders, every bit as tough and self-possessed as their peers and taking a backseat to no one in terms of talent. Hot on the heels of 1979’s sassy cover of the Kinks’ Stop Your Sobbing, Hynde proceeded to issue Pretenders, which remains one of the most audacious and fascinating debuts in rock music history.
That album established Chrissie bonafides as a staggeringly artful tunesmith with a remarkable gift for pulling indelible choruses seemingly out of thin air. Her lyrics were tough, funny, and intelligent, co-mingling the personal and political in a manner both deeply coded and highly sophisticated. A central tension in her writing emerged: in a the music industry awash in a sea of capricious idiocy, the pugnacious Hynde did not gladly suffer fools.
With Brass in Pocket, a No.1 single in 1980, all of the elements really came together: a cool neo-soul groove and an especially sultry vocal. When Chrissie said she was going to “make you notice,” there weren’t many who argued her claim and in fact, plenty would have been willing to give her the “attention” that she was seemingly craving within the lyrics.
With her scary attitude and even scarier hair, Hynde’s historic achievement was to take all the credibility and confidence and attitude of punk and inject them directly into pop songs that would get radio airplay for the rest of time. Middle of the Road and Back on the Chain Gang, from 1984’s Learning to Crawl, were instantly accessible hits for fans of post-punk, rootsier Americana, and straight garage rock. Essentially, they were new wave dance ditties written by a woman burnishing a sneering and utterly fearless “fuck with me at your peril” persona.
The Pretenders are the archetypal rock ’n’ roll band – excess and death (lots of it, resulting in Hynde being the only line-up mainstay) and songs to break your heart. The all-too-raw and autobiographical Tattooed Love Boys brims with attitude and driven by a riff so urgent it almost falls over itself, showing what can happen to a young woman when she is faced by men corrupted by violent language and violent deeds.
More familiar fare included Talk of the Town, Don’t Get Me Wrong, the sublime I Go To Sleep (rarely has the French horn sounded more swoonsome) and not so long ago the torch song tear-jerker, I’ll Stand by You. Hynde’s sensitive performance very quickly lifted it to full-fledged anthem status, a musical moment of inspirational hope for anyone struggling to find their way, and gave Girls Aloud a chart-topping smash ten years after the original.
The Pretenders can also lay claim to a musical double reserved for only a very select breed: they’re responsible for a truly great Christmas song (2000 Miles) and, in If There Was A Man, an elegiac James Bond theme that more than delivered the goods, even if it was shunted to the end credits by a-Ha‘s main title song for The Living Daylights.
Taking her cue from the song that Grace Jones later made famous, Chrissie leads a relatively private life in her modest flat in London’s West Kilburn. Whenever The Pretenders play live, they usually post signs asking people in the audience not to use cell phones while they’re onstage. Of course, people don’t comply too often, and so she’s prone to unload on the audience, cursing them out (last year, Dubai gig goers were told to “shove your cell phones up your ass. We ain’t Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, so if you wanna use your fucking phones, go and see them.”) and sometimes even storming offstage early. As is evidenced from the archive clip below, Hynde has form, though it’s kinda comedy gold when she’s clearly forgotten the performance is being filmed for the tellybox.
A take-no-shit frontwoman in the male-dominated scene, Hynde has never stopped writing great songs, serving as an inspiration for female artists across the spectrum. As Madonna once recalled “She was amazing: the only woman I’d seen in performance where I thought, ‘Yeah, she’s got balls, she’s awesome!’ It gave me courage, inspiration, to see a woman with that kind of confidence in a man’s world.”
With slightly improbable duets with UB40, Frank Sinatra and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys under her tightly fastened belt, Chrissie Hynde issued a well-received solo album, Stockholm, in 2014. Always singing in that distinctive contralto, and always from the heart, beneath that wildly mysterious fringe. Now a bit of a bottle blonde, Chrissie Hynde is still one of the most unique women in rock.
Alive — Pretenders, 2017 (London)
5. Debbie Harry
“I wanna be the queen of the USA.”
Rock’s greatest goddess, the divine Miss 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 the super group 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.
Debbie gained entry into the music world as a back up singer for the folk band, Wind in the Willows. Her next stop was with the spiky girl trio, The Stilettos. After one of their ramshackle gigs in the Manhattan of 1973, she met and fell in love with guitarist Chris Stein, and the seeds of Blondie were planted.
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 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 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 EMI in Los Angeles to pen some liner notes for 2002’s Greatest Hits album 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 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. 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 (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 the importance of tighter arrangements and backing tracks honed to glossy perfection. Chapman was rather taken with Heart Of Glass, a blues tune which had been around in their live set for years, and reworked the song into a highly commercial disco send-up. 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 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 eclectic approach to recording.
Rapture followed, becoming the first rap/hip-hop based track to top the Billboard chart, 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 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 my flatmates Judi John and myself 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.
In the mid 1990s Chris suggested to Debbie they put the band back together, and 17 years after their last album – amid 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 Madonna, to name but a few) – Blondie, with the original line up of Debbie, Chris, Clem and keyboardist Jimmy Destri, 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 2018 they’re still the biggest selling American band in the history of the British charts.
What a legacy Debbie and the boys have 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.
Harry and Stein stopped being a couple in the ’80s (Debbie’s the only one of this list of 10 not to marry and bring up children), though they continue their professional working relationship to this day. 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.”
And about that hair: 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. She’ll always be Blondie.
Alive — 1989, 1991, 1993, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2007 (London), 1990 (Birmingham); Blondie: 1998, 1999, 2002, 2008, 2010, 2017 (London), 2014 (Ottawa, Canada), 2017 (Berlin, Germany), 2018 (Buenos Aires, Argentina), 2019 (Havana, Cuba)
Part two of this feature is here