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The Hemi Q&A: Debbie Harry

It’s been 40 years since the formation of Blondie, one of the seminal bands of the New Wave and Punk music scenes of the ’70s and ’80s. With a new album and a greatest hits retrospective in the offing, the band’s iconic frontwoman sits down for a chat.

Author Sasha Frere-Jones Illustration John Jay Cabuay

 qanda

Blondie masterminds Debbie Harry and Chris Stein are classicists who snuck into history under the cover of punk. Harry is a pure 1940s Hollywood star, cheekbones and charm masked by a delicious sense of menace that passed for a threat in the 1970s, while Stein wrote songs steeped in doo-wop and early rock ’n’ roll that were informed by the narrative momentum of musical theater. (Harry and Stein’s first band, The Stilettos, had its own theatrical director.) And then, under the cover of classicism, they snuck in the radical stuff.

Even when members of the band weren’t sold on dance music, Blondie turned the rough draft of a rock tune into a disco song and released their most famous No. 1, “Heart of Glass,” in 1979. Before rock radio seemed ready, Blondie covered The Paragons’ “The Tide Is High” and took a reggae song to No. 1 in 1981. The same year, before most Americans even knew what rap was, “Rapture” became the first Billboard 100 No. 1 song to contain rapping. Covered by Alicia Keys and sampled by KRS-One, along with dozens of other emcees, “Rapture” became part of hip-hop’s canon. The Chicago Bears’ “Super Bowl Shuffle” did not. Yes, Debbie Harry is more powerful than football.

Their new album, Ghosts of Download (out this month), is bundled with a 40th anniversary greatest hits album and shows them knocking around as if they’d just shown up. You can go to the “Greatest Hits” CD if you want to hear the old songs that The Killers and One Direction are now covering, but Blondie’s new album sounds like New York as it exists now, not some echo of 1980 New Wave synths. There are cumbia and reggaeton tracks on Ghosts of Download, right there alongside the guitar rock songs. One of the album’s highlights is a cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” that brilliantly reimagines the radio staple first as a classic ballad and then as a hair metal ballad gone slightly mad. Like most of what Blondie has done, against expectations, it works.

Harry took time out from rehearsing for the band’s upcoming tour to talk to Hemispheres about the new album, how tough it was to sell Blondie to radio in the late ’70s, and the lost pleasures of finding clothes in New York City thrift stores long before vinyl boots started going for $200 in Brooklyn.

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Hemispheres: Some bands appear to be tortured about their past. You guys don’t seem to have that problem.
Debbie Harry: We do, to some degree. After you’ve played a song for [laughs] how many years, you know, it’s sort of more fascinating and more of a challenge to play something new.
 
Hemispheres: Your biggest risks were also your biggest hits. You were on to things before other people. New York crowds were still booing rappers in 1981 when you did “Rapture.”
Harry: I have to give a lot of that credit, or all of it, to Chris. He’d just say, “I want to do this,” and I would say, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I was his biggest supporter. He’s got a terrific, creative mind. I think that the cumbia thing on the new album is one of my favorite songs ever.
 
Hemispheres: As a kid, I saw you on “Saturday Night Live.” When you did “Dreaming,” I remember how relaxed you seemed. I’d seen bands wear leather jackets, trying to look as tough. Sometimes the safety pin routines seemed as corny as anything else, like a snake or fake blood. But you guys were different, just people owning the moment. It was like you had figured something out.
Harry: Before Blondie, Chris and I were in a little group called The Stilettos. For a while, our director was Tony Ingrassia, a playwright, one of the downtown theater people who worked with Jackie Curtis. It was hilarious but also illuminating, because he believed in method acting. He trained me to work that way as a singer, in that you have to have an emotional connection to what you’re singing about so that you can really transmit what the song is about. It’s not just the words and it’s not just the music—it’s this internalization of what the guts of it are. And that did wonders for me. What a singer does is explain an event or some kind of emotional thing that happened to them. That’s what we’re doing. We’re telling stories to people, but to music.
 
Hemispheres: Was it hard being a woman when the band started?
Harry: When we got rolling and were a recording band, we got a lot of respect from other bands. We had a following in Europe and the U.K., and there were a lot more women working over there. It didn’t seem like an odd thing. But it was more sexist in the United States. I remember going around on a radio tour with a guy from Chrysalis Records. We’d go to a major city, to six or seven radio stations. Some of the reactions that I got from these jocks—it was just doors slammed in our face. Program directors did not want to know about Blondie back in those days.
 
Hemispheres: What bands in Europe are you thinking of when you talk about other women working?
Harry: There was Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex, The Slits, and Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders. Kate Bush was popular. All of their music was vastly different, but there was a freer musical appreciation over there. It changed over here, but it took a while. The old guard, you know, had to get with it.
 
Hemispheres: What does it feel like to be a part of New York now? I imagine you’re not that nervous about putting out a cumbia record these days.
Harry: No. I hope that everyone likes it and appreciates the lyrics and has a good time dancing to it. I feel like the Latin community is finally being accepted as a real part of our country. I know that there is resistance in some places, but I think music brings people together.
 
Hemispheres: How did you make the decision to start playing together again and put out new music?
Harry: A variety of things happened in 1981 and 1982. Our label folded, our management left, and Chris got very sick. We were under a lot of pressure, and it made perfect sense at that time to say, “Hey, OK, the forces that be have pushed us into this corner. That’s it.” Chris was the one who wanted to put the band back together, in the early ’90s. He said, “I want to put the band back together,” and I laughed. I said, “Are you crazy?” Of course, I know he’s crazy, so there you go. He calls around, talks to the guys. We experimented with getting the original guys back together and finding different guys. Finally, you know, we got a workable group and put out a record in 1999.
 
Hemispheres: What influenced Blondie’s fashion in the early days?
Harry: [Drummer] Clem Burke was a big Anglophile, and Chris had been to the U.K. So all of that mod stuff was in our minds. We were dressing from secondhand stores, and that old stuff was there. We would find big bunches of it and buy it all up. We made it very clear that this was a new approach. It felt natural and comfortable for everyone. To do something like that was contrary to trends at the time, which were a crossover between the hippie look and glitter rock: bell bottoms and wide lapels.

Hemispheres: What resonates for you now when you look at the musical landscape?
Harry: I think that what I listen to now is production. The field is open and wide, and we can listen to a lot of music from everywhere. It’s so easy. It’s so available. Nobody seems to be bound to what their friends like. Nothing is regional anymore. Everything is worldwide.
 
Hemispheres: It’s interesting to watch a whole generation of teenagers and see how central hip-hop is to them, and how little guitar rock they actually listen to.
Harry: I think that’s a pity, you know. There is a huge place in my heart for good old guitar rock. It’s sort of sad that it doesn’t get as much attention on the radio as it should. I appreciate the fact that I have two guitars in my band. It’s very important, and, I mean, a lot of the people that I know that have bands, they’re definitely guitar-oriented. Speaking about old-timers, I went to see Cherie Currie from the Runaways, and she had a terrific little band. It sounded great. She was phenomenal.
 
Hemispheres: There’s a new kid, about 19 years old. His stage name is King Krule, and his name is Archy Marshall. He plays guitar music, a little like old jazz mixed with early Jam or Tom Waits, like a band you could’ve played with in 1979, easily. He made me think, OK, this story just spins around. Every generation has their music, but they also get bored and eventually think ‘Fill in the blank. What old bit can we reuse?’ Archy told me he thought jazz was the most punk rock thing of all because it’s about pure expression. I find it touching that just at the moment you think something is corny and out of style, boom, it clicks and someone brings it back into style.
Harry: I’ve noticed a lot of jazz elements in things during the last couple of years. That’s where it’s at. It’s great stuff.
 
Hemispheres: Do you associate with many young bands?
Harry: Actually, I’m at South by Southwest now. The Dum Dum Girls asked me to sing a song with them. So I did “Dreaming,” and they just went right into it. I’m sure they had rehearsed it a bit, but when you cover a song, you often do it because it’s already in you. So that was really a treat.

Sasha Frere-jones is a staff writer for The New Yorker. When Hemispheres asked if he’d like to interview Debbie Harry, he did the Cabbage Patch dance for 10 minutes.

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Blondie by the numbers

No. 1 singles on U.S. charts
4

Weeks “Rapture,” arguably the first rap song to hit No. 1, spent at the top of the charts in 1981
2

No. 1 singles by Run-D.M.C.
0

Ranking on VH1’s “100 Greatest Women of Rock ’n’ Roll”
12

Record sales, worldwide
40 million

Times Harry was called “Blondie” before the catcall became the band’s name
Too many to count

3 Responses to “The Hemi Q&A: Debbie Harry”

  1. Iannis Says:
    May 6th, 2014 at 1:34 pm

    That’s a great read with cool artwork! United, how can I get a copy of this ‘Hemispheres’ in-flight magazine?

  2. Rikitikikevi Says:
    May 7th, 2014 at 12:05 am

    Great interview!

  3. glenn caulfield Says:
    June 2nd, 2014 at 7:42 pm

    That was a really good interview, interesting and intelligent with some new questions.

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