This year marks the 40th anniversary of Blondie, and it’s a big year for Debbie Harry, Chris Stein et al as they set out on a tour this March. The band have a series of special gigs lined up – including a starstudded bash for Amnesty, and to top it all, Blondie will pick up the Godlike Genius award at the NME Awards with Austin, Texas. Here are 24 more of their godlike moments to savour…
Born in Miami in July ‘45, a newborn ‘baby boomer – originally named Angela Tremble – was put up for adoption by her mother, a respected concert pianist who was apparently not ready for a family just yet, following WWII. With new folks, her new name was Deborah (it suited her!), and she was relocated to New Jersey. It was a quirk of fate that undoubtedly changed pop history.
Deborah Ann Harry grew up harbouring fantasies she was the daughter of silver screen deity Marilyn Monroe. The singer was adopted at just three months, and later in life decided not to pursue her birth mother after unearthing information about her in the late 80s. “I don’t see what purpose it would serve,” she said. “How would I relate to them?”
“It’s genetic,” said the singer about her talent, precociously. “I was always going to be an artist, in one field or another, come hell or high water.” Another time she reflected how moving to New Jersey had been the turning point in her life: “If not I might have stayed in Florida and who knows what could have happened. Maybe I would have worked at Disneyland.”
Unusually for an American in the mid-60s, Debbie Harry was obsessed with Wall of Sound girl-groups like the Ronettes, The Crystals and The Shangri-Las rather than The Beatles, though she later admitted she “learned a lot of things from The Beatles about sassiness… attitude is very important. And I always felt that sex is a cool thing to sell. It’s a sure thing.”
One of the more peculiar jobs Debbie Harry had pre-Blondie was working as a Playboy bunny from 1968 through to 1973 in NYC, the year she met and fell in love with guitarist Chris Stein. As good as Blondie turned out to be, it was mainly due to the snaps of Debbie in her underwear that Chris sent to music mags like Creem and Punk that helped secure them their first record deal.
Blondie started life as Angel and the Snake, though thankfully Debbie and Chris changed moniker to Blondie in late ’75. The inspiration? Having recently taken to peroxide, Harry garnered unwanted calls of ‘Hey blondie!’ from random passing truckers. The band decided to turn the objectification on its head and use it for their own purposes.
The name Blondie nearly got changed again when they discovered they shared their moniker with a dog, but not just any dog: Blondi (without the ‘e’) was the favourite hooch of Adolf Hitler. Blondie then threatened to call themselves Adolf Hitler’s Dog in protest at the revelation. Thankfully they thought better of it.
The band were part of the furniture at CBGBs in New York during the mid-70s, alongside artrockers like Talking Heads and The Ramones. A tale of Chris and Debbie having sex in the venues’ far from salubrious toilets became infamous, though in a 2006 BBC documentary, Stein sheepishly claimed it did happen but it was in the alley next to the club.
While Blondie proved popular at CBGBs partly thanks to the appeal of their singer, one artist who took exception to the band and actively despised them was Patti Smith. A this club ain’t big enough for the both of us-style ultimatum was thrown down and Blondie had to relocate to the nearby Bowery, though it was this adversity that drove them onto bigger and better things.
Blondie’s first moment of unlikely success arrived in Australia in ’76 thanks to a cockup down under. The country’s Countdown pop show was meant to play the video to the single ‘X Offender’ but accidently screened the promo for B-side ‘In The Flesh’ instead. The Aussies lapped it up and the song hit Number Two, the group’s first big hit in any territory.
Success eluded Blondie in their homeland but like all the best American bands – from the Jimi Hendrix Experience to the White Stripes – they hit paydirt in the UK first. A Top of the Pops performance of ‘Denis’ fired up Blondie Mania, and the band knew they were on to something when the stage was invaded by punks at a Dunstable gig.
When Debbie Harry went from cult concern to household name across the world during the spring of ‘79, the Blondie singer was 34 years old. ‘Heart of Glass’ hit Number One across the globe – including in the USA – and the band took success in their stride, aided by the fact they’d lived a little already.
The success of ‘Heart Of Glass’ had a great deal to do with fastidious record producer Mike Chapman, drafted in by label Chrysalis to make Blondie major chart contenders. It worked out, and although peers like The Ramones couldn’t help bemoaning their friends “selling out” by going disco, the club smash undoubtedly precipitated Blondie’s ascent to the top.
The follow-up to ‘Heart of Glass’ in America was ‘One Way Or Another’ which made Number 24 on the Billboard charts. Though it was never released in Britain it made Number 98 here last year from download sales alone in the week One Direction took a cover of the song to Number One.
Before success with the band, Debbie Harry had met legendary beat writer William S Burroughs, and Andy Warhol also, and the newly anointed superstar sat for the Pop Art genius in 1980 at the Factory, Warhol’s New York studio. The screenprint Warhol eventually made of the singer went on to sell for $5.9 million when it was put up for auction at Sotheby’s in 2011.
Blondie’s biggest hit was ‘Call Me’. A Number One on both sides of the Atlantic, it spent six weeks at the top spot on the US charts. The song, taken from the soundtrack of the Richard Gere movie American Gigolo, was made with the legendary European disco producer Giorgio Moroder and became Billboard’s hottest song of 1980.
The hits kept coming. While follow up ‘Atomic’ only reached Number 39 in America (it was yet another Number One in Britain), Blondie hit the top once again with ‘The Tide Is High’, a cover of a relatively obscure 1967 reggae hit for Jamaican outfit The Paragons. Blondie were now throwing the net far and wide where influences were concerned, and weren’t about to stop adopting diverse genres…
In 1981 Blondie scored yet another No.1 in America with ‘Rapture’, and introduced mainstream white America to hip hop in the process. Rapping appeared on a US Number One single for the first time as Debbie spat about hanging with Fab Five Freddy and Grandmaster Flash in cool underground NYC clubs.
Blondie are as synonymous with New York as the Empire State Building, and guitarist Chris Stein co-presented TV Party on the city’s cable network with Glenn O’Brien; the show was like Letterman with more crank calls and cussing. Despite the audiences (in hundred rather than millions), big names were lured to the basement, from Mick Jones to artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The band’s descent into drugs became detrimental to their output and their cash well ran dry thanks to dubious business associates, but by far worst of all was news of Chris Stein’s near fatal contraction of a rare autoimmune wasting disease called pemphigus. Harry selflessly took years off to nurse Stein, and it was the end of Blondie – for a while, at least.
Harry’s career post-Blondie seesawed, with hits like ‘I Want That Man’ and ‘French Kissin’ In The USA’ scoring well, but other tracks were less successful. Her acting career had its highlights too, including her performance as Nikki Brand – alongside James Woods’ creepy cable TV station president – in David Cronenberg’s brilliantly weird 1983 cult classic Videodrome.
If people guessed Blondie were done for, they could guess again. With Chris Stein well again and Debbie Harry in possession of a richer, deeper timbre than ever before, the band returned to Number One in the UK in 1999 with ‘Maria’. It hit the top spot a full 20 years and 16 days after their first chart-topper ‘Heart of Glass’ back in 1979.
Blondie continue to make excellent records, including single ‘Mother’ in 2011, and Harry has also taken up with lauded jazz outfit The Jazz Passengers and recorded duets with musical titans like Elvis Costello. “That Blondie stuff’s been told a million times – it’s history,” she said provocatively in 2002. “What I’m doing now is hot.” When wasn’t it?
Blondie are among the most influential bands ever. Their playful absorption of genres and their aesthetic informed all and sundry. “We were probably too early,” reflected Debbie Harry. “Things evolve. The industry sort of caught up with us, in a way. They didn’t like us when we started, and then eventually it became normal.”