Blondie is a band that lures you in with a siren call and then smashes your head straight into a mirror. And you’ll happily let it happen again, and again, and again. It’s an honor to be concussed, really. Queue up any song and it’s almost impossible to know when that smash will occur: You can get a disco delicacy (“Heart of Glass”), a CBGB scorcher (“Rip Her to Shreds”), or perhaps an apocalyptic dance-floor hymn (“Atomic”). It’s all abstract. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein’s vision for the band, emerging from the underground of mid-’70s New York City, was exactly that — the co-founders weren’t bothered by a standard genre classification, making Harry’s ascension as the archetype for women in rock all the more gratifying.
All this is to say: It’s a great summer for Blondie fans, whether you’re a peroxided punk or Pop Art savant. Against the Odds: 1974-1982, the band’s first definitive box set, was released on August 26, which coincided with a nationwide tour that extended through the end of the month. I was recently delighted to third-wheel a chat with Harry and Stein, whose shared warmth and wit reflects their decades of intimate partnership. (Harry also insists I can “come on over” and visit her ample wardrobe vault “any time.” Is now too soon?) Read on for what the duo considers their bests and worsts.
Stein: All of our songs are part of a larger movement, so it’s virtually impossible to choose. All I can say is the only song I knew for sure was going to be a hit before we recorded it was “The Tide Is High.” The original was so fantastic. I knew what our position was at the time: If we had the ear of the public and if we did a successful version of this thing, it would be successful.
Harry: I don’t really have a favorite, for the reason that I’m sort of moody. I’m not in the same state of mind every single minute of every single day. I have a lot of changes in my life, and that’s part of the spirit of the music for me. Some days, I appreciate one song more than another, and I’m really pleased to be playing that song. Other times, I just want to get it over with.
Stein: I should single out that we’re proud of “Rapture” and the legacy and context of that song.
Harry: There’s a lot of great pleasure and satisfaction of having an audience that loves your music. So playing those songs is always like a gift.
Most transgressive song
Harry: Transgressive? How much time do we have? [Laughs.]
Stein: I was always proud to be on those radical right-wing lists of bands that were verboten. Those lists that were like, “We should be avoiding for drugs and sex and all of that stuff.” There’s a lot that falls into that category.
Harry: It didn’t really take much to be offensive on those lists.
Stein: To a certain extent, our songs were all related thematically and melodically in a kind of a classical music sense. Some of the songs remind me of each other. On occasion, I’ve been working on a song and I’ll think to myself, What Blondie song does this remind me of? Which is a weird sensation. The songs reference each other sometimes, is what I’m saying.
Harry: Yeah, they reference our experiences and each other. I was recently talking with someone who brought up the references to violence and crime in our songs, and they mentioned “Rip Her to Shreds.” I was really shocked because “Rip Her to Shreds” is about vicious gossip. It wasn’t about ripping anybody — just verbally, verbal abuse. That’s all.
Stein: Well, that’s violence to a certain extent.
Harry: But I don’t think that’s what they meant. I think they were talking about crime and physical violence.
Stein: This was a really great thing: We had this song on the Hunter album called “Island of Lost Souls,” which was released in the U.K. at the time of the Falklands. Everybody assumed it was about the Falklands War, which absolutely had nothing to do with the song.
Most acrobatic song
Stein: A lot of stuff for Debbie was written in those high registers. Some of those keys have been lowered over the years. Something like “Sunday Girl” in that original D key was probably your most acrobatic, right, Debbie? It sounds sweet and even, but total vocal gymnastics went into that.
Harry: I’d agree with that. One of the things we discovered together is that Chris, when he’s writing, thinks in sort of a sweeter, higher voice than I naturally have. So I somehow have to make it work. I think it’s very beautiful. It’s odd how it works out between us, and how we understand each other musically.
Stein: My whole writing approach is like Beethoven after he was deaf.
Harry: Good going, Chris.
Song whose meaning has changed the most through the years
Stein: In the cultural context and acceptance, it changes. Not the literal meaning so much, but more of the way of these things stay afloat in consciousness. I’ll fucking go to CVS and hear “The Tide Is High” while doing my shopping. So that kind of stuff is something that has evolved.
Harry: I think that according to today’s standards there’s practically no holds barred. There were moments in the past where we couldn’t do live shows because it was deemed “too explicit.” We had one incident like that and it really meant nothing. Like, my underpants showed onstage.
Stein: That was very triggering for Lester Bangs apparently.
Most ambiguous song
Harry: Lately we’ve been trying to create little vignettes — little stories — cartoonish kind of things to go with some of the songs, and “X Offender” was one of those. The writers kept coming back to me with stories about hookers, taking the lyrics very literally. It wasn’t about that at all. It was about a teenager coming of age and having to deal with a statutory-rape charge when he was 17 and then turned 18. It’s like one of those catch-22s of law. Basically that was the root of “X Offender.” It didn’t have anything to do with selling sex or anything like that. It was a sex offender, but not a sex offender in that he was an aggressive rapist. But he was lumped into this category. It brings me to the point of what people are saying about this 10-year-old girl in Ohio who was raped and is pregnant and all of this abortion stuff going on. I wish that everybody would fuck off and get out of our personal lives.
Stein: Yeah, I don’t really know how you would glean that from the lyrics of “X Offender.” It was construed as perhaps being about a sex worker, but as far as ambiguity, a bunch of our songs have mixed messages.
Harry: That was one of the things that we found to be extremely interesting and fun to do — to make it unclear and make things have a double meaning. A lot of our songs do that.
Stein: “The Attack of the Giant Ants” is not about giant ants attacking us. [Laughs.] It’s a metaphor for the human condition and ecology. All art is subjective, and most artistic analysis is done after the fact. Some people go into making art with specific things inserted into it that are meant to be seen. I think just as much is done emotionally and randomly, and the analysis comes afterwards on the part of the critic or the beholder.
Most personal album
Stein: The first record, Blondie. I was thinking about how we were just so happy to be able to get a record released. There was very little thought about the results. We had been buying and collecting records since we were kids, and just being a part of that system as adults was really terrific. It wasn’t until later when we would consider the ramifications of how the music would affect people and so forth. It was very much the process of getting ourselves on this object.
Harry: I think you’ve hit on something that’s actually a problem with Blondie. I’m now looking at a list of our songs, to get my brain moving, and I see something personal in most of these. It’s not just a composition — there’s some personal meaning in practically all of these pieces, references to something from my life or Chris’s life or one of the guys’ lives. I think that’s really important about bands, the idea that a band is a composition of different minds. It’s something that’s really special and unique. In a way it’s been overcome by commercialism, shall we say. I mean, it’s mostly solo artists that we hear from, isn’t it?
Stein: We moved into a period of solo artists and computer music. There’s really great stuff being produced in those genres, but it also has a tendency to fall into a lot of formulas and be impersonal. That’s true.
Harry: I can’t honestly say if one is better than the other. A piece of good music is a piece of good music for me. I know Chris agrees with that. But from our point of view, that’s what we do. That’s how we formed the band and that’s how we work. I personally feel better when there’s something in a song that I can relate to, especially in a live performance.
Stein: There must be some sort of hive mind thing that goes on in bands that produce this conglomerate.
Album that was the most delicate to create
Stein: Maybe the one we’re working on now. It’s hard to say.
Harry: It would have to be Plastic Letters.
Stein: There was a lot of tension that went into that album. The fact that it was the second album and everybody was struggling to get their material done and all that kind of stuff.
Harry: Hell, Gary Lachman left when we were recording.
Stein: And then the label changed in the midst of us recording!
Fondest CBGB memory
Stein: It was a home away from home. We spent so much time there. By the time it was really getting a lot of attention, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it didn’t have the same atmosphere that it did early on. It was like being in his apartment. There were big chairs, bookshelves, and a couch — that kind of stuff. It was this terrific and very eccentric atmosphere. I always felt the connection to the beats with Hilly and his lifestyle.
Harry: Beats, bikers, and bands. [Laughs.] Right before we went on the tour with David Bowie and Iggy Pop, there was a firing squad that came in. An entire firing squad!
Stein: The fire department was called, and Rod Swenson, who was the Plasmatics’ manager at the time, was filming us doing our show that night. I’m pretty sure he called the fire department to make the video better.
Harry: God bless. One of the things about CBGB that many people don’t understand is it was a neighborhood thing. The equivalent of that exists to this day in the United Kingdom, like every little neighborhood has a pub where everybody goes and is the place to go. CBGB was that for our little downtown area.
Stein: Well, it was also a very downtrodden area, to put it mildly. But there were a lot of things about CBGB that were great. Nice memories all around. We played the Ramones’ first show. I never put it together until about a year ago, but either they opened up for us or we opened up for them the first time they were there.
Album cover that should be hung in the MoMA
Stein: The first one’s pretty great. It’s very classic. All of our covers are a little problematic here and there. I think Autoamerican is okay and Plastic Letters is okay — just not what we all had all anticipated at the time, but in retrospect they’re pretty great. But it’s time the museum curators put H.R. Giger’s work for Debbie’s solo albums in the MoMA, for fuck’s sake. Giger isn’t represented in the MoMA, and it’s just a tremendous oversight on their part. But that’s a whole other story. When I look at the intention versus the final product, Hunter was nowhere near what it was supposed to be.
Harry: The actualization of the idea wasn’t accurate for Hunter. There are always shades of that in most of the album covers. I think our newer covers are more actualized. In the more recent ones, do you feel that way?
Stein: Yeah, I’ve probably been more successful with the recent ones. I really like Chris Berens’s painting for Panic of Girls.
Harry: What about No Exit with Rob Roth’s photo?
Stein: No Exit is pretty great. I love the blue. I’m still trying to figure out what the next fucking thing is going to be.
Harry: I have a storage room with almost everything that I’ve worn, including the album looks. It’s kind of funky.
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