Blondie – Interview 2017

Back in the late 70s, when I was but a wee lad, I would nip out to the record shop, with my hard earned pocket money, and purchase a 45. A seven inch piece of vinyl that was ubiquitous in those halcyon days, and the main indicator of a band’s popularity. It may be hard to believe, but the only way you could hear new music was via BBC Radio One, or Top of the Pops, the weekly, early evening TV chart show that drew in millions of viewers each and every time. It’s where I discovered the New York five-piece, Blondie, led by this impossibly glamorous yet fun-looking woman, who fronted a band of very cool Beatlesque fashionistas, and made this deliriously intoxicating sound that perfectly placed pop within the new wave movement of the time. Although their UK breakthrough hit, ’Denis’ wasn’t the one that did it for me. Its irritating French (who could understand that!?) and twee puppy love lyrics (“Oh Denis doo-be-do / I’m in love with you, Denis doo-be-do”) simply didn’t cut it with a sprouting young teenager who was looking for a heavier, slightly darker edge in their music. That would come with the following single, and the first release from their masterpiece album, Parallel Lines. ‘Picture This’ may also be on the more tender side of new wave, but Harry’s lyrics and her way of delivery took a hold, as she detailed her love for Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, her partner then, and still her partner now. “I will give you my finest hour / The one I spent watching you shower / I will give you my finest hour, oh yeah”. Indeed. A number 12 hit in the UK, it was followed by ‘Hanging on the Telephone’, a quintessential hit from the era, a harder edged, yet incredibly infectious splice of pop-punk that enthralled UK audiences in particular, a place that was the first to really appreciate the unquestionable quality of Blondie.

The band were on their way to the very highest echelons with ‘Heart of Glass’, ‘Sunday Girl’, ‘Dreaming’, ‘Atomic’, ‘Union City Blue’, ‘The Tide is High’ and ‘Rapture’. From ’78-’81 they were the kings and queens of the pop world. Ubiquitous, cutting-edge, and damned sexy, their music mirrored the rising cultures of punk, new wave, disco and rap. It had been a complete transformation from their early days as a proto-punk band who plied Manhattan’s legendary Lower East Side circuit, rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith et al, where the Beat generation, combined with the Warhol generation to combine with the nascent punk generation to world shattering effect. At the beginning they practised every day, and lived on white bread and cheese sandwiches, ready to hit their local and thriving club scene, that included CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. Not taken seriously for a while, and one of the last acts to be picked up, Blondie eventually outshone them all, only to burn out in the usual toxic tale of egos, drugs and familiarity-breeds-contempt personality clashes.

Following the troubled The Hunter album of 1982, and the diagnosis of Chris Stein with life threatening pemphigus, the band split up later that year, Harry retreating from public view to care for her life long partner. “We re-formed back in ’96,” says drummer Clem Burke, who, along with Harry and Stein, remains the only original member to still be with the group. “We never really disbanded. The business was ongoing. We got back together, the four of us, with Jimmy Destri (who left the group again in the early noughties) and we began writing, recording and rehearsing. We’ve been around longer, the three of us, than the first time around. Really, it was the two of them and myself that was the nucleus of the band.”

 

Clement Bozewski initially joined Blondie in 1975, answering a wanted ad in New York’s Village Voice newspaper. He was only 20, wanted to be a rock star, had a fan mentality, modelled himself on the Brit invasion drummers of the 60s (Keith Moon, Ringo Starr), and helped bring other musicians into the group, at a time when Blondie was spluttering and coughing into existence, recruiting bassist Gary Valentine into the band. “The New York Dolls were a big influence on the whole scene. They were larger-than-life figures. Although by then they had almost broken apart. Iggy & The Stooges and The Velvet Underground were big influences. And Wayne County. Sort of like the tail end of glam rock that morphed into the whole CBGB scene, which was a bohemian, sort of beatnik, very small group of people influenced by Burroughs and Warhol. It was a very unique time, an anomaly really. A very New York experience. That was the whole subtext of what was going on in mid-70s New York. It had reached a certain level of popularity and then had ebbed. The Velvet Underground had broken up, New York Dolls had broken up, The Stooges had broken up. Those were touchstones for a lot of the bands. And dance music, disco music, was happening very big in New York at the time, but it was more of an underground phenomena, the gay dance clubs and things like that. Dance music was just as subversive as so-called punk-rock at the time, I think. With Blondie, we were influenced by 70s disco. Chris was always interested in rhythm’n’blues and dance music. I was more interested in rock’n’roll but it was this synthesis that helped make the Blondie sound. There’s elements of all that stuff in the sound of Blondie.”

Why did Blondie get back together? “Love and money,” says Burke, without missing a beat. Yes, the touchstones of our lives, in a nutshell. Romance and survival. Certainly, Blondie have made a lot of money in their time. Parallel Lines has sold over 20 million copies to date, and their hit singles of the late 70s/early 80s period continue to sell in big numbers, not only thanks to the timeless quality of many of their songs, but the fact that there is a Blondie renaissance going on at the moment. Their most recent album, Pollinator, is their highest placing album in both the UK and USA, since their comeback album, No Exit, released back in 1999. It’s all part of the growing rear-view look at the truly great bands of yesteryear who are still plying their trade, but who may not be around for much longer. Harry is 72 and it just cannot be imagined: a world without Harry. A band without ‘Blondie’, as she was called on the streets of New York, in the late 60s and early 70s, by admiring passer-bys. “I’m giving it another 18 months,” says Clem at one point in our conversation, rather revealingly.

“With this new record, we’re doing a homage to The Velvet Underground. And then we’re doing something like ’Fun’ which is a kinda 70s disco song,” says Burke. “We never wanted to be just one thing. Having such a great front person enabled us to do so many different things. And confuse a lot of people, which we’re still doing. That is the fun part.” Pollinator is the album that has propelled Blondie back into the limelight more than their previous comeback albums, bar No Exit, had managed to achieve. Indeed, 2011’s Panic of Girls almost failed to ignite at all, barely scraping the top 100 here in the UK, and not even charting over in their homeland. Pollinator seems to have hit the sweet spot. “The agenda was, first off, to get the current band that we have, with the other three musicians – Matt Katz-Bohen (keys), Tommy Kessler (guitar), and Leigh Foxx (bass) – and Chris, Debbie and myself, into the studio together, and to create the chemistry that exists between all six of us now, after having not been together for quite some time, and recording the album basically live. That’s why people are really responding to Pollinator,” reckons Burke. “The chemistry of the band and the interaction between the musicians, you can feel it on this record. The last couple of records were very computer-orientated, and generated very piecemeal.”

 

Blondie has a history of covering other people’s songs and turning them into gold. ‘Denis’, ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ and ‘The Tide is High’ were all covers of relatively obscure songs. It’s a trick they have focussed on once again with Pollinator. “We went to people that, more likely than not, would like Blondie,” says Burke. “We have a history of doing cover songs. ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ is a song by The Nerves, from Los Angeles. ‘Denis’ was a song that Debbie picked out from an early 60s New York vocal group, Randy & The Rainbows. ‘The Tide Was High was an old ska song by The Paragons. We’ve always been an interpreter of songs and when we first started we did quite a few cover songs, from bands like The Doors or The Shangri-Las. Their song ‘Out on the Streets’ we did for a very long time. We just turned these songs into Blondie songs, and that’s what we did with Pollinator. I think it gave us more objectivity. A different way, to make things new again. The reception has been really good, so – and not to get corporate on you – it re-branded the band, in a way. It was a kind of a whole new era for Blondie. And having Shepard Fairey do the artwork, the whole subtext of save the bees, a worthy cause, it all came together. Ironically, we weren’t aware of the worker bee symbol of Manchester (in reference to the Arena terrorist bombing). Tragically, that bombing occurred just as we were launching Pollinator. It’s a strange synchronicity, in a way. The Blondie fans are expressing that they can listen to it from beginning to end, and really enjoy it. It’s a good record.”

Pollinator returns to a more band-oriented sound following the group’s experimentation with their previous album, Ghosts of Download. Many of the songs on the album were collaborations written by outside writers, including songs written by TV On The Radio’s David Sitek, Johnny Marr, Sia, Nick Valensi from The Strokes, Charli XCX and Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange. Five of the album’s tracks were written or co-written by Blondie band members, with two songs written by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein (Harry also co-wrote one track with Hynes) and another two were written by Blondie keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen with his wife Laurel. “Johnny Marr wrote ‘My Monster’,” says Burke. “We share a publisher, and that song was submitted, and we’re friends with Johnny. I like the stuff he’s doing now. ‘Upstarts’ was a great song. He has a pop instinct in his writing.” What about Charlie XCX? “That’s a friend of Debbie’s. There’s a song buried (hidden track) on the CD, called ’Tonight’, that she also wrote, that we re-interpreted in the style of The Velvet Underground. We had Laurie Anderson play on that. So we did a completely new version of that song. She seems to be a vibey young woman.

“For ‘Doom or Destiny’ I called up Joan Jett to sing on that (which also features Laurie Anderson). It’s someone we’ve known for a very long time. We were recording the basic track and it hit me that it would be good to have her sing with Debbie. That’s one of the more punk songs on the album, and one of the ones that Debbie wrote.”

Pollinator was recorded in New York’s The Magic Shop studio, a place that has now entered folklore, not only because Blondie recorded there, but because this is where David Bowie recorded his final album, Blackstar, at a time when only his inner circle knew it would be his last visit to a studio. “Yeah, it’s really bittersweet to say the least,” says Burke. “It’s very profound. David passed over the Christmas break while we were recording there. You could feel his presence in the studio, because of all the media surrounding the fact he was, in effect, in seclusion in the studio. We were just thinking how cool it was to be recording in the same studio as David, and then when he died and we came back to the studio, it was a strange feeling in a lot of ways. The people who we were working with had been working with David and had signed a non-disclosure while they were working with David. But after he died it became a moot point, so we were able to talk about it a bit. It kinda gave us a little closure, too. He was a big influence on all of us in the band. We did our first national tour in the 70s with him and Iggy Pop, when he was producing him. They were doing a tour for The Idiot album. Then of course, the studio, due to massive gentrification, which is a mixed blessing… the studio had been there for 28 years plus. There’s a big Bloomingdale’s department store across the street, all these boutique shops. It’s standing there vacant. I think someone from the Midwest bought the entire contents and had it shipped there, including the lamps and couches and everything. I think we were the last artists to do a complete album there.”

 

As well as Blondie hitting the road here in the UK (including a big profile appearance in Hyde Park this summer) for what may well be the final time, Clem has also been rolling back the years by enjoying a stint out of the limelight with The Tearaways, as he tells me over the phone from Dublin. “I’m on a sort of busman’s holiday, having just finished a summer tour with Blondie. I’m playing with this band called The Tearaways, and we’re on our way to Liverpool, for Beatles Week. I’m a big Beatles fan, and The Tearaways always have a few gigs at the Cavern. I’m filling in for their drummer. I like the process, driving around in a van. It’s kinda fun, keeps me appreciative of my position in life with Blondie. Let’s put it that way!” You’re back in a stinky old van!? “It’s a luxury van. Vans have come a long way,” he says rather dryly. “There’s only a few us, and we’ve got a great tour manager. When I do these little van tours, they’re fun, because I get to see a lot of places I don’t normally get to see.”

What are you listening to these days? “I like Childish Gambino right now. He’s pretty happening. He’s very Prince-like. Blood Orange we like. Dev Hynes wrote a song ‘Long Time’ on the Pollinator album. I’ve also been listening a lot to the new Ray Davies album. I’m looking forward to Noel Gallagher’s new album. I was a big Oasis fan, but don’t think much of Liam’s album from what I’ve heard. I like the radio, I listen to BBC Radio 6 a lot, Iggy Pop’s show. I like a band called the Melvins, who have a new album out. A big influence on Nirvana. I just like rock’n’roll, the whole 60s thing, starting with The Beatles and the television show,” referring to the legendary Ed Sullivan show that was, for almost everybody in the States, their first look at the Fab Four. “Most people of my generation will tell you the same thing. More recently it’s kinda dawned on me that The Beatles weren’t particularly unique to the UK, and they were from the North. So, there was a look down your nose way of looking at them. They were basically the boys next door. In the States, they were like people from outer space. The impact they had on kids in America, although it was worldwide, it was very different for us. They were a band of stars. Everyone was a star, and the writing came from within. But also The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Who, The Stones. It was my roots which led back to the 50s, stuff like Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, things like that. The Ramones were very influenced by that music in their own way. It’s kinda where it all starts. With the computer age and pop age it’s a different thing. But it’s all about the song at the end of the day.”

Clem and the band will be performing in Brighton as part of the UK tour, and it’s a place he knows and likes. “I’m looking forward to the gig, we haven’t played the Brighton Centre for a while. The last time I was there was at Christmas. I was in the UK, and I went to see The Kinks play, Sunny Afternoon (at the Theatre Royal). I remember it was a real pain finding a place to park! I had missed it in the West End, so we drove down to Brighton. Somebody had got me some tickets. Brighton’s a great place, it seems to have changed quite a bit these last ten years.”

Blondie themselves may have changed quite a bit over the years, but at their core is a love of music, of rock’n’roll in all its multifarious glories. “Blondie is a group. We like to confuse people. People don’t know what we are, really! Especially nowadays. Obviously, there is a blond woman involved. And our music has a far reach. It’s been said over and over; the rap stuff, the dance stuff, and then there’s the whole punk-rock street credibility. Despite the criticism, doing disco (‘Heart of Glass’, ‘Atomic’) was possibly the most punk-rock thing we could do. It’s an interesting mix and has enabled us to survive, and having these real commercial hit songs. We have a lot of history, a lot of things happened, a lot of good things that have made our lives a lot better. Of course, there have been many bumps in the road along the way, but when we first met it wasn’t really about an audition. It was more like a conversation, and that conversation has continued for the last 40-plus years.”

Jeff Hemmings

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