Chris Stein delivered the rapture
Chris Stein is the quiet genius (and guitarist) whose interest in New York street culture drove his band Blondie in all kinds of interesting directions. For many kids in the suburbs, ‘Rapture’ was their first contact with hip hop, while ‘Heart Of Glass’ was their homage to disco and producers like Giorgio Moroder (with whom they later worked). We talked to Chris in 2014 about hip hop, hippies, heroin and financial calamities.
interviewed by Bill in London, 28.2.14
What was it like growing up in New York in the ’60 and ’70s.
It was great. I was a teenager in the middle of that folkie scene, going to New York every day on the subway, it was a great period. I saw Hendrix walking round the streets. I saw Richie Havens all the time, he was always hanging out on Washington Square. The West Village, Bleeker Street, MacDougal Street was the nexus, where everyone went to hang out. It was the December’s Children period [psychedelic rock band from Ohio]. That was a really big record when it came out for all of us. I was born in 1950 so my life parallels the rise of rock’n’roll to a certain extent. I was at Woodstock. I went to Haight Street in 1967. I was at home in my communal house there when someone came running in shouting, ‘George Harrison was just on Haight Street!’ I went to San Francisco in ’67 and ’68. I got to LA the weekend of Monterey Pop, and I was so horny to get to San Francisco I didn’t go to the festival, which I’ve always regretted. Debbie went to Woodstock, too.
How did you move from the flower power to the Velvets.
Well you know my Velvets story is from 1967. My friend was working for Andy Warhol as like a gofer. He was a kid, just 16. He came to my house in Brooklyn one night and said the opening act for the Velvets has not shown up, do you guys wanna do it? So we went to the Gymnasium which was uptown on the west side and opened up for the Velvet Underground which is really a great moment for me. They let us use their amps. Maureen Tucker let us put her bass drum right side up. They were awesome. We were always aware of them in that period. I went to art school in like 1968 then I took a couple of years off and went back in the ’70s. Then I started seeing flyers for the New York Dolls in the lobby and I thought it was a drag act. And I went to see them and fell in with Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps. Everything was connected to Andy Warhol, everybody had some connection to him.
Was that stuff widely known outside the downtown scene?
The art scene was only downtown. Max’s was an art hangout but there was a music situation a little bit later. We got the Velvets record when it first came out in the middle of the flower power thing.
You came from an arty background didn’t you?
My mom was a painter and my dad was a frustrated writer but he just had to have a normal job. They had met in the Party, and he was a Labour organiser. They were pretty leftwing. The FBI had come to my house when I was just a baby, was the family story!
What was the vibe when you left school?
My mom got me into this private school uptown called Quintano School For Young Professionals. It was across the street from Carnegie Hall. There were actually a few kids who were in showbiz. I think Patty Duke went there. Johnny Thunders went there later, too. They just wanted to get you through high school successfully so you could take a degree.
What was your ambition when you left school?
I’d always been into music, I’d been playing since I was 12 and being in bands. But you didn’t think of it as a career in those days. It wasn’t like the kids now who see themselves like that now. It was just what we did. I was still involved in that revolutionary hippie ethic, too. Now, everyone aged 20 – 30 is a hipster. In those days, if you were a hipster you were an outsider. You weren’t part of the mainstream.
Tell me how you first discovered hip hop.
[Fab Five] Freddy brought us to this event uptown in 1977 and it was a big moment. It was me, Debbie, him, Glenn O’Brien and Patti Astor. It was just exciting. I’d never seen it in person before, you know? The energy level was phenomenal. It was a kind of a festival in a police athletic league which is kind of like a civic centre. It was just great. And it was like a parallel of what was going on downtown, but they were completely separated. So it seemed like a no-brainer to do something with a rap in it. It just seemed the obvious way to go.
Where did you meet Fab Five Freddy?
Maybe TV Party [Glenn O’Brien and Chris’s cable access show] or hanging around on the scene. He used to do that TV show with us. I’m not exactly sure of the timeline.
Steinski discovered you through a WPIX guest slot.
Yeah we got close to the Funky 4 + 1 and Rodney and Sharon. We went on Saturday Night Live and they let us pick another guest artist and we brought those guys on, Funky 4 +1, and the guys on the show just couldn’t get it together to get the turntables to work so they wound up with a tape and it was really disappointing because they didn’t get to do real scratching. But that was still the first hip hop act on either local or national TV on America. They still put them on at the end over the titles. They were just nervous about the whole thing.
Why do you think they were nervous?
Just all this fucking stuff. The late ’70s that period I talked to a lot of people in record companies and 100% of these guys told me: hip hop is a fad and it’s going to go away. Everyone of these fuckin’ guys. And it was racial aspect to it, gang kids etc.
So tell me about the new album. Debbie says it was a more long distance.
Remote, yeah yeah. For most of the record I was in New York and Jeff the producer was in San Francisco. So we’d be sending things back and forth all the time, for about a year. I would send him a track, programmed, and Clem would come in a little later and play some drums, and we’d play some of the instruments, real instruments, but it just kept going back and forth.
And a lot more programmed?
Oh yeah there’s a bit of my programming on almost all the tracks.
So how does Clem work around that?
We just put him in and he plays on top of that and it makes it sound more organic when you put the real instruments on. Real guitarists replacing programmed guitar, but I have a tendency to use guitar samples, it’s just easier to get a sound with a sample but I play it with a midi guitar. It’s just easier than plugging an amp and trying to get a sound, the sound can take an hour sometimes. If you use a sample it’s five minutes and it’s right there.
Do you prefer working like that?
Now I really prefer working with the computer. Or I’ll just write in a guitar part with a keyboard frequently too. There are all these programmes now that will play a chord by using one finger.
How long have you been working this way?
I was really lucky I had the guy who runs our fan club got me going with computers in the late ’80s/early ’90s. I remember when emails started and if I’d had any brains I’d have bought all those domain names! But then who the fuck thought of that? But this stuff I’ve been doing for six or seven years and still learning all the time. I’m not Skrillex, I don’t have that kind of skill, you know, all these songs that he writes just sitting on an aeroplane.
What was the imperative to get the band back together?
When we broke up, interest in the band built up over the next ten years. Early on, I never heard people talking about it, but as time went on more and more did and then other musicians started referencing it. It seems like we’re much more accepted now than we were 40 years ago. Certainly 30 years ago, at any rate.
When the band ended in the 1980s was it more to do with your illness?
Nah, it was management, bad financial advice. We ran out of money. We were just screwed over on so many levels. Bad management, bad accounting, our accountant, in the two year we made the most money, decided not to pay our taxes with these loopholes and we wound up owing $100k which kept going up every year with interest so it ended up being $1m. after five years. It was stupid, all that stuff. And we were doing drugs like crazy and there was no rehab in those days. Now it’s part of showbiz, the artist gets fucked up, you go to rehab
And then you write a song about it!
Send ’em away for two months and that’s it. In those days, at the same time all the A&R guys at the record companies were giving us loads of cocaine. But that was okay, because that was ‘non-addictive’ [smiles wryly] and there were tensions in the band and we’d been working for five years pretty much non-stop which didn’t help.
Tell me about the Latin influences on the new album?
It’s what got me really excited. I started with a couple of compilation records and I wound up listening to Mega, this great New York Latin station, and I’ve always liked tracking stuff that’s a little obscure and even though there’s a huge mass of people listening to Latin music all the time, it’s not in the mainstream in America because of the language. Americans are very stubborn about the language so to me even though my Spanish is very lousy, it’s just very exciting and those grooves are very sexy.
How did you find the collaborators.
I had been listening to the first Systema Solar album and I was using that to reference the tracks, and I sent a track I was working on, ‘Sugar On The Side’, to our producer Jeff and then I sent some of the Systema tracks saying this is what I’m listening to, this is what it should sound like. And he said, ‘Let’s reach out to these guys’, they came back right away and Debbie has since sung on their second album which is also a really nice track. They’re great. We didn’t hear from one of the guys for weeks and we were waiting for a track from him and he wrote us an email saying, ‘Oh I’ve just been in the jungle! I didn’t have any email.’
How long have you been getting into this because it’s been a sound in New York for decades hasn’t it?
I’m much drawn to the modern electronic Latin the newer generation rather than the old school Latin stuff, Cuban etc. You know I always loved that stuff but this is just very fresh.
How did your illness affect you and your creativity?
I had a lot of great visions while I was in the hospital.
Was that morphine?
No I was still doing dope (heroin) too, to make my hospital stay a little better and it would be mixed with massive doses of steroids so I basically tripped out. I mean I can’t say I was in a coma, but I was in a very deep dreamstate and I had a lot of very strange visions. Maybe that helped my creativity. I can’t say that I regretted any of it. It was interesting overall but there was a lot of annoying aspects to it. I had a spinal tap in the middle of all this. That’s fuckin’ painful. It was like getting shot. I certainly stepped back from the whole drug thing. But it still took a few years after that to stop doing coke all the time but at this point I can’t even have a toke on a joint I get too tripped out. Now I don’t do anything, I don’t drink anymore, nothing.
Does it alter the way you view the world or music?
I think that probably smoking pot all the time it makes you see small and big things of equal importance. So if you pour coffee on your leg it’s the same importance as signing the contract and I don’t think that’s a good mental state to be in.
How do you feel about New York with gentrification
Well it’s kinda sad, but financial everything is kind of sad. But you know it speaks more of the world situation. I really like Obama, and it’s exciting to break through. I don’t know whether 15 years ago I thought I’d ever see a black guy in the White House, but the banks still fuckin’ own everything including him. I don’t know what it’s going to take to change that situation.
Do you think Blondie would exist now if you were 19 or 20 in New York.
I don’t know. Who the fuck knows? If Debbie was herself and doing what she was doing back then we would stand a good shot. She was so striking and so amazingly gorgeous, nobody else looks like that but we would’ve still been in with a lot of other people doing the same thing. It’s kind of the inverse of what I would do if I could go back 40 years with all this knowledge.
What was it like being part of the CBGBs scene, because they all seem to have Blondie as the write-offs.
Oh yeah yeah. We were very scattered. A lot of the bands had a real tight focus about what their style was and our style was all over the place, but that became the Blondie style, this eclecticism. People I admired, like Bowie, were all over the place, too and reinventing himself all the time. Certainly we weren’t in the forefront of that scene, or not early on. But as soon as we got the recordings out there that all changed.
Did that focus what you were doing?
Yeah it probably did. But we have this DVD coming out of us at CBGBs from 1977 which is terrific because these tapes are in colour, have been lying around for years., nobody’s ever seen it before. But it sounds very punk compared to what the recordings sound like, more fast and manic sounding.
I saw you play at Hammersmith Odeon when you blew Television off stage.
You were at that show?
Yeah! And they were the big guys in the neighbourhood and they stole Fred Smith from you.
Well yeah they were. I think their expectations over here (UK) defeated them and it’s always good to be the underdog. I remember it was written about and I remember a guy standing up in audience and yelling, ‘Prove it, Tommy boy’ which is obviously one of their songs and everyone was maybe a little sceptical as to whether they’d live up to those expectations. And fuckin’ Tony Parsons went and wrote how much he’d fallen in love with Debbie in the NME (he then proceeded to kill us next time we were over!).
A very British reaction in the music press.
That was standard procedure.
Coming over from small gigs in the US to Hammersmith Odeon must have felt like a breakthrough.
Well yeah, something about the brash American female. There’s the Lolita theory, which is one of my all-time favourite English language novels: young American seduces old Europe. So there’s an aspect of that in there.
There was also the strong vein of Anglophilia in Blondie.
Oh yeah. I’d been over here twice before. I went to the first reggae festival up in Portobello. I was staying in the house adjacent to the one used in Performance, on Powis Square, which was such a big deal for me because Performance is still my favourite music movie. It’s the only good music movie. I first time I came over in 1971, I visited the Isle Of Man, I was with a girl visiting her relatives in the UK, an aunt who lived there and it was like going back to the ’40s. She had a pump in the kitchen for water and stuff. Fuckin’ amazing. I went to the witches mill. I went to the Gerald Gardner Museum. I’ve always been into the occult. He was the first one to write about witchcraft in the ’50s.
What was it like working with Mike Chapman?
Mike was great, he was awesome. Recently I realised that one of the best aspects with Chapman was he wouldn’t let the fuckin’ record company anywhere near us. He wouldn’t let them send A&R guys in to tinker around with the music and try and influence what was going on. There was a point where he hijacked the tapes, I don’t remember why but he wouldn’t hand them over until we’d done whatever we needed to do at that moment. The famous story is he gave them Autoamerica and they said, ‘We don’t hear any singles on here’. It had two number ones on it! But he wouldn’t let the guys into the control room.
Debbie said he was chosen by the record company?
No Terry Ellis brought him round.
Did you know about his pedigree in the UK?
Yeah yeah, we knew Sweet and stuff.
What was he like to work with?
He was great. It was a whole different reality, we just learned so much on that first record because he just had so…. We hadn’t been in a situation where we’d been repeating things. And suddenly he was there asking us to do our part 20 or 30 times until it met his exacting standards. It’s something I’ve carried with me ever since. You have to be able to do something over and over and still keep it fresh and I think that goes into writing, it goes into everything. In spite of all his writing abilities he didn’t do that with us, he just drew out the best of our own material.
Why do you think Blondie succeeded when everyone was saying you were terrible?
I think the recordings helped a lot. I’d always worked with recordings on my own with my four-track. I think all our terrible references just came from the live period when we were only represented by our shows at CBGBs. When we started playing out after we’d recorded, it changed.
Did it give you self-belief hearing how it could sound?
Certainly, yeah. I always loved the idea of recording in multi-track. Even when I was a kid listening to the Beatles I was still always listened to the recording aspect of it, you know how they were doing this thing as well as the overall sound.
What inspires you now?
A lot of stuff. Pop music, but I’m always six months behind what’s going on. There’s such a mass of stuff. We saw Drenge at the NME awards. They were fucking great.
What’s the secret to your enduring partnership with Debbie?
We have a similar mindset. Some kind of connection in some past life, I’m not sure, it’s just what it is. We were just lucky to find each other.
Did you feel that when you first met?
Pretty early on yeah. We never really argued much about things. Both of us will see how much the other is wanting something and then back down. It goes to a point in the middle where both of us know not to cross.
You’d been through a few bands together before Blondie. You joined the Stilletos didn’t you?
Yeah I went to their first show.
At that stage did you have a vision of what your band would be?
No. There was no masterplan even on this record. It was just one song at a time.
So what’s the impetus for making music?
I’ve always had it going and trying to get it out. I spent a few months working on this photo book, working on music three months now, it’s out it in September, I wrote a lot of anecdotes in the captions for the photos. We did this other book Making Tracks with Victor Bockris, but it didn’t get much attention.
What’s it like being a musician now compared to when you were having number ones?
We release the music ourselves now. External pressures now are just to make a living. The kids [eight and ten years old at the time] have changed my whole perspective because if I didn’t have them I wouldn’t care about money. I spend a lot of time with those guys. But suddenly I have to think about making money which was never such a priority for me.
How did you meet your current producer?
Gee I don’t know. I can’t remember who suggested him, but he’s worked with the Killers and Fischerspooner. My wife is friends with one of the guys from Fischerspooner, so he gave him a big recommendation. It just worked out.
In the early days how did it feel when Television nicked Fred Smith off you?
Oh it was annoying. It was like starting all over again. There was a moment when Clem was very supportive, we were really defeated by it and he was the big pusher: ‘I know all these musicians from New Jersey!’ Which turned out to be Gary [Valentine].
Also Clem’s look was perfect for you.
We were all really attracted to the suits. We were all Anglophiles. He was a big Bay City Rollers fans. It really wasn’t thought out. In those days you could go to like fuckin’ Hoboken and these towns in New Jersey and there were stores full of ’60s clothing, tab collar shirts, narrow collar suits, it was there off the rack. There was amazing stuff in the thrift shops right up into the ’70s.
© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton