Debbie Harry has a heart of class
As well as being one of the most iconic pop singers of all time, Debbie Harry kept both feet in the underground club scene that had been the crucible for her band, Blondie. She organised a baby shower at the Paradise Garage for Grace Jones, was a regular attendee at both Jackie 60 and Mother, the legendary meatpacking district clubs run by Chi-Chi Valenti and Johnny Dynell, and was even know to occasionally put in a shift behind the bar. In our 2014 meeting, we asked her about the latest Blondie album, women in rock music, and her early love of hip hop.
So tell me about your new album, Ghosts Of Download.
It’s terrific. I love it. There have been a lot of contributors to this one, probably more than any other Blondie album before. Lots of different writers. Basically the musicianship was the Blondie group but there might have been some addition stuff that our producer Jeff Saltzman put on in San Francisco. The thing that’s interesting about this one is that it’s been done just through the internet. It was a very computerised delivery. Not necessarily the music on it but the way that we did it, we didn’t all get together and live in an area and go into the studio every day. Chris would build up the tracks and then he’d send it off to the producer and he would fiddle around with it back and forth; that kind of thing.
And how does that work creatively? How does it feel from a creative point of view?
It feels fine actually. It feels pretty much the same for me, because I always get the track sent to me either on a CD or online and I would mull them over and Chris would maybe suggest a melody line or I would add to it and work on some kind of a lyric and then we’d send that back and forth so it’s pretty much the same for me. At the end, when all the tracks were done I’d go and put on some vocals.
And how would it be finished?
Oh he would do that in the studio.
You’ve used a lot of modern – dance – techniques to make this and the last album. Is that a conscious thing? Is it something that’s inspired you a lot over the years?
Well you know, I guess it is. We’ve always admitted to being inspired by our peers and what’s happening. We’re very urban and open minded listeners, I think it’s not that you’re copying somebody, but the stuff just seeps in. So when you have an idea you think, ‘I like that,’ and then it carries through and becomes part of your thinking. You do have to be careful not to copy somebody. You think you’re coming up with something original but you’ve actually heard it somewhere before. But I’m not responsible for that. I only wrote one song on this album! So I’m pretty safe.
But New York is such a musical city, you have all these ideas and directions and sounds coming at you all the time, it must have some sort of influence on the music you make.
I don’t know. Growing up that way is one thing, but it’s the state of the world now.
In what sense?
Any kind of music is available instantly.
Is that a good or bad thing?
I think it’s great.
What music inspires you now?
Well, I listen to music mostly in the car. I really like it there. I put on music when I have people or friends over but when I’m running round the apartment doing things I don’t like having music on in the background. I like to listen to music. In that sense I listen to whatever’s on the radio. I surf. We have the satellite stations.
Do you still buy music? Do you download?
Occasionally. I have friends who are DJs who say, ‘Oh listen to this or listen to that’. I go out, I go to clubs and if I hear something. I’m lazy, I think!
I’m assuming the song ‘Mother’ from your last album was not about your mum but about DJ Johnny Dynell and Chi Chi Valenti’s club?
It’s something that I loved and I was bereft actually when they closed it. And actually this lyric happened so beautifully that I just think it’s completely succinct, and embodied what the club was about. Not in extended detail but “in a patent-leather life” sums it all up.
I’m assuming you went to Jackie 60 as well, which was a bit before my time.
I went from the beginning and performed there. It was fun and a great thing. When Mother closed I was really honestly… It was terrible.
How does it feel in New York now it has been made a lot safer and more expensive.
Well you know I think New York has that tradition of being some kind of a centre for communications and arts. Granted it has greatly changed and expanded. NYU has practically taken over the Lower East Side. But I sort of have faith in the tradition that New York will always excite people to come there and to look for people that are like themselves and do the communication thing or the arts thing. For a lot of artists, it’s the only place they can come in the US that makes any sense. Although there are some great galleries in LA, you know, it’s spoiled in a way. But it’s so expensive you can’t afford to live there unless you share an apartment with a couple of people. Where there’s a will there’s a way. It has spread out to Williamsburg and Bushwick now, though.
If Blondie was starting out now do you think they would be living in Manhattan?
Don’t know, can’t say. I think if Blondie were starting off now, we’d probably all just go into computers [laughs] I dunno, we used to say that in past because the music business is so dire but as musicians we’d probably be keen on playing. But starting out now? I don’t know.
Is that what drives you now as an artist, irrespective of an audience?
That’s the fun thing. It’s really satisfying. We like playing and having fun with a lyric that you can play with.
Do you feel under less pressure now than when you had number ones and the record company breathing down your neck?
We’re our own worst critics – or best critics. We know when something is good.
Did you feel pressure from record companies?
Occasionally I’d hear a voice that said, ‘We wanna another ‘Heart Of Glass’ or we want another ‘Atomic’.’ You can hear artists that have tried to replicate those things on one of their hits. It’s never a good idea. It always sounds like a watered down version. I don’t think we’ve ever had that kind of ambition or reputation. We’ve always tried to move out and stretch out and I think this album is more of the same thing like that. Chris has been very influenced by some of the Latin beats and rhythms. We also have our keyboard player Matt Katz-Bohen and he’s a real pop songwriter and we worked purposely with him and the Blondie history and he’s written some really great songs. We have collaborated with quite a few people on this. Los Rakas from Oakland
Is that the one on Screwed Up?
Yes. And then there’s Systema Solar with ‘Sugar On The Side’ and I did that song ‘Mile High’ with Hector Fonseca. He’s a Brazilian DJ. He had a gig and brought the music down at this big rave party for 5,000 people and he got the whole audience to sing the ohs which was just fabulous. I think we met at the studio when I was working on the vocals. Jeff said, ‘Why don’t you make up a song?’ and I said, ‘I don’t play an instrument’ so he said, ‘Well if you have any musical lines call me up and put them on my voicemail’. So I did, just three different lines. Then he came back to me and organised them. It was very simple.
Tell me about your partnership with Chris.
Well, we can’t stand each other! I guess he’s my best friend. I love him dearly. We hit it off. And somehow it’s a good balance. It’s effortless.
Has it been like that over the years?
I think there have been some rough patches and it was a little bit of estrangement when we first split up but I think both of us were pretty stressed out by that point. We talk every day. He’s a great guy.
Whose idea was it to get Blondie back together?
It was his actually. It wasn’t mine. It felt like it had had its day but he felt that if we didn’t put it back together at some point I think he was encouraged this guy who worked for a management company . He introduced us to Alan Kovac and he reassured us and was interested. He specialised in dealing with old contractual problems with bands.
Can you tell me about the first days you started playing at CBGBs and the atmosphere in New York around that time?
It was very fun, there was nothing precious about it. It wasn’t about the money, it was about getting your shit together, basically.
What was your relationship with other bands? Was it a cooperative situation?
In some ways, in some ways not. There was competition. It was kind of natural you know. You liked certain people and you disliked others. It was just a bunch pf people trying to make music. The credit should go to Hilly Kristal for allowing bands to play original music and that was probably one of the few places where you could do it. There was another bar called Monty Python and CBGBs became this mecca for bands who wanted to do their own material. Then eventually Tommy Dean Mills opened up Max’s, the second one, but by then the ball was rolling. There were bands who were formed and established, though not necessarily as recording artists.
I saw you play at Hammersmith Odeon with Television and that must have been a big breakthrough that tour, because suddenly you were playing in front of big audiences.
Sure, it was a big breakthrough. We were real Anglophiles. Wilko Johnson came over to New York when the Dr Feelgood album came out and their success was a real boost, you know. So there was definitely some sort of symbiotic relationship between New York and London.
I know Chris was really influence by glam bands, I’m wondering whether Mike Chapman’s background in glam was a reason for choosing him?
We didn’t choose Mike. He moved over to Hollywood and we were playing at the Whiskey for weeks and Terry Ellis said, ‘Oh you gotta come and see this band I want you to produce them.’ So he came over and he said he’d never laughed so hard in his life so he felt he had to do it. But he was so experienced at making songs and he was such a good songwriter he made us much more focussed. He was strict in the studio about recording techniques so we all had to knuckle down and work a little harder. He was used to making songs that sounded good on the radio.
And the way the songs seemed to respond to different feels and styles, like ‘Rapture’ and hip hop, ‘Heart Of Glass’ and disco….
No that was Chris, it was his responsibility. Chris is a genius.
Both of you were hanging out at hip hop jams very early on.
Well that’s what I was saying earlier about the beauty of living in a metropolitan area. You have the availability of all these different kinds of music. You know we benefited from that and it was very inspiring.
When I interviewed Steinski he said he discovered rap through hearing you and Chris guesting on WPIX and playing early hip hop.
Yes and we have heard that before from someone else… I don’t recall their name, but they were heavy duty rappers and they said ‘Rapture’ was the first thing they heard.
You’ve often explored the dark side of life in your lyrics which carries on that tradition started by Velvet Underground.
Yeah it’s also to do with being in a counter culture situation. We were breaking away from the flower power era and there was that little section of glam rock which was shortlived and not as big in the US. The Dolls never really got their full dues in the States.
How does it feel to be regarded as an iconic woman in rock music, someone who inspired and paved the way for Lady Gaga, Madonna and others.
I guess I feel lucky that I got in before them! [laughs] it’s funny, I’m glad it worked.
And it was an incredible time for women breaking through with X-Ray Spex, Raincoats, Slits and Chrissie Hynde. Did it feel like a wave?
Absolutely. On the other side, on New York, there was also Wendy Williams, Lydia Lunch, Helen Wheels, a bunch of girls that didn’t necessarily translate commercially but they were recorded. Also Annie Golden. A lot of variety, a lot of stuff.
ADDENDUM After the interview, I had brought an album for Debbie to autograph for a friend’s daughter’s birthday, which she did. I then interviewed Chris Stein immediately afterwards. At the end of the meeting, I collected my bag and said goodbye to Chris and Debbie came back out of her bedroom with an object wrapped in tissue paper. “Could you give this to your friends daughter for her birthday please?” When I got out of the hotel, I opened the wrapper and inside it was a lovely necklace with a heart-shaped pendant. A lovely gesture. Bill Brewster
© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton