During the hey-day of Blondie's trajectory to stardom, roughly 20 years ago, a publicity campaign nobly tried to convince us that "Blondie is a group." No one bought it. To fans everywhere, Blondie (aka Deborah Harry) was a foxy platinum blonde who sang catchy pop songs and dressed in really cool, sexy clothing. The fact that there were supporting musicians behind her was no more significant to the public eye then, say, the fact that Frank Sinatra often toasted his glass of bourbon to one dispensable orchestra after another during his long career as Great American Crooner.
The phenomenon still haunts the band today. "No one really paid attention to Debbie's singing style and how great a writer she was because they couldn't get past the image," keyboardist Jimmy Destri recently told the New York Times. Looking back, this may seem but a minor inconvenience given the band's enormous success riding the crest of New Wave in the late seventies and early eighties. The group racked up millions in record sales and produced a string of number one hits including "Rapture" and "Heart of Glass" not bad for a gritty little punk outfit from New York City. Between Debbie's good looks and the band's uncanny ability to produce irresistible pop melodies, Blondie had just the ticket to ride the roller coaster of fame and fortune.
Well, the joy ride of fame, anyway. The fortune part never quite materialized. As Blondie scaled the heights of popularity, apparently the business people that surrounded the group's venture didn't bother to share the spoils with band. Add guitarist Chris Stein's mysterious skin disease to Blondie's legal and financial disputes in the early eighties, and you have a group that disbanded on a decidedly negative note.
After Stein became rail thin and ghostly pale, rumors of heroin addiction and AIDS began to circulate. They were unfounded Stein's physical condition was the result of a rare genetic disorder. For the next several years, Harry nursed him back to health while the couple kept a low profile in the folds of Manhattan.
With the new release of No Exit, Blondie are out of hiding with an offering of infectious pop, rock, reggae, rap, ska and jazz tunes. This time, the band hopes to hang on to some of the cash. How will they fare? More of this to follow...
Blondie at Max's Kansas City,|
NYC, 1976 © Bob Gruen
I recently read a rather flattering biography of Blondie by an eager sycophant who was either well paid by the band or inherently star struck. (Hey, I just described 90 percent of the rock press.) Of all the gushy comments he dished out, the one that best stuck to the wall was that the band defies classification.
It is true; Blondie is a virtual sampler of a pop ensemble. Once labeled as a punk band, the band soon incorporated elements of disco (forgive them, Lord) and introduced rap into the mix, denying critics everywhere with a handy way of pigeonholing the outfit. On No Exit, the band's eclectic tradition continues, albeit with two less musicians. The downsizing of the band, incidentally, was not without its repercussions: Former members Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison are suing Blondie for a cool million dollars for not being invited to the party.
On the new release, the band hops from one genre to another with the most light-footed of ease. If ever there was a CD to be entitled Great American Pop Forms of the Late 20th Century it would be this one. In addition to the categories mentioned above, Harry performs a well-done rap duet with Coolio on namesake tune "No Exit." Eight tracks later, Blondie takes a respectable stab at country music in "The Dream's Lost on Me," written by Harry and Stein. ("Double Take," the other Harry/Stein composition on the record, is a beautifully executed ballad.)
Amazingly enough, the package works. Given consistency by Harry's dreamy and easily identifiable voice, No Exit is in an impressive effort by a group of middle-aged codgers (Harry 53, Stein 49, Destri 44 and drummer Clem Burke 43), some of whom have had little to do with each other in the past two decades. I'll even go so far as to say the CD can easily sit beside any of Blondie's most powerful recordings.
Now or Never That Was the Question
With all the paunch-bellied reunions of late, the idea of resurfacing did land the band on some precarious turf. Nevertheless, Blondie seems to have gotten past the fears of following in the rather dreary footsteps of the we're-only-in-it-for-the-money reunions. Well aware of the press's proclivity for lumping bands into this most unsavory of classifications, the band decided to take a preemptive strike via a phrase borrowed from Jean Paul Satre. In the liner notes of their new CD and on the back of their tour T-shirts, they proudly state "No one can say we didn't hold out for 15 minutes."
Needless to say, they held out for more than 16 years. So now with a string of pending tour dates and a CD of all new material on the judgement block, how is Blondie handling the pressure? With characteristic aplomb, of course. "For me, success was that we made the record," Burke recently told Mojo magazine. "I mean that sincerely. That we actually got back together and made the record. So we already are a success." Harry added, "If you aren't successful and you don't find big popularity, you can find happiness doing other things. This is not the only thing in life that's going to make you or me or Joey Schmoe happy. You can hold on to your artistic integrity. Those things are kinda precious, and you compromise constantly when you're reaching out or you're getting bigger."
I read recently that Rolling Stone gave the CD two stars. Too well produced, the album was, they said. Forgot to de-tune their instruments, I suppose. No accounting for taste, I say. Personally, I'm pleased to see that Blondie's back. In fact, I'm also happy to see that some of those fellows she's recorded with in the past have also made the final cut.
To view photo of Debbie Harry featured
on our March 1999 cover, click here.