Once More Into the Vaults: Blondie on the Music That Defined Its Legacy
As Chris Stein searched for rare recordings to include in “Against the Odds: 1974-1982,” a handsome chronicle of the new wave band Blondie’s emergence from underdogs to pop stars, he rummaged diligently inside a packed barn on his property near Woodstock and —
“I don’t have a barn,” Stein exclaimed in a recent interview, in a tone that was exasperated but also comedic. “The boxed set says I have a barn?” He sighed. “It’s a garage.”
Up in the Blondie stratosphere, something has always gone wrong, even when things were going right. “Against the Odds,” out Friday, documents a volatile timeline of massive chart successes accompanied by personal and professional missteps.
“I mean, missteps is an understatement,” Debbie Harry said with a chortle.
In an hourlong video conversation, Stein, 72, who plays guitar and functions as the abstract mastermind of Blondie, and Harry, 77, the alluring singer who fronts the band and writes its most elegant lyrics, reflected on the unlikely success hinted at in the title of the boxed set. From 1974 to 1982 and beyond, the pair were inseparable lovers who, with their bandmates, built a career rooted in wit, excitement, sex and a Pop Art sensibility that included pastiche and appropriation. Harry and Stein remained close even after their romance ended in 1987. She’s even godmother to his two daughters.
Because they combined an omnivorous curiosity with a playful foxiness rarely attempted in that era of rock music, the band was not taken as seriously as its peers — Talking Heads, Television, Ramones — yet found its way to national TV appearances, arena shows and the top of the charts. Its biggest successes came when it traversed styles: Of Blondie’s four No. 1 hits on the Hot 100, two are disco (“Heart of Glass” and “Call Me”), one is reggae (“The Tide Is High”) and one is a prescient celebration of hip-hop (“Rapture”).
The boxed set — the first authorized by the band — makes an argument for Blondie’s greatness, both musical and visual. The Super Deluxe Edition includes the band’s first six studio albums, 36 previously unreleased tracks, and a foil-wrapped 144-page hardcover book with liner notes and photos. At 17 pounds, it’s the definitive account of a sound, attitude, look, and aesthetic that proved inspirational to generations of artists across a spectrum of genres. Madonna has called Harry “a role model,” and the band’s songs have been covered or sampled by Miley Cyrus, Kelly Clarkson, the Black Eyed Peas, Missy Elliott, the Bad Plus and Def Leppard.
For Harry, “the lead singer of Blondie” was a character she invented, “which spoke of what was acceptable for girls at that time, and the way I had steered myself through life, having a certain facade,” she said from her Chelsea apartment, with a garden view behind her. “It was the same thing David Bowie did.” In her flinty 2019 memoir, “Face It,” Harry says she “was playing at being a cartoon fantasy onstage,” much like Marilyn Monroe. She never pretended that men and women didn’t stare at her, never pretended she didn’t like the attention, but also never took herself too seriously.
“I loved how she presented herself,” Shirley Manson of the rock band Garbage said in an enthusiastic phone call. “It wasn’t pandering to the male gaze. She looked smart and sassy, and felt a little dangerous. You forget, because Blondie make it seem so stylish and effortless, how good the songwriting is. They’re the complete, untouchable package.”
Harry was raised by adoptive parents in Hawthorne, N.J., but frequently wandered off to Manhattan, and moved into a $64-a-month apartment on St. Marks Place after college. She worked as a model, a secretary for the BBC, a Playboy bunny and a clerk at a head shop. None of it was satisfying. “Music was always a huge, haunting influence,” she said. “I wanted to be in the art world. I felt I should be making music.”
Harry sang in a short-lived, bucolic hippie band called Wind in the Willows, and was “sort of a hippie” herself, she said. Her next band, the Stilletos, was an almost vaudevillian girl group whose set included a song called “Wednesday Panties,” and when the Warhol associate Eric Emerson brought his roommate Chris Stein to see the band, he was entranced by Harry.
Stein, like Harry, had graduated with an art degree, and he had the advantage of growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, as the only child of intellectual immigrant parents who met as members of the Communist Party. When he was 17 and a self-described hippie weirdo, his band opened for the Velvet Underground, and he resolved to never get a job. “I was on welfare,” he said from his Lower Manhattan loft. “And I painted a bathroom once,” he added, deadpan.
Both got a jolt of inspiration when they saw the New York Dolls play at the Mercer Arts Center. “They were funny and nasty and naughty,” Harry recalled. “It was everything I needed at that time.”
Harry was naughty, too. A 1979 profile of Blondie in this newspaper made note of Harry’s “disregard for underwear.” Her purposeful use of sexuality wasn’t much more explicit than, say, contemporaneous TV ads for Serta mattresses or Calvin Klein jeans, but it was also an era when everyone, especially men, felt entitled to comment on women’s bodies. The attention on Blondie was “all about how I flaunted my underwear. It’s the Madonna/whore dichotomy — those seem to be the two acceptable occupations for women,” Harry said with a laugh.
Theo Kogan, the singer of the punk band Lunachicks, said she saw Harry as part of a triumvirate of 1970s tough girls that also included Olivia Newton-John’s leather-encased transformation at the end of “Grease” and Pinky Tuscadero, the motorcycle-riding, butch-but-femme character on the hit show “Happy Days.” “They showed that you can be a glamorpuss and also be tough,” Kogan said in a phone interview.
A clever and stylish couple, Stein and Harry became the Nick and Nora Charles of CBGB, ground zero for New York’s rock underground. The two share many qualities, including hard-shelled cynicism and a capacity for not giving two figs about criticism. But Harry admits that at first, criticism “really floored me. It can knock you down, or it can make you want to fight harder. So it has a lot to offer,” she added with a laugh.
So about those missteps Harry alluded to: Blondie’s backstage distractions included fights with the band’s manager and accountant, exploitative contracts, internal band squabbles that evolved into lawsuits, and for Harry and Stein, drug addiction. “Heroin and cocaine,” Stein said. “That’s what you did back then.”
Much of this narrative becomes clear in “Against All Odds.” The first of the eight discs features early home recordings and demos of the band from 1974, all of them tentative and uncertain of style. Naysayers at CBGB who were unimpressed with the band used the derisive nickname Blandie, and they were relegated to a perpetual opening act.
When they released their first album in 1976, Harry was 31 and Stein was almost 27, which was ancient per punk standards. But the material improved in subsequent years, especially with “Dreaming,” one of the best songs ever written about being young, broke and fabulous in the big city. The guys in the band — the keyboardist Jimmy Destri, the bassist Nigel Harrison, the drummer Clem Burke, the guitarist Frank Infante and Stein — perfected a look: dark suits, skinny ties, mod hair. The songwriting took a leap, with key contributions from Destri, Harrison and Infante, right as Blondie paired with Mike Chapman, a sharp Aussie producer who’d had glam rock hits with the Sweet and Nick Gilder. “It was like the Beatles getting together with George Martin,” Stein said.
That creative relationship, however, was not without drama. “The first time Mike saw us play live,” Harry recalled, “he said afterward that he’d never laughed so much in his life. I guess I felt it was a compliment.”
Chapman produced the band’s first No. 1, “Heart of Glass,” a thumping, synthesized, drum-machined disco track in which Harry finds herself “lost inside adorable illusion” and “riding high on love’s true bluish light,” a poetic summary of romantic ambivalence.
Not for the first time, Blondie was accused of “selling out” (that was once a thing) by embracing trendy dance music. “The whole anti-disco movement smacked of class war to me,” Stein said. “When I was a kid, my heroes were 60-year-old Black men — Bukka White, Howlin’ Wolf. Disco was just an extension of R&B.”
“For me, it was about dancing,” Harry added. “I loved going to clubs.”
Blondie earned a second No. 1, “Call Me,” working with the producer Giorgio Moroder, who observed the band working — or more precisely, bickering — in the studio and decided to record the music with players who weren’t wasting his time. “He’s a happy guy,” Harry said. “Why would he want to have that around?”
A fifth album, “Autoamerican,” came out in 1980 and featured a smash cover of “The Tide is High,” a 1960s ska song by a Jamaican group, the Paragons, as well as “Rapture,” the first No. 1 song in the United States to feature a rap vocal. Stein and Harry were curious scenesters, always eager to find new trends, and it was inevitable that they’d cross paths with rappers. The “Rapture” video featured the future “Yo! MTV Raps” host Fab 5 Freddy, his fellow graffiti artist Lee Quinones and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Accusations that the group had appropriated music by people of color followed, and Stein doesn’t deny it. “I always say, Black people invented and the white people presented,” Stein said. “It’s just part of the power imbalance in America and elsewhere.”
By 1982, the final year of the boxed set, conflicts within the band were untenable, and Harry was spending most of her time tending to Stein, who was hospitalized with a near-fatal skin disease. “We were pretty stoned,” Stein said. “That’s what exacerbated the illness I had,” he added. Blondie broke up.
Stein and Harry did, too, in early 1987. Their split seems to have been more sad and resigned than rancorous, and Stein was heavily involved in Harry’s post-Blondie solo albums. In 1997, they re-formed the band, which has continued to record and tour, now with only one other original member, Burke. When Blondie was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, the former members Nigel Harrison and Frank Infante stood onstage and fruitlessly beseeched Stein and Harry to let them perform at the ceremony. Blondie drama is eternal.
Harry and Stein continue to work, both together and apart. He’s an accomplished photographer, has his own memoir coming out next year, and is toiling away on a Blondie documentary, which has been in progress since at least 1978. “We’re still hustling,” Stein said. Perhaps new missteps lie ahead.
Harry has acting gigs, a reissue of her first solo album, “Koo Koo,” and is still active in the downtown music scene, braving smelly rock bars in search of inspiration. Well past the age of a Madonna or a whore, she’s inventing another acceptable occupation: the inspirational septuagenarian. “You’re not used to seeing someone Debbie’s age hanging out and going to clubs,” said Kogan, the Lunachicks singer. “That’s the beauty of her — she’s a role model for us as adults, as well as when we were younger.”