“It was the pre-gentrified war zone of Manhattan,” says Chris Stein, co-founder of Blondie. “Everybody that's been through that kind of misses it. I see everybody moaning about the fucking crime rate now…” Debbie Harry, finishing his thought, adds, “Well, they weren't around for the crime of the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
Pining for the Bad Old Days is a certain kind of humblebrag, but Stein and Harry look back on the rat-infested mayhem of New York City as a central element of Blondie’s early days as a pillar of punk rock’s birth in and around CBGBs. “I liked that it was so isolated and incestuous,” says Stein. “The fact that it was so downtrodden was kind of great. There were a lot of sects, a certain amount of competition that went on. It wasn't all a happy family situation. But I had a great time, I remember it very fondly.”
Blondie, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, drew on influences including girl groups, bubblegum, surf music, and glam rock, filtered through arty humor and urbane irony. They nailed the midpoint between the glorious trashiness of the Ramones and the arch cleverness of Talking Heads. Throw in a bombshell lead singer and they became the biggest act to emerge from first wave punk, scoring three platinum albums and four Number One singles before imploding in the early '80s. Emerging from that Bowery scuzz, former Playboy Bunny and folk singer Harry became a mainstream celebrity—starring in movies, painted by early champion Andy Warhol, guesting on The Muppet Show.
The band’s glory years are now collected in an exhaustive new box set, Blondie: Against The Odds 1974-1982. The 124 tracks include expanded editions of the group’s first six albums, remastered from the original analog tapes, and 36 previously unissued recordings, starting with their first-ever studio sessions. The elaborate physical collection weighs in at a whopping 17 pounds.
Maybe the biggest revelation in this archive—which had been stored for decades in a barn at Stein’s Woodstock home—is the progression of drafts of Blondie’s first crossover hit, “Heart of Glass,” over the course of five years. They tried multiple styles, even different titles. “It just never really felt right,” says Harry. “We were rehearsing with [producer] Mike Chapman, and we played him all the songs. And he said, ‘Well, what else have you got?’ So Chris brought out ‘Heart of Glass,’ this one that we could never really figure out. He was really enthusiastic about it, and simultaneously, or coincidentally, the rhythm machine—the little beat box—came into play, and all of a sudden, the song made sense.”
“Heart of Glass,” released in 1979, was proof that that punk and disco could co-exist, and Blondie went on to cross-pollinate with hip-hop on “Rapture” (Harry may not be spitting bars like Jay Z, but the song is recognized as the first rap single to hit Number One) and reggae with “The Tide is High.” By the time they broke up, after 1982’s burnt-out The Hunter, their last album until they re-formed and released No Exit in 1999, the group had sold 40 million records worldwide.
Prior to a brief Blondie tour (which Stein sat out, fatigued from treatment for a heart murmur; former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock took his spot on bass), Stein and Harry jumped on a late July conference call to talk about the band’s history. “The box to me is all about the process,” says Stein, 72, indicating that he still has plenty of tapes to go through for future projects.
“There’s a continuity, that's what I'm hearing,” says Harry, 77. “It's not always obvious to everyone, but Chris and myself can hear it. Sometimes it's sweet, and sometimes it's funny, and sometimes you think, ‘Okay, this is really good.’ So it was a development—it was a progression of ideas.”
Esquire: Debbie, you’ve spoken about the evolution of the Blondie character. How does that emerge in this box set?
Debbie Harry: Well, I learned something recently that I didn't know. It was an interview with David Bowie, where he said that when he was starting out, he was David Bowie. But then he became this fictional character that he created and that's when everything sort of clicked for him. I really understand that and can relate to that, and I think to some extent, that's what I've done. I feel like I created a character—this entity, so to speak—and took it from there.
Going back to these very early recordings, can you hear yourself starting to figure that stuff out?
DH: Yeah, it made me remember the atmosphere of the period. It was so innocent—I guess that's what the word is. Neither of us were real showbiz kids, we just admired this rock scene and the rock world, and we loved the music and wanted to participate. Chris always says that every kid wants to be a rock star, it's like a natural inheritance being an American. So obviously, we were bitten by the bug. A lot of people try it and walk away, but we persevered, and we learned a lot and music was something that I guess neither of us wanted to live without.
You made six albums in six years. Was it just a whirlwind that you were caught up in, or do you regret that you didn't catch your breath at some point?
Chris Stein: It was kind of stressful. People do this and then walk away from it, and that's the kind of stuff that makes people not be able to hold on. It was difficult.
DH: Very difficult. Our contract was not a good contract and when we started having hits, our management should have renegotiated. Our contract called for three albums a year, so that's real insanity right there. We were always in arrears. So we had all these hits going on, and yet we were in a bad place contractually. [Laughs] But those were the days, that's what it was like.
In the notes to the box, Mike Chapman says that it was “never painless” working on a Blondie session, and Giorgio Moroder says that the band was always fighting and that's why he didn’t do an album with you. Do you remember things being that contentious?
CS: Sure, there was always a lot of tension, but that was also part of the formula that produced the results, I guess. I refer everybody to that Rolling Stone cover piece, I think from 1979—we all hated it when it came out, but now I think it’s really great, because it captures some of the angst that was going on.
DH: I don't know how we actually made it through all of that. It was extremely stressful.
CS: Well, we did a lot of drugs.
DH: No, I didn't—at that point I wasn't doing any!
CS: It caught up to us by the end. It didn’t quite hit till the ‘80s that we were getting seriously fucked up. But I was always smoking pot through everything.
Debbie, do you look at it like Chris just said, that the creative tension was part of the organism, or would it have been better if you’d gotten along better?
DH: I don't know—ideally, it would have been nice if we were all having a great time and making all this great music and enjoying our careers and so on and so forth. We were enjoying the fact that we were hitting, we were making it, but it was difficult because we were always being pulled by the label, by the management, by personality clashes or whatever. And none of us had any experience. A couple of the guys were 18 or 19 when they started in the band, so we were all kind of out there.
On Blondie’s first tour, you went out as the opening act for Iggy Pop, who had David Bowie playing keyboards at the time. What did you take away from being in that orbit at that time?
CS: Those guys were kind of visionary, and I guess they saw something in Blondie and in Debbie early on—kind of like Andy [Warhol]—that the rest of the world didn't appreciate. David Bowie saw that putting us on the tour with them would make for this great show, and it was very successful. But it was amazing. I still look at it with awe.
DH: They were our heroes; they could do no wrong basically. It was interesting to know that both of them were having label difficulties, and that's part of the reason they did this low-key kind of punk tour, because they were they were both sort of on the outs. Can you imagine either of those artists being on the outs? I mean, they're seminal.
CS: Andy went through a big slump in the ‘80s and ‘90s, too. I remember when he was out of favor, which is so bizarre when you think about it. But Bowie was really fascinated by the music scene in New York and the punk scene, I remember talking about that with him at the time.
We've had a Sex Pistols series on TV, there was a Go-Go's documentary. I assume that there’s talk about a Blondie movie.
CS: Yeah, sure. But it would have to be something that doesn’t suck. I’m not gonna name names, but I am not a fan of music movies, except for Inside Llewyn Davis and Performance and Spinal Tap. That's it—those are the only music movies I like. So it would have to be something refined. I know that sounds snooty.
DH: I agree with Chris—you want to do something that's somewhat of a new twist, a little uniqueness. I don't really want to talk about our ideas at this point, but we've been approached many times to do a biopic, let's put it that way. Just doing the ABCs of it I'm sure is interesting to some people, but we'd like to do something that's a little more adventurous.
You say that if there's good response to this box set, there's other archival stuff you want to do.
CS: There’s all kinds of stuff, there’s a bunch of live stuff. I just accumulated a ton of tapes over the years. I can’t even think specifically, but there's a lot that has yet to be processed.
Debbie, are you interested in looking back? Are you drawn to revisit old Blondie recordings?
DH: No, but when it comes my way, or when I need to do it, it's always kind of interesting and heartwarming. It always improves my outlook when I listen to that stuff or think about that era, and how fortunate I was to be there and be a part of it. I think anybody who has a business or a career really goes through whatever they have to go through to get there, to be able to do what they want. I'm sure that you as a writer had to go through periods of rejection and all that stuff. It shapes you and it gives you the heartache and it gives you strength. So I guess that's the deal, right? That's what we do.
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