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Blondie - Chris Stein and Debbie Harry's Second Coming

Blondie mainstay Chris Stein is spending the day on the beach
with his kids. It feels as far away from the 1970s Downtown scene that
sired the band Stein founded with vivacious front-woman Debbie Harry as
it does from Balado, where a reignited Blondie will perform tracks from
their new album, Panic of Girls, at T in the Park this Sunday. Panic of
Girls is the band's first album since 2003's The Curse of Blondie, and
is released, not on a major record label, but by the band themselves as
part of a special 'Collector's Pack'. Given that tracks were first laid
down as far back as 2009 before assorted record company wrangles made a
long silence even more protracted, one could be forgiven for thinking
that the title of the last Blondie album had become a self-fulfilling
prophecy. The truth, however, for Stein, at least, is much more mundane.

“I took time out to be with my family,” says Stein. “I had two kids who
are now six and seven, so I sort of stumbled into a full-time dad
situation, and that's taken a while. Also, it can be difficult for us
because of our age. Touring can be physically exhausting compared to
how it used to be. When we started out we were in our twenties, and
no-one our age now was doing anything, but now Bob Dylan’s just turned
seventy and is still out there doing stuff, and we're still here, and
the next record's already halfway there, so there won't be as much of a
gap this time.”

Back in a near-derelict, pre-beach New York, Stein and Harry were
mainstays of CBGB and Max's Kansas City, the two clubs that defined the
Big Apple's pre-punk and post-punk scene alongside now seminal fellow
travellers including Television, The New York Dolls and Talking Heads,
with the likes of The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop's Stooges and Beat
poet paraphernalia still heavy in the air in terms of influence.

“Everything came out of glam rock,” Stein recalls. “Suicide pre-dated
the New York Dolls, and the scene was very exciting. Then I went to see
Debbie play with her band The Stilletos, and became part of them.”

When The Stilletos broke up in 1974, Harry and Stein endeavoured to put
together a new combo. Originally called Angel and the Snake, by late
1975 and a few personnel changes, the band changed their name to
Blondie, and a still underground legend was born.

Where some acts were content with cult status, however, Blondie's pop
sensibilities took from classic American jukebox rock n' roll and
quickly crossed over into the mainstream. By the time of Blondie's
first ever television appearance performing a spunky Rip Her To Shreds
on Factory Records head honcho Tony Wilson's tea-time arts magazine
show, What's On, during a tour of northern English punk clubs, the
original Blondie line-up of Harry and Stein, who had become a couple
personally as well as professionally, drummer Clem Burke, bassist Gary
Valentine and keyboardist Jimmy Destri had already released their
eponymous major label debut album. A flower-wielding Wilson was clearly
already smitten with Harry, whose sassy appearance in over-the-knee
boots as she snarled through the song was a captivating introduction to
a female singer who combined sexiness and strength enough to compete on
equal terms with the rock and roll boy's club that still prevailed.

“The first time we came over to the UK was with Television,” Stein
recalls, “and it was very different in terms of audiences. In America
audiences were still very bohemian and a little bit coffee shop, but in
the UK it was much more physical.”

Within a year, on the back of second album, 1978's Plastic Letters, a
cover of Randy and the Rainbows 1963 hit, Denis, went to number two in
the UK chart, while it's follow-up, (I'm Always Touched By Your)
Presence, Dear, made the top ten. It wasn't until the same year's
follow-up to Plastic Letters, Parallel lines, however, that Blondie
really hit pay dirt. Despite a whopping six singles taken from the
album, including Hanging on the Telephone, Picture This, Sunday Girl
and Heart of Glass, Parallel Lines shot straight to number one. The
following year's Eat to the Beat album sired Dreaming, Union City Blue
and Atomic, while 1980's Autoamerican diverted away from New Wave power
pop and Phil Spectoresque epics to dabble with reggae on The Tide is
High and, most notably, New York's burgeoning rap and hip-hop scene on
the Grandmaster Flash referencing Rapture. Inbetween the two came the
Giorgio Moroder produced theme song to the film, American Gigolo, Call
Me.

By 1982's The Hunter, however, Blondie's commercial peak had passed,
the band was in personal and financial disarray, and a split was
inevitable. Especially after Stein was diagnosed with Pemphigus, a rare
autoimmune disease that causes blistering of the skin. With Harry
taking several years off to nurse Stein back to health, Blondie
appeared to be history, with a perfectly constructed set of pop
classics as their legacy.

Then, in 1997, with Stein fully recovered though no longer romantically
involved with Harry, Blondie reconvened with their original line-up,
one of the first bands of their era to reform in an ongoing avalanche
of artists riding the nostalgia-wave to claim a glory that should have
been rightfully theirs first time round. Yet, while Blondie did the
hits, they weren't about looking back, releasing No Exit, a Jean-Paul
Sartre referencing collection of newly recorded material, in 1999. If
fans feared the worst, No Exit was a long way from any
legacy-tarnishing hotchpotch of hastily cobbled together material that
some older acts fall prey to as they singularly fail to catch the
chemistry that once fired them. No Exit even spawned a number one
single in Maria, a joyous return to form that found the now
fifty-something Ms Harry in finer voice than ever on a song that could
sit proudly alongside Blondie hits of old.

“It was F Scott Fitzgerald who said there were no second acts in
American life”, Stein muses while his two kids play about him. “But
we've kind of proved him wrong about that. And there wouldn't have been
any point in just doing the old songs. We didn't want to get stuck in
that way. We had to keep on moving forward in the way that Blondie have
always been out front. More and more musicians were referencing
Blondie, so it seemed the right time to reform. Now we see a lot of our
peers are out there doing it. We played with the New York Dolls a while
back, and now The Cars are back together with Ric Ocasek, so it's all
good.”

With Harry, Stein and Burke now the only remaining original members,
Blondie have been revitalised on Panic of Girls by a raft of younger
players who add to the album's multi-cultural breeziness.

If one thing always singled Blondie out, it was their willingness to
embrace sounds and influences that went beyond their trademark pop
bubblegum bounce. Panic of Girls is no different, with the reggae-lite
of Girlie Girlie on a par with The Tide is High, while elsewhere
accordions and other eclectica abound as Harry sings in both French and
Spanish. Stein is a particular champion of the Latino music scene.

“The Spanish and Latino music scene in America is very exciting just
now”, he observes somewhat anthropologically. “Latinos make up one
sixth of the population here now, so it's only natural that Latino
music is heard more. There are still a lot of great bands coming out of
urban areas, but it's hard for them to sustain things compared to when
we were starting out now the rents are so high. But in terms of
listening, I get much more turned on these days listening to Spanish
language radio stations.”

With such diverse interests pre-dating the faux world music of the
likes of Vampire Weekend, Stein and Blondie are still savvy enough to
show the kids how intelligent pop should be done. As Stein has already
observed, however, “The challenge now is our age. I see Debbie as
someone on as par with Nina Simone or something, so as long as people
still come to see us we'll keep on playing, but I try to be smart about
it.”

Blondie play T in the Park, Balado, Sunday June 10th

www.tinthepark.com

The Herald, July 9th 2011

ends

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