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Blondie

+ {Deborah Harry}

As much a fashion icon as an American new wave/punk-pop beauty, platinum-blonde and former Playboy Bunny, Deborah Harry, was undeniably the band’s focal point; the siren’s sensual and seductive allure memorable for testosterone teenagers frequenting the original CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City venues. Together with her all-male backing band, BLONDIE rose to fame in a short space of time, subsequent smash hits such as `Denis’, `(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear’, `Picture This’ and `Hanging On The Telephone’, pounding a perfect punk beat until their shift toward the Club 54 disco scene courtesy of `Heart Of Glass’ and `Call Me’. The first all-white combo to embrace the hip-hop/rap scene of the early 80s, `Rapture’, as well as venturing into reggae/calypso with `The Tide Is High’, the BLONDIE chart-topping machine rolled on relentlessly until DEBORAH HARRY’s inevitable slide into acting and solo work.
Having plied her trade as the non-blond femme fatale singer in late-60s psych-folk sextet, The WIND IN THE WILLOWS, for one patchy eponymous LP (think MARIANNE FAITHFULL-meets-PP&M), Debbie was once again ready to step into the limelight when she and guitarist boyfriend, Chris Stein (from The Stilettos), drummer Billy O’Connor and bassist Fred Smith formed Angel And The Snakes. As the latter two musicians sought other ventures (Fred would join TELEVISION), drummer Clem Burke, bassist Gary Valentine and keyboard player Jimmy Destri, were drafted into the new-look BLONDIE; passing truckers calling “Hey, Blondie”, would indirectly give the band their group-name.
Duly hooking up with veteran pop producer, Richard Gottehrer, on his Private Stock imprint, BLONDIE released their debut single, `X Offender’, in late ‘76. The record was trailed by a second flop, `In The Flesh’, another taken from their eponymous BLONDIE (1976) {*6} album. Trawling tacky 60s girly-pop via The SHANGRI-LA’S and sprucing it up with a healthy dose of contemporary muscle and attitude, BLONDIE laid the foundations for their swooningly infectious late 70s/early 80s hits. With Deborah as the peroxide Marilyn Monroe of emerging new wave, BLONDIE almost immediately caught the eye of the UK scene. The group duly inked a worldwide deal with Chrysalis Records, who’d reputedly bought their contract out for a staggering $500,000 in August, re-releasing the album and an accompanying maxi-45, `Rip Her To Shreds’ (backed by their previous flops).
Further personnel changes left Valentine (author of `(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear’) out in the cold, and although not thought necessary to include him on the cover shoot of sophomore set, PLASTIC LETTERS (1978) {*6}, Frank Infante became an integral part of the band when he later switched to rhythm guitar. On the back of a near Brit No.1 cover of Randy & The Rainbows’ 60s nugget, `Denise’ (now re-gendered as `Denis’), the album scaled the Top 10; Top 75 in their native country, while “Presence, Dear” also hit Brit pay-dirt. The Gottehrer stamp was again in full focus on the likes of the spiky `I’m On E’, `Fan Mail’ and `Contact In Red Square’, three songs that might well’ve went unnoticed but for the dogged tours and promotion of the sextet; Englishman Nigel Harrison (bass) was duly added to the fold.
The music took on a whole new dimension with the seminal PARALLEL LINES (1978) {*9}. Produced by legendary pop picker, Mike Chapman, the album spawned UK hits in `Picture This’, `Hanging On The Telephone’ (penned by Jack Lee when in The NERVES), `Heart Of Glass’ (also an American chart-topper) and `Sunday Girl’; the quirky US Top 30 entry `One Way Or Another’ (scribed by Harrison) was preferred over the latter twee ear candy. A group album in respect to each individual’s contribution (with the exception of Jack Lee’s `Will Anything Happen?’ and a re-take of the BUDDY HOLLY track, `I’m Gonna Love You Too’), there was also a surprise guest spot for guitarist ROBERT FRIPP on `Fade Away And Radiate’; bonus CD editions added a live version of T-REX’s `Bang A Gong (Get It On)’.
Poster pin-up girl Debbie Harry (at 30-something) was the centre of attraction, in vogue with the changing fashions, but keeping her legs firmly planted on terra firma via the dance-floor.
The throbbing disco feel of “Heart Of Glass” was further developed on fourth album, EAT TO THE BEAT (1979) {*7}, a second UK No.1 set that kicked into gear on the strength of Top 3 smash, `Dreaming’ (Top 30 in America) and the slightly flatfooted `Union City Blue’. The LP also featured yet another UK chart-topper in the moody dance-floor classic, `Atomic’ (later famous for providing the aural backdrop to the disco scene in the Brit-flick, Trainspotting).
By 1980, BLONDIE had stylised the modernist throb of electro-disco so seamlessly and commercially successfully, they’d supply the transatlantic No.1 theme, `Call Me’, for slick, GIORGIO MORODER-scored Richard Gere cinematic vehicle, American Gigolo. That same year, the band were sighted in Alan Rudolph’s Roadie, performing – after a quick fix from MEAT LOAF – JOHNNY CASH’s `Ring Of Fire’.
They repeated the chart-scaling feat with `The Tide Is High’, a wonderfully dreamy cover of a track originally cut by reggae outfit, The Paragons (aka JOHN HOLT), while also having a bash at hip-hop on `Rapture’, their fourth US No.1. Both tracks were included on 1980’s ever so adventurous AUTOAMERICAN {*5}, an album which suggested BLONDIE were beginning to lose their musical curls; example Stein’s opening cinematic-like gambit, `Europa’ and a rendition of `Follow Me’ from the Camelot musical.
With John Waters’ scratch ’n’ sniff comedy, Polyester (1981), Stein furthered his film scoring career in tandem with his good lady and MICHAEL KAMEN. This put DEBBIE HARRY’s solo career – beginning rather uneventfully with 1981’s CHIC-produced set, KOO KOO (1981) {*4} – temporarily on the backburner; the disappointing rap-pop of `Backfired’ and the awful `The Jam Was Moving’ would’ve been better suited to LULU or Sheena.
Although BLONDIE’s THE HUNTER (1982) {*3} spawned a further UK Top 20 hit in the calypso-grating `Island Of Lost Souls’, the album, and songs like the percussive `War Child’ met with a less than rapturous reception, likewise their final tour; incidentally DB looked like TOYAH’s sister on the cover. The band split short afterwards, Stein forming his own Chrysalis-backed imprint (Animal Records), before falling seriously ill the following year.
BLONDIE’s aforesaid hip hop hybrid, `Rapture’, set the context for 1983’s Wild Style, the landmark urban-rap film/soundtrack which Stein would score (along with Fab Five Freddy) and perform following the band’s timely split. The same year, HARRY netted her most high-profile role up to that point, starring in David Cronenberg’s cult effort, Videodrome, and setting the pattern for a career which alternated acting with post-BLONDIE solo work. In 1983, she re-teamed with MORODER for the Scarface soundtrack excerpt, `Rush, Rush’, and contributed to the score of cult animation, Rock & Rule, alongside the likes of LOU REED and CHEAP TRICK. While much of her time during this period was devoted to Stein, who’d been diagnosed with a rare genetic disease (from which he later made a full recovery), she returned to recording in the mid-80s with a Jellybean Benitez-produced contribution, `Feel The Spin’, to the Krush Groove soundtrack.
The solo singer re-emerged in her own right once again late in ‘86 with the UK Top 10, `French Kissin’ In The USA’. The accompanying album, ROCKBIRD {*6} album cracked the Top 40, and for many, was a return to her BLONDIE salad days. `I Want You’, `In Love With Love’ and the ballad `Free To Fall’, kept the lass in high profile and the singles charts.
Her screen career stuttered back into life again with a starring role alongside Alex Baldwin in the comedy, Forever, Lulu (1987); a part in Waters’ riotous classic, Hairspray (1988), as well as a cameo in Scorsese/Coppola/Allen trilogy, New York Stories (1989), preceded an appearance in teen rock drama, Satisfaction (1988). Soundtrack-wise, she recorded a cover of the Castaways’ `Liar, Liar’ for Jonathan Demmes Married To The Mob (1988) movie.
Now well into her 40s and billed as DEBORAH HARRY, 1989’s DEF, DUMB & BLONDE {*7} was more successful, its shiny, poppy single `I Want That Man’ (penned by the THOMPSON TWINS), scaling the UK Top 20. Produced by Mike Chapman, she performed a few songs (including `Brite Side’) that featured on the crime drama, Wiseguys, in which she shone out as a struggling singer. If nothing else, Deborah proved herself an adaptable stylist although much more interesting was a tongue-in-cheek duet with IGGY POP in 1990: a cover of Cole Porter’s `Well, Did You Evah!’.
DEBRAVATION (1993) {*5} saw her working, among others, with hubby Stein or Leigh Foxx, while star turns came via R.E.M. (on a cover of `My Last Date (With You)’) and Arthur Baker (on `I Can See Clearly’). Look out for the banned promo video for spawned single, `Strike Me Pink’, where DB watches a Houdini-type man-in-a-tank drown.
Following multiple TV projects, the blonde one starred in serial killer drama, Dead Beat (1994), and put in a memorable performance as a jaded waitress (a job she held down in pre-BLONDIE days) alongside Liv Tyler and Evan Dando in James Mangold’s engagingly offbeat debut, Heavy (1995); the LEMONHEAD singer performs on the OST. As the “Trainspotting” soundtrack gifted BLONDIE a back catalogue coup and new remix opportunities, HARRY appeared in metal satire, Drop Dead Rock (1996), Mangold sophomore, Cop Land (1997) and – with another waitressing role – in black comedy, Zoo (1999), as well as crime comedy, Six Ways To Sunday (1997). In one of her unlikeliest soundtrack cameos, she even performed an electro cover of `Ghost Riders In The Sky’ for Alex Cox’s PRAY FOR RAIN-scored Three Businessmen (1998).
At the tender age of 53, but still looking every inch (or two) the ideal peroxide sex symbol, Deborah and her slightly younger crew of Chris, Jimmy and Clem, re-formed BLONDIE for round the world tours. By early 1999, the band were topping the UK charts with the catchy `Maria’, a song lifted from their aptly-titled Top 5 (US Top 40) parent album, NO EXIT {*6}. A year later, BLONDIE opted for a quick follow-up; the “greatest hits live” package LIVID (2000) {*3} ill-timed and rather rush-released.
The aptly-titled CURSE OF BLONDIE (2003) {*4}, meanwhile, was an altogether unnecessary addition to the band’s revered catalogue, an ill-advised attempt to milk the reunion for more than it could conceivably have provided. Largely directionless and tired, Harry (on the cusp of 60!) would have done well to resurrect her solo career instead. Proving that you could still see her in the flesh so-to-speak, LIVE BY REQUEST (2004) {*6} documented most of the original BLONDIE line-up playing to their strengths.
Deborah continued to maintain a prolific side-line in acting with supporting roles in gay porn drama, The Fluffer (2001), Jonas Akerlund’s BILLY CORGAN-scored drug piece, Spun (2002) and Scott “The Basketball Diaries” Kalvert’s gang drama, Deuces Wild (2002), as well as a lead part in Elijah Wood’s coming-of-age comedy, All I Want (2001), alongside Mandy Moore.
A familiarly motherly role in Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me, followed in 2003, as did a cameo in Martha Graham drama, Ghostlight, a part in indie crime thriller, A Good Night To Die (2003) and contributions to the Harold Arlen tribute, Stormy Weather.
With a string of hits behind her and a career now spanning 40 years, the delectable DEBORAH HARRY got together with co-writers Barb Morrison and Charles Nieland (aka production team Super Buddha) for her fifth solo set, NECESSARY EVIL (2007) {*5}. `Two Times Blue’ and `If I Had You’ were stylish pieces (as ever), but other electro-vs-hip hop tunes lacked the spirit and rock connection on her earlier work.
Movie roles continued to flow for HARRY; good parts in Full Grown Men (2006), Anamorph (2007) and Elegy (2008), saw the lady give off good performances, but her first love BLONDIE was always going to take precedence. Recorded at the turn of the tenties in Woodstock, Deborah, Chris, Clem, Leigh Foxx (bass), Paul Carbonara (guitar) and Matt Katz-Bohen (keyboards) – Jimmy Destri declined at the last moment – PANIC OF GIRLS (2011) {*5} updated the band for a new generation of fashion punks. Produced by Jeff Saltzman and rougher around the edges (the paranoid `D-Day’ a primeval example), the record was a collision of directions: continental-disco, cod-reggae and bubblegum-pop, the latter genres exhuming Sophia George’s `Girlie Girlie’. Retro music for an upbeat download generation.
2014 was the year Deborah and Co declared Blondie 4(0)-Ever, celebrating forty years in the business by unleashing a CD double-pack attack of GREATEST HITS DELUXE REDUX // GHOSTS OF DOWNLOAD {*6//*4}. A combination of doctored hit re-recordings plus a long-lost cousin of dance-floor-friendly ditties, it was indeed mystifying to why they’d want to clash past with present; a bonus DVD also gave the green light for a 1977 gig at the CBGB’s. Concentrating on the fresh material here, “GOD” steps into the shoes of MADONNA and her ilk; even the Beth Ditto-addled `A Rose By Any Name’ echoed Studio 54 in full flow. At nearly 70 years young, Deborah was clearly finding to impossible to reach a few notes, but with help from Miss Guy (on `Rave’), Latin outfit Systema Solar (on opener `Sugar On The Side’) and a gospel girl-group on an initially sedate version of FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD’s `Relax’, the BLONDIE bandwagon was not for fading gracefully.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-LCS // rev-up MCS Jan2013-Oct2014

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