On its 40th anniversary in music, Blondie is honored with photo exhibit

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A Look Back Through Chris Stein’s Lens

 
 
The Blondie 40th anniversary celebrations continue with a photo exhibit curated by Jeffrey Deitch on display from September 23-29 at Hotel Chelsea’s Storefront Gallery ((222 West 23rd Street) from 1-8 PM. They’ll be showing photos, like the one above (via Gothamist), from photographers such as Bob Gruen, Annie Leibovitz, Roberta Bayley, Mick Rock, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bobby Grossman, David Godlis, and Blondie’s Chris Stein.
 

Since Blondie formed 40 years ago, one thing has remained constant: if the band’s co-founder Chris Stein isn’t onstage with a guitar slung around his neck, chances are he’s off somewhere with a camera, taking pictures. Now, the results of his four-decade-long hobby have been compiled in a new book, “Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk” (out tomorrow from Rizzoli), and will appear in an exhibition curated by Jeffrey Deitch at the Chelsea Hotel’s Storefront Gallery alongside band memorabilia and images by the likes of Annie Leibovitz and Robert Mapplethorpe. “I was just in the middle of this milieu and I took pictures,” Stein says matter-of-factly on the phone from Vienna, a recent stop on Blondie’s anniversary tour.

 

The pictures — in which such punk icons as Richard Hell (“after Debbie, probably my favorite person to photograph”), the Ramones and Iggy Pop also make appearances — capture the essence of a lost, romantic moment in New York history. “I do miss that communal feeling of CBGB,” Stein says. “In the beginning, it was very familial, it was like people you went to school with, it was very workshoppy,” he says. “But as nostalgic as people get for that period, at the time I don’t know anyone who didn’t at some point say, ‘I gotta get out of here, it’s so dirty.’”

 

The Blondie 40th-anniversary exhibition will be on view Sept. 23 — Sept. 29 at the Chelsea Storefront Gallery, 222 West 23rd Street.

Blondie: Success And Sexism

Debbie-Harry-contact-sheet-by-Chris-Stein

AS BLONDIE, THE BAND turn 40 and, against all odds, prepare to release their 10th studio album, Ghosts Of Download, singer Debbie Harry relives the trial-by-chauvinism endured by the post-punk icon who made the mistake of being both female and attractive.

As the group first crawled from the New York Bowery’s punk scene at the end of the 1970s to beam their transcendental pop to millions, the reaction of their hometown peers was not universally supportive. In a burst of misogyny not atypical of the milieu, legendary New York-based rock scribe Lester Bangs wrote of Harry: “She may be there all high and mighty on TV, but everybody knows that underneath all that fashion plating she’s just a piece of meat like the rest of them.”

In an exclusive interview that graces the cover of the new MOJO magazine (street date: Tuesday, March 25), Harry relates how she was initially traumatised by the flak.

“Y’know, I have to say, I got smart,” she tells MOJO’s Tom Doyle. “After the first touring experience and the first real criticism we got, I actually hid under the covers for a couple of weeks. Then after that I just didn’t read it. It was too upsetting and I was too unused to it. It didn’t do me any good in performance because I would be on-stage and all of a sudden one of those lines would flash and completely destroy my focus and concentration and make me not enjoy it. It’s a matter of opinion. There’s no accounting for taste, so f**k ’em! Poor Lester was so confused. He was definitely part of the male conspiracy.”

In a sparky Q&A augmented by exclusive unseen photographs from the archive of Blondie songwriter and guitarist Chris Stein (see above), Harry reveals how she dealt with the group’s early-’80s crash, mixed reactions to her solo albums, and her much-mythologised “retirement” as she nursed boyfriend Stein through a debilitating immunity illness…

“All of that stuff has been totally misconstrued,” Harry bristles. “It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I set the record straight. It was a very difficult time. All I can say is that I did move on in the mid ’80s and I started doing a series of solo albums which Chris wrote on and helped me with. I did not give up my career. I had a lot of tours and I had some smaller hits. I really think that there’s some great material on those solo albums that I feel to a degree has been overlooked.”

Elsewhere she recalls being hit on by Iggy and Bowie and immortalised by Andy Warhol. Despite the knocks, she declares herself satisfied with Blondie’s place in musical history and a life “being blindly drawn like a moth to a flame.”

“I can make a long list of things I would do differently,” she tells MOJO, winningly. “But if I were actually thrown back there, I’d probably do it all the same.”

MOJO’s Blondie issue hits the shelves in the UK on Tuesday, March 25. Watch out for in-depth features on David Bowie’s 1974 transformation from glam icon to soul boulevardier, Jake Bugg’s irresistible rise and Al Kooper’s portfolio of pop prestidigitation. Damon Albarn, Terry Hall, Jeff Beck, Ben Watt, Pixies, Metronomy, Slint and Death Disco – a free 15-track CD of post-punk greats – also await.

Watch Blondie Performing at CBGB in the Summer of 1975

Watch Debbie Harry play an unreleased tune

Blondie’s debut album didn’t arrive in record stores until December of 1976, but by that point the band (originally called Angel and the Snake) had been gigging around New York City for over two years. One of the few female-fronted bands on the CBGB scene, they got a lot of press early on, but it took them a little while to actually land a record deal.

It’s unclear exactly when in 1975 this black and white video of the group was shot at CBGB, but the best sources indicate it’s from August 15th. Needless to say, Debbie Harry looks absolutely stunning, especially to a crowd used to staring at Joey Ramone. She’s also rocking the naughty schoolgirl look a good quarter-century before Britney Spears made it cool. They’re playing a very early Blondie song entitled “A Girl Should Know Better” that never wound up on any album.

“It was hard to concentrate at CBGB’s because it smelled so bad,” Harry wrote in the band’s official biography. “Hill Kristal, the owner, kept dogs in the back, and they used to throw up and shit indiscriminately. The kitchen was covered with grease, rats, flies, maggots, and shit too.”

Blondie played CBGB every weekend through much of 1975, but after signing with Chrysalis they worked their way up to the more upscale Max’s Kansas City, and by early 1977 they were playing all across the country.

Blondie Ambition

Desperately Seeking Debbie: Twenty years have not dimmed the creative impulses that make Blondie a musical pathfinder.

Twenty + years have not dimmed the creative impulses that make Blondie a musical pathfinder.

THE OTHER DAY, I took the new Blondie record, No Exit (BMG/Beyond), to my hairdressers’ and begged them to play it during my hour-long dye job. Normally, this type of request is met with the greatest suspicion, but this time, no one was skeptical for a second. Ladies young and old clamored for the album. The hairdressers were ecstatic. Even the swing guys getting their back hairs trimmed were enthusiastic.

In short, it was a far cry from the reception given 20 years ago to Blondie’s first album, Plastic Letters, which I misguidedly brought to a sleep-over and heard booed out of the room. Back then, Blondie was too scary and New Yorky for my little friends to handle, but now you’d have thought it was the Beatles, so gladly was No Exit received–and happily, the record did not disappoint.

Indeed, No Exit is the most popular thing I’ve ever played for strangers, and the finest tribute to Blondie’s music is that not one person listening that afternoon mentioned either the age of the band members or speculated on their motives for getting back together. No one even said, “She really must be getting on,” about singer Deborah Harry–and this was at a beauty parlor!

In fact, Harry is 53 years old, and her original bandmates (Jimmy Destri, Clem Burke and Chris Stein) are only a year or two younger each. But despite the fact that Harry was undoubtedly a sex symbol in the beginning, her age now is irrelevant. This is because, unlike other age-defying beauties like Cher, Stevie Nicks, or the Rolling Stones, her band still has it artistically. Blondie was so far ahead of its time that the world has only just caught up. Blondie is relevant. How many bands can that be said about, old or young?

NOWADAYS, Blondie is remembered as an ’80s band, but in fact, the bulk of its work was done in the ’70s. And considering that rap music has yet to be fully embraced by the mainstream (and certainly not when performed by white women), you can imagine how groundbreaking the song “Rapture”–one of the first rap hits ever heard on radio–was at the time.

That may explain why No Exit is so damn good and why it is a crossover monster that can be played on almost every one of the many radio formats that have blossomed since the days when “The Tide Is High” was an AM radio hit. Eighties format, ’70s, Live-105, KFOG–even rap stations can take Blondie on, since the title cut is a duet with Coolio. The song is a cute and subtle millennium-pop take on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play about endless life; its rapid-fire rapping takes place atop a heavy Led Zeppelin riff played on the accordion. Pure genius.

The rest of the record is equally delightful. The opening track, “Screaming Skin,” is a ska tune that refers to vampires and is sung in a fake German accent, half Marlene Dietrich, half Bela Lugosi. “Maria,” which has already debuted at No. 1 on the charts in Great Britain, is a soaringly positive pop tune about a woman with incredible self-confidence: “She’s like a millionaire/walking on imported air.” The catchiest tune, “Forgive and Forget,” uses a beautiful xylophone opening, a great rhythm track and another whooshy lyric about time and timelessness.

Stylistically, Blondie is still much more eclectic than your average rock band. “Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room” is a sultry jazz-pop number in the vein of Harry’s last band, the Jazz Passengers. “Night Wind Sent” is a ballad, and “The Dream’s Lost on Me” sounds faintly country (Blondie’s very good effort at “y’alternative”–and just about as authentic).

“Dig Up the Conjo” is a heavy dance track about zombies (think “Eat to the Beat”). Cowboy desperadoes figure in “Under the Gun,” a dark, poppy song. Lastly, “Out in the Streets” is a cleaned-up cover of the Shangri-Las song that Blondie covered for its very first single, circa 1974, and it is as infectious as those early-’60s girl-group songs always are. Hard to believe that it’s been longer since Blondie broke up than it was between the band’s original punk incarnation and the Shangri-Las, but the calendar doesn’t lie.

DESPITE THE CONSTANT nods to the past, there is simply nothing nostalgic about No Exit. Blondie is not trying to be a young band but is instead using the strengths that come with age: wisdom, consistency, wit.

Throughout the record, Harry’s singing is marvelous–smooth, sultry and humorous. Her voice is prettier than that of many of today’s divas–more alto, more supple, more full of life. Her work suggests that in the arts, age simply makes one deeper and more accomplished.

Blondie broke up in 1982, partly because of the usual band tensions but also because of the serious illness of guitarist and songwriter Stein. Nevertheless, the image of Debby in a bedraggled wedding dress and black roots singing punk rock at CBGBs is one that has haunted our era, partly because Madonna swallowed the image whole for her character in Desperately Seeking Susan.

Since that time, “women in rock” have mutated into something not nearly as fun. In 1986, Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman led the grand parade of fragile, worried-looking folkie girl singers whose main concerns were social and personal. In the rock vein, Madonna, Gwen Stefani and Courtney Love merely expanded on the idea that women–especially blonde women–were emotionally overwrought victims of love and life.

So I don’t know, maybe progress hasn’t been made on that front. After all, in the five years of her commercial dominance, Harry never once fell prey to such old-fashioned and stereotypical actions.

For all her beauty and suggestiveness, Harry was never physically vulgar or revealing. Her songs were either portraits of other men and women (“Denis,” “Shayla”), New York City-scapes like “Rapture” or the kind of comments on modern life like “Union City Blues” and “Europa” with which No Exit also abounds. There was nothing personal about those songs, and yet Harry was very much a persona–the cutting edge of downtown Manhattan-esque sophistication that has died in the wake of the city’s own gentrification.

But for all Harry’s sex appeal, “Blondie is a group” was the slogan the band plastered on all its early records, and as the years have passed it’s become ever more obvious that they were–or rather are–just that.

As a solo artist, Harry scored a few dance-floor hits in Europe and played various roles in movies, but it is only as the frontwoman of Blondie that one can truly appreciate her artistry and mystique. No Exit is a great pleasure to listen to, not only because it’s a damn good record but because the album demonstrates that people can grow as artists without really changing or pretending to be anything they aren’t. That will be an essential realization if it turns out that Sartre’s right–there is “no exit from this life.”

Debbie Harry of Blondie

Debbie Harry frontwoman of Blondie

Gena Arnold
NO EXIT – BLONDIE ALBUM
Original Release Date: February 23, 1999