Vorspiel for Blondie

Talking music history with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein

Text: , Ralf Krämer

blondie-by-heji-shin

FOTO: Heji Shin

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   It should have become part of the syllabus for primary school kids a long time ago: Deborah Harry, also called Debbie, belongs to the biggest music and style icons of the seventies and eighties as the singer of BLONDIE. With her role in David Cronenberg's Videodrome (1983) the »Godmother of New Wave« established herself also as an actress – no wonder the Vorspiel on the occasion of the new Blondie album Panic Of Girls is slightly reminiscent of a performative audience: At the Hotel de Rome in Berlin Blondie guitarist and Harry's ex-partner Chris Stein (61) lectures on musical questions of detail, while Harry (66) skims through a copy of Spex Magazine, intervening at crucial moments, talking about fake French, the Muppet Show and the role of the drums in jazz.

   Interview & music selection by Jan Kedves and Ralf Krämer, English translation by Christina Maruhn of deborah-harry.com.

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Sophia George Girlie Girlie
(from the single Girlie Girlie, Winner – 1985)

CHRIS STEIN We recorded a cover version of Girlie Girlie - very fast and spontaneously – as the last song for our new album. I didn't know the song. I discovered it on a compilation by Trojan Records, which I listened to in the car, on my way to the studio for our sessions. Girlie Girlie is a fantastic song! I like the lyrics best. The girl says to her guy: You're too feminine, too girly – what she means is: He has got too many girlfriends. The meaning is turned upside down in a clever way.

DEBBIE HARRY We like ambiguity.

   Girlie Girlie isn't the first time you've toyed with reggae, thinking about The Tide Is High from 1980.

CS Yeah, the first time I listened to reggae was in England where I spent some time before we started Blondie. That was in 1973. Back then they had the first reggae festival on Portobello Road. Reggae became more and more popular. I liked how reggae broke down and reconstructed different types of pop music. There are times when I prefer the reggae version of a song over the original version, Paul Davidson's version of Midnight Rider, for example. The song by the Allman Brothers is okay, but Davidson's version is much better.

    Was it natural for you to play reggae yourself from the start?

DH Not at all, it took a while until we had the groove figured out. Especially for Clem, our drummer, it was strange. Reggae works completely different rhythm-wise from punk or new wave. We had to relax first. We once tried to make Heart Of Glass a reggae song, but that didn't work at all.

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Blondie Le Bleu
(from the album Panic Of Girls, Parlophone – 2011)

CS Over the past few years I've been listening more and more to chansons by Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel. Le Bleu was supposed to go in that direction. To make it perfect I sent the song to a friend in Paris, Gilles Riberolles. He took it apart, put it back together and wrote the lyrics for it. Gilles used to work as an editor for the French rock magazine Best and he played in the band Casino Music, who I produced an album for in 1979, Amour Sauvage. It was published on ZE Records.

    What about your affinity for the French language? The second Blondie single Denis in 1978 was partly performed in French.

CS Right – and we don't even speak French! We are fucking stupid Americans! We only speak a few words of Spanish at the most, no more. The French language sounds very tempting to us, though – even if we don't understand a word.

DH For the French lines in Denis, we had help from French friends that lived in New York at the time. They also taught me the pronunciation. There are many parallels between the English and the French language but the intonation is very different.

    It's remarkable how you chose the soft, romantic variation of the French chanson for Le Bleu. You could've sounded more aggressive, like Edith Piaf.

DH Oh no, it would've been a big mistake if I had tried to imitate Edith Piaf! Marion Cotillard, who played Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose a few years ago, did a wonderful job. Piaf's register is completely different from mine. If I tried to sing like her my tongue would constantly be getting in the way.

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The Wind In The Willows My Uncle Used To Love Me But She Died
(from the album The Wind In The Willows, Capitol Records – 1968)

DH (pulls a face) Is that The Wind In The Willows?

   This was your first group. What memories do you have of it and the song?

DH I remember a few strange days at the RCA studios when we tried to get a record deal. We produced the demo versions of the songs with a sound engineer who worked a lot with Johnny Cash and other country musicians. When we recorded the vocals he added so much echo to it that it sounded very country. We were all shocked.

   Was this your first time in a studio?

DH Probably, yeah.

CS Did Artie Kornfeld [producer and promoter of the Woodstock Festival a year later] produce it yet?

DH Possible. We recorded the song in a small studio on 48th Street – where they had all those shops for musical instruments.

   My Uncle Used To Love Me But She Died is by Roger Miller who had a huge hit with King Of The Road. What made you think of this song with its striking title?

DH We were just fooling around. A goofy song. In those days plenty of those country-hippie-songs had peculiar, silly phrases.

CS Like A Boy Named Sue.

    What happened to the other band members of The Wind In The Willows?

DH I don't know. I think the band leader Paul is a philosophy professor. He was really into Heidegger and other German philosophers as a student. He was actually German, I think. Paul Klein. The guitar player Peter Britten married a very good high school friend of mine, they are divorced now. He's a classical oriented Flamenco guitarist and does a lot of solo shows. Everyone slightly drifted apart. Wayne Kirby, the bass player, is also a teacher, a music teacher probably. In Ashville, North Carolina. They were all well-accomplished musicians, apart from me.

    Not many people know that Deborah Harry once made hippie music.

DH Thank God!

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Die Haut feat. Debbie Harry Don't Cross My Mind
(from the album Head On, What's So Funny About – 1992)

CS Is this your voice, Debbie? Great song, but it's not Blondie. Who did you record it with?

DH Hmm. No idea.

   It's the band Die Haut from Berlin.

DH Ah, of course. I remember: A friend of mine in New York told me I should listen to Die Haut from Berlin, they were a great band and they would like to record a song with me. Die Haut sent me the track and I recorded the vocals in New York. Somebody came, built a singing cabin which I stepped into. I wasn't in the studio with the band.

   You seem to enjoy collaborations: Your voice can also be heard in songs by the Thompson Twins, the Jazz Passengers, Franz Ferdinand and many other bands.

DH You mean I don't discriminate? You could say that. Many of these requests are given to me by friends. They recommend something and I trust their opinions.

    The founder of Die Haut, Christoph Dreher – he's a film professor now – says that Debbie Harry is the type of person who is a great friend, who drives somebody home after a long night, unlike Patti Smith.

DH That's nice. But how does he know? We've never met.

CS Can Patti drive? She doesn't have a driver's licence!

DH Of course, she has a driver's licence.

CS Debbie, however, is a really good driver. Right, Debbie?

DH Right. I love driving. My car is my escape, my sanctuary. A shrine.

CS We Americans are known to have a very intense relationship with our car. Have you ever wondered why there's graffiti everywhere in the States except on our cars? The answer is: You'd be murdered for it.

DH I don't care. I just step on the gas. I turn the radio on and drive straight ahead.

    So you have to imagine Debbie Harry waiting at a traffic light, arm hanging out the window and singing along to a Lady Gaga song at the top of her voice?

DH And someone throwing an egg at my head? Absolutely.

CS We know Judas, by the way. I mean Norman Reedus, the actor who stars as Judas in the Lady Gaga video Judas.

DH I was in a movie with him in the nineties, Six Ways To Sunday. At the end I'm being hung – by Norman. He takes my body to Florida on a bus. I found that pretty funny then. Adrien Brody was in the movie, as well.

CS Adrien Brody should be cast as Osama Bin Laden – for the film adaptation of Bin Laden's life which I'm sure will be coming soon. And Matt Damon should play the Navy Seal who killed him.

DH My goodness, Chris.

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Kermit The Frog & Debbie Harry The Rainbow Connection
(from episode 509 of the Muppet Show, ITV – 1981)

DH (amused) Well, I have to say: The song is really good. It sticks in your mind and carries a feeling which I do not stand for: the sweetness, the loveliness!

   The Rainbow Connection sounds like it's from the Great American Songbook or as if Cole Porter had written it.

DH Yeah, but it was written especially for the Muppet Show. I think Jim Henson sang it.

CS There are a few cover versions of the song.

   Even by Justin Timberlake.

DH Seriously?

CS That reminds me: I saw a video on YouTube the other day by Justin Timberlake where he performed our Blondie song Rapture with Kylie Minogue.

DH And Kylie raps my part? Bah!

CS Yeah, way too theatrical.

   How did you become a celebrity guest on the Muppet Show in 1981?

DH Good question. I know that I wasn't a fan of the Muppets. I found them much too popular and nice. One day I switched on the TV and saw Dizzie Gillespie on the Muppet Show, how he played his bent trumpet with his chubby cheeks. I thought: Wow, if they asked Dizzie Gillespie and he agreed to do it – I can do it, too.

CS Wasn't I there? I remember that you played Call Me with the Muppet Punk Band. And I took a photo of you in the green honorary frog scout uniform. For people like us, who like ambiguity, the Muppet Show was great fun. The jokes almost always worked on two levels. While the children laughed innocently the adults had already understood the insinuating subtext.

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Chic My Forbidden Lover
(from the album Risqué, Atlantic – 1979)

   They say that you two took Nile Rogers of Chic uptown to his first hip hop party in 1978. Is that right?

CS It's possible. The rap scene uptown developed simultaneously to our CBGB's scene downtown. When we went uptown for a hip hop party for the first time it was very exciting for us. It must've been around '77. We met Nile Rogers a little later. I remember that he was really into Devo. An R&B musician who liked punk – you wouldn't think so.

    What do you remember about Chic?

DH The chemistry between Bernard Edwards and Nile was phenomenal. How they played together – I had never seen anything like that before. An absolutely simultaneous sense of time. Tony Thompson, the drummer of Chic, didn't have to do much. He was basically a drummer you know from jazz. In jazz, it's not the drummer who sets the pace, it's the bass player. The drum only occasionally provides little accents and colorings. That's what it was like with Bernard and Nile: Both of them had a special groove. Bernard set the pace and Tony drummed all over the place.

CS We established that when we tried to remix a song from Debbie's solo album Koo Koo. Chic produced it for her in 1981. We separated the tracks but it was simply impossible to synchronize Tony's drum track with our synthesizers. The tempo was too unsteady.

   Your Blondie hit Rapture sounded like it was produced by Chic – in 1980.

CS But it was Mike Chapman who produced Rapture. The goal was, of course, to reproduce the sound of Chic as much as possible – because it was about rap and at the time every rap in New York was based on Good Times by Chic.

DH All rappers knew Chic inside out. And the DJs used Chic records for their mixes and scratches.

   What were the reactions like when Rapture was released – and a female white pop singer rapped for the first time?

CS Great! Of course, there was Rapper's Delight a year earlier but for many mainstream people Rapture was the first rap song they ever heard. The second one came shortly after that by a group called The Afternoon Delights and was called General Hospi-Tale - a rap about soap operas. It went: »I just can't cope without my soap.« It was about the TV series General Hospital. The song was in the charts in 1981, but was completely forgotten about.

   Rightly, it seems.

CS Yes. But many rappers still love to remember Rapture to this day. The people of Wu-Tang Clan, for example, said that Rapture was the first rap song they ever heard. A great compliment for us. Every single record company employee who I talked about rap with back then said that rap would disappear, it was only a fad. How wrong they were!

*


Ramones Blitzkrieg Bop
(from the album Ramones, Sire – 1976)

CS On the original recording of Blitzkrieg Bop the guitars were mixed on one side and the bass on the other side. It sounded very strange. The mix was highly compressed – Craig Leon, the producer was really into compression. He also produced our first album in 1976. It was all about compression for Craig, there was nothing else!

   Ramones became, just like Blondie, a synonym for CBGB's. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth said that the club made him feel like Alice In Wonderland – until someone smashed a bottle of beer on his head.

CS Yeah, that happened all the time. Seeing the Ramones at CBGB's was really great. They were incredibly loud. And incredibly ironic.

DH But still absolutely serious with everything they did.

CS Yeah, they really took seriousness to the top which made it hard to tell whether they were really serious. If one of them made a mistake it was possible that they would stop in the middle of the song and shouted at each other for a few minutes.

    Is D-Day, the first song on your new album, a reference to Blitzkrieg Bop? Is it a playful punk adaption to world war terminology?

CS I've never thought about that.

   Your band is called Blondie, after all.

CS That's right, Hitler's dog. A friend of mine deals with memorabilia from the Third Reich. He once tried to get me a photo of this dog, a photo on which Hitler had written the name Blondi (sic). Without success. But that's not where our name comes from. It was more about Debbie's hair and the truck drivers who kept shouting »Hey Blondie!« after her.

DH Like in a comic. D-Day isn't related to the Second World War, either. It's only a reference to my name. D-Day, that means: This is my day. Debbie day. I'm ready to invade.

   Who do you want to invade?

DH Doesn't matter. Just invade.

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 Blondie Panic of Girls was released by Eleven Seven / EMI in Germany. The original German version of this article can be found in Spex issue #334.

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