Debbie Harry and Chris Stein: Blonde on Blonde

Debbie Harry and Chris Stein were icons of cool in the late Seventies. But things got more heated as the drugs took their toll. The Blondie stars come clean to David Sinclair
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The Independent Online

When Blondie were admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, earlier this year, it seemed about time. After 30 million albums sold, and a string of No 1 hits stretching over three decades, the group fronted by one of the most iconic singers in the history of pop were ready to take their place alongside the all-time greats. But like so many things about this unpredictable and often dysfunctional band, the ceremony did not run smoothly. In a scene that has become notorious, one of the group's many disgruntled former members, guitarist Frank Infante, confronted singer Debbie Harry and begged her to let him play with the band once again, for old time's sake.

"Not tonight," said a stern Harry. "Can't you see my band is up here?"

"I reckon the way Frankie carried on at that Hall Of Fame event was his version of the Zinedane Zidane head-butting moment," says the guitarist and founder member of the group, Chris Stein. "I don't want to equate Zidane with Frankie exactly, but it was along those lines. Then again, we had a lot of people asking us how much we paid him to do that. There was a lot of publicity."

Wouldn't it have been a nice gesture to let the others play? "If they'd actually wanted to play they should have called up beforehand, which they didn't do. We would have needed a rehearsal apart from anything else. The idea that they could have just wandered on stage and played like it was the old days again... I'm afraid life is only like that in the movies. Also, if those guys hadn't sued us we would've maybe considered their request more seriously."

The shenanigans in and around the Hall of Fame provide an appropriate denouement to a fascinating new BBC1 documentary by Matt O'Casey, Blondie - One Way Or Another, to be screened next Friday. It is a film which lifts the lid on a rock'n'roll story that has got the lot: serial rip-offs, spiralling drug excesses, intra-band litigation, personal feuds, a weird, potentially fatal, illness, and some of the most perfectly formed pop music to have come out of the New York punk era, or any era, come to that.

It begins with the now grey-haired Stein and Harry returning to the unbelievably squalid environs of CBGB's club in New York, the nerve centre of the scene that also threw up their more immediately credible contemporaries The Ramones and Talking Heads. The camera follows Stein and Harry into the dank, graffiti-scarred toilets where, so legend has it, the couple once had sex.

"Oh that's all a load of crazy bullshit," Stein says. "Never mind making out, I never even went into those toilets, they were so grotesque. We made out in the alley, if you must know."

To begin with, the CBGB's scene was very insular and cliquey. Only people from other bands went there, so everyone in the audience belonged to a band. But it gradually became apparent that Blondie had a much broader appeal. Their music was smart and accessible, while Debbie Harry had a charisma that captivated both boys and girls - but especially boys. Iggy Pop recalls inviting Blondie to tour with him at a time when David Bowie was playing keyboards in his backing band. "Debbie was an American ponytail girl as seen through the lens of Roger Vadim; Barbarella on speed, or something like that," Pop says. "Bowie and I both tried to hit on her backstage. We didn't get anywhere, but she was always very smooth about that. It was always, 'Hey, well, maybe another time when Chris isn't around'. Always very cool about it."

Was she flattered to be hit on by both Iggy Pop and David Bowie? "Of course," Harry says. "It was a lot of fun. They're two really great stars, musicians and writers that I've always admired. The whole thing was mindblowing to be on tour with them in the first place. And to have flirtations with guys like that was just the icing on the cake."

As the group enjoyed a string of hits in Britain beginning with "Denis" in 1978, so Harry became the ultimate pop pin-up. But she was no airhead. "My goals were to be noticed and to be famous," she says. "But I don't think they were my only goals. I wanted to do good shows and good music, become a good singer and write well. I wasn't just the product of a producer. I was my own product."

However, the producer Mike Chapman, who was drafted in to help refine the Blondie sound for the American market, remembers the group as being pretty raw. "It was all over the place musically," Chapman says. "Clem [Burke] had this attitude that he was Keith Moon and just wanted to play every drum all of the time. My first challenge was to get him to play in time. It was a real challenge to convince them that the early demo of "Heart Of Glass" was out of tune and out of time."

"He certainly helped us pull it together musically," Stein says. "He was our George Martin. And I'm totally grateful to him. But I was a little put off by his pompous approach in the documentary. And I'm not sure I remember things quite the way he does. He has a very self-righteous tone, implying that he was sober as a judge while the rest of us were very intoxicated. That definitely wasn't the case."

Chapman reconstructed the group's sound, and "Heart of Glass" became a huge worldwide hit thanks in no small part to its appeal to club audiences. The punk band from CBGB's had made the final step to world domination by crossing over to the huge and lucrative disco market. The hits continued - "Sunday Girl", "Dreaming", "Union City Blue" and "Rapture" - the latter being the first mainstream pop hit of any description to feature a full-blown rap. They should all have been making a fortune, but somehow it didn't work out that way.

"Overall we just got completely fucked over," Stein says. "It was a period when musicians still lived in a state of serfdom. We trusted people who weren't trustworthy - managers, accountants, mostly - and they cleaned us out. I had a horrendous tax debt for about 20 years. I try not to feel bitter. Debbie keeps reminding me that it's our own fault and we should have paid better attention, which is the case. But I have no head for figures."

"I do have to take responsibility for my stupidity and for things that happened to me," Harry says. "I think that is what has got me to the point where I am today, that I have taken responsibility for my mistakes. Although some of it truly wasn't my fault. But that's the way it goes. You live and you learn."

The group's inattention to their business affairs was compounded by a phase of hard-drug-taking in the early 1980s to which they all succumbed. The heroin years took a heavy toll, physically, emotionally and creatively. "Drugs can become very destructive and also very distracting," Harry says. "It becomes a complete way of life. It always starts as a party thing, as a social thing, but then, because it is addictive, it takes over and that's when it interferes with what your main interests are."

Stein concurs. "Actually, my biggest regret is smoking pot constantly for 10 or 15 years, because it definitely takes away your edge. It's like the guys in South Park say, it makes being bored seem like an OK thing."

According to the keyboard player Jimmy Destri, the drug problem was the biggest single reason for the band splitting up in 1982. And according to Harry and Stein, it was still a problem for Destri as recently as this year when he was dropped from the line-up for the Road Rage Tour.

"What they did to me was pretty ball-faced wrong," Destri says in one of the rawest exchanges in the documentary.

"There is something wonderful about Jimmy," Harry says. "But there's also this complete horror. And when he lives in the horror side, which he tends to do quite a bit, then you can't be around him and you can't work with him."

In 1983, Stein came down with pemphigus, a stress-related and often fatal skin disease, aggravated by the drug abuse. Unable to look after himself, he was cared for by Harry, who put her solo career on hold in the meantime. There are several glowing testimonials to the sacrifices she made on his behalf. "Actually, it didn't seem like a sacrifice at all," she says. "Because our careers were so entwined, so enmeshed. We had always worked as a team. And being sick on your own is no fun."

Having been reborn and back at the top of the charts with "Maria" in 1999, Blondie called their 2003 album The Curse of Blondie. When Stein looks back over the group's chequered career, that is sometimes how it feels. "Even now, when we finally have made a successful comeback, it seems the record industry is finished," he says. " We come back and suddenly they've got to rethink how to make money from selling records."

Stein and Harry are no longer a couple, but their bond remains. Stein is happily married with two young children, to whom Harry is godmother. "I just love Chris very, very much," she says. "He's got a great sense of humour, a great talent. I think we were really lucky to meet each other and have this great adventure. We've certainly had a lot of help from other people. But basically we've stuck it out."

'Blondie - One Way Or Another' is on BBC1, July 21, 10.35pm

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