“Here comes the 21st Century,” Debbie Harry assuredly sang nearly three decades ago on her solo disc Def Dumb And Blonde, “it’s gonna be so much better for a girl like me.”
With the turn of the century well behind us now, that gleeful prediction has certainly come true:
Singer-songwriter Harry, guitarist and co-writer Chris Stein, powerhouse drummer Clem Burke and their band-mates in Blondie are undeniable pop icons, their sound and sensibility as fresh as when they first topped the charts in the late 1970s. In their newest project, Po11inator, Blondie enlisted a group of cool songwriters to contribute to the record weaving their own way into the living, breathing story of Blondie, a group that directly affected their own genetic makeup as artists. The list is enviable and reflects the dynamism of Blondie’s very own cross-pollinating past – the fans and friends contributing material are blonde-bewigged superstar Sia, Blood Orange frontman Dev Hynes, British singer Charli XCX, Dave Sitek (TV On The Radio), Nick Valensi (The Strokes), Johnny Marr (The Smiths), and Canadian movie blogger and indie rocker (under the name An Unkindness) Adam Johnston. The invincible Joan Jett and cross-dressing comedian and singer John Roberts, who rose from DIY YouTube sensation to Bob’s Burger regular, both contribute vocals.
“We put the word out and asked people for songs and we got a lot of responses. I’m happy the way it all came together. It was a different approach for us, to draw in all of these things. I feel like we did what we did back then and we put out these sounds and ideas and now we’ve come full circle, pulling it back in, continuing this ongoing chain of events, this circular motion,” Harry shares.
Though the tunes were culled from disparate sources, the feel of the album is impressively unified, with a playful nod to 1978’s groundbreaking Parallel Lines. Harry, Stein, Burke, and company took this raw material and deftly transformed it in the studio into an album that’s quintessentially Blondie. The emphasis is on arrangements that are fast and fun, lyrics that are romantic and teasing, and synth-stoked hooks that evoke the new wave era. It was Grammy-winning producer John Congleton (Franz Ferdinand, St. Vincent, Sigur Ros, David Byrne, War on Drugs) that brought the late ’70s attitude out of Blondie again. He found himself having breakfast with Debbie and Chris in the summer of 2015. “We hung out for an hour, talked about music, about where they were as people and what they thought a Blondie record should sound like these days. We were simpatico on that.”
“John has a great knack for working with bands,” adds Debbie. “He’s very patient and supportive to everybody, and he makes insightful suggestions. He’s really into the music and making it the best it can be.”
Notes Chris, “We really hit it off. He’s a very smart and talented producer.”
Together with Debbie, Chris, and Clem, they were joined by band members Leigh Foxx, guitarist Tommy Kessler and keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen and took to the studio. “I had more of a deliberate agenda than they did,” says John. “Their agenda was the best agenda: they still love each other; they like playing music, so let’s have fun. At the end of the day Blondie doesn’t have anything to prove. My agenda was more dogmatic. I didn’t want to make a pastiche lifestyle record or a modern pop record that sounded like Blondie being influenced by what’s happening now. I wanted to know what it’s like to be Blondie at this age.”
The disc was the last one to be recorded at Soho’s legendary Magic Shop, the go-to location for Lou Reed and many other artists for decades. Says Stein, “That was nice, but it was a drag that the studio had to close.” Blondie recorded the album quickly “to keep that band vibe,” as Stein put it, and there’s an immediacy to these tunes that reflects this group effort.
“Doom Or Destiny,” featuring guest vocals from Joan Jett, begins the album with clattering proof that 2017 Blondie can still tap into that classic fervent vibe that created the likes of “Hanging On The Telephone.” R&B scenester Dev Hynes penned “Long Time” which immediately reminds of the disco “Heart Of Glass”, a song about “racing down the Bowery” and wondering if life turned out the way you wanted it to. They sought Sia out for her track “Best Day Ever”. The song is a collaboration with Nick Valensi and seem to expose them both as “Denis” fans, as it ponders the push-pull of bittersweet memories. Then there’s “Fun” – the Dave Sitek creation. It turns the tables back to Studio 54. “Gravity” is the Charli XCX number. It bonds Charli and Debbie via their mutual pop-punk cheekiness (“I’m drinking Cherry Cola… You’re nicer when you’re sober,” sings Debbie ).
Harry’s and Stein’s own songwriting skills are reaffirmed on the instantly addictive “Doom or Destiny,” with its thunderous opening drum roll and its propulsive chorus, and on the carnival-esque “Love Level,” which features vocals from John Roberts and the exuberant Providence, RI 20-piece marching band What Cheer? Brigade, a combo that had previously appeared in concert with Blondie. Keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen co-wrote “Already Naked” and “Too Much” with Laurel Katz-Bohen and Lucian Piane.
All in all the album presents the viewpoint of an older stateswoman, who’ll break down barriers of ageism and sexism from her still cucumber cool stance. “Lyrics are always a case of observation or momentary insanity or whatever,” Debbie says. “Just life. Going through it and hanging out with people, listening to music, going to movies. It all filters down into this mish-mash of thought and something rises to the top.” Chris is more direct, siphoning off specific periods of time to work on music outside his photography. His unique guitar-playing and arranging is what gives life to Debbie’s musings. Their dynamic is the same as it ever was: Chris, the drawl acerbic wit to Debbie’s straight-talking rebel. On the subject of future music videos, Debbie remarks, “Do you think they’re really that necessary?” Upon mention of how Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ reinvented the format, Chris chimes in, “Well she has more money than us so…!”
Blondie has always been a forward-thinking — and forward-moving — group; they’ve outlived the groundbreaking moment that birthed them and have adapted to time, space, and industry evolution as much as the face of New York itself. Yet similarly to New York, they’ve always remained indisputably Blondie. Never satisfied to rest on their laurels, their incessant need to fly the flag for cross-genre rock never relinquishes because Blondie’s punk never died. It’s a sound that has always echoed the underground above in the mainstream. Debbie Harry is still possessed of an aura and attitude that’s too big for subterranean clubs, and her cohort Chris Stein’s vision has been so ahead of its time that the rest of the world is still catching up to it. Walk into any dance club tonight and hear a ‘Call Me’ or a ‘Heart Of Glass’. Talk to any hip-hop historian and recall that Debbie was an original Beastie Boy who took rap music to the masses when it was still a block party concern. Read any tome on the history of punk and they’re interwoven into the fabric of the one genre that still inspires most every band to pick a name and find a practice space. Their active presence in our lives 40 million albums sales and countless accolades later (including a Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 2006 and NME Godlike Genius Award in 2014) is something to be treasured.
“I don’t think either of us was ever taken with the whole idea of marching down memory lane all the time and thinking that everything was so much better then,” explains Harry. “I know for a fact that neither of us ever really felt that way. We are always very interested in what was going on around us — being in the moment, as they say.”
Their public appearances in 2016 underscore that notion. In October, Blondie participated in filmmaker David Lynch’s first annual Festival of Disruption in Los Angeles, alongside St. Vincent, Four Tet, Rhye, Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti and many others. Harry and Stein hosted a talk on the disruption of music and culture, and Stein’s acclaimed photography, which captured elements of that disruption, was exhibited alongside David Lynch’s work. The following month, Harry caused a paparazzi sensation at London’s Q Magazine Awards, wearing a black duster coat featuring a blunt environmental message on its back. (Putting their music where their mouth is, Harry and Stein performed last summer at the Perfect Earth benefit picnic that artist Cindy Sherman hosted at her Long Island home.) They also appeared with their friends, the Gregory Brothers – creators of Songify the News (previously Autotune The News) – on a hilarious YouTube repurposing of the presidential debates, with Harry and Stein as coolly deadpan moderators. Meanwhile, drummer Burke paid tribute to New York City’s legendary Heartbreakers, with a live performance of their infamous L.A.M.F. album.
Front-woman Harry and guitarist/conceptual mastermind Stein have been with Blondie since the beginning, as has drummer Burke, whose powerhouse playing has always distinguished Blondie’s sound. Joining them on tour and in the studio are Leigh Foxx (bass) and Tommy Kessler (guitar) as well as keyboardist-songwriter Matt Katz-Bohen. Blondie’s impact has been greater than the sum of its record sales: Harry’s persona, and the band’s boundary-pushing pop, has shaped the look and sound of many chart-topping female artists who followed in the last three decades, from Madonna to Lady Gaga to Katy Perry and, of course, Sia. Po11inator delves even deeper into this idea: inspiration from Blondie’s action-packed past shaping the sound of our collective future. Debbie describes working with so many collaborators as “full circle”.: “Their material is part of us. It’s a celebration of recycling, ha!”
Looking ahead, Blondie plans to tour Australia in spring 2017 with Cyndi Lauper, and Harry reveals that she has been working – slowly but surely – on a memoir.
“Fame and self-importance is preposterous and fake. You have to be obsessed or even completely crazy to be an artist, ha! It’s just like a dream that becomes reality,” says Debbie. “You have to have an enormous ego, drive, stubbornness, something that propels you and demands. You get to a point where you end up having to choose between going to the left, or going to the right, or going straight ahead, and you make that choice. A lot of times you don’t have time to make that decision. You just make it and it’s an instinctive thing. I’m not always completely positive about who I am and what I’m doing but god forbid anybody says different I’ll kick their asses and fight forever.” Welcome back in the ring, Blondie.