Blondie, the iconic rock ensemble, not only defined new wave and punk music across the U.S. and U.K. in the late 1970s, they also defied expectations: ten years after they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and nearly forty years after their first number one hit single “Heart of Glass,” the band is still a rock powerhouse. They released a new album, Pollinator, in May of this year that’s a dizzying electro-pop feat with Sia, Dev Hynes and Charli XCX among the list of collaborators. We caught up with lead singer Debbie Harry, guitarist Chris Stein and drummer Clem Burke in Berlin to talk past adventures, new music and the craziest gig they’ve ever played.
You’ve witnessed so many different musical trends over the years, what are your thoughts on the recent music industry and how it’s progressed?
Chris: I always play this game with myself where if I’d heard a Major Lazer track in 1967, what would I have thought of it. Would I have been as moved or would it have sounded differently. You know? It’s hard to say.
Clem: I mean the stuff that Chris likes in contemporary music, I feel like that classic parent way of you’re not supposed to like what your kids like.
Chris: Like Major Lazer (laughs).
Clem: And I’d rather listen to Chuck Berry.
Debbie: Fat White Family.
Chris: I remember listening to those guys a lot, but I don’t really seek stuff out, if something is there I just gravitate towards it. I heard like 4 seconds of “Lean On” on the radio, and I just thought that’s amazing. Then you know, I research and see it has like a billion views on YouTube.
Do you find yourself researching music more online, or do you still check out record shops?
Chris: Yeah, I’m always online and looking. I mean, a story like this is when we were in France in the late ’70s and I carried around this little tape recorder connected to a radio, and I ended up recording this instrumental, semi-classical piece. It took me like literally 30 years to find out what the hell it was. Finally from the internet, I found out!
Clem: And what was it?
Chris: It was a theme from a movie with Bogart, an old Hollywood composer. He scored Ben Hur, and some of these older movies. It was really beautiful. But, you know, I didn’t have the DJ to tell me what it was.
But I guess the beauty is now that analog approaches are coming back. Vinyl sales are up, for example.
Chris: Yeah, I mean I’m a little skeptical. It’s a nice gesture, but I think it’s a tiny dent.
Clem: I think kids buy vinyl for the artefact, but not necessarily play it. Which is a crazy concept.
Debbie: Well, they have vinyl parties.
Clem: Yeah, I mean, I DJ vinyl, I love it and I’m just glad I have my lifelong record collection. Which I’m very happy about.
So how do you find your new music fitting into today’s climate?
Clem: Well the stuff from back in the day fit in perfectly, because wherever you went you’d hear it, from in fashion to in restaurants. It’s actually pretty phenomenal. And I think what we’re doing now is just as good as back then.
Chris: For me it’s more about the sonics of it, you know? And how sometimes just the production value will make it sound dated. And things like the choice of instruments, or whatever, so we’ve always had a balance between the guitars and the synthesizer. I definitely wanted to be more “roots-y” with the album, and have the band sound more than the electronic sound.
Clem: I mean all the stuff from the punk-rock era, whether it be The Pistols or Patti Smith or Blondie or The Ramones, it all kinda fits into pop culture today. Pop culture is in a very strange place right now, I think. A lot of people are going away and having all of their legacies so enduring, like Bowie for instance. It’s hard to image this stuff happened like 40 years ago, it just seems so modern still. I don’t know if I’m still in a bubble about it, but I don’t think I am. It’s like out there, it’s in contemporary pop culture. I mean, stuff that Debbie did it’s just like it happened yesterday. It might’ve been something that she wore, or wrote, you know? Maybe X amount of years ago, it’s crazy but it’s all connected. Obviously there’s other types of music now, but I think a big influence of what happened in New York in the ’70s is still felt in popular culture. And the weird thing is, for instance, is the The Ramones don’t exist anymore, yet they are still so present in contemporary pop culture. It’s insane. That’s one thing we have still going for us, that we are still here.
You must have such a good collection of memorabilia from over the years.
Chris: I have a lot of junk. Just everything really, a lot of cool stuff too. Should probably organise it a little soon.
Debbie: Yeah, make a nice archive!
Clem: All my memorabilia is more interesting.
(Chris and Debbie laugh)
Chris: Okay yeah, you have a lot of cool stuff. I got a lot of Sex Pistol posters and things from the first time around. I have a really great Dolls poster made out of cardboard too.
Clem: I have the original Charles Manson record which is a good one to have!
You’ve been to Berlin quite a few times already this year. Can you tell us about any good memories visiting?
Chris: Yeah, it’s an active season this year. We were just talking about the wall still being up and Checkpoint Charlie. Yeah, one of my favourite things was taking flash pictures and all of a sudden they’re taking pictures back from the other side. All these flashes started going off from the other side, probably for intimidation purposes.
When was that?
Debbie: That must have been around the late ’70s, ’77/’78.
Clem: There’s a great photo that Chris took of a bunch of us stood at Checkpoint Charlie. And then we went to Romy Haag, to the drag show, which was really fun.
Chris: Well that’s where Ingrassia wound up. He wound up as a full time participant. Tony Ingrassia was the director of some great movies. He was a big influencer. He directed things like “Pork” and at the Wayne County, where Bowie took some of his elements from. So when he got disgraced in New York..
Clem: How did he get disgraced?
Chris: Well he did that play called “Fame”.
Debbie: They ripped him apart.
Clem: Yeah, Rodney [Bingenheimer] has an original “Pork” poster from the play in London.
Chris: “Pork” was just the conversations of Brigid and Warhol on the phone, which is really funny stuff.
You guys have been making an impact for years now.
Clem: But a lot of people from back in the day don’t run around anymore.
Chris: Yeah, but for various reasons.
Do you think that the music industry is quite ageist, in a way?
Debbie: It’s the condition of being, you know, you get sort of like a shot for 3-5 years and then you’re history unless you really sort of work at it. The seeds of ageism for a woman, or women in general, goes back to very ancient values. It’s a survival instinct actually, so it’s very hard to get away from that.
Chris: I remember when it was a big deal, I think it was Cream Magazine, found out that Debbie was actually 30, instead of 25. It was this huge deal!
Clem: The other interesting thing about breaking down barriers and fighting down ageism, is just by being, and people still appreciating what you do.
Chris: I always say, when I was 12 years old a lot of my musical heroes were in their 60’s anyway. All these old blues guys, like Muddy Waters. But yeah, society is ageist, it’s just cultural, you know? It’s what it is. You know, watching “Feud”, the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford piece, that’s what that’s all about. It’s very clever because it’s got this layering. You’ll have to watch it.
Debbie: Well the beautiful thing about it is that it’s all readily available for anybody. I mean, Michelle’s son Aiden, he’s very hot on Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, and it’s just like an exploration. They to discover things, it’s great.
Clem: I mean my favourite thing to do is watch Presley movies, I can’t believe that people say they’re so terrible, I find them so relaxing. They’re such time capsules too, just like the clothes, the sets, they’re amazing.
Chris: His version of “Blue Moon”, it’s so good.
Debbie: Oh yeah.
Clem: All of the sexual innuendos in his movies, really are so blatant. You’re like, really?
Clem: Most actors seem to be musicians in the States.
Debbie: Yeah, a lot of them cross over. Russell Crowe.
Chris: Russell Crowe! He had a band for a long time. Remember Kevin Costner opened for us that time? And he was really good!
Debbie: No, no, he’s very good! We opened for him, by the way (laughs).
Chris: It was somewhere in the States, at this semi-private thing, but his band was very Rolling Stones, it was kinda groovy, I was very surprised.
Debbie: He was good, the women were dying over him.
Was that the craziest gig you ever played?
Clem: We do a lot of strange gigs, for instance, we opened the Gucci museum in Florence.
Chris: We also opened the Whitney in New York.
Clem: And then we played the Met Ball. Kanye West and Blondie.
Chris: They’ll never invite us to another (laughs).
Clem: Miley Cyrus was jamming on my drums at some point. That was pretty great.
Chris: We’ve opened up the new Louis Vuitton shop in Paris a couple of years ago. So yeah, from time to time we get these kinda funky gigs to play. And it’s okay, as long as they pay us.
Debbie, how was it to be be one of the very few women fronting a band during the ’70s?
Debbie: I think it would have been a little more difficult if I had been a solo artist. I’ve always maintained that it’s a band, and that was my interest. I never really liked the extreme showbiz aspects of rock, I mean, I believe in putting in a good show, but it’s really about the music for me. I feel like a lot of that is lost with some of these solo artists, you know, having all these dancers running around. It seems more like cheerleading to me, it’s too much like a circus act. But I’m pretty old school, you know? I see how entertaining it is, and I think people really like that, but I sort of see myself in that position and think, good God, how could I do that? And it does make me giggle.
Clem: And then the thing that really gets misconstrued, and I’ve said it time and time again, Debbie has something much more in common with Bowie or Jagger than with Madonna or Lady Gaga, you know? And people don’t really get that. They go for “she’s a woman” rather than discussing about her being an artist or a writer, a creator. People don’t immediately pick up on that point.
Debbie: I feel like I’ve contributed something and at this stage of the game, it doesn’t seem to be that much of an issue. But I think that in terms of business, it’s the same as a man, having a career. It’s about investing a certain amount of time.
So what would your words of wisdom be for someone wanting to do what you’ve done?
Debbie: God! (laughs)
Clem: Get a good band!
Debbie: You sort of have to be somewhat obsessed with it and you know, somehow or another, when Chris and I worked together as couple in those whirly, struggling days, the days that I would want to throw up my hands and say, “f**k it”, he would just kinda talk me out of it. Down off the ledge, so to speak.
So you need a good wingman?
Blondie’s new album ‘Pollinator’ is out now via BMG Rights Management