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Debbie Harry
Photography Alexander Thompson

Debbie Harry: ‘Maybe sexual explicitness has come of age’

With an album and a live tour slated for next year, the Blondie frontwoman talks growing up at the height of rock and roll, female sexuality in the age of ‘WAP’, and writing new material over lockdown

Debbie Harry doesn’t believe in harbouring regrets. “I have made many, many errors, but nobody leads a perfect life,” she reflects down the telephone from New York. “So, should I regret anything? No. It is a waste of time. It really is a waste of time.”

Dial back to the turn of the 70s and the life that Harry led before fronting Blondie – prior to her image being burned onto the retina of popular culture – was colourful to say the least. “I was so desperate to live life,” she says of her time spent hanging with the outcasts and artists of downtown New York. “I was jamming in as much experience as I possibly could and I don’t know if I could have done anything differently. I learned a lot.”

The old Bowery music venue CBGBs has long passed into music folklore as the place that called the likes of Television, Patti Smith, and the Ramones their house bands. It was also where punk and new wave progenitors Blondie cut their teeth before they sashayed into the wider world with the protean panache that would make them a household name. Classic singles such as “Heart of Glass”, “Call Me”, “Atomic”, and “Rapture” have been responsible for more worldwide rug-cutting than an industrial carpet tool. To imply that they were merely a solid singles band is to do them a cardinal disservice, however.

And although they’ve always cocked their attention to the things ahead of them, Harry and her Blondie cohorts have spent a lot of time looking back just lately. Harry’s long-awaited autobiography, Face It, hit the shelves last year, and Blondie co-founder and one-time partner Chris Stein published Point of View: Me, New York City, and the Punk Scene, a photography book featuring personal snaps taken during the band’s pomp in the 70s and early 80s. “We can’t keep on touring and doing club dates the way that we used to. It would be physically impossible,” Harry concedes. “Living through this pandemic has certainly made us take a long look at the value of what we’ve got with our body of work.” Asked if it is a process of attempting to frame their legacy, she admits it’s something that they “have to do”.

This deep-dive into their canon has culminated in a mouth-watering archive set, Blondie: Against the Odds 1974-1982, slated for release next year. Coming in four formats, it promises to include extensive liner notes, “track by track” commentary by the entire band, a photographic history plus rare and unreleased bonus material. The group will also go out on the road – coronavirus permitting – for an autumn Against the Odds UK tour with Garbage.

The artist born Angela Trimble was put up for adoption only a few months after she was ushered into the world in the summer of 1945. A loving New Jersey couple took her in, rechristened her Deborah Harry, and raised her as their own. She grew up in a suburb that she “never left”,  was voted best-looking girl in her high school yearbook, and oscillated within a social circle that consisted of “many of the same people” throughout her childhood. “I was somehow shy within that,” she recalls, “(but) somebody once said to me that being shy was an ego trip and a light went on in my head. I thought, ‘Oh, uh-huh, let’s have none of that!’”

Harry travelled by bus as a curious teen to nearby Greenwich Village, imbibing the febrile inner-city atmosphere. In 1965, she graduated from junior college with an associate of arts degree and New York’s allure became too enticing to resist. She decamped to the bright lights of the city and made ends meet with a succession of odd jobs, including secretarial work for the BBC, waiting tables and an infamous nine-month stint as a Playboy Bunny.

The period was a traumatic one, too, with Harry enduring an ex-lover-turned-violent-stalker and a near-miss with serial killer Ted Bundy (although Bundy’s identity is contested by others). In her memoir, she writes candidly of the time she was raped by a man wielding a knife while on her way home from a concert with Stein. Music offered a vessel for her creativity, and she spent time as part of girl group The Stilettoes and folk ensemble Wind in the Willows before her meeting with guitarist Stein which set the foundations for Blondie. Their classic lineup was completed by Gary Valentine (bass), Jimmy Destri (keys), and Clem Burke (drums).

“Somebody once said to me that being shy was an ego trip and a light went on in my head. I thought, ‘Oh, uh-huh, let’s have none of that’” – Debbie Harry

Although they self-identified as punks, the parochial and nihilistic mandate as promulgated by the genre’s militant diehards never fit Blondie comfortably. The group looked outwards from the moment they started, drawing inspiration from their cosmopolitan city. Their sound was a melting pot pulling at the seams of culture’s fabric, and they would weave their own patterns from it.

Harry agrees that their eclecticism was down to good fortune in coming from the “metropolitan area of New York” where they ingested “a lot of musical influences”. Taken as a whole, their catalogue bears this out. Blondie never stood still musically – yet never sounded like anyone else – and they loaded their songs with more hooks than a fisherman’s trawler. 1976’s punchy, eponymous debut married surf-rock textures with 50s girl-group sensibilities, and their palette had expanded exponentially by the time of seminal third album, Parallel Lines (1978). Eat to the Beat and Autoamerican followed, by which point they could boast flirtations with disco, rocksteady, funk, hip hop, and more within their enviable output.

When asked to pick one track that encapsulates the essence of Blondie, Harry opts for their 1981 US number one single “Rapture”. “What happens in ‘Rapture’ is very comprehensive,” she says. “It took a form of music that was, or still is, very modern and can be very political. Rap and hip-hop songs back then didn’t have their own songs. Rappers would just rap on somebody else’s music. (‘Rapture’) was crafted specifically for that rap. Until then that hadn’t been done. It was a breath of fresh air.” It stands as one of the things in her career that she feels “very good about”.

Blessed with the sort of features that could sell sand to the Saharans, Harry’s appearance caused a stir from the band’s earliest days. “That’s part of showbiz,” she says to me, trying to downplay it. “We always had an eye for that, the entire band. We always had an idea of making a look that represented our sensibilities and links to British pop and mod.” Maybe so, but it was Harry alone who was immortalised by Andy Warhol in one of his iconic silkscreen prints, and who posed for era-defining photographers including Robert Mapplethorpe and Anne Leibowitz.

Did the disproportionate attention she attracted ruffle feathers within the Blondie camp at the time? “Yes and no,” Harry remembers. “We were all happy that it was working. I suppose there was a certain amount of competition or jealousy but ultimately, no. I think that’s a better question for Clem or one of the other members in the band. Of course my relationship with Chris was so close that he was very happy about everything.”

The band’s wheels eventually came off after their muddy and unfocused sixth album, The Hunter, dashed against the commercial rocks in 1982. They had to abandon their subsequent tour after Stein became gravely ill with a rare autoimmune disorder, pemphigus vulgaris, that proved extremely difficult to diagnose. Blondie had no option but to bow out of the public eye, and they broke up quietly.

15 years later, with Stein fully recovered, the group reconvened and released a critically acclaimed and commercially successful comeback album, No Exit. They even topped the UK charts with lead single “Maria”, but faced tussles with erstwhile members at the time too. Former bassist and co-writer on “One Way or Another”, Nigel Harrison, and guitarist Frank Infante attempted to sue the rest of the band over their omission from the reformed lineup. And when Blondie were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, Infante grabbed the microphone to express his ire publicly.

Fast-forward to 2020 and the settled iteration of the band are working on a new album with John Congleton, who produced 2017’s Pollinator. Does Harry have a formula when it comes to songwriting these days? No, as it happens. “When a phrase or a sentiment makes me respond emotionally or physically, I write it down and I save it,” she explains. “At a certain point, I’ll sort of review things. A lot of times I like to just work with a rhythm track. Just a drumbeat or some kind of drone-y rhythm, a groove. Other times people will give me a rough sketch of some chord changes – an idea that they’ve got. I seem to work in a lot of different ways.”

Thanks to her effortless chic and timeless looks, Harry’s relationship with the fashion industry has been a mutual love-in since forever, and she recently announced a revival of her partnership with ethical fashion designers Vin + Omi – the duo responsible for her profane ‘STOP FUCKING THE PLANET’ cape worn at the Q Awards in 2016 and throughout Blondie’s Pollinator tour. They have teamed up for a new sustainable clothing line entitled HOPE, and her enthusiasm for the project is palpable. “I love Vin + Omi,” she says. “They are so creative and adventurous. They have this desire to prevail and do things that are smart and modern in terms of recycling and making energy count. I think that is brilliant.”

As a fledgling bee-keeper, the plight of the bees is also something close to Harry’s heart. It was one of the reasons why 2017’s Pollinator was, well, named exactly that. “You’re either being stung by a bee or you’re going to eat its honey,” she chuckles softly, marvelling at the absurdity of the contrast. “But bees and water are two issues we cannot escape from. We should be concerned with finding better ways of living, using our resources in the best way possible.”

Help is coming, she hopes, through the election of Joe Biden, who is “firmly attached” to the idea of helping the environmental cause – and she believes his ideas can help the economy, too. “I’ve been saying for quite a long time that solar and wind power are renewable (energies) that can create jobs,” she says. It’s a far cry from her feelings towards outgoing President Trump and his “daily infusion of bullshit” and “thunderstorm of endless diatribes”.

“One of the most exciting things about rock’n’roll was that it was about breaking the rules, and (‘WAP”) is certainly a part of that. It’s titillating and aggressive and it is part of what is exciting about popular music. The nature of what we try to do is to shock and entertain at the same time” – Debbie Harry

What strikes you when you speak to Harry for an extended period is not only her warmth, but her unexpected humility for someone so staggeringly famous. I reference a Bob Dylan BBC interview from the 80s in which he observed with sadness how his fame had the ability to change a room’s energy and how he missed seeing people act naturally around him. She paws the comparison away, saying she’s nowhere near famous “to the degree of Bob Dylan”, whom she calls “such a megastar”. This could sound like false modesty coming second-hand, but in person it feels like a sincere statement, even if it is a little bewildering coming from an international icon. She will concede, however, that she has “definitely noticed and felt something like that” and has often wished she could simply be “a fly on the wall”.

There is also an inquisitiveness that makes the conversation a more two-way affair than your quote-unquote typical ‘interview’. She fires questions back at you, not as a deflection tactic, but to expand and explore a topic further. This happens when conversation turns to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s ubiquitous “WAP”. A recent interview had her fangirling over the track, but Harry’s feelings no longer appear to be as clear-cut and she wishes to discuss the song further. “I love it and hate it at the same time,” she now shares. “One of the most exciting things about rock’n’roll was that it was about breaking the rules, and (‘WAP’) is certainly a part of that. It’s titillating and aggressive and it is part of what is exciting about popular music. The nature of what we try to do is to shock and entertain at the same time.” She pauses. “I don’t know. Everything is revealed and maybe sexual explicitness has come of age.”

Pushed about what she dislikes about “WAP”, she says she would “hate it” if any young girl or woman was hurt by the song’s message. “I think that, in a way, men have to know that women think like this, and that there is this component,” she says, “but I would hate it to mean that everyone should be treated like this. I don’t think anybody should be hurt by sex”.

Harry has long championed the LGBTQ+ communities. When she refers to her dearly departed friend and Hairspray co-star Divine as a ‘drag queen’ in Face It, she acknowledges the term in some instances is no longer accurate or politically correct. I suggest that it can often seem as though the evolution of our language is speeding up in the digital age – by necessity, of course – and ask her if online culture fills her with concern when it comes to using the right terms. “Yeah, (because) in many cases it can be a slip of the tongue, especially for an old dog like me! Things do move so very, very quickly. It is hard to keep up,” she observes. “Fortunately, I have a lot of godchildren!”

Speaking of younger generations, Harry likes to think she’d have coped with social media if she were coming up today, but is thankful that she had her “dark cocoon” in which to “bloom out of”, a place where she was able to “ripen”. “When you’re under the harsh glare of constantly being analysed, that shapes you whether you want it to or not,” she says. “It’s a germ or a seed that’s planted in your mind. It can take surprising turns and it can affect your growth. For good or for worse, who knows?”

“When you’re under the harsh glare of constantly being analysed, that shapes you whether you want it to or not. It’s a germ or a seed that’s planted in your mind. It can take surprising turns and it can affect your growth” – Debbie Harry

One thing that remains is her fierce level of self-criticism. “I always want to do better,” she declares matter-of-factly. “I’ve always been very critical of everything. I hear things or look at them and say, ‘Oh God, it should have been that (instead).” Maybe this hypercritical inclination is what still drives her forward. “I honestly don’t like resting on my laurels. I like working and I like creating. I always beat myself up about not being more creative or more prolific.”

When looking at the bounty of projects she has lined up, no one in their right mind could put Debbie Harry and laurel-resting in the same sentence. Aside from the new album, archival set and fashion project, the paperback edition of her autobiography will be released with a brand-new epilogue in April of next year. (Just don’t ask her what’s in it – “I don’t remember what I wrote. I’ll have to look it up!” she says with a laugh.)

The signs are that the musician is done looking into the rear-view mirror, though. Time may be passing, the tide may be higher, but Debbie Harry is doing more than merely holding on. Her eyes are locked to the future and she’s positively thriving.

Blondie: Against the Odds 1974-1982 will be released next year; Face It is out now via Harper Collins