Photo: MIKE MCGREGOR
Forty years after Blondie found fame on the New York scene, Debbie Harry is still waving the flag for women in the music business – of every age
In 1980, during a tour with Blondie, Debbie Harry hosted a tea party at a London hotel, gathering together many of the women prominent in music at the time. Chrissie Hynde was there; Siouxsie Sioux; the Slits guitarist Viv Albertine; Pauline Black from The Selecter; and Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex. Chris Stein, Harry’s boyfriend at the time as well as the other half of Blondie’s creative core, published pictures of it in his recent book Negative, a collection of his photographs from the early years of their fame.
It looks as though there was a lot of laughter. This was a different time for women in music. Two years earlier Kate Bush, who was invited to tea but didn’t make it, had become the first female solo performer to reach number one in the British charts with her own song (Wuthering Heights).
There was a widespread assumption that there was room for just one main female performer in each genre. If another appeared, they were expected to battle it out for the title of queen of pop/soul/disco/punk.
Clockwise from top left: Harry, Albertine, Sioux, Black, Styrene and Hynde in 1980 (GETTY)
Harry was keen to cut through that. “I really wanted to get together with all the punk females for an afternoon of celebration,” she explains. “It’s a great memory.” If you did that today, I say, you would need more than a hotel room. “I would need a hall!” she says, laughing. “It has changed a lot. It’s really grown, hasn’t it?”
In part, the large number of women making music now is down to the influence of those pioneers. Poly Styrene died in 2011, but remarkably the others are all still creating: both Hynde and Albertine have made fine solo albums in the past three years; Sioux never really went away; Black still plays with her band, and last summer Bush returned to the live arena for the first time since she was 20 with a triumphant run of London shows, which sold out in minutes.
As for Harry, I am talking to her in Paris, backstage at a theatre where she is preparing to play that night, at a party to launch a new perfume. To mark the 10th anniversary of its Black XS fragrance, Paco Rabanne has launched two limited-edition scents called Black XS Be a Legend – one for men, one for women – with a tuxedo-clad Harry and Iggy Pop fronting the ad campaign.
“It was great to work with Iggy again,” Harry says. They met when she was a waitress at the legendary New York music venue Max’s Kansas City, and Blondie’s first real tour was as his support act, at a time when his band included David Bowie on the keyboard. “They treated us in a way that was very generous and smart. They said, ‘We want the show to be great – for all of us. We want to put on a unified piece.’ And bands were awful to each other at that time.”
Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop in a Paco Rabanne campaign
Though Blondie grew out of the New York punk scene in the mid-1970s, they had an unashamedly pop slant, with their genre-bending music taking in elements of everything that was popular in clubs at the time, from rap to reggae to disco. But they also had a strong subversive streak.
“It was very much about irony at that time. It was about a sophisticated sort of put-down, antisocial but witty. We were always trying for that play on words, for the double entendre.”
Harry has always identified herself as a feminist, and there is a quiet strength in the way she presents herself, a sense that here is a woman very much in control. Before she was famous, she was on her way home from a club one rainy night in New York.
“It was two or three in the morning and I couldn’t find a cab. A car kept coming round and offering me a ride, so I accepted. Once in the car I noticed there were no door handles on the inside, which made me wary. I don’t know how, but I managed to put my hand through the window and open the door from the outside.”
The driver swerved to try to stop her escaping, but that gave her the momentum to throw herself out of the moving car. She thought no more of it until years later, when she saw the driver on the news. It was Ted Bundy, the serial killer who eventually confessed to murdering at least 30 women. “I always say my instincts saved me.”
As a performer there was something defiantly self-contained about Harry. Although she constantly played with images of sexy blond bombshells, there was a sense that she was doing this not to excite her audience but to please herself: you can look, but you can’t touch.
Her impact was huge. Andy Warhol featured her in silk-screen portraits (she still has one, though she confesses she has recently been tempted to sell it), and every few years her look emerges yet again on the catwalks. She is flattered, but points out that her look was itself cobbled together from comic books and Hollywood films, mixed in with English punk influences and later the strong lines of the New York-based designer Stephen Sprouse. “It’s very flattering and it’s nice to be loved like that. It’s amazing to me that it made such an impression, but also it seems like a natural process, if you go back to the things that influenced me and the elements that I took from.”
If, in the late 1970s, Harry threw the ball in the air, it was Madonna who caught it and ran with it. In the mid-1980s Harry took a lengthy break from music while Stein battled with illness, and the Material Girl took a similar blend of pop and New York-street attitude, and became a global superstar.
“There was a switch in music,” Harry says. “And I think it may have been primarily with her. She really went to showbiz. She was a solo artist; she wasn’t in a band; she wasn’t representing anyone but herself. And she did very well.”
Harry on stage in 1978 (REX)
Now music is a lot more about marketing, Harry says, and about building a brand identity. It has both good and bad sides, she goes on, shrugging – refusing to be drawn into criticising younger artists. It is healthy that they are far more business-savvy, she points out. Although Blondie have sold more than 40 million records over the course of their career, they were never massively rich.
She likens their management team at the peak of their success to absentee landlords. “They were very absentee,” she says drily. “Most of our career, our contracts were created by the record label. We were innocent at the time but the contracts held, so that was really decisive. For some of our biggest years we were getting a very low percentage, which is unheard of nowadays.”
Debbie Harry continues to work, she says, in part because she enjoys it, and in part because she has to financially. “It’s all wrapped up together.” She and Stein are no longer a couple (he is married and has two daughters; Harry is their godmother), but they still work together.
“We’ve built an identity and a business. I certainly didn’t look at it like that when I started, but now we have that enterprise together – although he does work on his own, and I sometimes do. But I still love working with Chris.”
Blondie, photographed in 1977 (GETTY)
Forty years on Blondie seem as relevant as ever. One Direction’s cover of One Way or Another for Comic Relief in 2013 introduced their music to a new, younger audience, and last summer Blondie played the Other Stage at Glastonbury.
During our conversation Harry confesses to watching The X Factor as a guilty pleasure – although she says it is not as good now that the judges are all so positive. “I liked it better when they were tougher. They’re very sweet now, very nice, and always trying to help these people along. But some of the bitter, darker humour was appealing to me!”
I wonder, if she were starting out now, whether Harry would even make it past the first rounds of such a show. “I don’t think I would try!” she snorts. “I was really much more interested in antisocial, underground things, and I didn’t want anyone choosing material for me.”
There is usually a point in interviews with her when the writer remarks that Harry is still very beautiful. I’m never sure what to make of this – it is as if we expect a woman’s features to rearrange themselves into something resembling a Picasso portrait after a certain age. Harry was breathtakingly beautiful when she found fame, in her thirties, and she still has the same bone structure, the same features. She is just older.
When we meet, her long blond hair is dry and frizzy, pushed under a beanie hat, and she is dressed casually in a baggy T-shirt, leggings and legwarmers. Later, on-stage, the hair is straight and shiny, and she wears a well-fitted dress.
There was a time, she says, when older women were expected to disappear into drab floral tents. She was never going to do that, but she does sometimes struggle with stage clothes. “I want to dress age-appropriately, but I also love those funky younger looks – and some days I think I pull it off better than others. I don’t really have a lot of women around me when we’re on the road, so usually my crew are the ones who’ll say, ‘That looks good.’” She laughs. “Then other times, they won’t say anything!”
She has had a bit of cosmetic surgery (it goes with the job, she says casually), and she believes a good moisturiser can work wonders. “There’s a hydrator from Nars that’s really wonderful. It’s sort of translucent, and cold to the touch. I love to put it on because it’s very cooling.”
But there is also a mental element to ageing, she says. If you stay creative, interested and open to new things, you won’t stagnate. “You have to look around, keep new influences coming in. A lot of people sort of pick a world to live in, and they’re comfortable in that – which can be disastrous.”
On Blondie’s latest album, 2014’s 4(0) Ever, she is still singing about sex and desire. It is not something that ever really goes away, I say. She nods vigorously in agreement. “Not at all! And it’s funny, the Victorians were very enlightened about that. They are often viewed as being very conservative, but actually they were wild. And sex was pretty rampant. There were a lot of goings-on.”
Harry will turn 70 in July, but she says she has no thought of retiring, citing Yoko Ono’s full-on performances in her eighties as an inspiration. “I guess I’m supposed to be shocked by it,” she says of her upcoming birthday.
“And maybe I will be. But I’m amazed by ageing and how it happens differently for different people.” She laughs again, eyes glittering with mischief. “All I can say is, I’m a lucky f— bitch!”