Blondie were the most commercially successful act to emerge from CBGB’s late-Seventies punk scene, but the band rarely received the same critical recognition as fellow New York scenesters the Ramones, Talking Heads, Patti Smith Group and Television. But in the two decades since their initial run ended, Blondie’s Warholian fusions of pop forms and nervy streetwise attitude has left an indelible stamp on an array of artists, ranging from Madonna to Franz Ferdinand. With their iconic status now undeniable, founders Chris Stein (guitar) and Deborah Harry (vocals) share their thoughts on Blondie’s legacy and how it feels to be joining many of their punk-era peers in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Blondie’s stature seems to have risen over the last twenty years. Have you noticed it?
Harry: For me, it became apparent when, all of a sudden people were telling me Blondie was an icon, and I just sort of swallowed hard and thought, “Oh my god! When did that happen?” I think if you just keep going long enough, it starts to pay off.
Thirty years ago, if someone told you that there would be a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Blondie would be a member along with the Ramones and Talking Heads, I imagine that would have seemed pretty absurd.
Stein: Yeah. The Ramones [situation] is a very similar thing to Blondie. You have this band has this huge worldwide influence, but they just never really quite made it. Even though everyone draws from them and references them in their music, and everybody knows who they are, still they never made it onto the A list.
Is it true American DJs wouldn’t play your records early on because of their perception of you as punks?
Stein: Yeah, somewhat. But the whole thing was crazily out of whack. What I keep saying is that the first two Rolling Stones albums are completely punk style — they’re R&B-based, but all the irony and the rawness and the speed and crazy sounds are there. It’s all a matter of perception.
Do you remember where you were when you heard that “Heart of Glass” went to Number One?
Harry: We were in Milan at a hotel near the Duomo. [Producer] Mike Chapman got the news and invited us all down to the bar to have a toast.
You had your greatest success once you teamed with Chapman. What did he bring to the party?
Harry: He had a strong reputation in radio as a hitmeister and great record producer, and he really was. He took us in hand and made us really aware of what the recording process was about and how we could best do what we did within our technical restrictions, because none of us were really technical players. He just educated us all and he made it fun, and he was nutty but smart. It really became a different process for us.
Stein: The recording process with Chapman was completely different from what goes on nowadays. People who work in the studios tell me these bands come in now and spend a week recording and two months editing. It was exactly the opposite with us: We spent months putting the stuff on tape and once we worked so hard to get the specific parts on tape, then it was very easy to mix — it just happened by itself.
Of all the songs the two of you have written together, which would you pick as the quintessential Blondie track?
Harry: Performance-wise, the song I get the most out of is “Rapture,” because we’ve taken it in a lot of different directions. The fact that it has this rock-ballad, R&B kind of feel at the beginning, then it goes into this rap and then we break it down allows us to do all kinds of things to it now that aren’t on the recording. Every time we go out, we add another dimension to it. On our last tour, Chris did this thing at the end where we completely break down the song and he goes into this delta blues thing that’s just great. It’s just a great song that we can fuck around with, and yet it still holds together as this identifiable piece of music.
When you recorded “Rapture,” did you have any idea hip-hop would become as big as it did?
Stein: The first hip-hop stuff we encountered was in 1977. Around that time I was talking to a lot of higher-ups in the record industry, all these heavyweights, and almost 100 percent of these guys told me hip-hop was a passing fad. The excitement at the first couple of hip-hop things we saw was really tangible, and it was obvious that it was a really exciting movement. The black kids weren’t involved in what was going on downtown with us. This was their personal thing. I was always behind it, myself. There’s a lot of crappy hip-hop going on right now the same way there’s a lot of crappy rock & roll. But there’s also a lot of really great stuff going on.
You thought enough of “Rapture Riders” [a mash-up of “Rapture” and the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm”] to include it on [the new anthology] Greatest Hits: Sound & Vision.
Stein: Oh yeah, that was an exciting thing. I quite like it. I had heard it on the Internet, and I guess we made it official by putting it on the album. I’m kind of amazed how well those songs fit together.
How did the re-recording of [1976’s] “In the Flesh” come about?
Harry: I was going to do a little show at a friend’s club, and he suggested that we do a fresh treatment of “In the Flesh” since it was the first song we ever had go to Number One [in Australia]. So we went in and recorded this new version and he produced it. Actually, that really excites me a lot more than the “Rapture Riders” thing. I’d like to redo a lot of old material — sort of bring it up to date — because a lot of the material is really good musically but suffers from a dated kind of style.
What other songs would you be interested in redoing?
Harry: I think a really great version of [1976’s] “Man Overboard” could be done in today’s world. And also a lot of material from my solo albums could be done — a lot of that stuff was written by me and Chris. I think a lot of those songs are really beautiful but have been completely overlooked.
Is the Sound & Vision cover one of the infamous photos Chrysalis rejected for the Plastic Letters cover because you guys looked too punk?
Harry: Yeah, we’d never used them before. That’s a hidden little treasure.
Stein: I was watching that Don Letts movie [the 2005 documentary Punk: Attitude], and it reminded me how insane it was at the time with all this carrying on about the terminology, about what these words meant. None of that shit means anything to me now — “punk” and “New Wave” and all these phrases. It’s all just one form of music. But Chrysalis was really worried about us being stuck with this punk label.
Given the way the band ended, has this time around felt like a second chance, or do you just look at it as another phase?
Harry: I think probably both those things. This is clearly a different phase for us, because we’re working with different musicians. But it is a second chance for the name “Blondie.” Up until now I think we’ve felt we had to do shows that paid off the audience for coming by playing the songs they expected to hear. I think on this last tour we finally got our heads around a little bit more adventurous kind of show, which is really much more enjoyable for us, because then we can really take on the identity of who we are today and really play music. That’s what’s exciting.