Preview: Blondie is back with new album
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Blondie was the best-selling band to emerge from the CBGB punk/New Wave scene of the '70s and judging by enduring T-shirt popularity, it was the second most iconic (after, of course, the Ramones).
What set Blondie apart was not only the Garbo-esque good looks of its frontwoman, Debbie Harry, but the band's ability to write a hook while embracing punk, New Wave, reggae, disco and even rap.
It wasn't anything revolutionary to guitarist/co-songwriter and Ms. Harry's longtime boyfriend Chris Stein.
"All the people I admired, and I think a lot of us, we all really liked Bowie and the Rolling Stones, and they were all very eclectic in what they did. Some of the CBGB bands had a real specific view of what their sound was, you know, the Ramones had a signature sound. I just think we were always about a broader view of music. I like all kinds of different music. There was a lot of interplay and going back and forth and influencing each other, but the better bands all maintained their individuality."
Blondie, which plays the Palace Theater on Friday, formed in 1975, became regulars at CBGB and Max's Kansas City and issued its punk-laced, self-titled debut a year later. The band's commercial breakthrough was 1978's "Parallel Lines," fueled by the chart-topping disco hit "Heart of Glass," a mainstream success in a genre that found the band having to defend itself against accusations of "selling out."
"There was a lot of this anti-disco movement, but I always liked disco music," says Mr. Stein. "To me, it was just an extension of R&B music. The real early disco music you heard was very raw sounding. It just had a constant beat. As we see, pop music is all dance music now. I kind of like that. When we did 'Heart of Glass' we thought it sounded like Kraftwerk. We were just thinking electronica."
The next two years produced three more No. 1's in the diverse mix of the Georgio Moroder-produced "Call Me," the reggae-style "The Tide is High" and 1981's "Rapture," the first rap song to top the charts.
Soon after, Blondie fell on hard times. Along with the band's 1982 album, "The Hunter," being a critical and commercial bust, Mr. Stein was diagnosed with a serious skin disease, pemphigus, that grounded Blondie and sent Mr. Stein and Ms. Harry off into seclusion.
That original CBGB scene had seen its best days by that point.
"It was great in the first few years and then the record companies came and the offer of the money carrot being dangled started to make for more competition toward the end of it all."
Blondie fans were held over with a pair of Harry solo albums until the band reunited for 1999's "No Exit" and 2003's "The Curse of Blondie."
Last year, Blondie (with the original members down to Ms. Harry, Mr. Stein and drummer Clem Burke) returned with "Panic of Girls," which again hits on some of Blondie's prominent styles, from the driving synthpop of "D-Day" and "What I Heard" to gliding reggae/ska of "The End The End" and "Girlie Girlie," and adds new twists like the Latin dance-pop of "Wipe Off My Sweat."
"I think it's a typical Blondie survey -- all the styles that we loved in the past," Ms. Harry told spinner.com. "It's a real sort of compilation of our basic formula. We've always had an interest in Latin, reggae, pop and rock. I think we made this an amalgamation of that."
She credited the guitarist with continuing to drive the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band creatively, saying, "I really didn't want [Blondie] to be an oldies band."
Mr. Stein says he's not above finding inspiration in commercial radio.
"I like what's going on in modern pop music. All the way back to the '60s, and probably the '50s, the stuff you'd hear would be 50 percent garbage, and it's always been like that. It's just the garbage from the '60s, you don't hear anymore, so people forget about it. It's the same now. It's half junk and half great stuff."
The three Blondie originals are touring now with extra help from bassist Leigh Foxx (Iggy Pop), Matt Katz-Bohen (Ashford and Simpson, Jody Watley) and Tommy Kessler ("Rock of Ages"). Comparing Blondie's set now to what the band sounded like in its heyday, Mr. Stein says, "It's better now. It's slicker. Everyone's advanced considerably. We have a couple younger guys who are great musicians. I think it's a lot tighter and more professional, but we try to keep some of that rawness going. It's always in there."
The guitarist lives in New York these days with his wife and two daughters. Meanwhile, his onetime girlfriend, at 67, still causes a stir.
What is it like touring with a woman so loved and recognized in the punk scene and beyond?
"She keeps a little undercover when we're just walking around, but it's always there," he says. "We still have a kind a cult status. We never got huge ... I think that's why we still have some street credibility. She's a nice person. She's always very humble about how she approaches things. It differs in places. When we're in London, it gets ... We never really get mobbed by people on the street or anything like that."
First Published October 4, 2012 12:00 am