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Blondie on Blondie

Deborah Harry & Co. talk about what isn't your usual reunion project.

October 18, 1998|Elysa Gardner | Elysa Gardner is a regular contributor to Calendar from New York

NEW YORK — The scene unfolding in Chung King Studios seems like a moment from some pop time warp.

The four original members of the seminal new wave group Blondie--including lead singer Deborah Harry and guitarist Chris Stein--are in this downtown Manhattan recording facility to put the finishing touches on a song for "No Exit," the band's first album in almost two decades. The collection is due next February.

"Yaw're George Maah-tin!" keyboardist Jimmy Destri tells producer Craig Leon playfully at one point, evoking the Beatles' famed studio ally in a Brooklyn accent as thick as a pastrami sandwich.

Blondie was never the Beatles, of course, but it was one of the most successful and trend-setting bands of its time--a group that between 1978 and 1982 generated four No. 1 hits, each of which helped define a moment in pop history.

The most notable of those records: "Call Me," which showed that producer Giorgio Moroder's sensual, synthesizer-driven sound could work as effectively in rock as in disco; "Rapture," one of rock's first ventures into the emerging rap scene; and "The Tide Is High," which is cited as an influence by dozens of '90s neo-ska outfits.

Blondie--which emerged from the same downtown New York club scene that spawned the Ramones and Talking Heads--also was an important arbiter of style, making its distinctly urban, Warhol-esque brand of post-modern chic accessible to mainstream America. Harry's chilly beauty and eccentric fashion choices were central to the band's aesthetic and, many feel, paved the way for subsequent female icons such as Madonna and Courtney Love.

But it all came tumbling down in 1982, due to the illness of Stein and infighting.

It was a break that seemed so irrevocable that few ever expected Blondie to reemerge--even at a time when reunions have become almost de rigueur in the pop world.

Even now, the question remains: Is there an audience waiting for them?

Their manager, Allen Kovac, who also has guided the comebacks of Meat Loaf and Duran Duran, thinks that Blondie continues to have mystique--and he's encouraged by the reception the band's new material has received from radio programmers who have heard it.

"Blondie is unique, because they were on the cutting edge of punk and new wave and dance [music] and rap," Kovac says. "So from early signs, it's looking like Blondie is going to be able to cross formats and genres and get played on a variety of radio stations, which is a rare thing today."

About the original breakup, Stein muses, "I always make the comparison to James Dean. If he had done 20 movies, he might have ended up as some old guy being interviewed by Johnny Carson. He certainly wouldn't have been as romantic a figure. . . . I mean, it's not even like we quit while we were ahead. We quit before we were ahead, I think."

Except for Stein's gray hair, the musicians in Blondie look much the same as they did in their heyday. The men, all in their mid-40s, still dress predominantly in black, while Harry, at 53, still retains much of her glamorous aura.

Moreover, the band members all seem comfortable in one another's company. Bassist Destri and relatively shy, soft-spoken drummer Clem Burke tease each other affectionately, while former lovers Harry and Stein fuss over Harry's omnipresent canine companion, a Japanese Chin named Chichi.

The vibe may be warmly familial now, but the path to reconciliation was a delicate and emotionally charged process. When Stein, encouraged by fans who kept asking him when the band was going to get back together, approached Harry nearly three years ago with the idea of releasing a greatest-hits package with two new songs, the singer was reluctant.

Since the band's split in 1982, Harry has acted in films, including John Waters' "Hairspray," and released solo albums. She also has received critical acclaim for her work with the Jazz Passengers group.

"I don't wanna appear preposterous on stage . . . ," Harry says, explaining her initial skepticism toward a reunion. "Being in a rock band . . . at my age: Wow, how are people gonna look at me?"

After Harry grudgingly agreed to participate--"I'm still not totally convinced," she quips--Stein contacted Destri, who had been doing record production work, and Burke, who had become a busy drummer for hire, working with Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, et al.

(Bassist Nigel Harrison and guitarist Frank Infante, who were not founding members but played in Blondie for most of its career, were not asked to participate in the reunion. The duo are currently involved in litigation with the band over use of the group's name and financial arrangements. Blondie, stating otherwise, has filed a motion for dismissal of the suit. Meantime, bassist Leigh Foxx and guitarist Paul Carbonara are acting as supporting musicians.)

Says Harrison, now an artists-and-repertoire executive at Interscope Records, "It's unfortunate and sad that they chose not to include Frank and myself in the reunion."

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