1. Doom Or Destiny
2. Long Time
3. Already Naked
5. My Monster
6. Best Day Ever
8. When I Gave Up On You
9. Love Level
10. Too Much
You catch yourself when you ask Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, one of the most captivating creative pairings in music ever, about the creeping gentrification of New York City. You catch yourself because Blondie was formed during a 1970s era of urban decay – a time when the travails of being in a band, seeking an artistic outlet, or instigating a scene as a means of existence was a survival of the fittest among streets of heightened crime and social unrest. Certainly, those 1970s New York streets have been glamourised in the onslaught of retrospective looks at the punk, new wave, disco and hip-hop scenes that found their fundamental roots in that era. But it certainly wasn’t an easier time to live there. The challenges and intensity of the city were just different.
Blondie emerged the fittest. They’ve outlived the groundbreaking moment that birthed them and have adapted to time, space and industry evolution as much as the face of New York itself. Yet similarly to New York, they’ve always remained indisputably Blondie. Never satisfied to rest on their laurels, their incessant need to fly the flag for cross-genre rock never relinquishes because Blondie’s punk never died. It’s a sound that has always echoed the underground above in the mainstream. Debbie Harry is still possessed of an aura and attitude that’s too big for subterranean clubs and her cohort Chris Stein’s vision has been so ahead of its time that the rest of the world is still catching up to it. Walk into any dance club tonight and hear a ‘Call Me’ or a ‘Heart Of Glass’. Talk to any hip-hop historian and recall that Debbie was an original Beastie Boy who took rap music to the masses when it was still a block party concern. Read any tome on the history of punk and they’re interwoven into the fabric of the one genre that still inspires most and every band to pick a name and find a practice space. Their active presence in our lives 40 million albums sales and countless accolades later (including a Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction in 2006 and NME Godlike Genius Award in 2014) isn’t something anyone wants to take advantage of.
That’s what their 11th album Pollinator – two years in the making – sets out to establish. In true pop art fashion it’s as post-modern as a concept gets and the perfect way to move on from 2014’s 40th anniversary celebrations and the subsequent release of Ghosts Of Download. In Pollinator exists a giant feedback loop – one in which Blondie created, then generations were inspired, then those generation created and inspired, and are now teaming up with Blondie. When the time came for Chris, Debbie and drummer Clem Burke to “get the band back together” and make an album, choice pioneers from the decades since Blondie’s birth were called upon to contribute songs for the record, thereby weaving their own way into the living, breathing story of the band, a group that directly affected their own genetic makeup. The list is enviable and reflects the dynamism of Blondie’s very own crosspollinating past: Johnny Marr, Sia, Dev Hynes, Charli XCX, Dave Sitek (TV On The Radio), Nick Valensi (The Strokes) and The Gregory Brothers all lent their creations for Blondie to interpret, each building upon the aspect of their heroes that’s bolstered their own sound.
“Hello, this is us!” says Debbie over the phone from New York. Even Debbie’s speaking voice is caught in another dimension, at once sounding warm and eerily as though it belongs in a black and white movie, but somehow also remaining unfamiliarly hazy like a star from another galaxy. The creation of new music was a deal-breaker for her when Chris called in the ’90s to instigate a reforming. “It’s fundamental to our way of thinking to have a sense of moving into the future and evolving. Neither of us want to be in an oldies band you know? We want to persevere and move ahead, write about things that are interesting to us in today’s world. It’s a constant undertaking. I’m always scribbling little ideas.”
It was producer John Congleton that brought the tough New York late ’70s Parallel Lines attitude out of them again. A long-time fan of the band, of course (“Blondie was a radio band when I was growing up, a band a lot of people respected, they’re so ubiquitous”), he thought nothing of the original reach-out. “Their manager sent me an eight-word email one day: Would you be interested in working with Blondie? And I wrote back, Sure! It didn’t warrant a long response.” Eventually the Grammy-winning producer behind the likes of Franz Ferdinand, St Vincent and Unknown Mortal Orchestra found himself having breakfast with Chris and Debbie in the summer of 2015. “We hung out for an hour, talked about music, about where they were as people and what they thought a Blondie record should sound like these days. We were simpatico on that.” “We really hit it off,” confirms Chris Stein, “He’s a very smart and talented producer.”
Together with Debbie, Chris and Clem, they were joined by the band’s newer members Leigh Foxx, guitarist Tommy Kessler and keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen and took to the legendary Magic Shop in SoHo around Christmas 2015 and then again for two weeks in spring 2016. “I had more of a deliberate agenda than they did,” says John. “Their agenda was the best agenda: they still love each other, they like playing music, so let’s have fun. At the end of the day Blondie doesn’t have anything to prove. My agenda was more dogmatic. I didn’t wanna make a pastiche lifestyle record or a modern pop record that sounded like Blondie being influenced by what’s happening now. I wanted Debbie to sing and sound like a woman who’s older. I wanted to know what it’s like to be Blondie at this age.”
Sadly, Blondie were the last band to record at the Magic Shop, going in straight after David Bowie completed his final album Black Star (there was no crossover between the peers). A higher rent rate was sought for the street and pricing soared beyond the pockets of the studio’s owners. It’s a tragically common tale now. That said, they made sure the studio didn’t go quietly into the night. The sense of hearing a vitalic live band whacks you over the head immediately, as Blondie rock with more vigour than some of New York’s keenest upstarts. Congleton wanted to do away with the overdubs and heavy sequencing of the band’s more recent output. “I just wanted them to be a band in a room. If the record sounds like the wheels are off that’s by design,” says Stein, “That was nice, but it was a drag that the studio had to close.” Blondie recorded the album quickly “to keep that band vibe,” as Stein put it.
First track ‘Doom Or Destiny’ begins with clattering proof that 2017 Blondie can still tap into that classic fervent vibe that created the likes of ‘Hanging On The Telephone’ and features guest vocals from Joan Jett. R&B scenester Dev Hynes penned ‘Long Time’ which immediately reminds of the disco ‘Heart Of Glass’, a song about “racing down the Bowery” and wondering if life turned out the way you wanted it to. “He’s such an elegant, terrific guy,” says Debbie, who recalls first meeting him on the road a few years back. They sought Sia out for her track ‘Best Day Ever’. “I’m such a huge admirer, she’s so prolific,” says Debbie. The song is a collaboration with Nick Valensi and seem to expose them both as ‘Denise’ fans, as it ponders the push-pull of bittersweet memories. Then there’s ‘Fun’ – the Dave Sitek creation. It turns the tables back to Studio 54. Blondie have never let age get the better of them when it comes to starting a party. ‘Gravity’ is the Charli XCX number. It bonds Charli and Debbie via their mutual pop-punk cheekiness (“I’m drinking Cherry Cola… You’re nicer when you’re sober,” sings Debbie). “I’m amazed at how young and talented she is. It seems like she’s led two or three lives so far. At least!” Debbie describes working with so many young collaborators as “full circle”. “Their material is part of us. It’s a celebration of recycling, ha!”
All in all the album presents the viewpoint of an older stateswoman, who’ll break down barriers of ageism and sexism from her still cucumber cool stance. “Lyrics are always a case of observation or momentary insanity or whatever,” she says, like a prototype Lana Del Rey. “Just life. Going through it and hanging out with people, listening to music, going to movies. It all filters down into this mish-mash of thought and something rises to the top.” Chris is more direct, siphoning off specific periods of time to work on music outside his photography. His unique guitar-playing and arranging is what gives life to Debbie’s musings. Their dynamic is the same as it ever was: Chris, the drawl acerbic wit to Debbie’s straight-talking rebel. On the subject of future music videos Debbie remarks, “Do you think they’re really that necessary?” Upon mention of how Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ reinvented the format, Chris chimes in, “Well she has more money than us so…!”
Indeed, Blondie in conversation have never minced their words. In this current climate it’s a joy to have a band who stand for something back in action. “I’m always on Facebook fighting with people about what’s going on,” says Chris about the election of Donald Trump. “We’ve always been political, not overtly so,” adds Debbie. “People are pretty clear about who we are and what we stand for. I don’t think anybody should be hit over the head with my personal beliefs. We try to present them in a way that’s thought-provoking or emotional.” Chris laughs. “I try to be polite! I’ve only liked two Presidents ever anyway: Obama and JFK. The rest of them were a bunch of losers.”
Beyond the record’s release, Blondie are embarking upon a tour with Cyndi Lauper at the start of 2017. Chris and Debbie have also been in the studio with old compadre Nile Rodgers, another age-defying instigator. That separate track called ‘Magic’, again made with Dev Hynes, hasn’t found a home quite yet. The continuum continues… The process of Pollinator has been a staggering part of that, especially for Congleton, a 39-year-old punk producer. “I made a record with two of the people who invented punk rock. If punk rock hadn’t existed then I wouldn’t be sitting there making a record, and certainly not making a record with them. I have absolutely no idea where I’d be if it wasn’t for punk rock.” For Blondie, they have no idea where they’d be either. They don’t take themselves seriously.
“Fame and self-import is preposterous and fake. You have to be obsessed or even completely crazy to be an artist, ha! It’s just like a dream that becomes reality,” says Debbie. “You have to have an enormous ego, drive, stubbornness, something that propels you and demands. You get to a point where you end up having to choose between going to the left, or going to the right, or going straight ahead, and you make that choice. A lot of times you don’t have time to make that decision. You just make it and it’s an instinctive thing. I’m not always completely positive about who I am and what I’m doing but god forbid anybody says different I’ll kick their asses and fight forever.” Welcome back in the ring, Blondie.
POLLINATOR IS OUT 5 MAY 2017