The iconic Debbie Harry is 64 but can’t wait to play Belfast next week. She tells Andrew Johnston why being back with the band is like putting on a comfy pair of shoes
Three of the Ramones are dead, Talking Heads have long split up, and Television remain a cult phenomenon, but there is one name from the first wave of New York punk still actively touring and recording.
This summer Blondie will be promoting their upcoming new album, Panic of Girls, with a long-awaited return to Belfast’s Nugent Hall next week.
The band neglected to perform in Northern Ireland during their 1970s-80s heyday, but they made up for it with storming appearances at the King’s Hall in 1999 and the Waterfront in 2003. Frontwoman Deborah Harry — or Debbie, as her adoring fans will always know her — also gigged as a solo artist at Avoniel Leisure Centre in 1990.
When the reformed Blondie visited in 1999, the singer noticed a different atmosphere. “It was a lot clearer,” she says. “Not so much tension. I mean, everybody was always friendly, that was not the problem. It was just that we were able to wander around more freely.”
Like Ulster during the Troubles, New York City in the 1970s could be a hostile place. The punk movement that birthed Blondie was characterised by nihilism and decadence, yet Debbie — one of three original Blondie members still in the group, along with guitarist Chris Stein and drummer Clem Burke — remembers the era fondly. “It was a chaotic time, but a great time for young, exciting things to happen,” she says. “Punk was economically and politically motivated. There wasn’t a lot of people expecting to make money from it. We were kids in a candy store, just allowed to have fun.”
Musically, Blondie were unique, even amongst their eclectic peers. Disco, rap, reggae, and hip-hop all figured in their pioneering sound. The band’s earliest albums — 1976’s self-titled debut and Plastic Letters two years later — were as spunky as anything the Ramones put out, but on 1978’s Parallel Lines they broadened their style, selling 20 million copies in the process. Today, their total sales stand at 40 million records.
Blondie — completed in their prime by keyboardist Jimmy Destri, guitarist Frank Infante, and bassist Nigel Harrison — scored major worldwide hits with Denis, Heart of Glass, Sunday Girl, Dreaming, Call Me, Atomic, The Tide Is High, and Rapture. In the US, they scored four number ones, and five in the UK.
Blondie split in August 1982 in a haze of drug abuse, financial mismanagement, and illness (Stein was diagnosed with the life-threatening condition pemphigus, but later recovered).
“It seemed like when we broke up for that long period of time, and then Chris started bugging everyone about trying it again, if we didn’t do it then, it probably would never have happened,” explains Debbie. “I’ve done solo albums in between, but Blondie is like putting on a pair of comfortable shoes.”
After a handful of shows in 1997 and a European tour in 1998, in 1999 the band released their first new material since 1982’s The Hunter album. The Destri-penned Maria single helped re-establish Blondie as a viable entity. “It was number one all over,” says Debbie. “I don’t know if it was a credit to us, or to the song, or to EMI that was promoting us at the time, but it all fell together.”
Comeback albums No Exit and The Curse of Blondie sold strongly, yet a label and release date for Panic of Girls are still to be confirmed. Samples posted on the band’s website suggest a return to form, but when will the album be out?
“Your guess is as good as mine,” sighs Debbie. “I’m disappointed that somebody hasn’t picked up the project. It’s a great package and a terrific-sounding record. I salute anyone who has the balls or the f***ing success to get something launched in music now. I mean, you’ve always had to be obsessed or single-minded to get anywhere, but now it’s even fiercer.”
In the meantime, the band are playing some tracks from the new album in concert, and they’re going down well. “The audiences so far have really liked the material,” says Debbie. “I’m kind of high on that.”
Today, Harry, Stein and Burke keep Blondie on the road with help from long-time bassist Leigh Foxx and new recruits Tommy Kessler on guitar and Matt Katz-Bohen on keyboards.
“It would be nice to have a majority of the original members,” says Debbie. “But with the three of us it becomes identifiably the Blondie sound. A lot of that has to do with Clem — he’s playing really well these days — and a lot of that also has to do with Chris’s guitar playing, which has been overlooked, I think. He plays with finger picks and has a very unique style. It’s an undertone, a darker colour in the music.”
In terms of her own performance, Debbie insists she’s singing as well as ever. “So far, so good,” she smiles. “Fortunately — knock on wood — I’m still holding out.”
At the age of 64, Harry remains one of the most visible women in rock, but does she still face prejudices in a male-dominated industry?
“It’s a man’s world, simply put,” she says. “I think girls are doing a lot better — but it’s a man’s world.”
Blondie play the Nugent Hall, Belfast, Wednesday, June 23. Tickets from all Ticketmaster outlets