In bed with Blondie!
John Meagher shares a mattress with the well-preserved queen of pop, Debbie Harry, who reveals all about CBGBs, ageing gracefully and her new solo album
It's late afternoon and Debbie Harry is testing the springs of her bed in a plush hotel. "Hmm, good solid mattress," she says, almost to herself. "Nice room." It's promo time and Harry is something of a whistle-stop tour of Europe to talk about her new album, Necessary Evil.
"I love travelling," she says. "I can't understand artists who moan about it. I'm playing my songs to people all over the world, so what is there to complain about?" Debbie Harry, one of rock's greatest ever frontwomen, is looking content.
Blondie are on hiatus at the moment. Hence the solo record. It is - and I'm trying to be kind here - a very ordinary collection of songs. I ask her if she feels she can ever again release material to match the brilliance of her late 1970s' work. "You've got to believe you can, right? Otherwise, what would be the point in continuing? I feel that I'm releasing my best work now and if other people don't see that, well then that's just too bad." There's a flintiness to her voice that reminds me of the last time I interviewed her. She was in no mood to suffer fools then - she seems more content now.
"Life is good at the moment," she says. "I'm getting to take new songs on the road. I'm not just recycling songs that were written 30 years ago. It's not that I'm not proud of those songs, it's just that I don't want to rely on them entirely."
She has a nostalgic streak and shows it when the subject of the legendary New York venue, CBGBs, comes up. It was a fertile ground for some of the best bands of the 1970s - Talking Heads, Television, the Ramones and Blondie among them - but shut its doors last year after a long-running planning dispute.
"I think something should have been done to keep CBGBs open, not to keep it as a museum but as a living, breathing venue that would nurture young bands. It was a very New York venue, but maybe it just didn't fit in with the sanitised New York of today." Shortly after its doors closed for the last time, the man behind the venue, Hilly Kristal, passed away too.
"I often wonder what would have happened to Blondie and the other New York-based bands if Hilly hadn't started that venue. He definitely had a big part to play in the music that came out of the city at the time. New York was an exciting place in the 1970s.
"When the Trade Centre went down it hit me hard and I wished it was 1975 again. That was an exciting time to be starting off. The attacks made me realise what an important time that was for me."
She may have been considered the epitome of that very New York scene, but Harry was born in Florida and raised by her adoptive parents in New Jersey. But Manhattan soon pulled her away and she worked briefly as a Playboy bunny and then a waitress at CBGBs.
Blondie sprang from the New York punk scene in the early 1970s. Harry met Chris Stein - a future lover of more than 20 years - when she was a member of the all-girl tribute band, Stiletto. She was soon lured away to form a new band along with bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy O'Connor. After using various names, they adopted the one that truck drivers shouted at Harry in the street and, as Blondie, the band recorded a demo featuring Platinum Blonde.
When Smith left to join Television in 1975, Stein's persistence prevented the group from folding. His enthusiasm was infectious, and with new bassist Gary Valentine and keyboardist Jimmy Destri on board they resumed rehearsing.
The result was a superb debut single, X-Offender, with spoken intro by Harry. With confidence running high, they turned in some dynamic live shows. Blondie (1977) expanded everything that had been condensed into X-Offender.
Harry, now in full ice-queen persona, joined the major league with the 1978 album, Parallel Lines, which spawned four singles: Hanging On The Telephone, Picture This, Sunday Girl and Heart Of Glass - the last of which was a No.1 all round the world, including the band's native America.
"For a lot of people, that's their favourite album - I guess the commercial production from Mike Chapman really helped. The demo version of Heart Of Glass was far different to the song that eventually appeared."
The follow-up, Eat To The Beat (1979), generated a groundbreaking video album with a promo to accompany each track. The cover of John Holt's The Tide Is High became Blondie's fifth UK No 1 in two years, and was a taster for Autoamerican, which also contained the early rap crossover single Rapture.
In 1981 Harry released her solo debut Koo Koo, produced by Chic mainstays Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. Despite the presence of Stein, the set failed to capture Blondie's sense of simple pop. For much of the decade she tried to break into acting, but with the exceptions of cameo roles, most notably in David Cronenberg's classic Videodrome, she just ended up playing herself.
In the 1980s, an era she now calls the "ice-cream years", she put on too much weight and seemed to have temporarily given up on pop stardom. The tabloids had a field day with her weight gain, her reclusiveness and the whole sex-symbol-gone-to-pot idea.
She's looking good today. The excess weight is gone and she's sporting a spiky hairdo that defines the sharp contours of her face. "I want to grow old gracefully," she says. "I don't feel my age (she's 62), but maybe that's because I'm on stage with guys much younger than me and because I'm in contact with young bands."
I tell her that many of today's most feted young musicians have cited Blondie as an influence and she lights up. "That's so good to hear. It means that the music we made has resonance for new generations. That's what every artist should strive for." She says she will convene with Chris Stein shortly to work on new Blondie material but the band has struggled to deliver greatness since reforming with 1999's patchy No Exit. She says she isn't bothered by the declining sales. "As long as people pay for the music I don't mind. One thing that really gets to me is this attitude that people can take music for free. Well, it's stealing. If you go into a store to get a pair of socks, you pay for them. It should always be the same with music."