- 19 Apr 19
39 years ago today, Blondie's hit single 'Call Me' reached the top of the US Singles Chart - where it remained for 6 weeks, before being knocked off its spot by Lipps Inc's 'Funkytown'. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting Blondie's interview with Ed Power, originally published in Hot Press in 2017.
Blondie’s new album, Pollinator, is their finest since the late ’70s. Back then, the world was riven with extremism, the American dream was on life support and the Middle East bubbled with fundamentalism. Thank goodness all that is behind us!
“Those were dark times,” nods drummer Clem Burke as Hot Press catches up with the band at a minimalist hotel in Tribeca. “We had most of our success when there was a recession going on. Things were not great. I don’t know if the music was reflecting what happened then or what is happening now. There are parallels for sure.”
While Pollinator is catchy in that ethereal Blondie way, it is also laced with poignancy. As Burke acknowledges, some of the societal and political tensions sweeping America inevitably seeped in. However the bittersweet sensibility has another, more straightforward explanation.
“The album was recorded at the Magic Shop in New York,” says Burke. “It’s where David Bowie did his last two records before he passed. You could definitely feel his aura. When we got to the studio for the first time, we found a champagne bottle celebrating David’s birthday – it actually said ‘David Bowie’s birthday champagne’. A lot of the engineers working on our album had worked on Blackstar.”
The Blondie core trio of Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Burke go back quite a way with Bowie. Intrigued by their Warhol-esque mix of art and pop, he handpicked the New Yorkers to open for his and Iggy Pop’s tour of North America in 1977. Ever since, they had remained eminently cordial.
“We took a Christmas break from Pollinator and by the time we came back David had died,” remembers Burke. “Some of the people at the studio had signed non-disclosure agreements. But after the fact it was a moot point and we were able to converse about David. They told us there was a doctor in the studio sometimes – and that David would often come in straight from his treatment.”
He’d always found Bowie gracious and complimentary – and the chameleonic musician’s death was naturally a shock. “The Ziggy Stardust album meant the world to me. You have to remember it wasn’t as big in America as elsewhere. For me, coming up in the New York punk scene, it was something to grab hold of. Our new album is very Bowie-esque in places. It has that vibe – it is bittersweet. We’re all getting older and maybe it got in there somewhere.”
Blondie were what happened when ’70s punk-pop and the New York avant-garde crashed headlong into one another. Their songs were always wickedly slinky – yet, with their roots in the downtown Manhattan scene, the music came with an edge that elevated it above aural bubblegum (not, as they would be the first to point out, there is anything wrong with aural bubblegum).
As any pop historian will tell you, their accomplishments were legion. Blondie helped usher disco into the mainstream with 1978’s ‘Heart of Glass’, then tapped into the emerging rap scene with ‘Rapture’ (1980). Had another white middle class group cribbed so shamelessly off hip-hop they would have been crucified. Because it was Blondie, the kids in Harlem and the Bronx took it as an honour.
“We’ve always had the pop and the avant-garde aspects,” agrees Burke. “In fact one of our most avant garde songs became our biggest hit. A song like ‘Sunday Girl’, for instance, was very obviously a pop thing. Debbie’s lyrics were always extremely clever and there was something under the surface. However, it was basically pop.
“With ‘Heart of Glass’, which broke us in America, we were trying to be experimental, like Kraftwerk with the synthesisers and what have you. We didn’t look on it as being a big commercial thing. Remember that the song is buried on the album. Usually you put your most commercial songs out front – you front-load the record. ‘Heart of Glass’ was way at the back. We had no idea.”
A luminescent beauty with a voice that gleamed like a knife, Harry was Blondie’s most potent weapon. She embraced her pin-up status while somehow avoiding becoming a tawdry sex symbol – an extraordinary balancing act given the sexism rife in the industry at the time (and probably not much improved today).
“The music scene was a boys’ club. We saw that early on,” Stein told the Daily Telegraph last month. “Mick Jagger could come out at Madison Square Garden riding on a giant c***. If Debbie came out on a giant pussy, everybody would have been running for the exits. I don’t know if we recognised the feminist aspects of Blondie at the time. But Debbie had her own style and it made men nervous. The same people cheering Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop could be very critical of Debbie’s overt sexuality.”
Forty one years have elapsed since Blondie’s first hit, the Phil Spector-ish ‘In The Flesh’. Burke is 61, Harry and Stein a decade his senior. Yet Pollinatortestifies to the group’s remarkable vibrancy – and to their willingness to think outside the box. With generations of artists hailing the band as an influence they asked some of these younger acolytes to furnish them with material. The result was a deluge of Blondie-ready tunes.
“I remember reading an interview in which Johnny Marr said he’d met his future wife while listening to Parallel Lines at a party,” says Burke. “I loved The Smiths – actually last year we played Madison Square Garden with Morrissey. So we asked Johnny. We also got Nick Valensi from The Strokes and Sia to co-write for us. It sounds like a Strokes song which I just loved. We’ve always done covers – ‘The Tide Is High’ and so on. It’s part of who were are.”
Blondie have been coming to Ireland since the ’80s. They’re back this June to play the Aviva Stadium alongside Phil Collins. As a drummer Burke is naturally a lifelong fan of the former Genesis sticksman and fondly recalls their paths crossing down the years.
“Our last concert before we broke up for the first time was at RFK Stadium in Washington. The bill was Flock of Seagulls, Elvis Costello, Blondie – and Genesis. So we’ve come full circle. Hopefully we’ll stay together a bit longer after this show.”