Penthouse Retrospective

by Debra Rae Cohen Originally Published: February, 1980

Blondie | (Almost) 40 Years Ago This Month

Debbie Harry survived punk, junk, and funk to make Blondie the hottest rock-‘n’-roll band in the world.

Penthouse Magazine - February, 1980Punk’s Dream

There is a tense hush as Deborah Harry — Blondie’s star vocalist-arrives at the photo session. All in black, she glides in, pushing back gleaming, jaw-length hair with well-groomed hands. Her face is heart-stopping; her eyes, like her manner, are set on Repel.

“Over here, Blondie,” calls the chic photographer, Anthony Barboza. He sits her on a stool, tries an encouraging smile. “How do you feel?” “Like I always do,” Debbie says. She reminds Barboza that Blondie is a group. Her name is Debbie.

Various technical problems occur and reoccur, dealt with by a chorus of assistants and groupies. But then, at the photographic instant, Debbie’s eyes flash alive. “Come on, Blondie!” The photographer leaps forward, flushed. The shutter is triggering each glimpse of passion. He stops; she withdraws, stands away, eyes shuttered again. Barboza says, “Go,” and she once more turns on the current, plugs in her face. The rest of us stand back, watching j the sparks fly.

After an hour Barboza drops his hands to his sides. He bends forward, kisses Debbie’s forehead, walks her to the elevator. There actually are tears in his eyes. Later he muses: “I’ve had a lot of people here — musicians, literary people. The only one who had presence like her was James Baldwin.”

The next day I tell Debbie. She nods: “I’ve always known how to turn it off and on. I can do it just like that.” She snaps her fingers. “I’m getting better at it all the time.”

It’s a talent for which she’s got increasing use; there are more and more voyeurs to fend off, more people examining her image for flaws, more well, media interest… Recently, for example, “The New York Times Magazine” considered her for a cover but rejected her as “too trendy,” relegating her story to the limbo of filler space between the Drive-a-Volvo and Fly-to-Aruba ads. Rolling Stone sent one of its fey young men to assess Blondie’s cultural worth, and Debbie and her boys gave the writer such a hard time that he scuttled back to his little cubicle above the F.A. 0. Schwarz toy store and there penned a vicious piece implying that the band is a replaceable bunch of amateurs and that Debbie will probably self-destruct — this despite the extravagant success of the band’s third album, Parallel Lines (a million and a half albums in the United States sold to date), and the fact that the band has signed to do two major motion pictures.

You suspect, after seeing Debbie in action a couple of times, that her surliness, though it is as polished as a lady’s handgun, is still some kind of last-ditch defense. She’s been fighting the pop-star wars for six years now, and she knows how good she is; elsewhere in the world, Blondie’s mix of sixties-style pop and punk power made the group stars dating from its first world tour in 1977-78. Its first hit, “In the Flesh,” went platinum in Australia in 1977. The kids love the group in England, France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Australia, Japan, even in Thailand, where it seems, when they’re not fighting heroin wars or the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, they’re clamoring for Debbie. But in America it wasn’t until January 1979, with the discofied single “Heart of Glass,” that Blondie was pushed to the forefront of mass consciousness. Rock/ Disco — the commercial outgrowth of punk rock.

The irony is so heavy it rattles. Blondie’s first two albums, Blondie (1976/77) and Plastic Letters (1977 /78), were everything the old Lower East Side punk club/art rock/Max’s/CBGB/Warhol’s children/New Wave crowd could have wished for. The records blast away, post­electric shocked, subliminally saying, “Business is art.” Unfortunately, they didn’t sell. For a while, this was okay. In the mid-seventies, to be hitless was to be hip. Poor was chic. The thing is that cockroaches get boring. Linoleum floors lose their thrill. Today Debbie admits: “Success is harder to handle and much more work than no success.” Chris Stein, Debbie’s boyfriend, lead guitar player for Blondie, and author of “Heart of Glass,” puts it very directly: ”The hard part about success is that all these people that you like turn against you. Here’s the band. They starve. You have no money. You sign bad deals, sign your life away. You spend all your time and unearned money getting out of the bad deals. Then all the people you respect turn around and say, ‘You sold out. You suck. Well, fuck you!’ “

Parallel Lines was suffused with modified disco rhythms, rife with organ breaks, heavy with surefire hooks, in the classic pop-music tradition. It was a conscious attempt to be commercial, and it worked. Therefore, one had to wonder, shouldn’t Debbie and the boys be happier? God knows the press can be a beast, managers can make life miserable, and business and financial worries can turn good musicians into paperhangers. But Blondie had a number-one hit right here at home, and that can make just about anything seem worthwhile; Debbie is the first real female sex-object star that rock ‘n’ roll has produced, making Janis Joplin, Bonnie Bramlett, and all previous contenders look about as hot as Rosalynn Carter. You’d expect maybe a little smile…

It’s hard to balance with a foot in each world. Debbie and Chris — like the other members of Blondie, bassist Nigel Harrison, guitarist Frank Infante, keyboard player Jimmy Destri, and drummer Clem Burke — really do qualify as Lower East Side anti-Art Artists. They disavow labels: they aren’t punks, they aren’t disco, they aren’t New Wave. But Debbie and Chris do pursue interests that might be considered “artistic.” They are planning a remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, with Robert Fripp starring; Debbie has completed work on an independently produced film, Union City, in which she plays the wife of a psychotic; and they both worry about the intolerance for new ideas that seems to be developing in America.

If you do not remember the 1980's music culture, you owe it to yourself to learn about Blondie. Feel free to enjoy a Blondie while doing so.