Before Lady Gaga, before Pink, even before Madonna, there was Deborah Harry. And alongside Deborah Harry, there was Blondie.
Blondie famously formed in 1973, when art student and guitarist Chris Stein went to watch The Stillettoes, a group fronted by Debbie, Elda Gentile and Amanda Jones. Debbie and Chris formed some kind of immediate connection in the dark, smoky room, and their futures were sealed.
After several name changes and band members, Chris and Debbie, alongside drummer Clem Burke and bass player Gary Valentine, began playing New York clubs and art centres as Blondie. By 1975, they had added keyboard player Jimmy Destri, and began compiling the songs that would form their first album.
The band appeared at a time when the New York underground scene was waiting to explode. Bands like New York Dolls and an early version of Television had been quietly paving the way for several years. Playing at CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City put Blondie right at the heart of the New Wave movement that was happening around them. Once The Ramones signed a record deal, it wasn’t long before other CBGBs bands like the Patti Smith Group, Talking Heads, and eventually Blondie, were swept along on the tide.
Early shows were noisy and chaotic, with not much indication of the glossy pop group they would become. Debbie threw herself around the stage, using the props and theatrics she had learned with the Stilletoes. At one show, she wore a wedding dress, which she ripped off to reveal the underwear beneath.
Although Debbie’s strange beauty was the focal point of almost all press about the group, she never saw herself as a sex symbol. She was goofy in interviews, described herself as ‘kind of a schmuck’, and danced like a toddler on blue Smarties. It only made her all the more endearing.
Debbie was 33 years old by the time the band found their first real success in 1978, but she showed a real naiivety in interviews, talking openly about her heroin use and about going to celebrity parties just for free stuff, prompting NME journalists to describe her as ‘the blow-up doll’ and accuse her of promoting a ‘rape me’ culture.
Blondie never saw it that way. Debbie was just being a girl, in a band, and a world, full of boys. They were equals in the group. Her looks were a bonus, and the camera loved her, which no doubt helped them get their name out there, a name which a lot of people thought represented Debbie, not the band.
Once fame came, they had cleaned up their acts, both in terms of substance abuse and in their performances. Scruffy t-shirts were replaced with black suits and skinny ties. Debbie’s style became less Nancy Spungeon and more Marilyn Monroe, her two-tone mop chopped and sleek, bright baby blonde that glowed like a halo under the disco balls.
Gary Valentine was replaced by Nigel Harrison and Frank Infante, and Blondie the supergroup was complete. Debbie’s voice improved with each record, Chris’ guitar dominated the music, and all of it was underpinned by Clem Burke, arguably one of the most accomplished drummers of his generation.
Chris Stein seemed to know everyone in New York. He was a great supporter of local artists, photographers and filmmakers. A huge part of Blondie’s success hinged on the fact that they constantly moved with the times, embracing punk, disco and rap as each new music style entered the public consciousness. Chris photographed all of it, his pictures of Debbie filling music magazines through the late 70s.
Blondie were trailblazers, understanding the power of the new music video popularity, even releasing a whole album of videos to accompany their 1979 Eat To The Beat record. They took the first rap/pop crossover record into the charts with 1981’s Rapture. They made the underground accessible to the masses through catchy tunes and good looks.
Blondie had another secret weapon in Jimmy Destri. His model good looks were enough to rival Debbie’s. As a musician, his keyboards came to epitomise the unique Blondie sound, racing through the peppy Hanging On The Telephone, or dragging alongside Debbie’s sleepy vocals in the ethereal Fade Away And Radiate.
Although Debbie and Chris were the main songwriters, Jimmy wrote or contributed to many of their more interesting tracks. Accidents Never Happen, Angels On The Balcony and Do The Dark are pure Destri. His lyrics were darker and more enigmatic than the rest, keeping fans guessing about their meaning even to this day. He gave the band an edge that went beyond the pure pop of Chris and Debbie’s commercial hits.
Through it all, Debbie continued to lead the way for almost every female singer that would come after her. She was called a slut, a whore, a barbie doll. She was criticised for her closeness to and open support of the gay community. When Chris, then her long-time boyfriend, became seriously ill, it was Debbie’s unbleached hair and weight gain that made headlines.
And it was during that illness, in the early 80s, that Blondie decided to call it quits. Debbie put her career on hold to care for Chris, and Madonna was waiting in the wings to take her place.
There are few successful female singers of the 80s, 90s and 00s who don’t cite Debbie as an influence. Through art, working with Andy Warhol and HR Giger, the iconic images they created of her are being copied to this day. Even in this year’s movie Suicide Squad, the character of Harley Quinn was styled after Debbie’s Punk Playmate of the Month cover, photographed by Chris.
Blondie reformed in 1997, with most of the original members. A successful tour followed, and an album, No Exit, with two Jimmy Destri-written hits taking them back up the charts before his eventual retirement from the group.
Two more albums have followed, and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the band, although still touring extensively with a different lineup (only Debbie, Chris and Clem remain from the original members), have never been able to reach the heights of their early success.
Blondie in its original incarnation were together for ten years, but their star really only burned bright for five of those. A very short time to achieve so much and to influence so many.