Everybody knows the story of my meeting with Patti Smith but she’s not the only one of the artists of the New York underground scene of the late 1970s who I’ve met. Yes, of the CBGB centred scene-makers, I’ve also talked to John Cale and Richard Hell, exchanged grunts with Tom Verlaine and hung with Lenny Kaye. OK I confess to having engineered these encounters, mainly by blagging my way backstage, but my coming face-to-face with the Queen of NYC cool, Debbie Harry, that was totally unexpected.
Back in the early1990s like many other over-educated and underemployed graduates brought up on the NME, I gravitated - i.e. sank - to finding a job in Record and Tape, aka Music and Video. This chain of grimy second-hand shops started in Notting Hill Gate and ended up having many branches across London, later diversifying to selling ‘vintage’ clothes and other stuff. Which name the chain’s staff and customers refer to it as is a clear indication of their age, though both names are dated now. The shops were squalid places and not unlike the shop described by Nick Hornby in High Fidelity, staffed by people who were generally misanthropic and who knew that they should be doing something better with their lives. I was no different and was slightly resentful when I read High Fidelity as I thought I could have written it and Hornby had already written Fever Pitch and it seemed greedy to me that the author should own both the then predominantly male preserves of music and football. In fact, I deliberately avoided reading that book when it was first published and only did so when a friend left a copy in our flat for Stas suggesting that the main character was more than a little like me - i.e. not nearly as likeable as John Cusack who played the part in the film version. Record and Tape was not a good place to be for long - great to visit occasionally in order to mine the racks and find an album you had been seeking out for years, but believe me, it was a place that could actually put you off music. Yes, that grim.
Still every now and again something interesting would happen there and so it was one gloomy Sunday afternoon. The shop was empty, always was on a Sunday as everywhere else was closed unlike Saturday when Portobello market was in full swing. I was busy watching a ‘desperate’ attempt to mark down the price of a record, him thinking that I wouldn’t realise he’d done so because he was too dumb to have worked out the coding system for reductions, when my co-worker gave me a nudge and pointed to a woman in a trench coat flicking through the rare jazz lps.
“That’s Debbie Harry,” she whispered.
I looked over to the woman and shook my head. “Nah,” I laughed. “She’s not blonde.”
A few minutes later the woman came over with a small pile of sleeves, a Charlie Parker album top of the pile. I took them and started to retrieve the discs, each one a fine recording and not cheap - £30 pounds was a lot to pay for a record in those days. I was handing the records over muttering something about good taste when I looked at her properly and realised hers was indeed a face I knew well, This was confirmed when she handed over her platinum American Express card. Deborah Harry was now a brunette. I was still processing this realisation when my colleague took over handing the records over and wished the star a good day.
‘Thank you,’ she said in a softly in that familiar American accent and it was then I took in her bemused half-smile, utterly familiar to me from all the videos. Yes, in most Blondie performances I’ve noticed there is a moment in the song where Debbie seems to pause, step back and take in the absurdity of it all. It’s then that you notice that unmistakable half-smile like she has just stepped outside herself.
As we watched Debbie Harry pass through the door onto the high street, she looked ineffably cool in her belted trench coat, the bag of jazz albums tucked under her arm but perhaps not like a pop star so much as your teenage friend’s glamorous aunt who had run off to the city and never got married. The kind of woman who was younger than your parents and your friend’s parents and who they talked about in hushed voices so you could never quite make out what they were saying.
So why bring this up now, other than the obvious ploy of lending myself a certain kind of glamour? Well it’s because the other week I saw Debbie Harry on the One Show, (I was sitting in front of the TV keeping company with my 94-year-old father), and she was on the TV sofa and she had that same smile, exhibiting the same faraway charm. What else could she do, sitting across from Giles Brandreth and what’s almost worse, being asked to look at a photograph of him in a teddy bear jumper? Sharing the air with Brandreth, the price of being a popstar - it’s not rock ’n ’roll and a million miles away from the Bowery and dog shit floors of CBGBs.
At the end of the show the reconstituted Blondie played their new single, Long Time, and it was unmistakably the same band that had perked up the charts in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Long Time has a hook that was insistent enough for me to pick up a copy of the album, Pollinator, on the day of release. It’s a good album with a great title which slicks a modern sheen on a classic sound that still mixes rock and pop in a way that back in their heyday made Blondie the band that it was cool for everybody, except maybe some of their more arty CBGB peers, to like.
There was a sugar rush to singles like Denis and Picture This as they came blasting out of the transistor radio in 1977. I was fourteen and I can remember at the start of a RE lesson crowding round a fellow pupil’s desk and looking at the full-page ad for Blondie’s second album Plastic Letters in the music paper he had just bought. That was the first time I ever saw a picture of Debbie Harry and was able to put a face to the singer. Thinking about it now, this crowding round the inky music weekly may in fact have been a near communal religious experience because before too long most of the boys in that class had her pinned-up on their bedroom walls while wishing for something more solid.
While undoubtedly Blondie were the ultimate singles band of their era, their albums contain plenty of songs that are worth a listen and they could also cut it live as evidenced by the numerous performances that can now be watched on Youtube. One of the benefits of Debbie’s photogenic looks was that the band got filmed more than most of their contemporaries and so the Blondie archive is better served than most in that way. An early 1975 performance of them playing at CBGBs and their contemporaneous demos, which include a prototype of Heart of Glass called Once I had a Love (aka The Disco Song), demonstrate that they had the pop smarts from the get-go and were keen to mix in their non-rock influences. Other shows, such as one recorded for German TV in 1977, burn with an unexpected, dare I say it punk, ferocity.
Looking through the band’s back pages has been enough to stir me to look to see if Blondie are playing this summer and I have found they are playing the Eden sessions in June. But Cornwall in the summer is way too crowded and anyhow I’ve realised I will be working abroad then. Probably just as well, I have my own Debbie Harry moment and a handful of cracking singles to boot, so why risk disappointment? Instead I’ve ordered a copy of Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil’s scabrous but highly rated account of the scuzzy beginnings of the New York punk scene.
That said, I did enjoy reading accounts of Blondie’s recent Roundhouse gig. As the photos confirm, Debbie strolled on to the stage dressed in a bee fascinator and a shapeless black tunic with the words STOP F***ING THE PLANET emblazoned on it Katharine Hamnett style.
“We’re here to help the bees,” she told the crowd. “Well, I don’t know if they want our help, but they’re going to get it.”
Got to love Debbie Harry. I still do - she’s the bees knees. And Blondie – they’re a band.