Music

New Wave goes mainstream

David Livingstone July 30 1979
Music

New Wave goes mainstream

David Livingstone July 30 1979

New Wave goes mainstream

Music

David Livingstone

Not since the aureate ’50s, when it came to stand for a state of female consciousness, has blondeness enjoyed the kind of significance ascribed to the hair of Deborah Harry, lead vocalist of Blondie. Last April, Heart of Glass, a cut from the group’s third album, Parallel Lines, became No. 1 on the pop music charts. Sales figures (more than 300,000 in Canada alone) caught up to Harry’s bombshell reputation as the album went platinum. The band knows that gaining wider acceptance than other New Wave groups—a disco hit, appearances on Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin—has had a lot to do with its image. And obviously Harry is much of that image. But Blondie’s success is not due solely to the sexiest white girl singer since Julie London. Its achievement stems from the talents of all six and goes far beyond clever updates of old stylings, either in music or hair.

Blondie first emerged in the summer

of 1975, along with other New York bands such as Television, Talking Heads and The Ramones. It won a youthful following at CBGB’s, a New York club that did for New Wave what the Palace did for vaudeville. A few months later, the Sex Pistols made their debut in England. Throughout 1976, the media announced the arrival of punk with stories about self-mutilation and noise—grabby details rather than informed comment, which left meaning, though not stomachs, unturned. Even the rock press was slow to appreciate that groups like Blondie were offering a fresh alternative to the laid-back, burnt-out mentality that governed rock music for the first half of this decade. Says Harry: “People were afraid of new rock ’n’ roll. I can’t imagine why. It was like there was this huge cultural bottleneck. All I can think is that some guy somewhere said that this stuff is not going to sell T-shirts, is not going to sell cars and is not going to sell floor wax, and we don’t want it. It’s bad. It’s anti-everything.”

During the first two years, Blondie recorded, toured with Iggy Pop and David Bowie and opened for Television on a tour of Britain, where audiences actually already liked the new styles and where the wisecracking music papers wanted to know why. Always articulate, Blondie’s members explained: unlike their nihilistic British counterparts, they chose not to be overtly political; no, Blondie was not Debbie Harry; though fond of early ’60s pop, they meant to be more than nostalgic. Lead guitarist Chris Stein still resists academic definitions: “We don’t sit around with our rock libraries and say, ‘Now we will analyse The Crystals from 1964 to 1965and-a-half and we will synthesize their music.’ It just happens.”

Blondie’s first album, released in late 1976, remains staggeringly impressive and displays the group’s trade-mark preoccupations with televised reality, invaders, violators and the logic of the flesh. The rhythms are great to dance to, the playing buoyantly adroit and Harry’s vocals cool and delectable. Ten

months after Blondie came out, only 18,000 copies had sold. In April, 1977, drummer Clem Burke told Rolling Stone: “People say our look and sound is ’60s, but I can pin it down to 1979.”

Time has proved the insight of a remark that once sounded flip—1979 is their year. Earlier this summer the band completed work on its fourth album, due out in the fall. It’s entitled Eat to the Beat and, like the last, was produced by Mike Chapman whose Top 10 productions during the past year have included songs by Suzi Quatro, Blondie and Nick Gilder (Hot Child in the City). Norman Seeff, known as rock’s hottest photographer, has taken thousands of possible pictures for the cover. Lorna Luft, Judy Garland’s “other daughter,” sings backup. Bass player Nigel Harrison, rhythm guitarist Frank Infante, keyboard player Jimmy Destri and Burke share songwriting tasks with Stein and Harry. Says Burke: “We just scream and yell a lot at each other about how things get done. It’s a healthy situation.”

And the band is in the midst of its biggest tour to date. The hectic schedule takes in both North America and Europe—including concerts in Montreal and Toronto—and is not over until late August. Even as they travel across the country in a bus, watching Beatle movies or trying for shut-eye in a situation that Infante likens to being “inside a stereo system where every speaker is cracked and turned on past its limit,” the business of making successful art must be taken care of. The discomforts of riding a bus, in fact, are probably less than those of riding a popular crest. Currently without a manager—they are involved in litigation with their last one—members of Blondie take business calls daily. And because a maverick spirit was part of New Wave’s original attraction, observers watch them keenly for signs of sellout or compromise. But the band’s self-determining instincts, which led it to sever ties with its first record label, Private Stock, late in 1977, survive intact. The band left because it felt a lack of promotional support—what little it got took sleazy advantage of Harry’s most blatant charms. “Now we are gaining total control over everything,” says Stein, Harry’s partner in music and romance since 1973, when both were members of another New York band, The Stilettos. “I don’t mind good sex appeal for Debbie as long as it’s tasteful.”

New Wave music is cheeringly free of

doctrinaire attitudes. Its feminist strength lies neither in sermons nor complaints but rather in an array of accomplished female performers: Tina Weymouth, who plays bass for Talking Heads and is not regarded as a novelty act; Patti Smith, a cross of Mustang Sally and Rimbaud, all nerve and soul; Britain’s Poly Styrene, proud of her braces and plastic popper beads; Canada’s Michaele Jordana of The Poles, thin and taut, a filament of animal glamor; and Debbie Harry. In contrast to her ethereal voice, Harry’s persona is worldlier than the others. She has posed provocatively in front of Chris Stein’s camera and wound up a tattered vamp in the Brighten Up Your Bedroom Se-

ries of centrefolds in the British rock weekly, Record Mirror. On the cover of White Trash, a book of photographs by Christopher Makos that documents early punk in America, she is shown from groin to lower thigh, encased in over-the-knee leather, razor blades pinned to the hem of her garment. And in a photograph in the June issue of Interview, published by Andy Warhol, she leans on a piano, sedately strapless.

Unfailingly photogenic in front of a still camera, Harry recently completed a motion picture called Union City, scheduled for fall release. Based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich (original author of Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black), it was directed by Mark Reichert, a painter whose other works-in-progress include a film biography of French surrealist playwright and theoretician Antonin Artaud, starring Mick Jagger. Reichert had originally approached Meryl Streep to play opposite young Shakespearean actor Dennis Lipscomb. But Streep, made more valuable by highly regarded performances in The Deer Hunter and Manhattan, turned out to be unaffordable and the role of the psychotic killer’s wife went to Harry.

In person, on the afternoon of Blondie’s recent Toronto appearance, she seemed at first sight a sleepy, grumpy teen-ager who Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert might have gone for. Once engaged in conversation, her reserve—on the edgy side of shy—melts. Her voice is low and bears traces of her New Jersey childhood. The longer one spends with her, the easier it is to imagine that 11 years ago she sang folk rock in a group called Wind in the Willows, the harder it is to think of her mouth as anything but perfect and the more irrelevant it seems to find out how close she is to her reported age of 34.

Backstage after the show, Harry is calm, in control. Her hair is wrapped in a towel and her face, expertly made up, is exquisite—an artist’s dream and a huckster’s gold mine. She says she doesn’t feel like answering questions, but does anyway. She confirms some facts about her motley pre-Blondie career: bunny girl, waitress and, as she good-humoredly suggests, esthetician, not beautician. After reading a life of Helena Rubinstein, she spent nine months practising the artful science of beauty through skin care. Now her own mythology is taking shape. Her friendly reticence makes her seem mindful of the extra challenge she faces. The public gives quick attention to one so blonde—Harry is out to prove that blonde is more than skin-deep,