Monday, 2 July 2018

Happy birthday, Debbie Harry (an appreciation)

As this year marks the 40th anniversary of Blondie’s commercial breakthrough album Parallel Lines, I thought it’d be a good time to write an appreciation to celebrate Debbie Harry’s 73rd birthday.
Outside CBGB's, 1975
Debbie in Wind In The Willows
Deborah Ann Harry was born Angela Tremble on 1st July 1945 in Miami, Florida and adopted at three months old by Richard Smith and Catherine Harry, who ran a gift shop in Hawthorne, New Jersey.  As a child, she daydreamed that Marilyn Monroe was her real mother and began dying her hair at twelve, experimenting with violet before settling on blonde.  She was, she told a reporter, “making a statement.  I was extraordinary looking, but a lot of people thought I was in a different world than I was.  My inside world was a lot different from my outside world.”  She attended Hawthorne High School and graduated from Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey, with an Associate of Arts degree in 1965.  Moving to New York, she sang with the band Wind In The Willows and worked as a Playboy Bunny, before waitressing at Max’s Kansas City, a popular club that was part of the downtown art and music scene.

In 1974, she joined The Stilettos, with Elda Gentile and Amanda Jones, her future collaborator Chris Stein joined shortly afterwards.  Around this time, she claims she was lured into a car being driven by serial killer Ted Bundy but managed to get away before he could drive off.  Debbie and Stein left The Stilettos, briefly formed Angel and the Snake and then, romantically involved, started the band that would eventually become known as Blondie.
The original Blondie line-up in 1976 (from left) - Gary Valentine, Clem Burke, Debbie, Chris Stein
Blondie, named for what men often called Debbie, began playing clubs in downtown New York, becoming regulars at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City.  Their debut album, Blondie, was released by Private Stock Records in December 1976, becoming a minor hit in Australia.  Their second album, Plastic Letters, was released in February 1978 and promoted heavily in Europe, peaking at number 10 the UK, with the lead single Denis, reaching number 2 on the UK charts.  A successful UK tour in 1978 saw them gain popularity which led into their third album, Parallel Lines, released in September by Chrysalis Records.  Produced by Mike Chapman, it was a number 1 hit in the UK, number 2 in Australia and number 6 in the US and the fourth single, Heart Of Glass, broke them worldwide, becoming one of the biggest singles of 1979.  Their fourth album, Eat To The Beat, was released that October and was a UK number 1 but not as successful, though a video was made for each song, making it the first ever video album.  In 1980, they released the single Call Me, which was a number 1 hit in the UK, US and Canada.  Their fifth album, Autoamerican, was released in November 1980 and included Rapture, the first song featuring rapping to reach number 1 in the US (the band were friends with hip hop and graffiti artist Fab Five Freddy).

Debbie in the studio with Nile Rodgers
Blondie took a year-long hitatus in 1981, during which Debbie released her first solo album (Koo Koo, produced by Nile Rodgers), before regrouping and releasing their sixth album The Hunter in 1982.  It wasn’t as successful as the others and a planned world tour was cut short due to low ticket sales, two major factors - along with internal struggles - that caused the band to split.

In 1983, Chris Stein was diagnosed with pemphigus vulgaris, a rare autoimmune disease that affects the skin and mucous membranes and Debbie took several years off to care for him.  Their relationship broke up in the late 80s but they continued to work together.
Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, 1982
She released a second solo album, Rockbird (which is fantastic - I love the title track but the biggest hit, reaching number 8 in the UK charts, was French Kissing In The USA) in 1986 and her third, Def, Dumb & Blonde in 1989.  As a solo act, she toured extensively from 1989 to 1991 with Chris Stein and I managed to see her supporting INXS at Wembley Stadium in July (which I wrote about here).  Her fourth album, Debravation, was released in 1993 - it marked the end of her relationship with Chrysalis Records - and Necessary Evil, the fifth, was released in 2007.
She joined The Jazz Passengers as lead vocalist for their 1997 album Individually Twisted and, in the same year, reunited with her Blondie colleagues for a European tour.  Their first album in 15 years, No Exit, was released in 1999 and the single Maria was a number 1 hit in 14 different countries, including the UK.  The band, as well as releasing a further three albums, have continued to tour and in 2014 played Glastonbury.  They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
Punk survivors - Debbie and Iggy Pop, photographed as part of the 2015 Paco Rabanne campaign
Alongside her work with Blondie, Debbie also appeared in films such as Union City (1980) and the excellent Videodrome (1983 - which I wrote about here), as well as Forever Lulu (1987), Hairspray (1988), Heavy (1995) and Copland (1997).
With James Woods in the excellent Videodrome (1983)
VH1 voted her 12th in their 100 Greatest Women of Rock & Roll poll in 1999 and named her 18th in the 100 Sexiest Artists Of All Time in 2002.  A strong advocate for gay rights and same-sex marriage, she is also a fundraiser for charities concerned with fighting cancer and endometriosis.
On the loft roof, 1977
“I was hugely influenced by Debbie Harry when I started out as a singer and songwriter. I thought she was the coolest chick in the universe.”
 - Madonna

Shirley Manson, of Garbage, told Pop Matters, "I have the most immense respect for and love for [her] - for so many different reasons, but most of all because she’s an incredible person and an amazing woman. She’s incredibly generous to all other young artist who have followed in her wake, and there have been so many of us. She has never treated anyone with jealousy or with any kind of superiority. She’s just a gorgeous creature, who deserves to be remembered.”
The Queens of punk and new wave, Hyde Park Hotel 1980 (photo by Chris Stein)
Debbie, Viv Albertine, Siouxsie Sioux, Chrissie Hynde, Poly Styrene, Pauline Black
"The idea was to be desirable, feminine, and vulnerable, but a resilient, tenacious wit...rather than a poor female, sapped of her strength by [some] hearthrob..."
- Debbie Harry, interviewed by Victor Bokris for Making Tracks

“Iconic? I guess so. But the word 'iconic' is used too frequently–an icon is a statue carved in wood. It was shocking at first, when I got that reference. It was a responsibility, and it's impossible to live up to - you're supposed to be dead, for one thing.”
 - Debbie Harry
Part of the Parallel Lines promotional materials, I had this poster on my bedroom wall for years as I was growing up
Debbie Harry was, in my impressionable youth, one of my earliest crushes and I fell in love with both her and her music.  I wasn't old enough - or lucky enough - to catch Blondie live in their heyday but I’ve now seen her three times in concert and each one was a real treat.  In the 70s, with her hair, high cheekbones and effortless cool (along with that wonderful air of studied indifference), she was a star and, as far as I’m concerned, she absolutely remains one.

Happy birthday Debbie!

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