When it comes to American bands of the '70s still out there on tour, Blondie has aged the best, which is to say their music hasn't aged much at all. Fronted by one of rock's most iconic women, Debbie Harry, the New Yorkers mingled garage rock and Phil Spector pop to become the embodiment of early New Wave and CBGB cool. Then Blondie set its musical sights on the more adventurous shores of disco, reggae and rap, and scored a No. 1 record each time.
Blondie started in the middle of 1974, when Brooklyn guitarist Chris Stein met Harry, who had been singing in a trio called the Stilettos. The duo, then a couple, played with a porous lineup that stabilized a few months later when drummer Clem Burke joined. Although Blondie became closely identified with legendary Bowery dive bar CBGB — a movie starring Alan Rickman as owner Hilly Kristal is scheduled for release next year — some of their earliest gigs were at Max's Kansas City, the rock club where Iggy and the Stooges, Suicide and the New York Dolls were regulars.
Featuring the sneering "Rip Her to Shreds," Blondie's self-titled debut album was released in late 1976 and became a minor hit in England and Australia; the next year's Plastic Letters broke the band overseas for good. Blondie's American success really began with 1978's Parallel Lines, which sent disco track "Heart of Glass" — an attempt to sound like Kraftwerk, says Stein — to No. 1 in spring 1979.
With Devo, 8 p.m. Wednesday, September 19, at Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Fwy., 713-772-5900 or www.arenahouston.com.
It lasted through the albums Eat to the Beat ("Dreaming") and Autoamerican ("The Tide Is High," "Rapture," both No. 1s), but the band broke up after 1982 disappointment The Hunter. Blondie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Garbage's Shirley Manson in 2006, at which point they were almost a decade into their second act, which began with 1999's No Exit.
One morning last month, Chatter spoke with Stein, a longtime photographer whose exhibition of punk and New Wave photos opened at New York's Morrison Hotel Gallery in July, by phone from Brooklyn. In retrospect, we may have tried to jog his memory a little too hard.
The "gig list" on Blondie's Web site lists an unusual entry on December 29, 1978, in Wharton, Dan Rather's tiny hometown 55 miles southwest of Houston. But despite its advertisement in Circus magazine that month, Blondie's New Year's trip to Wharton County is probably a red herring.
"That's funny," says Stein. "It doesn't ring a bell offhand."
Chatter: When you found the other guys that solidified into Blondie, were your tastes all pretty similar?
Chris Stein: Everybody at that time was drawn to garage music and rougher-sounding stuff. There was a lot of interest in bands that had kind of been overlooked from the '60s — the Seeds, Silver Apples and stuff. Our tastes were similar. It was kind of a backlash. Everything in the early '70s was kind of MOR [old FM-radio lingo for "middle of the road"].
C: Was the band ever especially close with any of the other CBGB bands?
CS: Yes. We were very close to the Ramones and the guys from Television. Everybody was pretty close and friendly. We just hung out together. In the first maybe three years, two years, there wasn't much of anybody else around except the people in the bands and their immediate families, as it were.
C: When did you notice that Blondie was really starting to draw an audience?
CS [hems and haws a bit]: Probably when we first went to England with Television was when we first started getting a different scale than just a local cult following.
C: Was CBGB really as much of a hole as it's always made out to be?
CS: It was a crummy little bar. But there was a lot of crummy little bars like that in New York. It's just that all of that stuff has fallen by the wayside. There was a lot of atmosphere that's also vanished in New York. All the big urban centers around the world are homogenized, and they all look the same now.
C: Do you ever miss that kind of stuff?
CS: Yeah. Certainly the atmosphere and the neighborhoods and all the old stuff. But there's a lot to be said for the Internet and what's going on now, too.
C: Did Blondie ever really self-identify as punk?
CS: No, not really. We always said we were a pop band.
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C: What about the way "Rapture" was embraced by the rap community? How did that make the band feel?
CS: Well, I frequently say black people invented and white people presented. But I was certainly pleased. A couple of guys in the Wu-Tang Clan told us it was the first rap song they'd ever heard. All of that stuff is amazing.
C: Have you found that your fans have been pretty loyal over the years?
CS: Yes. We have a fan base in England, especially. But here, too. We have a lot of repeat offenders.