The setting was a far cry from the days more than 20 years before when this band would headline at the punk mecca CBGB's. Members of the recently reconstituted Blondie surely must have been thinking that as they began tuning up their instruments on a stage built especially for them, amid tall office buildings in the heart of New York's Rockefeller Center.
Ostensibly there to promote the No Exit record and upcoming tour by performing on NBC's Today show, the four core members wanted to show reunion-tired skeptics that the band was something more than a nostalgia act -- even though they took the makeshift stage at around the same hour they'd be finishing up at CB's.
"The sound check was at 4:45 a.m. Not exactly the best time to rock and roll," drummer Clem Burke says. "But it's interesting the way that rock and roll music has become ingrained in society. Who would have ever thought we'd be on a television network morning show playing some deranged punk rock?"
Well, it wasn't exactly Richard Hell, but that's not what's expected from the most commercially successful band to come out of the city's punk/new wave era, which has earned a full-length record's worth of hits, including 1981's "Rapture." With singer Deborah (née Debbie) Harry's talking about a man from Mars who ate some cars, the song was also most people's first exposure to rap music.
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The band broke up later that next year, but all members felt as if they really hadn't gotten a chance to do all they wanted artistically. And with late-'70s/early-'80s nostalgia at a peak today, they felt it was the right time for No Exit.
"Chris was actually the initial person to get it going," Burke says. "I think he felt that it was just time to do this, and if we didn't, we'd regret it years from now. [Keyboardist Jimmy] Destri and I were interested, but Debbie thought he was completely crazy."
Of prime interest to the foursome was creating a legitimate base of new music. And though there are a number of misses on the record (including the title track, a horror-rap duet between Harry and Coolio, an obvious grasp at a second "Rapture"), there's also a more-than-you'd-think amount of solid material, from the catchy pop appeal of "Maria" and "Nothing Is Real But the Girl" (both written by Destri) to the sensual romp of "Double Take" and the '60s girl-group sound of "Out in the Streets." The band also throws in an Irish-sounding ballad and a jazz tune. No Exit gets better with every listen, but it's worth the time.
"It was clear from when we first started to meet about this four years ago that it wouldn't be just an [oldies] thing. We wanted to become a band again," Burke says. "All of us were extremely cautious about it. But from the first time we got back together in the studio, the chemistry was right, and we sounded like Blondie. Everything started to feel very natural again. We have a musical vocabulary with one another."
Those first vocabulary lessons began to take place in 1974, when then-lovers Harry and Stein formed the band out of the ashes of her previous group, the Stilettos (performing briefly as Angel and the Snake). The Blondie name came from Harry's fondness for the peroxide job.
Burke, Destri and bassist Gary Valentine joined the duo the next year, completing the initial lineup. When asked why Valentine was not included in the 1999 reunion, Burke says diplomatically: "We did work with him briefly but we had a few false starts in the lineup coming together. He's still our friend."
The group had released its self-titled debut in 1976, which bolstered its reputation as one of the bands on the front of the punk/new wave movement that also included the Ramones, Television and the Talking Heads. But unlike those acts, Blondie had a strong commercial pop sensibility.
The next year Valentine was out and bassist Nigel Harrison and second guitarist Frank Infante were in for Plastic Letters. It spawned a UK hit with "Denis," a masculinized version of the 1963 pop hit "Denise." That the band was more popular in Europe than it was in the United States was an interesting side aspect, perhaps because of the fact that much of the band's material does have a Euro-vibe, heavy on the keyboards and dance beats.
" 'Maria' was a No. 1 hit this year in a lot of countries, and we've received a lot of success around the world, but we're still working on the States," Burke says of this year's first No Exit single. "And it's kind of always been that way."
Blondie's first U.S. breakthrough came in the form of its next (and still considered best) record, Parallel Lines, whose hits included the disco throbber "Heart of Glass" (the band's first No. 1) and "One Way or Another." But for most who saw the videos, concerts and album covers, the band's not-hard-to-fathom centerpiece was Debbie Harry. The others in the band were just five anonymous dark-haired guys. Harry's performance persona, equal parts coquettish sex kitten, neighborhood girl-next-door and campy diva pinup, simply overwhelmed the rest of the lineup -- instigating a publicity campaign proclaiming, "Blondie is a group."
"Every band has to have a front person, and we're extremely lucky to have Debbie," says Burke. "But it wasn't a big manipulative thing to us. We knew she was going to stand out. That's why we wanted to work with her."
Also of note was the band's eager embrace of an endless array of musical styles. "We liked to confuse people, and they can see it a lot more clearly now," says Burke. "This [melding] wasn't so common today. We were never into one particular niche, although we grew up on that very eclectic Top 40 radio during the '60s in New York. You'd get the Beatles next to Frank Sinatra."
While the band's next releases, Eat to the Beat and Autoamerican, spawned a few more hits ("Rapture" and "The Tide Is High," both No. 1's), the band was sliding into a creative standstill. By 1981 a number of issues including dissension, legal wrangling, solo aspirations for Harry (she released a solo debut, Koo Koo) and Stein's near-fatal battle with the genetic disease pemphigus, made things crumble quickly. The band offered the contractually obligated and uninspired The Hunter before calling it quits in 1982.
Harry would soon retire from the business and spend the next few years successfully nursing Stein back to health, but never could kickstart her career over the next decade with three more solo records. Recently she has been singing with the Jazz Passengers and performing solo shows while the guys have worked on a variety of studio and touring projects for other musicians.
And so we come to the 1999 version of Blondie, which in itself is not without controversy. The foursome is joined on stage by an extra bassist, guitarist and keyboardist, and Infante and Harrison have instigated a lawsuit against their former bandmates for current money made and usage of the name. "It hasn't been settled yet, but I hope it works out amicably for everyone," Burke says, declining to say more. "A lot of time has passed, but this [current] lineup is the one that we could work with."
A lot of time has passed. The band, all closing in on 50, knows that. And as the oldest at 53, Harry has a good chunk of her top range vocally, but the No Exit material wisely stays within reach. And her much-vaunted sex appeal is still there, which is manifest in Harry's tight-skirted dancing on stage. But unfortunately her gyrations only make you think of that one high school teacher you always wanted to bang instead of the girl next-door. No commitment.
But Blondie and Harry are still loved. The reunion tour has been doing well in midsize venues, and the band's appeal is broad enough to have scored a co-billing spot at the Glastonbury Festival with Hole and R.E.M. as well as at a Dodger Stadium show with Ricky Martin and Britney Spears. The band plans to record a new record for release in early 2001, and two Web sites -- an official one and a much more exhaustive fan-driven one -- are only a sample of the dozens in cyberspace.
"We try and stay in touch with that stuff, though it's shocking to see that kind of instantaneous response. We can do a show and ten minutes later read what fans have written about it," Burke says. "It's like [media visionary Marshall] McLuhan predicted: We're really becoming a global village."
Blondie performs Saturday, August 28, at 8 p.m. at the Aerial Theater, 520 Texas. Reel Big Fish opens. Tickets are $26 to $32. Call (713) 629-3700 or (713) 230-1600.
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