When a prominent member of a legendary American pop-rock-disco-rap band inquires as to your well-being, you’d better make sure your reply is more interesting than “Fine, thanks”.
And so when Chris Stein, Blondie co-founder and guitarist, former paramour of iconic singer Debbie Harry and writer of worldwide hits including Sunday Girl, Heart Of Glass, Picture This, Dreaming and Rapture, asks on the phone from his New York home how things are going in London, my immediate response — for no real reason other than to engage his attention — is to express concern for global stability given the recent events in Ukraine. As you do. Stein seems utterly unfazed.
“They’ll never make it that far south, don’t worry about it,” he drawls, his accent betraying his Brooklyn roots as the son of communist radicals and Jewish bohemians Ben and Estelle Stein. “I don’t think they [Russia] have their s*** together [to launch nuclear strikes in the West]. I hope not. Those guys are run by the banks anyway, same as everyone in the West. Who the hell knows? We’ll see.”
Stein has learned to be laid back. In their 40-year history, Blondie have risen, fallen, then risen again, and endured all manner of slings and arrows. They started out as the butt of jokes among the cool New York class of 76, considered pop lightweights next to their peers Television, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and The Voidoids, Suicide and Patti Smith. Within two years they were as big as Abba and the Bee Gees, but there was dissent in the ranks among the black-clad boys on guitar (Stein and Frank Infante), bass (Nigel Harrison), keyboards (Jimmy Destri) and drums (Clem Burke), who felt that Harry was getting all the press attention, which she was.
By the early 80s, the hits had dried up and Stein was suffering from pemphigus vulgaris, a rare autoimmune disorder affecting Ashkenazi Jews and people from the Mediterranean. Harry nursed him through the illness and following 15 years of drought, hits-wise, Blondie returned with the 1999 number one, Maria.
Since then, they have acquired the status of deities. Indeed, they were recently given the Godlike Genius award for 2014 by music paper NME, presented to them at a ceremony in London by Lily Allen, who described La Harry as “possibly the greatest frontwoman ever”. Stein is nonchalant about this, as he is about everything else.
“Now that we’re elder statesmen we’re getting more and more of that stuff,” he says of his ever-growing pile of awards and accolades.
He does admit, however, that it was “a buzz” to have met, and hugged, Sir Paul McCartney at the NME Awards. Talk of the ex-Beatle reminds him of a book of postcards that Ringo Starr published, among them one that John Lennon had sent to the Fab Four’s drummer. “He told him how great Heart Of Glass was and that he should write a song like that,” he remembers fondly. “And then [his son] Sean Lennon said the first song he ever heard was [Blondie’s 1980 number one] The Tide Is High, when he was an infant. The Guardian newspaper once wrote that I reminded them of John. That was nice.” He becomes wistful, thinking of Lennon’s untimely death. “We never got to meet him. It was a tragedy all round, a crazy loss. It still makes me nuts.”
New York back then wasn’t quite the cleaned-up city it is today, post-Mayor Giuliani and “zero tolerance”. Blondie emerged in that Martin Scorsese-circa-Taxi Driver version of NYC, all scuzzy glamour and punk drama. Blondie can still capture that New York edge in their music and despite the file-sharing and digital trickery that went into its making, Ghosts Of Download, their 10th studio album, is suffused with essence of Lower East Side. And Stein has, as a photography buff, been capturing the real New York in pictures for as long as Blondie have been around. Negative, a collection of his most evocative images, will be published later this year.
He recites some of the characters, many of them casualties, photographed in his book. “Richard Hell, Johnny Thunders, Lester Bangs [the notorious US rock journalist memorialised in the Hollywood film from 2000, Almost Famous]. We were surrounded by charismatic people back then.
“We were all on the fringes, outsiders,” he adds. “The whole situation was dangerous. You wonder now if it’s all very mainstream being in a band for young people.” You mean it’s become a safe career option? “Even the idea that it is a career option seems alien to me,” he replies. “Nobody knew what the hell was going to happen back then. A career? That’s something you associate with Wall Street.”
He tells of the time Harry, his girlfriend from the early-70s to the late-80s (he’s now married with two young children), was coerced into a car by a man who appeared suspicious, only just managing to escape. He was supposedly Ted Bundy, the serial killer and rapist who terrorised America in the 70s.
“We don’t know if it was really Ted Bundy,” he says, “although it was definitely his M.O. the way he picked her up. And it makes for a great story.”
He’s got another good one, this time about Woody Allen. The comedian actually attended the same high school as Stein, only 15 years earlier (Stein is now 64).
“When I was a kid, back when he was still doing stand-up, he used to come and speak at the alumni events,” he recalls, “but I never went to see him. Years later, I sent him some music that I’d written for a science fiction scene in his movie Stardust Memories . So he wrote me this really nice letter, explaining, ‘I do all my own music, blah blah blah’. It was very polite. I have it framed somewhere.”
Not that Stein is overly preoccupied with the past. In fact, he’s already coming up with ideas for Blondie’s 11th studio album. Meanwhile, back in the present, there is a cover version on Ghosts Of Download of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax, the chart-busting single from 1984 that was banned by the BBC for its risqué content.
Does he think, given the controversy surrounding Miley Cyrus’s twerking, that times have changed? Surely pop has always been outrageous?
“I don’t agree,” he says. “Everything was a lot tamer back then. Debbie got a lot of flak for doing really innocent stuff — licking a 45 single, which got everybody foaming, and the posters to her album Koo Koo [showing her face skewed by needles] that were banned in the UK.
“They were nothing by comparison to what Miley or Lady Gaga are doing today. I think it takes more and more to shock people.”
Is Gaga really more out-there than Harry? “Certainly. What, coming out on a barbecue stick and having someone throw up on her onstage?” He laughs. “That’s pretty impressive.”
He’s got a point. Picture that.
Blondie 4(0)Ever, a two-disc package featuring their Greatest Hits and new album Ghosts Of Download, is released on May 12. Chris Stein — Negative: Blondie and the Advent of Punk will be published by Rizzoli