WHERE BLONDIE MEET SARTRE

April 30, 2009 – 4:11 am

Blondie got together in the ’70s, made a splash with their new wave hits but broke up in 1982. Then in 1997, Blondie reformed but without three members. Dawn Eden checks out the revitalised Blondie when they were promoting their 1999 album, No Exit. This article was published in BigO #166 (October 1999).

By now, everybody who doesn’t live in a tree knows that Blondie are back. Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Jimmy Destry, and Clem Burke are currently engaged in a world tour to promote No Exit, their first album in 17 years. (Members Gary Valentine, Nigel Harrison and Frank Infante were not invited to rejoin the group.)

As far as reunion albums go, No Exit is the finest since the Rutles’ Archaeology (1996). However, unlike the Rutles and most other reunited bands, Blondie maintain an exceptionally high level of creativity. No Exit is a logical continuation from where they left off, capturing the feel of the group’s earlier releases, with just enough ’90s technology to get airplay. That is, enough to get airplay outside the United States. The first single from the album, Maria, was a huge hit in Europe and beyond, but US radio stations for the most part passed on it.

Considering that Blondie’s hits still receive considerable airplay, American radio’s lack of enthusiasm for No Exit is utterly hypocritical. Chalk up their resistance to the huge bias that the US record industry maintains against bands that are over 35. No matter how beautiful Debbie Harry is at 53, and no matter how much stronger her voice is than it was in Blondie’s heyday, US radio programmers don’t think people will listen to her. As far as I am concerned, it is their loss and America’s.

Still, there remains a chance that another song from No Exit will strike programme directors’ fancies (believe me, the album contains more than one potential hit). No Exit is the kind of album that could restore depth, intelligence, intensity and (most of all) catchiness to the Top 40.

When I caught up with guitarist/songwriter Chris Stein and drummer Clem Burke at BMG’s New York headquarters, they were slightly exasperated, having endured a day of interviews as part of their international press day. (One of the funny things about writing for BigO is being the only American at record labels’ international press days. The other reporters come all the way from their home countries, while I come all the way from Hoboken, New Jersey. Which most New Yorkers think is a foreign country…) We are in a very small office, sitting at a round table that makes the interview setup more egalitarian than usual.

Even though Chris Stein is sitting only a few feet away, it is almost impossible to make out his features. He has a well-known penchant for slumping rather than sitting and, right now, he is leaning back as far as he can, so that the back of his head is practically touching a window. With the sun blazing, it is hard to look at him. Plus, with the backlighting, his face is shrouded in darkness, like the anonymous witnesses one sees on the news.

Even so, he has a strong presence; intense, enigmatic, and guarded, yet with a strange kind of magnetism that makes him attractive in a dark sort of way. Although he cultivates an aura of mystery, he can’t help betraying sparks of warmth. As the interview develops, he will open up significantly, surprising me with his candour.

I have been prewarned that Clem Burke is charming and a fantastic dresser, in a Mod sort of way. All true. He immediately takes control of things, his gregariousness contrasting with Chris Stein’s distant-yet-polite cordiality.

I know that reporters often ask you how you all get along. I’d like to know whether you get on better when you’re on tour, or when you’re in the studio.

CLEM BURKE: One of the reasons for our choosing our album title was Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit. If you’ve read the play, then you know what life’s like, being in a band – any band. You’re locked up together and, inevitably, you’re going to get on each other’s nerves. Obviously, we get along to the degree where we’re able to be creative and work together, and we’ve produced this album that we’re all really happy with.

CHRIS STEIN: It’s OK. I like it. We had more control over this record than previously.

Is your “OK” somebody else’s “great” or “fantastic”?

CHRIS: I suppose, yes.

Clem, which of the No Exit songs would you say contain your best drumming?

CLEM: I really like Maria. There’s a neat drum fill in the fade.

CHRIS: You ****ed up the water cooler on one song.

CLEM: I played water cooler on Chris and Debbie’s song, Forgive And Forget. You know how the guys in the street have those water cooler bottles and they do percussion on them? It’s not a sample on the album, it’s actually me playing along with the sequencer. I’m proud of the water cooler. Sort of a musique concrete kind of concept, I suppose.

Chris, I’ve never read anything about your songwriting influences, so I’d like to guess.

CHRIS: Yeah, sure. Most of my writing was out of necessity, because we had to have songs. You’d never guess…

Gregorian chant, Bach, and Graham Gouldman.

CHRIS: I don’t know about Graham Gouldman, but Joni Mitchell too.

Did you record with anyone prior to Blondie?

CHRIS: No, not really, but I opened up for the Velvets when I was 17, in a band that didn’t have a name. It was me and my friends from Brooklyn, know what I mean? But I was in the Morticians, with guys who went on to form the Left Banke.

In Mojo’s recent Blondie cover story, you said that you felt more isolated today than you did during Blondie’s early years.

CHRIS: For me, it’s a big contrast, between having a million people be at you, and, when I go home, having a handful of people that I want to hang out with or seek out. That contrast becomes really extreme; five or six people I seek out as acquaintances or friends, as opposed to a thousand people who were chasing me around the world. Also, there’s a psychological aspect to celebrity.

The danger of celebrity is that you don’t have to work at relationships, because you come to me, you know who I am, so I don’t have to really work at making any kind of contact with you. If you didn’t know who I was, and I met you at a bar, I’d have to work really hard on talking to you and stuff like that.

Is that one of the reasons you isolate yourself, so you won’t fall into that celebrity mindset?

CHRIS: I don’t know. I mean, I’m still trying to figure out my own personal psychology. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 60 years. (Dawn: Forty-nine, actually.) It really is! (laughs) Everyone asks that question, why I’m so introspective. It has to do with my own sense of loss and s*** like that. My father died when I was a kid and it affected my health.

That’s something I never hear about.

CHRIS: Yeah, it doesn’t come up! (laughs)

I like it – I mean, I like it that you’re telling me, not that I like it that you…

CHRIS: It’s OK.

CLEM: Our management company really sent you, because you’re in fact a psychiatrist.

CHRIS: Yeah.

How do you know?

CHRIS: You’re duping us into thinking this is an interview, but you’re really trying to psychoanalyse us.

How do you know?

CLEM: Because we have a few problems that we need to have ironed out. (Chris laughs.) Probably there’s some ulterior motive here. You were kinda like, the ringer (fake) that got thrown into the mess of all these boring interviews or something.

My mother’s a psychologist.

CLEM: See? Well, that probably helps you with your interview acumen.

Thank you! But I’d like to take the subject off of me, because I only have 20 minutes with you.

CLEM: Go ahead.

Chris, in the Mojo cover story, someone made a comment that you were depressed during the period when Blondie started their career. Isn’t depression more of a lifelong thing, where either you have intense bouts of it, or it lies under the surface?

CHRIS: Taking lots of drugs helped me get more depressed, actually. The problem with drugs for me was that you get used to turning the switch, and life is not like that; life is a long-term thing. When you get used to it going up and down really quickly, you’re in an unnatural rhythm for reality. Reality goes in long spans. So having those extreme highs and lows certainly made me very depressed.

I see that you wrote one of the songs on No Exit, Under The Gun, for Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Did all of you know him?

CHRIS: Yeah, pretty much. He was the president of the Blondie fan club, and we met him when he was a little kid. And then, when he got into the band (Gun Club), it was pretty sad for me, because people really encouraged him to **** up. They had that Jack On Fire newsletter, which was basically a chronicle of Jeffrey’s demise. When he died, I sort of flipped out.

(To Clem) Going back to No Exit, at the time you recorded the album, what were you listening to?

CLEM: I was listening to the Air album. I gave Jimmy (Destry) a copy of it right before we started doing the album, just to show him that people were doing things that he did back when, working with analogue synthesizers and things like that. I was also listening to Radiohead’s OK Computer. Jimmy and I share a fondness for that album. I was listening to a lot of Miles Davis when I co-wrote that kind of faux jazz song on the album, Boom Boom In The Zoom Zoom Room. It was also inspired by Debbie’s work with the Jazz Passengers. And I was listening to Francoise Hardy.

Is it true that during Blondie’s early years, you used to buy your clothes from thrift stores?

CLEM: We used to get our suits from one in Hoboken.

CHRIS: They had some amazing ‘60s s*** there.

CLEM: Yeah. They sold vintage clothing before it was really used. It was a cut-out (close-out) store. They had all these leftover suits from, like, rabbis. They were around ten dollars apiece. We were always in search of the perfect black suit.

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