The scene unfolding in Chung King Studios seems like a moment from some pop time warp.
The four original members of the seminal new wave group Blondie--including lead singer Deborah Harry and guitarist Chris Stein--are in this downtown Manhattan recording facility to put the finishing touches on a song for “No Exit,” the band’s first album in almost two decades. The collection is due next February.
“Yaw’re George Maah-tin!” keyboardist Jimmy Destri tells producer Craig Leon playfully at one point, evoking the Beatles’ famed studio ally in a Brooklyn accent as thick as a pastrami sandwich.
Blondie was never the Beatles, of course, but it was one of the most successful and trend-setting bands of its time--a group that between 1978 and 1982 generated four No. 1 hits, each of which helped define a moment in pop history.
The most notable of those records: “Call Me,” which showed that producer Giorgio Moroder’s sensual, synthesizer-driven sound could work as effectively in rock as in disco; “Rapture,” one of rock’s first ventures into the emerging rap scene; and “The Tide Is High,” which is cited as an influence by dozens of ‘90s neo-ska outfits.
Blondie--which emerged from the same downtown New York club scene that spawned the Ramones and Talking Heads--also was an important arbiter of style, making its distinctly urban, Warhol-esque brand of post-modern chic accessible to mainstream America. Harry’s chilly beauty and eccentric fashion choices were central to the band’s aesthetic and, many feel, paved the way for subsequent female icons such as Madonna and Courtney Love.
But it all came tumbling down in 1982, due to the illness of Stein and infighting.
It was a break that seemed so irrevocable that few ever expected Blondie to reemerge--even at a time when reunions have become almost de rigueur in the pop world.
Even now, the question remains: Is there an audience waiting for them?
Their manager, Allen Kovac, who also has guided the comebacks of Meat Loaf and Duran Duran, thinks that Blondie continues to have mystique--and he’s encouraged by the reception the band’s new material has received from radio programmers who have heard it.
“Blondie is unique, because they were on the cutting edge of punk and new wave and dance [music] and rap,” Kovac says. “So from early signs, it’s looking like Blondie is going to be able to cross formats and genres and get played on a variety of radio stations, which is a rare thing today.”
About the original breakup, Stein muses, “I always make the comparison to James Dean. If he had done 20 movies, he might have ended up as some old guy being interviewed by Johnny Carson. He certainly wouldn’t have been as romantic a figure. . . . I mean, it’s not even like we quit while we were ahead. We quit before we were ahead, I think.”
Except for Stein’s gray hair, the musicians in Blondie look much the same as they did in their heyday. The men, all in their mid-40s, still dress predominantly in black, while Harry, at 53, still retains much of her glamorous aura.
Moreover, the band members all seem comfortable in one another’s company. Bassist Destri and relatively shy, soft-spoken drummer Clem Burke tease each other affectionately, while former lovers Harry and Stein fuss over Harry’s omnipresent canine companion, a Japanese Chin named Chichi.
The vibe may be warmly familial now, but the path to reconciliation was a delicate and emotionally charged process. When Stein, encouraged by fans who kept asking him when the band was going to get back together, approached Harry nearly three years ago with the idea of releasing a greatest-hits package with two new songs, the singer was reluctant.
Since the band’s split in 1982, Harry has acted in films, including John Waters’ “Hairspray,” and released solo albums. She also has received critical acclaim for her work with the Jazz Passengers group.
“I don’t wanna appear preposterous on stage . . . ,” Harry says, explaining her initial skepticism toward a reunion. “Being in a rock band . . . at my age: Wow, how are people gonna look at me?”
After Harry grudgingly agreed to participate--"I’m still not totally convinced,” she quips--Stein contacted Destri, who had been doing record production work, and Burke, who had become a busy drummer for hire, working with Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, et al.
(Bassist Nigel Harrison and guitarist Frank Infante, who were not founding members but played in Blondie for most of its career, were not asked to participate in the reunion. The duo are currently involved in litigation with the band over use of the group’s name and financial arrangements. Blondie, stating otherwise, has filed a motion for dismissal of the suit. Meantime, bassist Leigh Foxx and guitarist Paul Carbonara are acting as supporting musicians.)
Says Harrison, now an artists-and-repertoire executive at Interscope Records, “It’s unfortunate and sad that they chose not to include Frank and myself in the reunion.”
Once the core players were on board, Harry, Stein, Destri and Burke cut a few demos and then made live appearances last year at radio-station-sponsored festivals in Hartford, Conn., and Washington, D.C.
“There were some really emotional moments at first,” Harry says, stroking Chichi during a session break.
“I think that after playing and rehearsing together, we resolved what needed to be resolved. The fact that we’ve all matured and moved on with our lives made it easier. I’m better at explaining what I want, and I think we’ve all learned to respect each other’s talents and boundaries.”
To a point, that is.
“We’re like a dysfunctional family,” Destri explains. “You love your brothers and sisters, but they can be a real pain in the ass sometimes. We drive each other up the wall, but it’s only because we’re so attached to one another.”
Blondie’s fall from the commercial stratosphere was one of rock’s most abrupt and premature disappearing acts.
Stein became seriously ill during the band’s final tour in 1982; he was eventually found to be suffering from a rare genetic disease called pemphigus, which caused him to lose weight drastically and break out in blisters.
It took the guitarist two years to recover; during that time, he and Harry struggled to keep his condition private, leading to rumors that Stein had AIDS. A song on “No Exit,” “Screaming Skin,” refers to the couple’s harrowing experience.
“It was so scary,” Harry recalls. “So much of the stuff that was said about Chris’ illness was completely manufactured or completely off-the-wall.”
Long before Stein fell ill, however, other tensions had developed in the band. For one thing, Harry had grown frustrated with the fact that her blond-bombshell persona was getting more attention than her singing.
In the pre-Madonna era, a sexy, videogenic woman who demanded artistic respect was something of an anomaly.
“I don’t think I was ever reviewed as a singer until a few years ago,” Harry says. “The focus was on my attitude. People would ask, ‘Why would a woman who could survive on her looks do that?’ It was like I was making a political statement.”
The media’s emphasis on Harry’s image did not go unnoticed by the other members, some of whom began to feel that their own contributions were being undervalued.
“There’s a pecking order in any band, and we were really lucky to have Deborah as our front person,” Burke says now. But clashes of opinion and ego were making relationships between the band members increasingly strained.
“It’s very understandable, what happened to Blondie,” says Gay Rosenthal, executive producer of the VH1 documentary series “Behind the Music,” which recently devoted an episode to Blondie.
“It was natural that tensions would form, especially since the band members had been so close. You can’t go to school to learn how to handle that kind of newfound fame and success--or the finances that go with it.”
Indeed, in their early days, the musicians say they were fairly naive in their dealings with Chrysalis Records and former manager Peter Leeds, with whom they had a famously combative relationship.
“Really, we never made any money for what we did,” says Stein, who admits there was some financial incentive to reunite.”
“I thought the whole image of a little greasy guy with a cigar was just a cliche, but it turned out it wasn’t.”
Leeds, who was bought out of his management contract in 1979, says that two men he helped put Blondie in touch with, Chrysalis Records founder Terry Ellis and record producer Mike Chapman--who worked on the band’s most successful albums, from “Parallel Lines” on, and who was involved in the demo stage of the reunion--are “responsible for Blondie’s success. [Blondie] didn’t get screwed. They became the most important band in the world. And I think they benefited from my involvement.”
When EMI Records--the U.S. division of EMI Music, Chrysalis’ former distributor and owner of the rights to Blondie’s catalog--folded last year, Kovac offered to release the new album on his own label, Beyond, which is distributed through BMG Worldwide.
So what does Blondie sound like in 1998?
The tracks that the band plays over the studio monitors seem at once fresh and familiar. The probable first single, “Maria,” sounds like vintage Blondie--taut, driving, instantly infectious--as do the buoyant, funky “Night Wind” and the percolating electro-pop of “Forgive and Forget.”
The production is state-of-the-art and, despite a guest appearance by rapper Coolio, the music doesn’t sound self-consciously contemporary--as is so often the case with reunion projects.
The fact that the basic Blondie sound remains so compatible with today’s radio playlists is a reminder of just how progressive and influential a band Blondie was the first time around.
Rolling Stone Senior Editor David Fricke is cautiously optimistic about Blondie’s prospects for a successful second act.
“It’s a tough time for everybody [in music], because things are so fragmented, audience-wise and genre-wise,” Fricke says. “But I think Blondie made timeless music at a time when we really needed it, and there’s no reason they can’t do it again.”
Tom Cafaro, music director for WPLJ-FM, an adult Top 40 radio station in New York City, agrees that the band has reason to be hopeful. “A lot of stations like ours, as well as Top 40 stations, play a lot of ‘80s music” he says. “A lot of the Blondie records are in those music libraries, and they still test and research very well with audiences. Some groups that have come along in the past few years seem to have some of that Blondie sound . . . so I think the audience will embrace this group once again.”
Says Stein: “If this album is successful, I’m sure we’ll put out another one. And I’m sure it will be successful because I trust my own and Debbie’s and the band’s instincts, and I think those instincts are more evolved than they were. . . . I mean, I’m a little more together than I used to be!
“I recently saw ‘Jerry Maguire’ for the first time, and I got all teary-eyed because the movie’s all about getting a second chance. And that’s what this is about, you know? We’re getting a second chance.”