Let’s not beat around the bush: the word icon is used a lot to cover a lot of people who are definitely not icons. I’m not naming any names but I might be looking at you, Rita Ora.
Blondie are certifiable icons. For real. You can trace their influence over fashion, music, art, photography, culture, sunglasses, hair – it’s like following blood pumping through a body: they are the heart pulsating in the middle of it all. They are also late. I am waiting for Debbie Harry and Chris Stein in an incredibly nondescript hotel room, but what is time when you sang, “Toe to toe, dancing very close, Body breathing almost comatose, Wall to wall, people hypnotized, And they’re stepping lightly, Hang each night, in rapture..”
Chris walks in: black blazer, band t shirt, silver – I’d call this hair cut “curtains” because I’m from the 90s – framing his face. In front of him is a pile of photos of his own face to sign, which will later go in a book of his photography. He’s been documenting the band since forever, intimate pictures of Debbie on tour; hair in different stages of blonde-ness, with Joey Ramone, with Andy Warhol, on a roof, on a train, in a hotel room, in a wig, with Sting.
Wearing a dress that’s possibly been inspired by both a witch and a Victorian lady and a pair of round sunglasses with inverted black triangles for lenses, Deborah Ann Harry is trying very hard to reach the a/c control unit for the room. She’s failing because for some unknown reason it’s installed where the ceiling and the wall meets: far beyond the outstretched fingertips of 70 year old icons.
We’re all reverential to one another in some way.
We are in this climate un-controlled room because they’ve just completed their 11th studio album, Pollinator. The songwriting credits read like a party playlist: from fellow BEAT cover-star Charli XCX, Dev Hynes, Johnny Marr, Dave Sitek and Sia – as well as internet sensations The Gregory Brothers. On the track ‘Doom or Destiny’ they borrowed the pipes of Joan Jett and Laurie Anderson to provide backing vox. “The record is good, we are entertained,” says Chris, “The Gregory Brothers are those guys who do all those songs on YouTube. We’ve been fans of theres for a while so they gave us a song and sang back-up on a couple others.” How do they think it feels to get the call that Blondie want a song? “ We just put it out into our world that we were looking for material and everyone started tossing songs at us. The two YouTube songs are ones that we picked, there’s this kid called Adam Johnstone who is a young kid who does movie reviews and somewhere in there I saw he was a musician and had a musical channel and put in a clip of one of his songs and I checked it out so we asked him.” His sentences are soundtracked with the gentle swoosh of sharpie across photo. “I thought he might be appalled that we wanted to cover his song, he’s a kid! A lot of the songs came out of the blue, the Johnny Marr track he wrote for us.” Debbie interrupts him. “The idea of working with him was terrific. He paid us a very nice compliment about how he met his wife, they were at a party and he saw this girl across the room and liked her and as soon as he sat down next to her Parallel Lines came on and cemented their love!”
Debbie Harry has an impish glint behind her eyes, you can see it onstage, looking around for trouble, she’s fucking funny and she knows it. How does it feel, I start. “To be senior citizens?” She bursts out. “It SUUUUCKS MAN!” You can’t not love her. But what I started to say was, how does it feel to be so influential. “I don’t know if it’s seeing oneself in someone or being a part of the same spirit or industry or the idea of trying to come up with new music? We are all reverential to one another in some way, and you know, there seems to be some kind of building process and recycling. Recycling is very popular!” She laughs. We laugh.
If you stand still for long enough you start moving backwards, (according to the internet) but Chris and Debbie have always been future facing: supporting LGBT causes long before it was cool, rapping before it was cool, bleaching their hair before it was cool, wearing bin bags before it was cool, (ok it might be a sleeveless black PVC trench but it’s worn over a t shirt and pair of tights with a hole near the gusset, definitely before it was cool) – and musically always pushing, moving from punk to new wave to calypso to electro to disco. They can do what they want, let’s be honest. “We’ve always looked to the future, we were always interested in that,” says Debbie, but it was mainly Chris’ fascination that kept them abreast of technology. “I like computers, I was lucky. I got started on them early, it was prior to plugging into anything, you just had to sit on your own and after like an hour you’d make a red triangle.” Debbie nods in agreement. “I used to like talking to the first computer, it had this voice! Like Arnold [from 80’s show Diff’rent Strokes] It was supposedly based on some kind of logic. It was…” This time Chris interrupts. “It wasn’t based on anything?” Debbie feigns shock, that impish glint again. “Gibberish? I am ruined! How could you let me sit there talking to something! Oh god Oh dear, in my mind I had this fantasy of hearing Arnold’s voice.”
Having toured the world already for over 40 years, they are about to embark on joint headline tour with Garbage. “We’ve known Shirley since her Goodbye Mr Mackenzie days,” sighs Chris, “She was just a wee girl. I can’t imagine we will tour for another five years. But we still enjoy it.” It must be rewarding watching people still lose their shit to your music, I ask. He laughs. What about seeing yourselves being endlessly referenced? He sparks up. “Did you see the poster for Charlize Theron’s new film?” While Charlize will never come close to having Debbie’s IDGAF ‘tude, stick her in a blonde wig that looks like it’s been chopped up with a rusty pen knife, a fishnet stocking, a knee high boot and shove the word Atomic Blonde across it and it’s apparent that there’s only been one or two images on the mood board. “Or Harley Quinn,” Chris carries on. “I mean I don’t mind but at least acknowledge it! Or licence some of our music!”
The music industry is a hard coal-face to chip away at, let alone to lead. But Debbie and Chris have done just that. Pollinator is joyful, raucous, full of bangers. “What makes the world go round,” Debbie asks on Gravity. “Is it love or is it gravity?”. I forget to ask if they purposefully called the album after a participant in the action of replication, an action that brings newness to the world. I guess we’ll have to save that question for next time.