Forty years after Blondie found fame on the New York scene, Debbie Harry is still waving the flag for women in the music business – of every age
In 1980, during a tour with Blondie, Debbie Harry hosted a tea party at a London hotel, gathering together many of the women prominent in music at the time. Chrissie Hynde was there; Siouxsie Sioux; the Slits guitarist Viv Albertine; Pauline Black from The Selecter; and Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex. Chris Stein, Harry’s boyfriend at the time as well as the other half of Blondie’s creative core, published pictures of it in his recent book Negative, a collection of his photographs from the early years of their fame.
It looks as though there was a lot of laughter. This was a different time for women in music. Two years earlier Kate Bush, who was invited to tea but didn’t make it, had become the first female solo performer to reach number one in the British charts with her own song (Wuthering Heights).
There was a widespread assumption that there was room for just one main female performer in each genre. If another appeared, they were expected to battle it out for the title of queen of pop/soul/disco/punk.
Harry was keen to cut through that. “I really wanted to get together with all the punk females for an afternoon of celebration,” she explains. “It’s a great memory.” If you did that today, I say, you would need more than a hotel room. “I would need a hall!” she says, laughing. “It has changed a lot. It’s really grown, hasn’t it?”
In part, the large number of women making music now is down to the influence of those pioneers. Poly Styrene died in 2011, but remarkably the others are all still creating: both Hynde and Albertine have made fine solo albums in the past three years; Sioux never really went away; Black still plays with her band, and last summer Bush returned to the live arena for the first time since she was 20 with a triumphant run of London shows, which sold out in minutes.
As for Harry, I am talking to her in Paris, backstage at a theatre where she is preparing to play that night, at a party to launch a new perfume. To mark the 10th anniversary of its Black XS fragrance, Paco Rabanne has launched two limited-edition scents called Black XS Be a Legend – one for men, one for women – with a tuxedo-clad Harry and Iggy Pop fronting the ad campaign.
“It was great to work with Iggy again,” Harry says. They met when she was a waitress at the legendary New York music venue Max’s Kansas City, and Blondie’s first real tour was as his support act, at a time when his band included David Bowie on the keyboard. “They treated us in a way that was very generous and smart. They said, ‘We want the show to be great – for all of us. We want to put on a unified piece.’ And bands were awful to each other at that time.”
Though Blondie grew out of the New York punk scene in the mid-1970s, they had an unashamedly pop slant, with their genre-bending music taking in elements of everything that was popular in clubs at the time, from rap to reggae to disco. But they also had a strong subversive streak.
“It was very much about irony at that time. It was about a sophisticated sort of put-down, antisocial but witty. We were always trying for that play on words, for the double entendre.”
Harry has always identified herself as a feminist, and there is a quiet strength in the way she presents herself, a sense that here is a woman very much in control. Before she was famous, she was on her way home from a club one rainy night in New York.
“It was two or three in the morning and I couldn’t find a cab. A car kept coming round and offering me a ride, so I accepted. Once in the car I noticed there were no door handles on the inside, which made me wary. I don’t know how, but I managed to put my hand through the window and open the door from the outside.”
The driver swerved to try to stop her escaping, but that gave her the momentum to throw herself out of the moving car. She thought no more of it until years later, when she saw the driver on the news. It was Ted Bundy, the serial killer who eventually confessed to murdering at least 30 women. “I always say my instincts saved me.”
Read more at the Telegraph
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