Entering No Exit
Like it or not, fact is, before Madonna and Courtney Love, Deborah Harry was music’s first bleached-blonde bombshell. Before the Beastie Boys there was “Rapture…” So even, back then, Harry, a former Playboy bunny and consummate diva, was “pretty fly for a white girl.” And for all its quirkiness, no one can deny that Blondie crossed music boundaries, defied categorization, creating trends instead of following them.
“We were always kind of being ourselves,” says drummer Clem Burke. “I think Blondie was a little ahead of the curve a little bit, which is why you’re seeing so much interest in the band today. We weren’t doing anything other than being ourselves. So we didn’t really follow any trends. I think, if anything, we created trends. Not to be egotistical about it, but, certainly, when Deborah appeared for the first time with Blondie, there weren’t too many women out there doing what she was doing.” And, in 1999, that offer still stands.
For those lined up for more nostalgia, No Exit is a slick production, light on heavy subject matter, with a touch of whimsy and airbrushed sex appeal. The album’s strongest track, “Screaming Skin,” the quasi-reggae/punk tune, has as much finesse as a James Bond movie. From the new age feel of “Night Wind Sent” and the peculiar appearance of the Loretta Lynn-style country song “The Dream’s Lost On Me,” to the “faux jazz” song “Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room,” inspired by Debbie’s stint with the Jazz Passengers, and which Burke wrote with former Go- Go Kathy Valentine, Harry’s cool arrogance, seductive demeanor, and apathetic expression are as timeless as ever.
” No Exit feels like the next Blondie record for us. For some reason, it took 16 years to make, [but] the audiences has been very accepting,” Burke surmises. “When we decided to come back together, the first thing we decided is that, if we’re going to put all this time, energy, and emotion into this, we wanted to create some new music. The first thing we did was we all began writing. We went into the studio, and created a new record, which is the reason we’re all here today. And it gives us a feeling of credibility, the fact that we’ve reformed with new material.”
Today, Burke is nursing a cold. He’s sniffling, yet surprisingly, quite talkative despite the fact he and the band have been awake since the wee hours, conducting various interviews. In between hacking coughs, he’s obviously still elated from last night’s two-hour performance at Town Hall in Manhattan, also their first concert endeavor (filmed for VH-1) in New York City in sixteen years. That’s a point not taken lightly, considering that if (Harry’s former lover, and fellow band member) Chris Stein’s illness — pemphigus, a rare skin disease that caused him to break out in blisters — hadn’t contributed to Blondie’s break-up in 1982, Harry’s increasingly high-profile persona, which overshadowed the other band members’ contributions, or the strain of the music business would have. “We made five albums in four and a half years,” Burke points out. “That’s a pretty tremendous work load, when you look at bands today taking maybe three years between albums. At the peak of our success, we were working really hard, and we basically got worn down. Maybe the band had run its course. The Beatles were only together for eight years. Why didn’t the Beatles stay together forever? Most relationships end, and life goes on. Then, everyone felt as though Blondie had run its course, at that point.”
Then, of course, there’s that “historic” appearance at the American Music Awards earlier this year that marked yet another milestone, in which the band, collectively, decided to perform “No Exit,” featuring rapper Coolio, despite the immediate success of the first single, “Maria,” which recently debuted at #1 in the U.K. Also incorporating the Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep (for the AMA appearance) along for the strange ride, “No Exit” goes from being Blondie’s second foray into rap to a rap song tinged with punk and gothic metal, its remixed version nabbing a spot on the 200 Cigarettes soundtrack (a movie staring Ben Affleck, Christina Ricci, and Courtney Love).
In light of the album’s current Top 5 status in the U.K., Blondie will return to the U.K., upgrading from mid-sized venues to stadiums, including London’s Wembley Arena in May, to accommodate the overwhelming demand, in the follow-up to their successful six-week European tour, before embarking upon a U.S. tour in the late spring.
So what makes your reunion different from everybody else’s?
I’m seeing a lot of reunions, but I’m not seeing a lot of new music. That’s the whole difference with us. It was really important for us to make a new musical statement. It was most important for us to be able to interact musically, and make new music, not just go out there and rehash the old songs. What you’re seeing a lot of with these reunions is, “oh, by the way, there’s a new album.” But, really, it’s just a reissued album with one or two new songs. People can do whatever they want, but, to me, that really doesn’t show me that the people really want to be together, and make music together. It seems like they want to just go out and play, and they think there’s an audience there for it. I don’t want to cast aspersions on anybody else, but I really think the main difference with all of these other reunions and ours is that we’ve made a great record. We’re all really happy with the record. If there’s any catharsis involved in any of this, everyone always asks, “What was it like when you guys [first] went in a room together to make music?” That felt natural. The only catharsis was when we completed the record, sat back, and said, “Yeah, this is a great record. We’re all proud of this record. And now we’re able to continue.” I think had we not made a new record and been happy with it, we wouldn’t have been able to go on tour. We wouldn’t have been able to continue. It feels fresh for us because we have new music.
Would you ever consider performing at CBGB’s again?
I would love to. I’ve been twisting everybody’s arm to do that. It’s such a viable place, still. And the owner, Hilly Krystal, is such a great guy. I would love to do it. Everyone seems to think it’s a little too small. I mean, it would be chaotic, but I think rock and roll kind of thrives on chaos, so I think it would be a good thing.
When I was a kid, I used to think the band was from England. Now that I know you’re American, do you care to clear up any other misconceptions?
We’re all things to all people. We’re very confusing. Some people think we’re a disco band. Some people think we’re a blonde girl. Some people think we’re a rap band. Some people think we’re a punk rock band, still.
So what are you?
I’d say we’re, pretty much, a classic rock and roll band. If you look at the Beatles, and the Stones, for instance, they were all working in different mediums. They were a rock band. But then the Beatles would do something like [“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”], which was like a ska song. Or the Stones would do “Miss You,” which was like a dance song. I think we were working in those terms, as well. The songs stand up as songs, but they way we perform them is dictated by how we feel that day. You can play the songs on an acoustic guitar, and they’ll still stand up. And the band is really about songs.
How did the collaboration with Coolio come about?
Chris Stein has always been a fan of rap music. Coolio and Deborah had worked together, of all places, in Vienna. They were on the same bill when Deborah was doing her solo venture. And she had suggested that perhaps we should get Coolio to rap with us. It’s interesting. There’s a real energy I get from [rappers], and I think, conversely, they get [something] from us, because you realize most rappers are used to working in the studio with sampling, and all. When we all came together in Los Angeles to begin rehearsing for the AMAs, it was really an exciting time for everybody, because I would start a drum beat, or somebody would play a guitar lick, and those guys would pick up on it and start doing a rap. It was a more organic way of making music, which we were used to, but those guys were using technology more. Coolio went into some reggae thing we were jamming on. I’ve got a great tape of that. I’d like to work with those guys some more. I’ve been around a lot of different people, and I really get a strong vibe from Coolio. I rate him up there with Mick Jagger or Iggy Pop — or somebody like that.
Chris actually approached you guys three years ago about reuniting. What took so long to get back to together, and to make the record?
Once we decided to come back together, we realized we needed to become a band again, not just a business venture. So once it was decided that we’d be a band, we went away, and did just that: went to a rehearsal room, worked on new material, and forgot about the outside world. And let the music flow out of us. Everyone was working on other things over the years. (Burke spent the Eighties working with Eurythmics, while Harry tried her hand at acting in such films as John Waters’ Hairspray .) And the time just seemed right with the approach of the millennium. [Now] we have a new focus. One of the references to the title of the album, was there really was no escaping Blondie. There was really no exit from it. Certainly, Debbie and Blondie were synonymous. And, all of us, to a lesser or greater degree, were associated with it. Within the music business, that’s how people looked at it: “This is Clem from Blondie…” Or, “This is Jimmy Destri from Blondie.” So it was always part of our identity, and I think everyone was always hearing, “When’s the band going to get back together?” We’ve put a couple of things into play now where we feel secure in our representation. And everyone feels confident enough to be able to do this now.