The Tide's Still High

Nearly 30 years into Blondie's career, the highlights still shine through.

Blondie has more fun: The new album flaunts the fire - of the band's heyday.
Blondie has more fun: The new album flaunts the fire of the band's heyday.
When Deborah Harry sneered, "She's so dull, come on, rip her to shreds," on the 1976 album Blondie, the sentiment referred to the song's hipster-groupie wannabe, who sported "Red eye shadow! Green mascara! Yuck!" Nearly 30 years later, these words seem better suited to describe the way Blondie itself railed against vapid, saccharine pop tarts. Harry was the antithesis of the demure and safe female singer, a tough fashion plate with street smarts, smoky bedroom eyes, and the voice of a devious angel capable of luring men into trysts or stabbing them with stilettos.

Blondie filtered the elegance of Motown girl groups through the gritty late-'70s/early '80s N.Y.C. art-punk scene. Its debut 45, "X Offender" (later Blondie's first track), exuded a tarnished shimmer, and the band maintained the edgy attitude even as it shifted into pop overdrive on ABBAesque glam slams ("Atomic"), disco trifles ("Heart of Glass"), and slinky rap ("Rapture").

And though the band broke up in 1982, Blondie's fluidity of sound and Harry's iconic branding still saturate today's fabulous femmes: Xtina's sexual liberation, Brit-Brit's stylish flair, Shirley Manson's snarling tenderness, Gwen Stefani's hip-hop crossover attempts -- not to mention No Doubt's keyboard coos -- and the Raveonettes' girl-group chiming all owe the platinum pinup big-time. But Harry's not content to be the complacent matriarch to any modern starlets: Blondie's second studio disc since the band re-formed in 1998, The Curse of Blondie, sees the band retaining its feisty creativity.

"We have worked together for all these years, so . . . we all know what we're supposed to be doing," Harry says of the band, which includes co-founder/guitarist Chris Stein and longtime members Clem Burke (drums) and Jimmy Destri (keyboards), as well as guitarist Paul Carbonara and bassist Leigh Foxx. "We try to put a bunch of this and a bunch of that, and everybody gets to have their say. We have been known to have to survive little temper tantrums. Like brothers and sisters. Like any family. [But] it ends up being a passionate experience -- which, for us, makes a good record."

Indeed, Curse certainly isn't the sound of a band that's phoning in past glories. "Rules for Living" and the Garbage-like "Undone" update Blondie's bell-pealing choruses with computer-swizzled effects, "Background Melody (The Only One)" swings to a carefree reggae beat, and "Diamond Bridge" -- a new-wave stomper nudged along by subtle blasts of Nile Rodgers-reminiscent funk -- should make Duran Duran jealous they didn't write it first. "The Tingler" and top-10 Billboard dance hit "Good Boys" are glitzy robo-disco spawn, while "Last One in the World" is a propulsive, radio-ready hard rocker.

In the song "Shakedown," the album even contains a streetwise nod to Blondie's early rock-rap fusions. A wickedly phrased shout-out to Harry's home state of New Jersey ("I'm so sick of your Jersey rap/Your slab rat white as a tic-tac/Why don't you take a dirt nap?"), the metal-plated tune, she hoped, would be a perfect fit for the goombas on HBO's mobster-soap The Sopranos. No word yet from the show's producers.

"I'm losing hope; I don't know if they're interested," she laments. "But the reason I wanted to be on the show was that I love what they do after the story -- they neatly tie music into . . . the credit roll at the end; it always seems to have some relationship to the plot of that particular episode. I just thought, 'Oh my God, it would be so cool to have "Shakedown" [on the show],' 'cause it had some of those things in it."

Harry isn't so enthusiastic about the Garden State infiltrating her singing, however. She says her "crazy Jersey accent" occasionally prevents her from "making the best sounds possible," so she's recently worked with a vocal coach, particularly on pronunciation. This, after almost 30 years?

"Well, I guess I've always been lucky," she says. "Somehow or other, I've managed to survive a lot of touring and a lot of hard singing. I don't know why; I can't really say."

Harry's voice, in fact, has never sounded stronger. More than anything, the lessons have helped her adapt to the fact that her voice just isn't as airy or fragile as it was in Blondie's earliest days. Which certainly isn't a negative thing: Her rich phrasing on the Joey Ramone homage "Hello Joe" and "Golden Rod" demonstrates a welcome depth and experience.

The emotive intensity is unsurprising, given Harry's parallel acting career. She will soon be appearing in two independent short films; she also had recent parts in My Life Without Me and Spun. She even earned a spot on 2004's VH1 Divas cheesefest, on which she dueted with Philly rapper Eve on "Rapture."

Harry appeared on that show alongside Cyndi Lauper, another '80s icon who rattled the status quo. Their career paths were somewhat analogous during that decade: Lauper, like Harry, dabbled in theatrical performance, managing wrestler Wendi Richter and becoming a Technicolor liaison between MTV and the WWF. Blondie, too, once boasted not-so-well-known ties to wrestling. "Chris [Stein] and I used to go to all the matches, long before Cyndi took up the banner," Harry says. "We used to always go and hang out, and we met Lou [Albano] and the Hulk and Andre the Giant and the Grand Wizard and all these guys. Chris was such a fan; he was just so crazy for wrestling. So then, years later, Cyndi sort of became involved with it, as being part of the show, which I thought was cool."

Blondie's current live show, unsurprisingly, features no shortage of the band's many hits. But Curse is also adequately represented, keeping concerts from devolving into a sort of schlocky Vegas revue. Could the need to strike that balance be a part of the "curse" to which the album title refers?

"I haven't really figured it out yet," Harry laughs. "I think [the title's] supposed to be funny. Ironic, I suppose." She laughs again. "I hate to use that word. It's sort of the Catch-22 of life. You're damned if you do, damned if you don't. That sort of says it all."