Star, 134pp, 1980
1980 saw the publication of two books about Blondie. One of them, by Lester Bangs, has been much written about; Bangs dashed off his book’s 96 pages in just a few days, with the finished product infamously critical of the band. The other book, by freelance rock journalist Fred Schruers, is less celebrated but was no less hastily produced. Speaking about the biography in a 2001 interview on the Rock Critics’ website, even Schruers himself had to describe it as a “true quickie, albeit with some generous cooperation from the band.”
The book covers the band’s formation and history up until the period after the release of their fourth album, Eat to the Beat. That record was the first to be accompanied by videos for every song, although at the time of the book’s writing Blondie’s video albums, along with others on the same format by Todd Rundgren and Bruce Springsteen, had yet to be released. The problem, Schruers notes, was that the American Federation of Musicians had yet to set a figure for royalty payments to the artists. The plan was to offer a higher royalty for video albums because “bootlegging of the material is easy and prevalent,” Blondie founding member and guitarist Chris Stein explains. Little could Stein or the Federation have imagined the bigger problems the music industry would one day face from other forms of consumer technology.
Of course, the real source of fascination in the book is Debbie Harry. The cover of the Schruers’ biography is almost a colour-reversed, morning-after version of that by Lester Bangs: a dreamy, soft-focus shot of the singer in a yellow dress on a red background is the cover of his book, while Schruers’ features a tired-looking Harry in red on a yellow background. The Schruers book opens with ‘Call Me’ at number one in the American charts, and features a memorable image of Harry and partner Stein “propped up in their double bed like Mr and Mrs Punk America, Chris rewiring his custom guitar while Debbie kept tabs on a miniature TV and a console phone that gave forth an electronic purr every five or ten minutes.”
Any hopes that this might be the start of some revealing insights are quickly dashed, though, as we’re soon back on the familiar ground of cheap fan biographies with quotes from newspaper articles, a skim through Debbie Harry’s early career and a dutiful run-through of Blondie’s contractual problems as they hit the big time. That Harry’s fame and beauty made her the subject of obsessive male behaviour is nicely illustrated in one of the book’s few quirky diversions when we hear about a dodgy friend of the author named Hank:
Hank had been attracted, I guess, by the infamous poster of Debbie looking dangerously fetching in a see-through black top. So was I. But I hadn’t anticipated arriving at the Central Park tennis courts to find Hank posting the lyrics to ‘Rip Her to Shreds’ on the inner surface of his locker door. [. . .] This was the start of Hank’s long punk infatuation. I was frankly embarrassed by Hank’s behavior around the Central Park courts that summer of ’77. I would see the regular matrons, the ones with skin made leathery from years of standing in the sun swatting 60mph backhands, recoil as Hank drew close to fetch a stray ball. “She’s makin’ out with King Kong,” he would be singing, sotto voce. “Should take a boat to Hong Kong. Well, bye, bye sugar. . .”
Hank’s infatuation aside, there’s a more interesting tale about Blondie’s early career covered in other books about the period, including Will Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York that Changed Music Forever. It’s hard to believe now, but Hermes notes that Blondie were once considered the CBGB band least likely to succeed. They were in the pop-rock camp, which didn’t go down well with the art-rock scene centred around Patti Smith and Television. “I may be paranoid,” Hermes quotes Harry as saying, “but I think that whole clique wanted to destroy us.”
The remainder of Schruers’ book is padded out – and there’s no other term for it – with interviews with the other members of the band, including a very long transcription of an interview with Blondie’s third founding member, Jimmy Destri. He at least enlivens proceedings with his observations on the differences between two of the band’s high profile producers:
‘Giorgio [Moroder] is a brilliant opportunist. Mike [Chapman] is a brilliant artist who cares less about opportunity than he cares about his gut. Giorgio mixes from the checkbook. Mike mixes from the gut.’
Blondie ultimately doesn’t bring us much closer to the enigmatic Debbie Harry, with one exception – a long quote from the singer sourced from an interview Schruers had previously carried out for Rolling Stone:
‘I’m against the idea that rock stars have to live a life that’s completely understandable or predictable to their audience. [. . .] There should be a female available for people to have some sort of dream about as a performer, like, “What is she really like?” Maybe I’ll just be the mysterious figure that’ll never be able to be truly defined. Maybe that’s what my thing is.’
Almost 40 years on, you might reasonably conclude that Harry was right. And Dodgy Hank, if you’re still around, I hope you’re still listening to Blondie and love their most recent single as much as I do.