Ideally, the question for any band considering a reunion should be: Is there leftover art that hasn't been expressed? Often, whereas the original motivation grew out of artistic larvae, the reunited band's goal is to recapture success' elusive butterfly in a net profit. Sometimes it works -- the Buzzcocks' recent work is among the band's best, despite being patently ignored -- but sometimes it's the music-industry equivalent of holding out a collection bucket (the Sex Pistols). Everywhere you look are groups intent on exploiting their wild youth, adding a new wrinkle or two. Sadly, it's usually more for the band than the fans. Is anybody actually looking forward to the inevitable Cars reunion?
Blondie has a better chance than most of surviving the reformation craze. With Debbie Harry's purring sexuality remaining bold and beautiful, and the band's chameleonesque sense of musical adventure still on the prowl, Blondie has a right to be back. And, as hinted by Blondie's new album's title, No Exit, there was no way out of it.
"I sort of had it presented to me as a reality," says Chris Stein, oft regarded as the band's hidden genius. "I'd only previously thought about it casually. The No Exit title is about nobody being able to escape the Blondie identity." He mockingly laments, "Clem (Burke, drummer) keeps saying, 'It's a continuation,' and everybody moans because he says that every fuckin' time." Stein pauses. "But it is."
Usually an artist will eat up any praise for him using words like "pivotal" or "influential." But Stein doesn't bite. "It's hard for me to hear the influence," he says, "because to me, we're just playing stuff that influenced me. The stuff that I hear that sounds like us is like the stuff I listened to." Got that straight? Well, Stein's musical orientation was anything but: "Most of my major influences are from the '50s and '60s. I didn't even listen to Led Zeppelin when I was a kid, because I heard that in the Beatles, you know? All that metal stuff was already covered in the Beatles. I mean, I have a completely different perspective." Stein may not hear them, but that doesn't mean there aren't Blondie trees falling in the forest. Eighties knockoffs like Nervus Rex and Pearl Harbor and the Explosions were basically branches of Blondie. Later in the '80s, such combos as the Primitives and the Darling Buds wore (out?) a sound that's pure dyed Blondie. Today, subtle progeny like Garbage have built careers on the sexy-frontwoman-backed-by-anonymous-guys blueprint. Blondie even prefigured synth-pop with a seamless conjunction of disco flash and arty distance. And, most obvious, Harry is the overlooked precursor of Madonna -- a sort of feminist-fatale. Certainly she was the original material girl. Blondie metamorphosed from a post-Warholian British Invasion-inspired dance band into futuristic interpreters of world-flavored music. In the early '80s they had a huge hit with a cover of John Holt's "The Tide is High," previewing a new eclecticism that encompassed reggae and rap.
Stein is still excited about music. "I feel like there are styles passing through me," he relates. "Somebody said they thought No Exit would have fit perfectly between Eat to the Beat and Autoamerican." Those references might be lost on radio listeners who were born after punk -- or who were babies at the time and therefore wearing the wrong kind of safety pin. Now those dancing babies are punks. Can Blondie win them over? Stein believes good music prevails. "There are these kids upstairs from me that I produced a couple of tracks for," he says, "and they're totally rooted in Hendrix and old R&B. They add rap and house stuff to it, but it's very cool where they're coming from."
It's hard to imagine a band coming from a more diverse scene than that of late-'70s New York. Blondie, Television, the Ramones and Patti Smith all fit under one punk tent -- a place for camp and catharsis known as CBGB's. Then human nature took over. "Everyone was really copacetic at CBGB's," recalls Stein, "until the record companies showed up with the money, and then everybody got very competitive."
Though it's too soon to tell whether Blondie is the answer to America's pop prayers (critical reaction has been mixed), when the British say "Maria," it's almost like praying. "In England, that entered at No. 1," beams Stein of the first single, "and the album entered at No. 3."
No Exit features background vocals by the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club. Stein credits the punk kid with being integral to Blondie's success. "Jeffrey was president of the Blondie fan club, or up there, anyway. We met him in LA when he was about 19. And he's the one that's basically responsible for "Hangin' on the Telephone," because he sent us a tape of new, contemporary music from the period and 'Hangin' on the Telephone' was on the tape."
One advantage that Blondie has the second time around is fans in high places. Stein asks my age. When I answer, he notes, "There are a lot of people that age who are in the industry and the media now who were all our fans. And the first time around, there wasn't anything like that. You were still victims of that old-school mentality -- all the fuckin' guys with the cigars. There are a lot of people who want to have integrity now, they want to be honest. We certainly didn't get that the first time around.