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Blondie’s Debbie Harry & Chris Stein Talk Career Wins and Misses, From ‘Better Call Saul’ Synch to Almost Recording With Phil Spector

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Even with streaming services dominating music consumption, there ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby, and physical music – from vinyl to expansive box sets – is experiencing a resurgence that’s proving to be a boon for tactile superfans.

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Blondie

10 Best Box Sets of 2022

Blondie fans were gifted with one of the best box sets in recent memory this year with Against the Odds: 1974-1982, which tracks the band’s unlikely evolution from scrappy CBGB mainstays to chart-topping pop powerhouses. One of the premier bands who funneled the energy and ethos of punk into punchy pop songs in the vein of Brill Building hits, Blondie was also the most successful act to emerge from the NYC punk scene, topping the Billboard Hot 100 four times from 1979-81.

Beyond rounding up the remastered albums from the band’s first era, Against the Odds boasts illuminating lo-fi demos from 1974-75 – including a Shangri-Las cover and irresistibly cheeky rarities such as “Puerto Rico” — as well as selections from an album they might have made with disco super-producer Giorgio Moroder in a different timeline. And the liner notes – oftentimes an exercise in rose-tinted adoration or an afterthought in some box sets – are perfectly executed by Erin Osmon, providing thoughtful context and wry anecdotes.

It’s no surprise that Against the Odds is up for best historical album at the 2023 Grammy Awards, for which voting recently began. But it might be a surprise that the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers (who could also make the Songwriters Hall of Fame next year) have yet to win a Grammy despite their undeniable impact on generations of musicians from numerous genres.

Riding high on the tide of Against the Odds, co-founders Debbie Harry and Chris Stein hopped on a Zoom with Billboard to discuss everything from TikTok to a “garage” of unreleased tapes they’re sitting on to almost working with Phil Spector back in the day.

So what was the impetus behind pulling together this massive box set. Was the label looking for something or did you guys feel like you needed to get this out?

Chris Stein: The label is not like it used to be. It’s not the serfdom it used to be where we were the serfs. It mostly came from having all the tapes, just a garage full of tapes that followed me around.

Debbie Harry: I think what happened was that Chris started to have everything digitized –

Chris: We were working at this studio called The Magic Shop downtown [Manhattan], where Bowie did Blackstar, all this amazing music came out of there. We were the last band in there as they closed — they got pushed out by rent. And the owner, Steve Rosenthal, has a digitizing company [MARS]. So we started talking, Tommy [Camuso] and me, about doing all the tapes that I have. I have a literal garage full of tapes and he has all that stuff and we’re going over it gradually.

Debbie: You mean there’s more! [laughs] Oh no.

So even now we’re just scratching the surface. What kind of material is left? Are we talking unreleased songs?

Chris: Probably, yeah? There’s more stuff. I was pleased that people gravitated toward the weird-ass demos and all these little odds and ends [on the box set]. It’s stuff that’s been in the back of our [gestures to head] whatever for years.

The first song on the first disc, which actually appears in two different versions on this set, is a cover of the Shangri-Las’ “Out in the Streets.” But in the liner notes, Chris, you said you initially weren’t all that into the girl group sound.

Chris: When I was a little kid I thought it was like Justin Bieber, I thought it was too commercial and I didn’t pay attention to it. Then I started the band situation and realized how brilliant all that stuff was. Now, I find it really weird that this whole generation of kids on TikTok is drawn to the one little phrase in “Walking In the Sand,” one of the Shangri-Las’ songs: “oh no, oh no, oh no no.” Most of the kids don’t even know what the f–k it is I’m sure. It’s a strange phenomenon to me.

You can certainly hear the influence of girl group on the early Blondie records. And aside from the New York Dolls, there weren’t a lot of other punk bands making explicit girl group references back then.

Debbie: The reason I got to sing on the Ramones record [“Go Lil’ Camaro Go”] was because of that. They told me they really liked that about my voice and we did do some kind of acknowledgment to those songs, and that’s why they put me on.

Chris: Debbie is the only female on a Ramones record.

What was that session like?

Debbie: Pretty straight ahead. It’s not really a complicated melody musically and it’s a song about a car. (laughs)

One thing this box set makes evident that people might not realize is how early “Heart of Glass” [released in 1979] was percolating in the band’s story, titled “Once I Had a Love” as far back as 1975 and then “The Disco Song” at one point. What made it take so long to get right?

Chris: It happens. Some of these songs I have on this new record we just finished are 10 years old. It just happens. Everybody – writers, directors – have germs that stay with them for long periods.

Did you ever think of just giving up on it?

Chris: We were always doing so much stuff simultaneously, and it was just always there.

Debbie: We were doing pre-production with Mike Chapman [on Parallel Lines] and we played him a bunch of songs, ran through everything, and Mike said, “Yeah, yeah, do you have anything else?” And that was it.

Blondie Box set

In the liner notes, you describe how Chapman’s approach to Parallel Lines was a bit more intense than what you were used to on previous albums Blondie and Plastic Letters. You’re still making music, so what do you prefer to do these days – get it done quick, or obsess over take after take?

Chris: We work with John Congleton and he’s more immediate, but everyone’s skill set is different. We work with different musicians now and some of these guys are masters, more so than we were back then for sure. There’s a lot of variables. I don’t know if Chapman was quite at a Stanley Kubrick level with the takes but it felt like that occasionally.

Debbie: I think [Richard] Gottehrer [producer on Blondie and Plastic Letters] always recorded us much the way they record jazz bands — he went for that moment, that feeling, that interaction. And Chapman was the tone Meister. He was used to making things for radio and the pop format. He’d done all those bands in Europe and the U.K. and that was his method.

Chris: The first two records where much more live. The whole band would play and we’d do a couple overdubs. Parallel Lines was certainly pieced together, which I really enjoy: I like the layering process. It’s more precise and a different approach entirely. It was educational. Chapman had such a great bedside manner. He made it easier working really hard. He’s a funny, crazy guy. He’s a character in addition to having this ear and ability.

Giorgio Moroder, another producer you worked with [“Call Me”], certainly had an ear for radio. In the liner notes, Moroder said he was supposed to do an album with you guys but left because of the band’s in-fighting. Is that how you remember it?

Chris: Yeah, Giorgio just didn’t want to put up with our crazy bullsh-t.

Debbie: I think Giorgio was a much different – he was primarily a songwriter-producer, and he just cut to the chase. He didn’t want to deal with the subtleties or inner workings of a band. He made great stuff.

Do you have any regrets that album didn’t happen?

Debbie: No.

Chris: Yes, no, I don’t know. There’s lots of stuff. Phil Spector really wanted to do a record with us and I’m really glad we didn’t get into that. I heard all those insane stories about the Ramones and him.

You might have literally dodged a bullet.

Debbie: I don’t know, I sort of feel badly about what happened to him. There’s been a show on recently, a documentary [Spector on Showtime].

Chris: He shot that girl, no doubt.

Debbie: Yeah, I know. The people that worked with him said he reached a certain point and he lost it. He went to a bad place in his brain. And that’s a shame because he did some genius things and should be remembered for that.

Chris: There seems to be somebody else, a certain person in rap music, who’s having a public meltdown right now and should not have a lot of fan boys surrounding him and telling him how great he is all the time.

The box set also includes this crazy Christmas version of “Rapture” called “Yule Town Throw Down.” So… why is there a Christmas version of “Rapture”?

Chris: When we did the recording, we did it slower and decided it was too slow. I got the 2-inch tapes of the slower version and brought it into my studio and put myself, [Fab 5] Freddy and Debbie on it. It was for a British magazine called Flexipop! that had a little plastic disc with each issue and that was the Christmas issue. So that was floating around for a long time.

There’s also an alternate, slightly experimental version of “The Tide Is High” with Walter Steding on this set that’s beautiful.

Chris: He’s a really eccentric musician. There’s a violin on the original, the Paragons’ original, which is really interesting to me. I can’t think of another reggae song with a violin, period. And all the horn lines on our final version are based on that violin line. So it was referential.

“Union City Blue” is one of my favorite Blondie songs, but it wasn’t a hit. Do you have any favorite Blondie songs that you wish had been bigger?

Debbie: Well, this morning I woke up singing “Nothing Is Real But the Girl” [from No Exit] and I don’t know why. It’s funny how different songs come into my mind for no apparent reason. Some of those darker, less famous tracks are really great. I would love to be playing them live. It’s frustrating. We could do a three-hour show, and I’d probably die, but I’d love to play a lot of those songs. I’d love to do a thing where we’d stay at a club for a week and do a lot of material. That would be fun. There’s a lot of stuff.

Chris: Maybe we could get Bruce to come up instead of you. All his shows are like five hours, right?

He is the marathon man. You should do a residency! People would love that.

Debbie: We’ll see. Maybe it’ll happen.

The Hunter was the last Blondie album of that first era. It didn’t connect with fans in the same way your previous albums had. Did you care at the time?

Chris: I was mostly disappointed in the cover. [Smiling] The cover is bad. There’s some great stuff on there. It was a lower period for us personally. Things were in decline and it reflects that. If it had a better cover maybe people would see it as a breakup album or some bullsh-t.

Debbie: I don’t even remember what’s on there except for “The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game.”

Chris: “English Boys” is a good song. “Island of Lost Souls” was released in the U.K. as a single as the same time the f–king Falklands [an undeclared war between the U.K. and Argentina] were going on, and they all decided it was about that, even though it had nothing to do with that.

Debbie: We did okay with “War Child,” it was good for a show.

There’s a lot of great covers on this box set, too: The Doors, Johnny Cash. How did you decide what artists to cover?

Chris: Just what we liked. We covered so much stuff. We were always talking about doing a Pin Ups record of covers [like Bowie’s 1973 album]. We always did Stones songs over the years, we did that Beatles song, “Please Please Me.” We played that many times over the last 10 years.

Debbie: Especially when we get to Liverpool.

Chris: I always tell younger bands to do covers so if people aren’t familiar with your material, it’s an automatic connection.

Blondie songs are certainly still a part of the collective cultural consciousness.

Chris: Everything is about soundtracking now. We’re lucky we have songs that represent the period. I can’t believe we got a song [“The Tide Is High”] in Better Call Saul. Having a song in the Breaking Bad universe was f–king amazing.

Debbie: He can die now. (laughs)

Chris: And the thing in The Boys. [Jensen Ackles as Soldier Boy] doing the rap [from “Rapture”] was great.

Debbie: Oh God, that was great.

So you pay attention when your songs crop up?

Chris: I do a lot of TV watching. More than listening to music. I get so much new music in front of me from looking at TikTok and Instagram Reels. And I have teenage daughters, too. There’s so much great modern stuff, it’s limitless.

Do you enjoy TikTok?

Chris: I wind up on Instagram more. What I hate about TikTok is that everybody makes a video and then they lure you in with “now look for part 2” and it’s impossible to find. There’s a lot of really great stuff on there. But also tons of garbage.

Certainly true of any medium. Against the Odds is up for best historical album at the 2023 Grammys. What would it mean to see that album win a Grammy?

Chris: It would be nice to get the thing. We got a Clio, an advertising award. It’s not even in EGOT.

You could say it’s in the CEGOT. After the box set was completed, what did it feel like seeing the band’s first period all laid out?

Debbie: I mean, great. A lot of good times. A lot of satisfaction. When you come up with something good it makes you feel great. The shows are really fun. I can’t imagine what my life would have been without it. I guess that’s a good sign.

Chris: Being any kind of an artist, it becomes such a large part of your make-up. I encourage everybody to become more creative.

Debbie, before this, you released a well-received memoir, Face It, in 2019. So you’ve done a good deal of looking back recently.

Debbie: Now, I’m reading a book [Don’t Call Me Home] by Alexa Auder, Viva’s daughter, and I love the way she deals with these deep emotional things. It almost makes me think I should have gone deeper. But Chris’ book is coming out — it will be really historical and great and full of insight. I’m looking forward to it, I’ve only read 50 pages. How far have you gotten?

Chris: It’s like 100,000 words at this point. I keep tweaking it. There’s so much stuff it’s nuts. I have this Zelig-like relationship to the music culture where I was in so many places at the right moment, including New York in the ‘70s and San Francisco in ’67, ’68, all of that stuff. It goes on and on.

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