SOME PEOPLE are just cool. They ooze a sense of calmness, experience, and ability to take life in their stride.
Some of these people have also happened to be in the right place, in the right decade, at the right time, allowing them to be involved in one of the greatest underground rock’n’roll movements in music history. Chris Stein is one of those people.
Co-founder and guitarist with new wave band Blondie, Chris Stein was at the heart of CBGB venue in the 1970s when the club, in the Bowery on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, became the forum for punk and New Wave bands such as Blondie, Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, and Talking Heads.
And now, three years after their inaugural appearance at Galway Arts Festival, Chris Stein and Blondie return, to again play the Big Top, in the Fisheries Field on Wednesday July 20 at 7pm, and this time with a new album.
Blondie’s ninth studio album, Panic of Girls, sees the band glancing backwards but resolutely moving forward in the musical melting pop of New York city. The core trio of vocalist Debbie Harry, guitarist Chris Stein, and drummer Clem Burke have embraced younger band members, collaborated with up-and-coming producers, and discovered new songwriting partners while never merely chasing trends.
Speaking to the Galway Advertiser ahead of their Irish and British gigs, Chris Stein speaks of his new bandmates, referring to them as “kids”, and explains how they have brought a new energy to the band.
“We have some younger guys with me and Debbie now, Tommy Kessler brings a nice energy, and it’s great having Leigh, Matt, and Tommy with us,” he tells me.
Yet how did these “kids” become members of one of the greatest new wave bands to come out of New York? “I met Leigh about 20 years ago, he was playing with Yoko Ono at the time. Matt was recommended to us by a friend, and, well, Tommy auditioned,” explains Chris.
There’s no doubting the fact that Blondie have come a long with from CBGB and the Bowery, having sold more than 40 million albums globally, not that the thoughts of such heights of success has fazed Stein.
“Touring is a lot more relaxed now, we’ve been doing it for so long,” he says.
Like most other bands doing the rounds today, Blondie understand the importance of touring, which might have something to do with the eight year gap between The Curse of Blondie and Panic of Girls.
“Actually Panic of Girls has been ready for a couple of years, but you know record companies,” laughs Stein.
Blondie will be bringing all their old favourites on tour with them again including ‘One Way Or Another’, ‘Heart of Glass’, ‘Rapture’, and ‘Maria’.
“We’ll also be playing five or six new songs from the new album,” says Stein, “but we always make sure to throw in a few old songs. There’s a certain emotional content from the audience, so we play those songs for them,” says Stein.
Along with co-writing much of Blondie’s catalogue, Harry and Stein have been historically adept at spotting just the right songs to cover, and they have always offered the more industrious fan the chance to embark upon some crate-digging, musical detective work.
Here they are especially inspired with their choices: a rendition of the playfully scolding 1985 UK reggae hit, ‘Girlie’ first popularised by Jamaican singer Sophia George, and a lilting, reggae-tempo reworking of Brooklyn-based septet Beirut’s wistful ‘Sunday Smile’, which in its original form had an Eastern European feel.
Regarding the wide range of ideas and influences that distinguish Panic Of Girls - and, for that matter, all the work Blondie has produced since its inception in 1974 - has been the relationship between Chris Stein and Debbie Harry.
“We’ve always been keyed into what the other was thinking,” Stein says. “Maybe it’s some past life experience or something. Stuff goes between us that can very easily remain unsaid. We don’t have to talk a lot, we know what the other is thinking, and that’s always been going on.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Stein and Harry were life partners as well as musical partners, although they never married. In the mid-1980s, she took several years off to nurse Stein back to health after he became seriously ill. Stein and Harry broke up in the 1990s, but they remain friends and have continued to work together.
Debby Harry is a rock icon and her sassy vocals, good looks, and stage presence have always been a major factor in the band’s appeal. Stein, however says: “Debbie is a really humble person. She’s always amused by the attention.”
A portrait of Harry, created by the ultimate pop artist Andy Warhol, was sold for $5.9 million last week, something which seems to have taken the band by surprise.
“That portrait is a big thing,” says Stein. “We were lucky enough to be Warhol’s friends. I wish he had stayed around a bit longer. A lot of people miss him. I think if he was around now he’d be really embracing pop culture, especially people like Lady Gaga.”
It may have been four decades sine Blondie formed in the heart of a New Wave and underground culture, and they may have taken time out to raise families and gain younger band members, but they’ve never lost their cool.
Blondie are as relevant now as they ever were and a must see concert for every generation.