“We’re climbing down off of Mount Olympus to speak with you,” says Debbie Harry with a laugh, accepting Blondie’s Godlike Genius Award with all the graciousness and wicked humour you’d expect from a genuine pop culture icon. “No, it’s great you know. It’s out of proportion, but it’s nice to be recognised. It’s outstanding, really.”
It’s certainly no less than they deserve. This year Blondie celebrate their 40th anniversary as a band, having formed as an underground punk band in New York in 1974 before grasping widespread attention with the release of their classic 1978 record ‘Parallel Lines’. On their four decade journey from Greenwich Village and the Bowery they’ve become muses for Andy Warhol, made disco classics like ‘Call Me’ with Giorgio Moroder and even helped New York’s burgeoning hip hop scene reach a wider audience with the Fab Five Freddy-referencing ‘Rapture’.
All of which more than prepares them to assume their rightful place in the NME pantheon. “It’s an outstanding list,” says Debbie of the other Godlike Genius recipients. “I also find it particularly interesting that there aren’t many Americans who’ve been given this award before, so that’s flattering.”
“Yeah, I mean, the Beach Boys aren’t even on there, so there you go!” adds guitarist Chris Stein. “We’ve always had a special relationship with the UK. I love The Cure and listen to their stuff all the time. And The Clash is The Clash, you know? What more can you say about them?”
“There are a lot of ‘rock’ bands on the list so far,” says Debbie, who considers their inclusion even more of a compliment given how musically varied their own output has been. “We’ve always done different things that we like and that reflect what we’re influenced by. We are a metropolitan New York City band whose influences come to bear in the music that we make. Now we have so much more ‘world’ influence on us through the internet, and I think those sounds have become something distinctively part of Blondie.”
So just like The Cure, The Clash and all the rest, we’re giving Blondie the finger. In the best possible way, of course. Where are they gonna put it? “Awards tend to just get strewn about. My Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame thing is just up on a shelf with a bunch of toys, smoking rabbits and my Andy Warhol skull. Somehow I’m in possession of the actual skull that he used for his paintings,” laughs Chris.
“That’s appropriate, I think,” says Debbie. “I have mine on a shelf with a couple of little Warhol dollar signs.”
As for the Awards Show night itself, the band feel like they’re in finely-tuned form ahead of their performance. “I think this is the best version of Blondie that we’ve had of all time,” says Debbie. “All the guys are really great players and that means when I walk out there I feel really excited about playing. I look forward to playing new songs, having a good time and working with the audience. I think in our earlier days we were often distracted by other problems or struggles that we were having, but now we’ve sort of got through a lot of the difficulties that young bands often go through establishing their business. We’re just glad to be playing music, really.”
Having survived so long in the entertainment business, they’ll have a few pearls of advice to dish out to the NME Newcomers. “My main advice is always that enthusiasm is not enough,” says Chris. “One has to practice also. You have to work on your skills. Enthusiasm helps but it’s just part of the equation. The model has changed since we were starting out. When we started there was nobody in rock and pop who was in their 50s or 60s. The only people who were that age were the old blues guys, who were also my heroes. In fact, when I was a teenager all my heroes were 60 years old anyway. People like Bukka White and Muddy Waters.”
That’s not to say that Blondie are ready for the Rock’n’Roll Old People’s Home just yet. This year they have a new album called ‘Ghosts Of Download’ coming out alongside a reworked greatest hits package dubbed ‘Blondie 4(0) Ever’. Chris is also putting out a book of his photography alongside an accompanying exhibition. These Godlike Geniuses have no plans to hang up their halos. “I know we’d like to keep recording and making music,” says Debbie. “Whether we can actually drag our withered old bones out onto the road to promote it in the future is another story, but right now I feel pretty good about doing shows.”
As you’d expect, the veterans of New York’s CBGB and Studio 54 are looking forward to the NME Awards party as much as the performance. “I always look forward to meeting people who I’ve never met before,” says Debbie. “But then again I really wish that people like Joe Strummer could be there. There’s a bittersweet aspect to that.”
“I still always get star-struck,” adds Chris. “I’m just as much of a fan as the next guy.”
“It should be a nice, chaotic night,” says Debbie. “I imagine there’ll be a lot of poking fun at people. It’ll be good to hang out, to see old friends, to be honoured so nicely and to play music. What could be better?”
Originally published in NME, 8 February 2014.