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Parallel Lives: Blondie by Dick Porter and Kris Needs - review

Atomic bombshell.

It wasn’t the way she looked so much as the way she looked – the way her glittery eyes seemed to gaze straight out of the TV, as if she saw you, knew you, liked you well enough to tease you. Apart from Debbie Harry, the only pop star who ever zapped through the screen as perfectly as this was David Bowie. His alchemical performance of “Starman” on Top of the Pops can still unnerve. Why is he smiling like that? What does he know? When Shirley Manson of Garbage inducted Blondie into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, she described Harry as “the most beautiful girl in any room in any city on any planet”.

I thought for a while that I might be able to review this book without once mentioning Harry’s looks. Instead, I would write about how great she is as a lyricist – “Heart of Glass” alone containing three of the best pop phrasings ever, from the flip aside of “mucho mistrust” to the exquisitely acute “lost inside adorable illusion” to the bittersweet “we could have made it cruising”. I would write about her musical fearlessness, fronting a band that encompassed both punk and disco at a point in time (the mid-1970s) when that wasn’t unlike walking around Belfast saying, hey, you were Protestant and Catholic. I would write about her voice, her fine intelligence, her important position in the cultural history of New York City.

However, a blindfold approach would be false. Because – despite her other virtues –  Harry’s looks were what made Blondie. For a start, “the name for Chris and Debbie’s unstable band drew directly from the New York streets. ‘The street noise was, “Hey, Blondie! Hey, Blondie!” I’m like, “Jesus . . .” Because we were trying to think of a band name and there it was, right in front of me.”

Blondie’s second manager, Peter Leeds, put it all too plainly: “None of [the band] appreciated how second rate they were without her.” “Second rate” would have to be stretched quite a long way to cover Chris Stein, Blondie’s guitarist, main songwriter and – for want of a better term – musical director. It would also have trouble accommodating Blondie’s beast of a drummer Clem Burke, the man who would be Ringo. And the relative unsuccess of Harry’s solo records suggests that there was something very basic about strong-beautiful-woman-fronting-tight-cool-band that Leeds failed to get.

What Leeds did get was paid – something the band, until reforming in 1997, almost never did. Unpaid tax bills from the band’s 1979-81 peak led to the musicians being told “basically there’s $25,000 left in the Blondie account. Make arrangements to pay your bills, don’t count on another penny from Blondie.” The mundane moral of this rise and fall is given by Harry: “When you get into a band you think it’s all about music . . . The reality is that most young musicians could do with a crash course in accounting.”

In 1981, when he was called in to produce Blondie’s sixth album, The Hunter, Mike Chapman saw that, “The wonderful world of clever and intensely catchy pop songs had turned into hell.” By the end of the next year, Blondie had broken up and Stein had been diagnosed as suffering pemphigus vulgaris, an autoimmune disorder. At the time, Harry said, “My life, my career, my home – they mean nothing to me when he’s like this.”

The “parallel lives” of Dick Porter’s and Kris Needs’s title are those of Blondie and New York City. The book gives a thorough but rarely thrilling account of the musicians and their milieu. The final third is the most revealing. Based on new interviews with Harry and Stein, it lets us behind the scenes of what Porter and Needs rather cruelly call “the ice cream years”. During this time, Stein was recovering, Harry was changing – mentally and physically. Her looks would no longer be “the ticket”.

At this point, quoting F Scott Fitzgerald’s “no second acts in American lives” becomes unavoidable – and Porter and Needs bow to this by calling their penultimate chapter “The Second Act”. With the number one single “Maria” in 1999, Blondie properly came back. They continued, and continue, to make the kind of raggedly eclectic albums that their record companies had always hated. But then Blondie had never been big on polished perfection. Their difficulty was that, for a very brief time, they – and their singer – achieved it.

Omnibus Press, 304pp, £19.95

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader