In the ’70s and ’80s, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein churned out a long string of classic hits as the creative forces behind the band Blondie. The band goes on tour this summer, and through May 24th, Chris’s photographs of Debbie — and the rock legends they hung with — are on display at the Paul Smith store in L.A.
The photographs are taken from Chris’s photo book called, “Chris Stein / Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk.” When Rico met with the duo, he started by asking Chris about the club gig in 1974 where he met Debbie (after which, for several years, they were a couple). At the time, she was fronting a band called The Stilettos.
Chris Stein: I remember how struck I was by Debbie, and her presence and stuff, and you know… I can’t really remember the musicality of it that much.
Rico Gagliano: It didn’t strike you as the best band that had ever been?
Chris Stein: It was okay… but Debbie was really great. Even back then, before she had achieved her final form.
Rico Gagliano: What about her performance do you remember?
Chris Stein: Uh…
Debbie Harry: Not much!
Chris Stein: I remember you had your silver outfit on…
Debbie Harry: I had a silver sweater, yeah.
Chris Stein: Silver sweater, and short dark hair, and she was just really striking, you know?
Rico Gagliano: Did you have your camera with you at that time?
Chris Stein: No, no. Back in those days — unlike today, where everybody has access to some sort of photography every second of their lives — when I would go to concerts I would frequently say, “Well I’m either gonna bring my camera and deal with that, or I’m gonna watch the show.” So I would often opt to watch the show.
Rico Gagliano: And therefore huge chunks of history are lost to time!
Chris Stein: And to my memory, because the photographs enhance my failing memory.
Rico Gagliano: Do you, Debbie, remember that meeting? Meeting Chris for the first time at that show?
Debbie Harry: Oh yeah, I do. He was very nice…
Rico Gagliano: Clearly.
Debbie Harry: … I think we were talking in the stairwell after the show.
Chris Stein: Yeah very briefly, it was pretty brief.
Debbie Harry: It was just a slimy little bar and…
Rico Gagliano: They mostly were in New York back then.
Debbie Harry: … I thought that Chris looked really great. And then later on we needed a bass player. Chris joined the Stilettos, and that’s how we started working together.
Rico Gagliano: Did you start taking photos of Debbie immediately?
Chris Stein: Pretty early on, yes. Started getting… I don’t know if “serious” is the right word, but I started more actively taking photographs around 1968. I had been in art school — School of Visual Arts. It was just what I did, and she was there and she was my girlfriend, and we just were taking pictures, you know?
I say to kids now, “You know, all you guys taking pictures of your friends, you never know where it’s gonna wind up in 40 years!”
Rico Gagliano: “Archive that stuff.”
Chris Stein: Yeah.
Rico Gagliano: You say in your introduction to the book, Debbie, that Chris is “a voyeur.” Which would imply that you didn’t mind be gazed at. Where do you think that comes from? Not everybody is comfortable with that.
Debbie Harry: You know it’s funny, because it’s a two sided thing. I felt at ease, I felt comfortable with Chris, and it was sort of funny watching him. You know?
Rico Gagliano: So you were watching him as well.
Debbie Harry: ‘Cause he was sort of… he would talk to himself and struggle around, you know, trying to get it right. And he would work very hard, he was a perfectionist. And I think there was a certain sexual content or relationship, obviously, that transfer into the photos, definitely.
Rico Gagliano: Was there a point where it was kinda like, “Put that camera away, this is too intimate?”
Debbie Harry: No, I don’t think so.
Chris Stein: No, I don’t really remember that. I could always tell when something wasn’t appropriate. Like you know, if she was flipping out and throwing things against the wall, I wouldn’t be there taking pictures of it.
Debbie Harry: That’s too bad!
Rico Gagliano: You do let it all hang out a little bit in some of these photos. There’s a photo of the apartment that you stayed at, I think it was in the Bowery, and it looks like a hurricane hit it.
Chris Stein: We were just sloppy, you know? Both of us are borderline hoarders and we have maintained that lifestyle.
Rico Gagliano: Is that right?
Debbie Harry: Hoarders? Yes.
Chris Stein: Yes.
Rico Gagliano: What do you hoard?
Debbie Harry: I mean, I don’t know if we were truly hoarders…
Chris Stein: We didn’t have enough money for any really good stuff, you know.
Debbie Harry: We couldn’t buy stuff, we had to find it.
Rico Gagliano: So we’re talking about aesthetics. We’re talking about art and photography. Inevitably it makes me think about your band, which was very aesthetically driven. You had the guys in dark suits… Debbie wearing whatever she’s rocking that day, with her blonde hair kind of in contrast… Tell me about creating the aesthetics of the band.
Chris Stein: There was very little preconception with anything that went into Blondie, including what we look like. And certainly the guys were all drawn to the mod look, the mod aesthetic from the U.K., you know.
Rico Gagliano: Well, you say “certainly,” but that’s not obvious! Especially at the time, you’ve got the Ramones running around in jeans and leather jackets…
Chris Stein: Yeah.
Rico Gagliano: … It seems like a choice.
Chris Stein: Yeah, but that was just what everybody liked, you know? I grew up seeing the Rat Pack and James Bond, with all the tailored suits with the thin lapels and everybody was rebelling against the wide lapels that had come out of the disco era and the ’70s. So we were all attracted to narrow lapels.
Rico Gagliano: And it just happened that you all just showed up one day and you’re all wearing dark suits?
Debbie Harry: No, I think that, you know, it was a bit organized. Having to present an image, it was easy to achieve — it was easy to buy these things cheaply, because nobody wore them. So you could find them at the junk store.
Chris Stein: There was a lot of really great stuff from the ’60s available in the early and mid ’70s .
Debbie Harry: Yeah.
Chris Stein: Which has all been long absorbed.
Debbie Harry: It’s gone.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, well now it’s worth hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Chris Stein: Yeah — it’s crazy. You know, I remember the first time we came out here…
Rico Gagliano: To L.A.
Chris Stein: … Yeah, L.A. And we played at The Whiskey, and the first time we went to The Whiskey, there was a party going on for this band called The Hollywood Stars. And these guys were like the old guard — they all had scarves and bell-bottoms, you know? And that was kind of the end of an era — I don’t know what happened to the Hollywood Stars! But then we started playing there, with the suits and the ties and stuff, and over the course of several weekends we noticed all the kids in the audience were showing up with suits and ties etcetera.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah. That’s where suddenly you have [suit-wearing] bands like The Knack. Actually, what did that feel like? You were doing something that’s very unusual — both of you were wearing outfits that were kind of unusual for the era — and then people start aping you?
Debbie Harry: I think The Knack came along a lot later.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah.
Debbie Harry: So we didn’t have to have them killed.
Rico Gagliano: That’s nice!
Debbie Harry: I think we found it flattering at first.
Chris Stein: Yeah, that’s just like… maybe most of the theft came later, with lots of blonde girls fronting bands!
Rico Gagliano: That’s actually a question I wanted to ask you: I’m told that a big no-no is to refer to you, Debbie, as “Blondie.” The band is Blondie, you are not Blondie.
Debbie Harry: Yeah — everybody calls me Blondie, and actually I came up with the name…
Chris Stein: Yeah.
Debbie Harry:… because I had bleached my hair, and it became obvious. But it just seemed, you know, inappropriate for me to take title to the name. We all shared in the corporation.
Rico Gagliano: But this must have caused some friction, eventually, because you are the only blonde member of the group! So people must have thought it was you!
Debbie Harry: I told them to bleach their hair! I tried; in the very beginning I said, “Everybody should bleach their hair!” [But they said] “Noooo! Noooo!”
Chris Stein: But do you know who The Hullaballoos were? Do you remember a band named The Hullaballoos?
Rico Gagliano: I don’t.
Chris Stein: All right — Google that.
Rico Gagliano: Okay.
Chris Stein: They all had like really long-ass blonde hair, and were very weird looking.
Rico Gagliano: Did you not want to look like them, was that the deal?
Chris Stein: Maybe. They had a very odd…
Debbie Harry: And the wrestlers always used to bleach their hair.
Rico Gagliano: That’s true! You don’t wanna evoke that!
Chris Stein: Yeah, Ric Flair, man! Come on, Ric Flair!
Debbie Harry: There was Gorgeous George long before that.
Chris Stein: Gorgeous George before that, yeah sure!
Debbie Harry: “Gorgeous George” would have been a good name though.
Chris Stein: Yeah, “Gorgeous George” would have been a good name for a band.