Arts & crafts

Heart of Sass: The Contrary Genius of Deborah Harry

19 Apr 2022 | Written by By Carolyn O'Donnell

In the late Seventies, Blondie exploded globally with the album Parallel Lines and the transcendent disco-bending single Heart of Glass. Back then bands were mainly for boys, but in this group the front person was a charismatic and intelligent woman with a cool stare and sizzling beauty that entranced even Andy Warhol.  

The singer’s name was Deborah Harry, and she has continued to fascinate for more than four decades. These days the word icon is dispensed more liberally than hand sanitiser, but in this case it’s actually warranted. Harry’s been through the rock’n’roll wrangle, survived it all, and in the process made unforgettable music with Blondie while pushing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour for women. 

Harry was the high priestess of New York’s punk and new wave scene, which was defined by energy, grit and attitude. Or as Harry says: ‘Our goal was to be as exciting and cantankerous as possible.’

Harry was magnetic and slightly intimidating. Other female stars of that time, such as Olivia Newton-John, Donna Summer or even Stevie Nicks, weren’t trying to be cantankerous. They were politely coiffed and generally accommodating. They weren’t rolling their eyes, or peroxiding a shaggy mane snowy white and highlighting the artifice of it all by adding black stripes. 

Harry filled a need we didn’t know we had for women exuding edgy glamour, who challenged and disrupted but still had divinely sculpted eyes, mouth and cheekbones driving women – and possibly a few men – to sigh at mirrors in despair.

Warhol’s subject for a portrait in 1980, Harry says the late artist told her to ‘always to be open to new things’. In turn, Warhol said if he could have anyone else’s face, the one he’d choose would be hers.

When Harry belted her way through Hanging On The Telephone and growled about ripping the phone off the wall, it was easy to imagine that telecoms equipment wasn’t the only thing Harry wanted to tear apart. She wasn’t asking permission – she was telling you what was going down, and you better get with the programme.  

For me, a sheltered child focused on pets, the Manhattan music scene could have been located on Pluto. But even I registered the impact of the Harry bravado and pedestrian-crossing dye job. Back then I was a schoolgirl with a friend called Julia who quickly appointed Harry as her style guru and spirit guide. Harry instilled Julia with an urge to mount her own suburban insurgency, wearing jarring ensembles and swilling blackberry liqueur with inappropriate boys. Though it was pure Julia when she set fire to her parents’ bed. 

Not the first woman to parade DIY hairdressing or to plant a sneer on her face, Harry was the first to get the world’s attention doing it. Snarling or smiling – she alchemised subversion and charm in a potent distillation of modern stardom. 

She co-wrote most of Blondie’s biggest songs, including Heart of Glass, Atomic and Rapture – the first song featuring rap to hit number one. Blondie’s music has lasted because it’s creative, crossing genres and infused with a catchy pop sensibility. Dabbling in disco, the band were the first to take a reggae tune to the top of the charts with a cover of The Tide Is High

Call Me, their biggest hit was the theme to the 1980 film American Gigolo, which starred Richard Gere. The song’s genesis was courtesy of Italian disco producer Giorgio Moroder, who came up with an instrumental titled Man Machine. Harry added some melody, lyrics from the POV of a male prostitute keen on designer sheets and overtime et voila – another number one around the world. 

‘Women should not portray themselves as victims,’ Harry says and she never has, not even when attacked, broke, drug-addicted, stalked or pursued by the tax department. In the Eighties, she spent several years caring for Chris Stein, her partner for 13 years, during a protracted, life-threatening illness. 

Stein and Harry were a duo in 1974 when they formed what became Blondie. Splitting in 1982, the group reformed in 1997, periodically touring and releasing new material since then. 

As a girl, Harry was always attracted to walk on the blonde side, and after experimenting with bleach she attracted a lot of attention from truck drivers who called her Blondie. They were referring to her hair, and probably thinking of the titular character in the popular American comic strip Blondie. Published since 1930, the comic strip’s tales of Blondie Bumstead, wife of Dagwood and mother of Baby Dumpling, inspired 28 films between 1938 and 1950.  

Harry says she was influenced by the ‘femme fatale blondes of cinema’ and fantasised at one point that she was Marilyn Monroe’s daughter. The press took this statement literally, whereas Harry really meant she was a child of the pop culture heroes of the time, the people who loom with style and brilliance in our consciousness, much as Harry now does herself. 

Blondie was, however a short, snappy, effortlessly memorable name for a band and referenced Harry’s image, which was integral to the group. Blondie was a persona Harry created and also an extension of herself. To many, Harry and Blondie were one and the same. Blondie was always a band, but without Harry, you wouldn’t have Blondie. 

Harry’s origins have been well documented. Adopted at 3 months, she had a stable childhood in New Jersey where she rebelled gently with black dresses and beehives before moving to Manhattan where she was variously a go-go dancer, a Playboy Bunny and a secretary at the BBC. Her very first gig as a performer was with the church choir. 

You can’t say Harry hasn’t aged, because she has. She’s not the skinny vixen she was when she was 35 and at her punk princess peak. She admits that when you’ve had looks, it’s hard to lose them, but on the positive side, she’s a better performer now and enjoys it more. At 76, Harry brings a life full of experience to the stage, redefining what it means to be a woman in her eighth decade, and doing it with music that still resonates with thousands of fans around the world.  

Blondie tours the UK in April and May. For tickets and info see https://tour.blondie.net/.

Are you a Blondie fan? Do you have a favourite Blondie hit? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Want to continue reading?

This piece is part of our exclusive articles for members. We post new interviews, features and stories every single day, so sign up to continue reading - today and every day!

Sign up and start your free trial today

Already a member? Log in to read the full post