To understand Blondie’s unforeseen 40-year run as punk rockers-turned-pop icons, you have to tap into the rare alchemy of Deborah Harry and Chris Stein. Without this couple, there’s no Blondie.
No trend-setting four No. 1 singles then or now, as headliner of The Rage and Rapture Tour that plays Hard Rock Live on Aug. 8 with Garbage and its Harry-devotee lead singer Shirley Manson.
“I love working with Chris,” Harry said in an email interview. “I’ve been so lucky to have him and the band, and it has been a completely natural process working together. We have the utmost respect for each other and both have that drive to just attack the songwriting process.”
Musically, Harry, who sings, and Stein, the guitarist, are the Mick and Keith, the Buckingham and Nicks, the Axl and Slash. They’re among rock’s greatest pairings. The chemistry they share colors the music, even on songs they don’t write together.
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These two icons of cool were also one of rock’s splashiest romantic couples that, like Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, broke up in the public eye.
In 1999, Stein, 67, married actress Barbara Sicuranza and they have two daughters. Harry, born Angela Tremble in Miami 72 years ago, never married or had children.
But Harry and Stein, who weathered rock’s usual excesses, financial straits and the breakup and reformation of Blondie, remain a team.
Sure, Buckingham and Nicks perform on lucrative Fleetwood Mac arena tours but Nicks, tellingly, refuses to record new music in the studio with the group.
In contrast, Stein has written and played on Harry’s five solo albums. He talked her into putting Blondie back together in 1998. With the release of “No Exit” in 1999, Blondie has put out five albums, including its 11th, “Pollinator,” in May.
Five songs from the eclectic “Pollinator” figure on The Rage and Rapture Tour set list. “Pollinator” features contributions from Blondie fans Sia, TV on the Radio’s David Sitek, The Strokes’ Nick Valensi, 24-year-old electropop singer Charli XCX, Joan Jett and The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr, who wrote the album’s standout, “My Monster.”
“When it came to the album, the feeling of working with [producer] John Congleton and so many other great artists we are fans of was beyond compare,” Harry said. “We’re all so proud of it. There was not a moment of hesitation, and I think it shows in the music.”
Of his evolved relationship with Harry, Stein, in a phone chat from a tour stop in Toronto, said, “She’s great. It’s what it is. I may be too close to it to be objective, but we have a lot in common, our thought processes. We got through it.”
Stein could be referring to the countless things that historically break up bands — the defection of members, shifting tastes, musical differences.
“At this point we work so well together and have so much to bring to our collaborations,” Harry said. The evidence abounds on “Pollinator,” which recalls past glories, but also pushes forward into modern dance-floor territory, synthpop, digital effects and the explosive dance-rock of the Harry-Stein composition, “Doom or Destiny,” which opens the album.
“There’s a little referencing back and forth,” Stein said of songs like “Fun,” a throwback to disco-era hits like “Atomic” in 1979. In May, “Fun” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart.
Playing this new music live, and introducing trends to the masses, as Blondie did with its 1980 song “Rapture,” which name checked hip-hop pioneers Fab Five Freddy and Grandmaster Flash and was the first rap single to hit No. 1, has always been this band’s style. Staying contemporary is vital, Stein and Harry say.
“There is so much good music coming out these days and the industry has changed so much, you have to keep paying attention and have that hunger for new music and technology and influences,” Harry said.
Stein agrees. “I hear stuff I like that all the time. I like computer music and programming. In the ’60s there was crap on the radio. They just remember the good stuff. ... Same as now. There are a lot of great songs written like that Major Lazer song, ‘Lean On.’ That’s a great song.”
Blondie’s four No. 1 pop singles were “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me,” “The Tide Is High” and “Rapture.” The new “Fun” hit No. 1 in May on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart.
Hiring young players has also injected fresh energy. Tommy Kessler, Blondie’s current lead guitarist, was born in October 1981, seven months after the trailblazing “Rapture” became Blondie’s last No. 1 pop hit.
Stein takes the opportunity to clear up misconceptions that have long surrounded “Rapture.”
“When Debbie sings ‘do the punk rock’ in the rap, that’s not referring to a musical style. That’s referring to dance moves the hip-hop guys had. There were words for the dance moves. One was called the ‘Patty Duke’ for a certain move. So people should know that. It wasn’t about punk rock.”
Also, that memorable rap in “Rapture” created on the spot in the studio by Harry in a flash of inspiration? Not quite, Stein said.
“We wrote it out,” Stein said. “I wrote ‘the man from Mars’ part out at home. We made adjustments as we were working on it. But she wishes she had more takes on the rap. But Mike Chapman [the song’s producer] didn’t know anything about rap so he was happy about doing it quickly.”
Simpatico in the studio and out. Even some wayward wind couldn’t undermine this fruitful union. In the recent Kris Needs and David Porter Blondie bio, “Parallel Lives,” the writers revisit the time of Blondie’s breakthrough third LP, “Parallel Lines,” in 1978.
Tonight her mood is lightened by recounting a room-shaking Chris Stein fart waking her in the middle of the night. “It nearly blew me out the bed!” She starts giggling. Then Debbie perches on a stool and sings ‘11:59’ like an angel.
Stein laughs at the recollection. “It’s a measure of closeness. ... You’re not embarrassed by bodily functions. We have a lot in common, a warped sense of humor.”