The 1970s chart-topping band Blondie may be known as one of the biggest new wave & punk acts to come out of New York City, but it’s the musicians’ interest in experimenting with genres and melding sounds together that truly brought them lasting fame – or infamy, depending on who you ask – and success.
We’re taking a look at how Blondie made their mark in music history, and why their frontwoman in particular is such an influential figure not only in music, but in pop culture as a whole.
Coming up in Slummy New York
Blondie first came onto the New York punk scene in 1974, at a time when the city was facing huge economic lows and incredibly high crime rates. The band’s eventual line-up would include Debbie Harry as the co-founder and lead vocalist, Christ Stein as co-founder, guitarist, and Harry’s longtime creative and former romantic partner, drummer Clem Burke, bassist Gary Valentine, and keyboardist Jimmy Destri (Blondie’s lineup would change over the years and for various reunion gigs).
From the start, the band gained attention thanks to Harry’s charismatic stage presence and, especially, undeniable good looks. “There was an element of Debbie being very pretty that kind of put us in our own place — like we were just trading on her looks,” Stein recently told Vogue, hinting at the scrutiny that Harry had to face (the band actually got their name from catcalls thrown Harry’s way).
Despite coming up in the male-dominated New York underground scene, the band never fully embraced the traditional punk label, rather choosing to reflect the city’s music scene how they experienced it at the time: a melting pot of sounds and ideas, making them arguably all the more punk for it. Blondie’s frontwoman further cemented the band’s rebellious attitude by dressing feminine while performing however she wanted to – a trait not yet seen with female performers.
“I was playing up the idea of being a very feminine woman while fronting a male rock band in a highly macho game,” explained Harry. “I was saying things in the songs that female singers really didn’t say back then. I wasn’t submissive or begging him to come back, I was kicking his ass, kicking him out, kicking my own ass, too.”
A True NYC Band
One thing that set the band apart from others’ was their desire to cross over musical genres, which led them to hang out regularly with a variety of musicians whose influence and music would add unexpected flavour to Blondie’s own sonic offering – like how, according to the publication Westword, “having access to hip-hop music and culture inspired the band to incorporate both into its own look and sound” (more on that later).
Co-founders Harry and Stein were particularly fond of exploring the city’s different music scenes. Club 82 – an East Village drag cabaret that was also an after-hours disco frequented by the likes of Bowie, Lou Reed, and the New York Dolls – was one of the pair’s favourite haunts. Drag shows also shaped Harry’s stage looks, which leaned towards the gender-bending and theatrical.
Evidently, the singer’s aesthetics were deemed worthy of noting as a lot of the attention was often aimed at “how [she] flaunted [her] underwear.” But Harry remained unconcerned with anything beyond the music, stating that she “was playing at being a cartoon fantasy onstage,” a seemingly detached demeanor that only enticed audiences further.
The duo’s love of combining unconventional sounds was starkly different from what was coming out of CBGBs, where Blondie first got their start playing and refining their sound. Despite facing criticism and rejection by their peers, Harry and Stein remained undeterred in their playful and curious approach towards music, an attitude that was slow to gain traction in the band’s US hometurf, but that resonated with audiences on the other side of the Atlantic.
Although the band initially experienced popularity in the UK and Australia after releasing their self-titled debut in 1976, Blondie’s work failed to make a big impact on any US music charts. It wasn’t until the band released their 1978 album Parallel Lines that they experienced not only mainstream success, but were granted – Debbie Harry in particular – icon status.
It’s this album that features the band’s arguably most notable smash hit “Heart of Glass”, a song that has a distinctly and unapologetic disco vibe.
Although the band’s popularity skyrocketed after they adopted a more polished sound, many accused them of selling out, “by embracing trendy dance music” – but that was exactly the point. “For me, it was about dancing,” Harry told The New York Times in August 2022, “I loved going to clubs”.
Blondie’s habit of mashing genres is the key that helped the band set itself apart from other artists. Looking at Blondie’s placement on the Hot 100 charts, the four tracks that reached No. 1 were all genre-bending; “Heart of Glass” (1978) and “Call Me” (1980) are both disco-inspired, “The Tide Is High” (1980) has a definite reggae influence, and “Rapture” (1980) clearly evokes, according to the New York Times, a “prescient celebration of hip-hop”. These were major milestones not only for the band, but for the music industry that had never released similar songs to the mainstream before.
Ahead of their time, Blondie’s evolution into “a radical, multimedia experiment that embraced disco and other non-rock styles, androgynous fashion, and video, all […] anticipated a new era of audio-visual technologies and consumer media,” as asserted by Vogue magazine.
Inspiration or Theft?
Interestingly, it was Blondie that produced the first “rap” song to hit radio airwaves. With their love of mixing genres taking center stage yet again, their single “Rapture”, from the 1980 Autoamerican album, became, according the Consequence Podcast “the first single featuring rapped vocals to top the US charts, and its accompanying video the first “rap” clip to appear on MTV.”
Although there were plenty of hip hop artists and rappers performing at the time (check out our article on Sylvia Robinson to learn more about The Sugarhill Gang and their influence on mainstream music), “Rapture” was the first pop song to feature rap. Created as an homage to New York’s music scene, Harry’s rap – admittedly fairly simple bars and lyrics – does mirror the style that was steadily gaining its footing at the time.
Harry has also confirmed that she was inspired by Grandmaster Flash when she penned those lyrics (see: “Flash is fast / Flash is cool”), while Stein has flat-out stated that, overall, Black artists are the greatest sources of his inspiration. Speaking in that same interview with The New York Times, Stein asserted that “when I was a kid, my heroes were 60-year-old Black men — Bukka White, Howlin’ Wolf. Disco was just an extension of R&B,” pointing once again to the musicians’ philosophy: all music is related and should be explored equally.
However, this “first” was not without its controversy; Blondie has often been dogged with appropriation accusations, something the band has never denied. In fact, Stein (perhaps naively) once explained that “the band wanted to make music that would cross over,” and hoped that “the record [would] resolve racial tensions by bringing different audiences together.”
Harry, for her part, has mainly pointed to the song’s wider-reaching impact on music rather than her specific contribution. Speaking with Rolling Stone, the frontwoman explained that “commercially [“Rapture”] made rap viable for the mainstream charts. I don’t think it was a tremendous influence. I am nowhere close to being a rapper. I’m completely in awe of great rappers.”
Blondie & Harry’s Legacy
Although the band had a relatively short run, disbanding in 1982 after the release of their sixth studio album The Hunter, Blondie will always hold a key place in music history for their fearlessness in mixing eclectic styles together and staying true to their artistic vision regardless of trends, making them true pioneers in the industry.
And while it’s true that the band’s image will “always [be] defined by bleach blonde Harry’s sly streetwise vocal delivery and sexually charged public persona,” (this, according to the band’s own Britannica entry – a testament to just how influential Blondie really is) Debbie Harry herself will remain a seminal figure who unapologetically fought for her place in an often hostile industry.
Paving the way for performers like Madonna and Miley Cyrus, Harry’s – and Blondie’s – systematic refusal to be reduced to a sellable product ensured that future artists are free to express themselves however, and through whichever combination of musical genres, they see fit.
Written by Ania Szneps
Illustration by Yihong Guo