Blondie: “We weren’t like the rest of the New York bands…”

Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Clem Burke talks us through Blondie's early days in a run-down, crime-infested New York City

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By late 1974, an early line-up of Blondie had coalesced around Harry, Stein, O’Connor on drums, Ivan Kral on guitar and Fred Smith on bass. It didn’t last: Kral joined the Patti Smith Group, O’Connor left to resume his studies while Smith decamped to Television. Burke – who was then living “in a vacant first floor store window on East 12th Street, we had an upright piano in there” – was invited to visit the band’s rehearsal space on West 37th Street, in the Garment District. “It was just a dormant office building,” begins Burke. “We shared it with a band called The Marbles. I was immediately taken with Debbie’s charisma. Chris was probably doing most of the talking. It really wasn’t much of an audition, more of a chat. We talked about The Shangri-Las and Iggy Pop. Things like that. They liked my shoes; I think that was a big part of getting in the band. I had some red platforms on. It was very laid back at first, there was no grand plan. It was a day to day thing of trying to get some gigs.”

Harry has less positive memories of the West 37th Street rehearsal space. “Talk about criminal activity! We couldn’t get into our place to rehearse one night. We had to climb up floor after floor after floor. We saw that the elevator was stopped below us. We were all big mouthed brats, yelling down the stairs, ‘Send up the elevator! Send up the elevator!’ Turns out, these real professional thieves were robbing a fur place. They said, ‘We’re going to come up and get you.’ With that, I think we understood that these were pretty serious men. But I don’t think they wanted to be bothered climbing the stairs any more than we did. Although they did have control of the elevator. They were loading it up with fur. They had some news on that.”

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At the time, Stein had an apartment on 1st Avenue and 1st Street. “I gave that over to Tommy Ramone and he and Dee Dee lived there for a while,” says Stein. “But we were on the outs in the building. It was really working class and we were the only weirdoes in the building.”

Stein’s apartment was in East Village – “a mix of cultures buttered up against each other,” explains Lenny Kaye. “You’d walk three or four blocks and you’d be in the Spanish section, you’d walk another three blocks and you’d be in the junkie section and you’d walk another three blocks and you’d be on St Mark’s Place where all the record stores and hash-pipe emporiums were. There was a trail between CBGB’s and Max’s, and over that 18 blocks rock clubs would spring up. I remember a place called Great Gildersleeves, which seemed to serve Long Island quasi-metal bands, which I kind of enjoyed.”

“They were just little bars, clubs,” says Harry. “There was also the Mushroom and Mother’s. There weren’t that many bands, so getting a gig together and doing something was relatively simple. Some of the venues wanted to hear a certain amount of cover material, so it wasn’t truly like a Max’s or a CBGB’s, where everyone wanted to hear what you were about.”

Clem Burke remembers regular Blondie shows at a bar called Monty Pythons. “That was on 13th and 3rd, where Harvey Keitel is hanging out in front of the building with Jodi Foster in Taxi Driver. That pretty much sums up what 13th and 3rd was like at the time. There was no stage at Monty Pythons, we just set up in the corner.. We were also doing shows in White’s Pub, in the financial district. We used to play during Happy Hour. I think Debbie was a bikini bar tender at one time there. We were doing a lot of covers, like the Shangri-Las and ‘Heatwave’ by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. A lot of the early gigs were show up and play. One auspicious gig we got from playing Monty Pythons was for this equestrian club on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I guess these folks were slumming and they wound up on 13th and 3rd. They asked us if we wanted to play this party at their town house on the Upper East Side. They said the only prerequisite was to make sure the singer wore those boots. I guess Debbie had some boots on with fur that they fancied, so they said, ‘Just make sure the girl wears the boots.’”

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