I heard Blondie's cover of "Hanging on the Telephone" one night in 1978 on the Georgetown University radio, and it summed up exactly how I felt about my girlfriend at the time, whose mother clearly felt that her daughter was Too Good For Me. (tbqh, she was right, but it all worked out. For her.) I went out the next day and bought Parallel Lines, which to this day is one of my favorite albums. The combination of Jimmy Destri's synthesizer and Debbie Harry's vocals was awesome on the dance tracks and the band still showed flashes of their punk origins on tunes like "11:59" and "Will Anything Happen?". I taped the album and played it almost constantly in the fall and winter of 1978 as my life was falling apart and I drove back and forth between Baltimore and Walter Reed Hospital trying to get into the Army; no other album fit my mood nearly so well. People could say that "Blondie is a band", but it wouldn't have been the same band without the dyed-blonde ex-Playboy Bunny who mixed streetwise and sweet into such an explosive vocal mix. Madonna, Gwen Stefani and Shirley Manson would have their days in the sun later down the road, but for me, they'll always be pale imitations of the Real Thing.
So who is she, this iconic grande dame of rock who dabbled in as many styles as David Bowie while making the most of what objectively wasn't actually that great a voice?
Born on July 1, 1945 in Miami, she was adopted by shopkeepers Catherine Harry and Richard Smith of Hawthorne, New Jersey, and graduated from Hawthorne High School in 1963. She moved to New York City and held a variety of jobs, working as a secretary, waitress, dancer, and Playboy Bunny before getting into music with the folk group The Wind In The Willows, who cut one album for Capitol Records. She then moved on to join the Stilettos, where she met guitarist Chris Stein, and with whom she decamped to form a band of their own in 1974 first called Angel and the Snakes, but better known under its final name, Blondie. Because of her personality and her role as lead singer, it became very difficult to separate Deborah personally from the band's image, to the point where the exasperated band took to handing out "Blondie Is A Group!" buttons. Separation became even more difficult as the band experienced the explosive success of their third album, Parallel Lines, which was followed by equally successful explorations of rap, reggae and disco styles as well as pioneering efforts in music videos - with Deborah Harry front and center.
When Blondie went on hiatus in 1980, Harry and Stein went into the studio with Chic producers Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards to produce her first solo album, Koo Koo. Featuring disturbing cover art by H. R. Giger and a pop-funk-dance sound that prefigured David Bowie's Let's Dance and Robert Palmer's Riptide (among others) the album also featured backing vocals by Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale of DEVO. It went gold in the US after reaching #25 in the charts (#6 in the UK). Blondie's next album, The Hunter, was a disaster. The combination of commercial failure, rampant drug use and internal friction over the press focus on Debbie to the exclusion of the other band members was coming to a head. Stein's falling ill with the autoimmune disease pemphigus was the final straw, and Blondie formally broke up in November 1982. Harry nursed Stein for a time, selling their five-story mansion to pay outstanding bills the band had run up (Stein himself was on the hook for almost $1 million of debt) but after a few years broke up with him, ending a long-running personal relationship.
Stein recovered and assisted her with her next solo albums, Rockbird (1986), Def Dumb And Blonde (1989), and Debravation (1993); the pair also collaborated on various remix and compilation albums in the 1990s. Harry also contributed vocals to the Jazz Passengers album In Love and later toured with the group. All this solo work and touring kept her in the public eye at a time when bands such as Garbage and No Doubt were rediscovering the old music, and by 1996 Harry and Stein began working on bringing Blondie back together for a new album, the first one in fifteen years. No Exit was a smash hit, debuting at #3 in the UK and #17 in the US. The tour in support of the album produced tracks released as a live album the following year, and led to the release of another album, The Curse Of Blondie, in 2003. The band toured extensively during the decade and recently released their ninth album, Panic of Girls.
In addition to her long and busy musical career, Debbie Harry has appeared in the David Cronenburg movie Videodrome as well as Roadie, Cop Land, and about a dozen other independent and Hollywood films; she has also appeared in the TV series The Muppet Show, Will & Grace, and Absolutely Fabulous, among others.