To quote the title of the second single off the group’s latest album, Blondie has been doing this a “Long Time.” Pollinator, released in May, adds to a 40-some-year history and 10 records that, taken together, account for more than 40 million albums sold worldwide. And quoting the new disc’s first single, the band is clearly having “Fun.” And that’s what brings them back to Ravinia’s Pavilion on July 22.
Still punk after all these years, Blondie—featuring founding members guitarist Chris Stein, iconic vocalist Debbie Harry, and drummer Clem Burke, along with Matt Katz-Bohen on piano, bassist Leigh Foxx, and Tommy Kessler on guitar—include in their set lists a hearty handful of era-defining, genre-defying hits, including two ranked by Rolling Stone magazine among the 500 greatest rock songs of all time: the disco-infused “Heart of Glass” and the rollicking come-on “Call Me.” A third, “One Way or Another,” an anthem of obsessive lust, has been the unlikely catalyst for commercials for products ranging from Lay’s potato chips and the Swiffer mop to a Wal-Mart Easter candy promotion.
“It’s weird to be in a place that people have been hearing [our songs] for their whole lives,” Stein said in a phone interview. “Being in a position where your songs belong to a whole generation is unusual; a soundtrack of your lives type of thing.”
But Blondie does not traffic in nostalgia. They’ve never been stuck in the ’80s, even back in the ’80s. The band’s third album, Parallel Lines, a commercial breakthrough for the band and new wave at large, was, according to Rolling Stone, “The perfect synthesis of raw punk edge, Sixties-pop smarts and downtown-New York glamour.”
The critically acclaimed Pollinator, the band’s fresh-faced follow-up to 2014’s Blondie 4(0) Ever, “shaped up gradually,” Stein said. “The main plan was to sound more roots and have a more band-oriented approach with everyone in the same room to record.” Just accomplishing the latter is sometimes no small undertaking.
The album was the last to be recorded at the now-shuttered Magic Shop, where David Bowie recorded his 2013 album The Next Day in secret over the course of two years. Suzanne Vega, Lou Reed, Arcade Fire, and Norah Jones also recorded there.
What distinguishes Pollinator is its collaborations. Stein and Harry cowrote only two of the 11 songs. For the remainder, Stein said, the band reached out “to people we admired.” These included Sia, Dev Hynes of Blood Orange, British singer Charli XCX, Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio, Johnny Marr of The Smiths, Nick Valensi of The Strokes, and the Gregory Brothers.
“I know Charli XCX,” Stein said. “Everybody is a big Sia fan. She had recorded with Kate [Pierson from the B-52s] and we thought she might be amenable. I’m a huge fan of the Gregory Brothers and figured it was the right moment to hook [back] up with them.” (Stein and Harry had appeared on a 2016 episode of the Gregory Brothers’ YouTube series Songify the News titled “Trump vs. Clinton,” which has received over two million views.)
Stein’s own musical influences growing up were just as eclectic. Born in Brooklyn in 1950, he grew up during the golden age of AM radio. “Radio was much more diverse then,” he said. “You’d get James Brown and the Jefferson Airplane on top of each other.”
A favorite station growing up, he said, was all-folk WJRZ, home to disc jockey Jerry White, whose show, Folk Fest, was an early platform for such then-fledgling artists as Buffy St. Marie, Josh White, and Phil Ochs. In a 1965 article in Billboard magazine, White proclaimed, “Noise in New York reverberates throughout the country.” These words would be prophetic for Stein and Blondie.
Stein recalls he started playing guitar in the early ’60s. “I listened to a lot of blues and the older guys growing up,” he said. “I remember it was a big deal to play ‘House of the Rising Sun.’ ” But The Beatles, he said, was the big a-ha moment.
An art student at New York’s School of Visual Arts, he was drawn to the downtown scene and the emerging punk rock movement, which was foreshadowed by the Velvet Underground, for whom Stein and his teenage band got the opportunity to open in 1967. Lou Reed, whose music Stein has called “a perfect mix of light and dark,” was a major influence. (Laurie Anderson, Reed’s widow and herself an avant-garde icon, provides guest vocals on “Tonight,” a bonus track on Pollinator.)
Stein met Harry when he joined The Stilettos, which Harry once described as a mixture of girl-trio pop à la the ShangriLas (of “Leader of the Pack” fame), The Supremes, and raunchy music. The two joined forces in 1974 and formed Blondie following a fleeting incarnation as Angel and the Snake. The band performed at the legendary CBGB, along with contemporaries such as the Ramones, Patti Smith, New York Dolls, Television, and Talking Heads.
What was it about that time and place that produced such vital music? “It was a lot of factors,” Stein said. “New York [in the 1970s] was like a petri dish for the arts. Warhol and that whole scene was going on, there was jazz and Latin music, the hip-hop scene and the gay club scene, everything was percolating and bouncing off each other on every level. At the same time, nobody wanted to come [to New York] because it was so horrible. You had all this stuff fermenting for five years before it got any attention.”
Blondie’s first nine singles did not chart in the US, but the band was popular overseas, particularly in England, where they are the first American band to have number-one singles in three different decades. Employing a Nabakovian metaphor, Stein joked, “I equate it with the Lolita complex; America seduced by old Europe.”
Parallel Lines, the band’s third album, released in 1978, was the charm. It produced three of the band’s signature songs, “One Way or Another,” “Hanging on the Telephone,” and “Heart of Glass.” “We were in Italy when we were told ‘Heart of Glass’ went to number one [in the United States],” Stein recalled. “That was a big moment.”
Stein’s other creative passion is photography. His book of photographs, Chris Stein / Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk, is a time capsule of the 1970s–’80s New York scene. Included is a photo of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The day before this interview took place, a Basquiat painting sold for a record $110.5 million, reportedly the highest price ever paid at auction for an American artist’s work. “Don’t rub it in,” Stein said with a laugh. “I had his first canvas, which I sold for $10,000.”
Like many groups, Blondie has been through several incarnations through the decades. The band broke up in 1982 and reunited in 1997—in between, Stein had staved off a serious autoimmune skin disease. In 2006, Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson inducted Blondie into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as “one of the coolest, most glamorous, most stylish bands in the history of rock and roll.” And now Manson and her band are spending July and August on the “Rage and Rapture” Tour with Blondie.
Stein is approaching his seventh decade. When asked the difference between touring in the ’70s and touring when he is almost in his 70s, he said, “Aspects are fatiguing, but touring today is so much smoother than it used to be. It used to be a lot crazier.”
Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based entertainment writer. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, and on RogerEbert.com. The first Ravinia concert he attended without his parents was Procol Harum in 1970.