Why life begins again at 40 for Blondie

Debbie Harry of Blondie on stage during the 2014 NME Awards
Debbie Harry of Blondie on stage during the 2014 NME Awards
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As they prepare to take the stage in Sheffield, guitarist Chris Stein talks to Duncan Seaman about the enduring appeal of Blondie.

CHRIS Stein has something of a surprise admission to make.

Debbie Harry of Blondie on stage during the 2014 NME Awards

Debbie Harry of Blondie on stage during the 2014 NME Awards

The guitarist and co-founder of one of America’s most popular and enduring rock groups of the last 40 years is, it turns out, a big admirer of Drenge, the young grunge duo from the Peak District.

While Drenge only have one CD to their name, this year Blondie are back with their 10th studio album – and their fourth since triumphant reformation in 1998 after a decade-and-a-half apart.

It’s a double disc, called Blondie 4(0) Ever, comprising new material on one, called Ghosts of Download, and re-recordings of 11 of their greatest hits including Heart of Glass, Sunday Girl and Atomic.

“The re-recordings were partially for financial reasons,” explains 64-year-old Stein, matter-of-factly. “It meant we could synch them in films and commercials and we would have full ownership of those tracks. It was also an exercise. We worked much harder on the new album.”

Approaching such familiar songs from a distance of 30 years – or more – was an interesting “sonic exercise” for Stein, whose diagnosis with the life-threatening illness pemphigus, was once of the reasons for Blondie’s premature retirement in 1982.

“To recreate stuff and make it sound similar was just a challenge. That said, it was a lot easier to do than create it all the first time around.”

Clem Burke, the band’s drummer who’s worked with Stein and singer Debbie Harry since 1975, has described Ghosts of Download as a “very collaborative disc”. Among the guests on the album are girl group Stush, hip-hop outfit Los Rakas and Columbian electronic artist Systema Solar. The best known, however is Beth Ditto, of the Washington dance rock group The Gossip.

Ditto’s involvement, on the standout song A Rose By Any Name was apparently keyboardist and producer Matt Katz-Bohen’s idea. The rest of the collaborations were simply “how things evolved”.

“There was not really any master overview of the whole thing. We worked on it track by track.”

Consistent with the varied nature of Blondie’s output over the last 40 years – everything from punk to reggae, disco and rap – Ghosts of Download is something of a musical melting pot and includes an unlikely cover version of the hit Frankie Goes to Hollywood song Relax.

It continues a band tradition of cover versions that includes The Tide is High and Denis. “Hanging On The Telephone was a cover too. Most people don’t know that; only the hardcore fans get that,” says Stein. “Relax is a cool song, it’s one of my favourite songs. I had never heard anybody cover it before.”

Among those contributing song ideas was Jeff 
Saltzman, who the band worked with on their 2011 album Panic of Girls, and an intern of his, Natalie Hawkins, “who developed some melodies”.

“It was a lot of people collaborating from different directions,” says Stein.

Keeping things fresh is important, the guitarist reckons, but adds: “It’s more difficult now.

“It used to be easier to do, you’d look around the musical horizon then try to do something different.

“Nowadays it’s a lot harder. Somebody is doing pretty much everything you can think of.

“But it was always about doing what we like – that’s what drives me forwards, that’s the music I’m excited by.”

Looking forwards, he says, was “the whole arrangement when we got back to doing 
the band – to make new music.”

So while some acts are prepared to trade on past fame, packing tours with a ‘greatest hits’ set list, Stein says there will be “a considerable amount” of new material in Blondie’s live set on their latest UK tour.

“It keeps us interested, rather than just the standard stuff,” says Stein.

It’s almost 40 years since the release of their eponymous debut album, 15 years since they were back at number one with Maria – their first single since reforming – and almost a decade since they were inducted, perhaps a little belatedly into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but their fan base is as strong as it ever was.

Britain is a place with which Blondie have long had a special relationship. Their classic albums Parallel Lines and Eat To The Beat were chart-toppers here, while only reaching Numbers Six and 17 in their homeland.

It seems affection is mutual.

“The interface with the fans is very different from in other places,” says Stein. “In the UK you have national radio and national music media that other countries don’t have on the same level. You had Melody Maker and the NME, everybody in the country would know what was going on in the week. With UK fans, there’s a loyalty thing. It’s admirable as far as I’m concerned.”

Alongside music, Stein has a long-standing interest in photography. In the 1970s he photographed many of the key figures in the United States underground music scene.

Last year an exhibition of his work was staged at The Morrison Hotel Gallery in Los Angeles and a book is due to be published this autumn.

“Maybe there will be an exhibition in conjunction with the book release,” he says. “I’m excited about that. I enjoyed the process of putting it together, it was great.”

So what of the lessons he has learned from 40 years of being part of Blondie. Stein says : “Probably like the song title, to just relax, if anything.”

• Blondie play at the O2 Academy Sheffield on June 29. Tickets £37.50 from www.ticketweb.co.uk and more details at www.02academysheffield.co.uk