Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein in Legacy and Against the Odds New Box Set

“It was the pre-gentrified war zone of Manhattan,” says Chris Stein, co-founder of Blondie. “Everyone who has experienced this kind of misses. I see everyone complaining about the fucking crime rate now…” Debbie Harry, finishing her thought, adds, “Well, they weren’t there for the crime of the 60s and 70s.”

Pining on the bad old days is kind of a humblebrag, but Stein and Harry remember the rat-infested mayhem of New York as central to Blondie’s early days as a punk rock birth pillar in and around CBGBs. “I liked that it was so isolated and incestuous,” Stein says. “The fact that he was so downtrodden was pretty cool. There were a lot of sects, some competition going on. It wasn’t a happy family situation. But I had a great time, I m remember it very well.

Blondie, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, drew inspiration from influences such as girl groups, bubblegum, surf music and glam rock, filtered through artsy humor and urban irony. They nailed the midpoint between the glorious trashiness of the Ramones and the ingenuity of the Talking Heads. Add an explosive lead singer and they became the biggest band to emerge from the first wave of punk, scoring three platinum albums and four number one singles before imploding in the early 80s. Emerging from that Bowery scuzz, the former Playboy Bunny and folk singer Harry became a mainstream celebrity – starring in films, painted by early champ Andy Warhol, guest on The puppet show.

The band’s glory years are now brought together in a comprehensive new box set, Blondie: Against All Odds 1974-1982. The 124 tracks include expanded editions of the band’s first six albums, remastered from the original analog tapes, and 36 previously unreleased recordings, beginning with their very first studio sessions. The elaborate physical collection weighs 17 pounds.

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Perhaps the biggest reveal from these archives – which had been stored for decades in a barn at Stein’s Woodstock home – is the progress of drafts of Blondie’s first crossover hit, “Heart of Glass”, on a five-year period. They tried several styles, even different titles. “It never really felt right,” Harry said. “We rehearsed with [producer] Mike Chapman, and we played him all the songs. And he said, ‘Well, what else do you have?’ So Chris released “Heart of Glass”, this one we never really understood. He was really enthusiastic about it, and simultaneously, or by coincidence, the drum machine – the little drum machine – kicked in, and all of a sudden the song made sense.

‘Heart of Glass’, released in 1979, was proof that punk and disco could co-exist, and Blondie continued to crossover with hip-hop on ‘Rapture’ (Harry may not be spitting bars like Jay Z, but the song is recognized as the first rap single to reach number one) and reggae with “The Tide is High”. When they broke up, after the 1982 burnout The huntertheir last album until they reform and release No Exit by 1999, the band had sold 40 million records worldwide.

Prior to a brief Blondie tour (during which Stein was absent, tired from treatment for a heart murmur; former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock took his place on bass), Stein and Harry took part in a conference call at the end of July to talk about the history of the group. “To me, the box is about the process,” Stein, 72, says, indicating he still has plenty of tape to go for future projects.

“There’s continuity, that’s what I hear,” said Harry, 77. “It’s not always obvious to everyone, but Chris and I can hear it. Sometimes it’s cute, and sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes you think, ‘Okay, that’s really good.’ So it was a development, it was a progression of ideas.

Esquire: Debbie, you talked about the character development of Blondie. How does it come out in this box set?

Debbie Harry: Well, I learned something recently that I didn’t know. It was an interview with David Bowie, where he said that when he started out he was David Bowie. But then he became this fictional character that he created and that’s when everything clicked for him. I really understand that and I can relate to that, and I think to some extent that’s what I did. I feel like I created a character – this entity, so to speak – and took it from there.

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Harry, 1978.

Brian Cooke//Getty Images

Going back to those very early recordings, do you hear yourself beginning to understand that kind of stuff?

DH: Yeah, it reminded me of the vibe of the time. It was so innocent—I guess that’s the word. None of us were real showbiz kids, we just admired this rock scene and the rock world, and we loved the music and wanted to be part of it. Chris always says every kid wants to be a rock star, it’s like a natural heritage of being American. So obviously, we were bitten by the virus. A lot of people try and walk away, but we persevered, and we learned a lot and music was something that I guess none of us wanted to live without.

You’ve made six albums in six years. Was it just a whirlwind you got caught up in, or do you regret not catching your breath at some point?

Chris Stein: It was a bit stressful. People do that and then walk away from it, and that’s the kind of stuff that makes people can’t hold on. It was hard.

DH: Very difficult. Our contract was not a good contract and when we started having knocks, our management should have renegotiated. Our contract was for three albums a year, so it’s really crazy. We were always late. So we had all these hits going, and yet we were contractually misplaced. [Laughs] But that was the time, that was how it was.

In the box notes, Mike Chapman says it was “never painless” to work on a Blondie session, and Giorgio Moroder says the band were still fighting and that’s why he didn’t make a album with you. Do you remember things being so controversial?

CS: Of course, there was always a lot of tension, but that was also part of the formula that produced the results, I guess. I refer everyone to this rolling stone cover pieceI think it’s from 1979 – we all hated it when it came out, but now I think it’s really great, because it captures some of the angst that was going on.

DH: I don’t know how we managed to overcome all that. It was extremely stressful.

CS: Well, we took a lot of drugs.

DH: No, I didn’t – at that point, I wasn’t doing it anymore!

CS: It caught up with us in the end. It didn’t really happen until the 80s that we got seriously screwed. But I was still smoking pot through it all.

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Blondie, 1979.

Maureen Donaldson//Getty Images

Debbie, do you see it like Chris just said, that the creative tension was part of the organism, or would it have been better if you got along better?

DH: I don’t know – ideally it would have been nice if we all had a good time and made all this good music and enjoyed our careers and so on. We appreciate that we hit, we did, but it was difficult because we were always pulled by the label, by the management, by personality conflicts or whatever. And none of us had any experience. Two of the guys were 18 or 19 when they started in the band, so we were all there for a bit.

On Blondie’s first tour, you came out opening for Iggy Pop, who had David Bowie on keyboards at the time. What did you get out of being in that orbit at that time?

CS: These guys were kind of visionary, and I guess they saw something in Blondie and Debbie early on – kind of like Andy [Warhol]- that the rest of the world did not appreciate. David Bowie saw that putting us on tour with them would make this great show, and it was very successful. But it was amazing. I always look at him with admiration.

DH: They were our heroes; they couldn’t do anything wrong deep down. It was interesting to know that they both had label issues, and that’s part of the reason why they did this kind of low-key punk tour, because they were both a bit out of place. ‘difference. Can you imagine either of these artists being on the back burner? I mean, they’re seminal.

CS: Andy also went through a big meltdown in the 80s and 90s. I remember when he was out of favor, which is so weird when you think about it. But Bowie was really fascinated by the New York music scene and the punk scene, I remember talking to him about it at the time.

We had a Sex Pistols series on TV, there was a Go-Go documentary. I guess it’s about a Blondie movie.

CS: Yes of course. But it would have to be something that doesn’t suck. I won’t name names, but I’m not a fan of musical films, except for Inside Llewyn Davis and Performance and spinal valve. That’s all, these are the only musical films that I like. So it would take something fancy. I know that sounds snobbish.

DH: I agree with Chris – you want to do something that’s a bit new, a bit unique. I don’t really want to talk about our ideas at this point, but we’ve been approached a number of times to do a biopic, let’s put it that way. I’m sure just doing the ABC’s of it is interesting for some people, but we’d like to do something a little more adventurous.

You say if there’s a good response to this box set, there’s other archival stuff you want to do.

CS: There’s all kinds of stuff, there’s a bunch of live stuff. I just accumulated a ton of tapes over the years. I can’t even think specifically, but there are a lot of things that still need to be addressed.

Debbie, are you interested in looking back? Are you tempted to revisit old Blondie recordings?

DH: No, but when it comes to me, or when I need to, it’s always interesting and comforting. It always improves my outlook when I listen to this stuff or think about that time and how lucky I was to be there and be a part of it. I think anyone who has a business or a career really goes through everything they have to go through to get there, to be able to do what they want. I’m sure as a writer you’ve had to go through periods of rejection and all that. It shapes you and gives you grief and gives you strength. So I guess that’s the deal, right? This is what we do.

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