“I love Australia!... I’ve very much loved seeing the transition in the culture from when we very first went down in the mid-‘70s, when it was like stepping into a time warp to the ‘30s or something, to now where it’s like going into the future – everything is so bohemian.”
If ever a band has earned the status of honorary Aussies, it would be New York new wave legends Blondie. The pioneering band were massive in Australia long before their smash hit album, Parallel Lines, made them worldwide stars in 1978, our fans having cottoned onto their considerable charms long before radio hits like Hanging On The Telephone and especially Heart Of Glass made them household names in the rest of the world.
Which is exactly why the news that Blondie are headlining this year's instalment of the annual Homebake festival – which since its inception back in 1996 has primarily consisted of all-Australian line-ups, with the odd Kiwi act thrown in for good measure – isn't really that much of a surprise. They mightn't be Australian by birth, but they've been visiting here since before most of the people they'll be playing to on the day were even born – and they're certainly looking forward to another jaunt down to the heart of the Southern Hemisphere.
“I love Australia!” enthuses founding Blondie member Chris Stein, the band's guitarist and co-songwriter. “I've very much loved seeing the transition in the culture from when we very first went down in the mid-'70s, when it was like stepping into a time warp to the '30s or something, to now where it's like going into the future – everything is so bohemian.”
It's hard to believe that our national psyche has undergone such a pronounced shift in the lifespan of one rock band, but Stein is adamant that that is indeed the case. “It's really extreme. The very first gig we played was in Perth and it was like going into the '50s or something – the women were wearing ankle-length floral skirts; it was very strange. And the whole gear and touring situation was so primitive. We were there during John Denver month and every time we asked for a piece of gear for our tour, it was like, 'No, John has it.' Now touring is an industry; it's a whole other reality now.”
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Blondie's first tour Down Under was in November 1977 (supported by The Ferrets) – while they were still a fledgling underground act elsewhere in the world – but they'd broken in Australia first in late-1976 due to Molly Meldrum's playing of the B-side, In The Flesh – instead of the more raucous A-side, X-Offender – on his massively influential ABC music show Countdown.
“Yeah, the story is that Molly played the B-side of our first single by mistake, but as the years went by I've always thought that he's just had a better judgement on what would have worked on the radio. A fast punk song wasn't going to work and the B-side was this ballad and I just think it was his judgement,” Stein admits. “I asked him one of the last times we saw him and he claimed not to have any memory of doing that, but I think he was just covering up. The story was that it was an accident, but I don't know.
“It was strange [having a random hit in Australia] because the song was not representative of what we were doing and certainly not representative of our live show, so I think people were expecting some Olivia Newton-John thing when we were a punk band.”
They even managed to cause a small riot in Brisbane on that first tour, not bad for an emerging band more used to the dingy confines of the New York bars. “Yeah Debbie [Harry – frontwoman] got sick and we had to cancel a show,” Stein laughs. “I used to have a copy of the newspaper – I don't know if it was a full-on, UK-style riot. I think it was more of a smaller altercation, but we still made some headlines there.”
Of course, it's not as if the band was floundering before they hit it big. They were already playing a pivotal role in what would become the hugely influential New York scene that sprang up in and around dive bar CBGB in the mid-'70s, where they were contemporaries of a diverse but massively important array of bands such as The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Suicide and The Patti Smith Group, to literally name just a few.
“I think I took a lot of stuff for granted,” Stein muses when reflecting back to Blondie's initial era. “It was a really exciting period and we all had a good time, certainly, but for me now it's almost as if the '60s has been eclipsed by the '70s with the amount of interest that people have in the period. Everything moves on, although I don't know if it will move on to the '80s,” he chuckles. “CBGB's was pretty dingy, but there are places like that down where you are – there are similar bars and dives, I'm sure.”
While history shows that Blondie played as big a role as any band in this thriving New York musical community, their music was different to that of many of these bands with whom they're always namechecked – did they feel part of a 'scene' at the time?
“Yes and no, we were a little more experimental – especially in the very early time when we were just finding our momentum and finding our feet as it were. The scene was definitely communal for a while, for a few years. I really think that the bands that people know were the ones that were great, but there were also a few really great bands that people don't know so much about – like The Fat were really great, but they all died, those guys. But there were other bands around. There was one called Another Pretty Face – I don't know why they never made it. But The Ramones were amazing from day one; the first time I saw them they blew me away. They were really sketchy – Joey [Ramone] was a little kid. And Television with Richard Hell was amazing. I'm definitely privileged to have seen all that stuff.”
Blondie are still striving to release music and remain relevant rather than simply trade on nostalgia – last year they released their eighth studio album, Panic Of Girls – and even though they're still working on new music, they're acutely aware that these days they're confronted by a different musical landscape.
“For me the big challenge now is just dealing with our advanced ages, because everybody that's on the radio now is kids. I guess there's a few older people out there, but not in the hit mainstream media. It's fine though; that's always been there. We were poo-pooing on people who were older when we were kids too.
“Now it's far more difficult to be innovative when you have literally ten thousand categories and sub-categories of music and everybody in the world can hear what's going on simultaneously. So in a way maybe innovation is a new paradigm, in a musical context. But I think it's great. I'm always down with modernity.”
Blondie will be playing the following Homebake shows:
Saturday 8 December - Homebake, Sydney NSW