Some might see Blondie and Devo as an oddly matched pair on a '70s nostalgia double bill, but Deborah Harry will give you an argument on a couple of points.
For one thing, both bands have released well-received albums of new material in the past two years — Devo's “Something for Everybody” (2010) and Blondie's “Panic of Girls” (2011). And for another, it was never Harry's intention to peddle fond memories when Blondie first reunited in 1999 after a 17-year layoff.
First we tackled the issue of differing styles.
“Well, I know that musically we're quite different, but we came from the same era and we're old friends,” Harry said in a recent telephone interview from Seattle, where Blondie and Devo were about to play the first show on a tour that brings them to the Zoo Amphitheatre on Thursday night.
“We've known each other since the '70s, so it's kind of great. I think that we played with them once before, but not a tour. And I love them. I think they're fantastic. I've always thought that their inventiveness and musicality and their showbiz aspects were just really, really inventive, innovative, and I'm just very thrilled about the tour. I think it's terrific.”
As for the nostalgia thing, Harry admits she worried about that notion when Blondie first got back together.
“For me, yes, that was a reserve,” she said. “I sort of did feel there was a danger in that. Chris (Stein) and I, as writers and being very interested in the world — you know, the day-to-day world — we sort of had to feel involved. And walking down memory lane every day of your life, I just didn't feel very healthy about it. I felt looking forward, to me, is a much healthier way of living.
“And as an artist, incorporating that philosophy, you know, was a sort of a given for me. You know, that I didn't really want to be an oldies band. Even though I'm very proud of the work that we've done and the hits that we've had and the longevity that we've had. It's miraculous, for me personally. It's always surprising to me that we've lasted so long. But you know, I think feeling vital and inventive and keeping your juices flowing, as they say, and capitalizing on ideas and staying awake, you know, and being alive is just so important.”
The Miami, Fla., native has been awake and alive for 67 years now, being raised in Hawthorne, N.J., by adoptive parents, earning an associate of arts degree from Centenary College in Hackettstown, N.J., then venturing to New York City in the late 1960s to work a series of jobs including secretary at the NYC BBC Radio office, waitress at Max's Kansas City, go-go dancer and Playboy Bunny before joining the folk-rock band Wind in the Willows, then a band called The Stilettos where she met Chris Stein, who would eventually become her boyfriend and the guitarist for the band they formed together in 1974 called Blondie — a nickname her bleached tresses had earned for her.
Honing their sound at such storied punk venues as New York's CBGB's, it took a while and a few personnel changes for the band to catch on, finally releasing its self-titled album debut in 1976, which mixed elements of '60s girl-group pop and edgy punk/new-wave attitude to fashion a sound that landed them a major-label deal on Chrysalis. A well-received follow-up called “Plastic Letters” in 1977, and 1978's “Parallel Lines” LP took them to the top of the U.S. charts with the disco-fied hit single “Heart of Glass” and the habit-forming pop-rocker “One Way or Another.”
Blondie's fourth album, “Eat to the Beat,” produced U.K. and U.S. hits such as “Dreaming,” “Union City Blue” and “Atomic,” and Harry's collaboration with German disco producer Giorgio Moroder on “Call Me” for the film “American Gigolo” became one of Blondie's biggest transatlantic smashes.
With a fifth album, “Autoamerican,” spawning additional hits such as the reggae-influenced “The Tide is High” and the rapped-up “Rapture,” continuing Blondie's streak into 1980, the band now held the distinction of most commercially successful act to emerge from the late '70s punk/new wave movement. But by 1981, the members of Blondie were working on side projects, with original keyboardist Jimmy Destri and Harry recording solo albums, and Harry embarking on a film acting career that would eventually include prominent roles in such features as “Videodrome,” “Hairspray” and “Cop Land.”
But Blondie's sixth album, “The Hunter,” was a commercial disappointment in 1982, and with Stein having fallen ill with the genetic disease pemphigus, the band broke up in October of that year so that Harry could care for him while continuing her solo career on a part-time basis.
Stein eventually recovered, but he and Harry later broke off their romantic relationship, remaining friends. And in 1998, the original lineup of Harry, Stein, Destri and drummer Clem Burke reunited to tour Europe and record their first album of new material in 17 years, “No Exit,” in 1999.
There was more touring, and another studio set, “The Curse of Blondie,” was released in 2003. In 2004, Destri left the group to enter rehab and was successful in his recovery from drug addiction but did not return to the group. In 2006, its 30th anniversary as a band, Blondie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And in 2009, remaining originals Harry, Stein and Burke re-entered the studio supported by new members Matt Katz-Bohen (keyboards), Leigh Fox (bass) and Tommy Kessler (guitar), and producers Jeff Saltzman (the Killers) KatoKhandwala (Paramore, Breaking Benjamin, Papa Roach) and Super Buddha, the duo behind Harry's 2007 “Necessary Evil” track, “D-Day.”
The result is “Panic of Girls,” Blondie's ninth studio album, a sleek sonic swirl of new wave, disco, reggae and modern pop shadings that recalls the band's earliest tuneful triumphs — while sounding solidly of the moment.
“I think that we wanted to say pretty much, you know, here we are. We're Blondie,” Harry said. “You can trace the sounds and the styles through our traditions, through our previous albums, and here's a new point of view. Here's the new Blondie. Here's today. Here's what we are and, you know, here's some new music from us. And pretty much I don't know if there's any specific one message but we've always tried to sort of be ourselves and to be entertaining and to create songs that are memorable.”
Just check out the bright power-pop surrounding a dark tale of breakup on “What I Heard” and the good-time electro-pop hilarity of “Mother,” which is Harry's hats-off to a storied West 14th Street nightclub of the same name, where hipster luminaries and would-be superstars loved to party on a seedy strip of Manhattan in the late '90s.
So is it difficult for Harry and Stein to slip back into that inimitable Blondie mode of writing and performing after those long periods away from the studio?
“Well I don't know if it really is,” Harry said. “For some reason, we seem to be able to maintain our sense of identity. And fortunately, none of us have died.”