Call Me: Johnny Marr in conversation with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein
What do megastar music legends talk about when they get together? Ahead of Blondie’s upcoming UK tour, their special guest Johnny Marr caught up with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein – and they let us listen in
Johnny Marr used to play cover versions of Blondie singles Denis and Hanging On The Telephone (both, ironically, covers themselves) in his first teenage band. When he met his wife at a house party in Manchester, aged 15, he remembers their classic 1978 album Parallel Lines being on the stereo.
His love of the New York post-punk legends has been a constant throughout his life. So how does it feel that he now writes songs for them (he contributed My Monster to their 2017 album Pollinator and has written another, Spectrolite, which will appear on their next record) and is about to join them as special guest on their UK tour?
“It’s magical,” he says “I’ve always shared a musical sensibility with them. Plus they’re great people to be around. They’re the only band that nobody doesn’t like.”
Marr is talking to me via Zoom from his rehearsal studio on the outskirts of Manchester. Also on the call are Blondie’s songwriter-in-chief Chris Stein (from downtown New York) and – from her charmingly appointed living room in New Jersey – Debbie Harry. I’m in my garden shed in South-West London.
Ordinarily, speaking with either Marr or Stein – two of the greatest rock musicians of the past 50 years – would feel like a privilege in itself. But there’s something about being on a call from your shed with Debbie Harry that really monopolises your focus. You can’t help but continually think to yourself, “I’m on a call with Debbie Harry.”
In any case, it doesn’t matter much because this is the first time my three interviewees – now old friends and colleagues – have seen each other in a while. Between war in Ukraine, the Will Smith/Chris Rock clash at the Oscars and their forthcoming tour, they’re not short of things to talk about.
Johnny Marr: Hi Debbie. Hi Chris. I’m looking forward to seeing you on the tour.
Chris Stein: Yeah well, listen, I’m not coming.
Debbie Harry: You’re a dirty rat! Haha.
Chris: Look, I was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, you know? So I’m OK. But the medications I take are kinda fatiguing. So you know, my stamina isn’t what it used to be. I’m just gonna just get a replacement for me and the band should do OK. But I hope not to disappoint everybody. And especially you.
Johnny: I understand. That’s a shame but we’ll find another excuse to hang out soon. Thanks for the invitation to tour with you guys anyway. I should have said that straight away. It was a real thrill to be asked. Took me about three seconds to think about.
Debbie: Three seconds? Well, that’s too long. But look, it couldn’t be better. We love you. We love the way that you write and the way that you think. It’s going to be a great show we do together. The only drawback for me is that Chris is not going to join the party. But we’ll muck on without him.
The Big Issue: How do you approach touring these days – Johnny, I know you’re really into sober, healthy living?
Johnny: Yeah, I quit drink years ago, but not because I had any big moment of revelation. It was like everything I do – I just saw it as a progressive move. To me, I thought it made me a better musician. And more interesting. It gave me more time and more energy.
I was bored with drinking. I didn’t want to be that guy, you know, getting into my 40s still doing all that stuff. It’s a bit of a cliché. It actually happened at a good time in my life. And it made me go where I needed to go as a musician – my lyrics got better, my playing got more intense and my shows got better. I always say if I thought partying would make me a better songwriter, I’d be doing it – I don’t have any kind of puritanical thing about it, it’s just what I’ve got going works for me, especially on the road. I think that as an older musician you need all the energy you can get.
Debbie: Well I’m curious about how I will respond to being back out on the road since I haven’t done it for a couple of years. But I agree – I’ve had to change my behaviour over the years, and behaviour is very hard to change. So bravo to both of us for that. On tour these days I do what the women on the front during the French Revolution would do. I sit there knitting and rocking back and forth. That’s what I do. I will be bringing my knitting needles with me.
Chris: Well, I’ve been writing my memoir, and I realised that I had so much to write about addiction because I was taking drugs in one shape or form for my whole career. And there are so many war stories like: “Oh, hey, remember that time we scored from that guy who sold us bleach and we shot that up and went to hospital? It was great!” Getting over that stuff, it’s a process. But I haven’t really done anything for 20 years. You know, I was never a drinker. I was just always an addict.
Johnny: Yeah, I’m such a lightweight now. Even if I smoked some weed now I’d be, like, crying under the sofa. But I think my sensibilities from being a teenager have stayed the same. And my kind of values have stayed the same. That became even more obvious to me with the political scene with Brexit and with Trump and all of this. I almost reverted back to the 15-year-old unreasonable pothead I used to be. I just went back to thinking that half the world were twats and the other half were OK.
Chris: I used to think that the masses were more intelligent than the individual. That the group somehow was smarter than the sum? But now I’m like you, I’ve gone back to thinking everyone is an idiot.
Debbie: Oh grow up Chris! Hahaha. We’re going backwards!
Chris: I just watched [Netflix documentary series] The Andy Warhol Diaries. All throughout the thing, Debbie is presented as a big superstar, you know, and she’s up there with Liz Taylor and all these people. But when all that shit was going on with us, we never felt like that ever. We were always like, “Oh, yeah, we’re gonna be a cult band, you know?” It’s never presented that way now. It’s presented as if we were considered global superstars at the time. In retrospect, it’s just weird to me, because it wasn’t part of our experience that Debbie was a big superstar icon. Yeah, OK, now she is one – but we have to wait this fucking long before it’s presented back to us like that.
Debbie: Yeah, I don’t even feel that way today, to be honest. I just feel like it’s a privilege to be an artist. But I do have the kind of neurotic off-centre sensibility which keeps me away from feeling like a real superstar and also, in a way, has saved me from some big mistakes in my life. Although I have made plenty of those too.
The Big Issue: Congratulations on winning an Oscar this week Johnny [Marr played guitar on the Academy Award-winning Bond theme No Time To Die, sung by Billie Eilish and written by Eilish and Finneas O’Connell].
Johnny: God, I thought none of you were ever gonna mention that!
The Big Issue: Well Chris and Debbie didn’t so I thought I ought to.
Debbie: Well, after the big slapping scene [the Will Smith/Chris Rock incident] who can remember anything? But well done Johnny, it was worthwhile and you definitely earned it.
Johnny: Well, my bit was a really easy bit. Come on. I mean, I just play guitar on this great song, but thank you.
The Big Issue: Have you ever seen anything like that at an awards show before?
Chris: Well, we were involved in a good one at our Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction [in 2006]. Frankie [Infante, former Blondie guitarist] was up on stage with us and decided that it was a good moment to address grievances in front of the audience, about not being asked to play with us that night. We had the new version of Blondie at that point [Infante had left the band and was in legal dispute with them over royalties]. Everyone was expecting the Sex Pistols to overshadow everything that night because they were being inducted too. But all they did was not bother to show up and send a letter telling everyone to stick the award up their asses or whatever. But then we had somewhat of an on-stage altercation which was what the media latched onto the next day.
Debbie: We were sort of thinking of having a food fight but everyone was quite nicely dressed that night, so that idea got voted down in the end.
Johnny: What comes to mind actually was at an awards ceremony in London [the GQ Man of the Year awards in 2006], and fairly early into the proceedings, Rod Stewart just stood up and demanded that Russell Brand apologise for being indiscreet in the media about his daughter. I think they’d had a relationship and he’d been joking about it publicly. People weren’t even drunk yet. He really took Russell Brand to task. And you know what? I have to say, I was really impressed with Rod Stewart for that, because it was probably awkward for him.
And it was beyond celebrity. It was beyond decorum. He knew that he was going to have to deal with a bunch of hassle for it afterwards. But it was about his daughter’s honour. So he just bust straight through everything and gave him a dressing down in front of everyone. I might be making too much of it here. But I do remember it very well. It was a real human moment. And it was very noble.
Chris: Anyway, Chris Rock’s ticket sales have surged after the slap, so that’s good for him.
The Big Issue: Maybe it was a set up?
Debbie: I don’t think so. I have never seen Chris Rock’s face reflect those kind of feelings. It was a revelation, you know? To see this person out of his character – for a moment he was really caught. It was clearly a surprise.
Johnny: I’m glad something happened at the Oscars for once. I don’t know whether you’ve ever been. It’s boring.
Debbie: I went to an Oscars party once and Arnold Schwarzenegger walked up to me and said that I looked very healthy.
Johnny: I hope you said, “Well so do you mate.”
Debbie: I said, “Thank you. I work out, Arnold. Can’t you tell?”
Chris: Arnold should be president. As much as I think most people in California thought he was a terrible governor, I still think he should be president. But unfortunately, he’s a foreigner. So…
Debbie: Well, he has a terrific amount of world experience. And I mean, he doesn’t really have motivations to make money from political deals, I believe. So I think that that’s an important quality.
The Big Issue: Do you think we’d be safer if all politicians were inde-pendently wealthy?
Chris: Yeah, but then it’s all about the power. And that’s what’s going on with Putin. He thinks he’s the Tsar.
Johnny: Yeah, yeah. And the scary thing with people like him is they really want to go down in history as well. Weirdly, as crazily powerful as he is, I kind of think there’s got to be something very, very needy, about someone like that, you know?
The Big Issue: There’s been a lot of anger in the UK about our response to the refugee crisis.
Chris: You guys are notorious for that shit. It’s all those fucking Tories you’ve got, it’s rough.
Johnny: It’s become that way over the past 15 or 20 years. My parents came over from Ireland in the Sixties and always stressed to me the idea that this country was open-armed to immigrants. And I’ve tried to pass that idea on to my own kids as something to be proud of. But it’s no longer the case.
This government idea that you can sponsor a family from Ukraine to come and live in your home? It’s so bare-faced. They’re essentially saying “If you care so much about these refugees then you take them in yourself!” That’s not the way it should be. It should be that the country as a whole is taking action to help. But they are washing their hands of responsibility by telling us to do it ourselves.
In the UK now, there’s a lack of accountability – the amount of times that our government has been busted for personal mistakes and breaking the law… it’s a shit show, because there’s no opposition and there is no accountability.
The Big Issue: Debbie, how did you feel about the Trump years?
Debbie: I thought it was poisonous, really. An idea that children were taken from their families and sent to unknown destinations. It was just destruction for the sake of destruction, and nothing to do with humanity or anything smart. It was just plain old prejudice at its highest level.
The Big Issue: Did you ever meet Trump?
Debbie: I did. I used to see Penn Jillette from Penn and Teller and we’ve remained friends. He was on [The US version of The Apprentice] doing a task where they had to invent a new flavour of ice cream and invite people along to try it. He invited me along and introduced me to Trump, who just said “Hello” and walked right off. It was so brief, I was surprised. I guess maybe I wasn’t tall enough for him.
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