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Published: 10/10/2011

Talking with Chris Stein of Blondie

BY AIDIN VAZIRI
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Stein Stein
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The members of Blondie finished work on their new album, “Panic of Girls,” more than a year ago. The only problem is, the group couldn’t find anyone willing to put it out. So last month the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees relented and made their ninth studio recording and first set of new music in eight years available directly through Amazon.

It was the kind of compromise that Blondie, bastions of early-’80s New York cool, weren’t known for making.

“It’s the new paradigm of the music industry,” says guitarist Chris Stein, 61. “The labels are all bankrupt. Everything is reshuffling. Everybody has to figure out how to work in this new environment.”

If nothing else, Blondie has shown it can adapt. The band broke out of the CBGB’s punk scene in the mid-’70s, dabbled in pop, disco and reggae, and went on to score four No. 1 hits and become one of the best-selling acts of the era.

Its sound, particularly platinum-haired frontwoman Debbie Harry’s assertive yet aloof singing style, served as a blueprint for everyone from Gwen Stefani to Lady Gaga.

The single “Rapture” helped get rap on the radio, and Stein helmed the soundtrack for the cult film Wild Style.

Blondie went on indefinite hiatus in 1982 after Stein was diagnosed with a rare life-threatening skin disorder. But the songs like “Heart of Glass,” “One Way or Another” and “The Tide Is High” never went away, keeping them on the radio and at wedding receptions long after the group had parted company.

The key members — Stein, Harry, drummer Clem Burke, keyboardist Jimmy Destri and bassist Gary Valentine — got back together in 1997 on the condition that they continue making new music.

“Why? Because I just really like doing it,” Stein says.

Two years later, they scored a No. 1 hit in Britain with “Maria.”

On the road ever since, their work pace in the studio has only been diminished by real-life interferences. Valentine and Destri were shed almost as soon as they came back into the fold. “I just couldn’t work with them,” Stein says. “It’s always been a dysfunctional-family situation.”

The album, as you might expect, is all over the place while sounding distinctly like Blondie. Disco and reggae are at the fore. Harry, 66, spins out an ode to her days as a club kid in “Mother,” and the group even covers “Sunday Smile” by the band Beirut.

But is it enough? The previous Blondie album, “The Curse of Blondie,” was its lowest-charting ever.

The band members certainly don’t expect to make the same impact this time around as they did during their imperial phase. They’re just happy pressing forward on their own.

“Only if you sell Lady Gaga numbers do you make money at this point,” Stein says. “But I don’t mind. I wasn’t doing that much prior to the reformation.”



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