Behind the Lens: Blondie's Chris Stein Reflects on Shooting a Topless Bungee-Jumping Debbie Harry and His Run-Ins with Kanye and A$AP Rocky
Kanye once approached Blondie about recording together.
Photos by Chris Stein
Less than a month after the release of Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk, the coffee table debut from Blondie's co-founding member went on backorder. In case there was any doubt, that's how beloved they still are—40 years into their career. In many ways, Blondie's relevancy has only increased since they became the radio-friendly poster band of punk. Not only do they still bring it live—which I was lucky enough to witness a couple weeks ago at TBD Fest—their genre-skipping style is now a commonplace in indie music. Plus, they pretty much invented alt-pop, a microgenre that's exploded over the past year. And their punk aesthetic continues to inspire designers—take the spike- and chain-heavy fall 2013 shows of Versace, Anthony Vaccarello, Chanel, and Saint Laurent. Or the controversial 2013 punk-themed Met Gala, which many of those designers presumably had in mind while creating their collections. I caught up with Chris Stein over the phone to ask about that exhibit, his iconic and under-the-radar photos of Debbie Harry and their musician friends, and his run-ins with A$AP Rocky and Kanye West, who reached out to the band to collaborate.
One of the first things that caught my eye is the photo of Debbie bungee jumping topless in leather pants. Was that moment premeditated?
No, I didn’t do it because I couldn’t handle it. I just watched. It was in New Zealand and that was later in her solo career.
Were you guys always doing crazy stuff like that at the time?
That’s probably less crazy than some of the other antics and things over the years. But it wasn’t like TVs thrown out of hotel windows—we never got to that point.
What was Debbie’s reaction to the naked photos going into the book?
Everyone I talked to said “Gee if I looked like that, it would be okay.” She was in good shape. Still is for an old dame. Nowadays with Kate Moss, the standards have changed. So she was fine with it.
Was it hard at all back then to be dating a pin-up for millions of people?
Nah, we were able to retreat into our own bubble. It was helpful, being under all this pressure. I think if we were solo out there it would be crazier.
When you took the portraits of her in the book, was she thinking about what she was wearing or was it more in the moment?
Only a little bit, like the zebra photo. Some of the outfits are put together. A lot of the time was just casual too. She was very DIY. She never had stylists.
How did the picture of her in the ball gown where she’s holding a pan on fire come about?
That was our apartment that burned down on 17th street. People said it looked like a modern fashion shoot, which never even dawned on me. We were out on tour, and my mother called me and said don’t get upset but your apartment burned down. That was it. Then we went back to get some stuff out of there, and supposedly the gown belonged to Marilyn [Monroe] and was in one of her films but we were never able to prove it. The girl downstairs had it on loan and it got singed.
Tell me about your favorite photo in the book.
I don’t really have one. It’s like when people ask about the songs—they’re movements in a larger piece. I really like the one of Richard Hell reaching in and handing him a beer.
What was going on when you took that photo?
That was his last show with the Heartbreakers at Max’s backstage. I think he was a little somber.
Which of the bands in the book were you closest with?
I was really close with The Ramones. Miss those guys. A lot of people from the earlier days too, like The Fast and some people a little less well known.
When shooting Devo and Iggy Pop and the other artists in your book, did you approach them as a friend?
Yeah. For a couple of the shots of Richard Hell and the Voidoids, he said, “Let’s do a session” and that was a little more formal, but for the most part it was all casual.
The photo of David Bowie sticks out because you said in the caption he only let you take one.
Yeah, I took three shots but that was the only one that was any good. It’s kind of snapshot-y. The ones with Iggy are cooler and they were all taken at the same time.
Were you surprised by his reaction?
David? No, he was just cautious on what he put out of himself. But he was very gentlemanly, always.
You have a brief chapter about Los Angeles in the book. How did that compare to New York at the time?
Back then in the 70s and 80s it was less destroyed than New York. Now I like Los Angeles because it maintains that funkiness that’s kind of getting lost in New York, everything is so upmarket now. It wasn’t such an extreme back then. We didn’t go into the tougher neighborhoods back in the 70s 80s in LA.
You also have a lot of images from abroad shot in Thailand and Bordeaux, France. Was there one place that was your favorite to visit?
Bangkok was really great. It’s so different now, thirty years later. When we first went there in the mid-70s it was very bucolic and there were parks and rivers and a lot of greenery. Now it’s concreted over and very industrialized.
Were you there to play a show?
We played in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve, and that New Year’s Eve they lifted a curfew that had been in place since the Vietnam era. That was exciting and memorable because the whole city went crazy. Before, you had to be off the streets from midnight to six in the morning. So, when they lifted it, it was a big party town.
I’ve always been curious to know if you had a feeling “Rapture” would become as large as large as it did?
I don’t know if I had any preconceptions about it. The only one I was really sure about was “The Tide Is High.” As far as “Rapture” goes, we liked what we saw in early hip-hop. It seemed like a no-brainer to do something that referenced it.
It always blows my mind you guys have the first #1 rap song.
Yeah. We just met guys from A$AP, and a couple of those guys said it was the first thing they’d ever heard. I’ve heard that from guys in Wu-Tang too which is really weird.
What was your relationship like with rappers at the time?
We knew Grandmaster Flash and Funky 4 +1, and Fab 5 Freddy was always a constant in the whole thing. We were always friends. Still talk to Rodney C from the Funky 4 + 1. When we were on “Saturday Night Live,” we got to pick our musical guest to be on with us, and those guys were on. I think it was the first rap band on either local or national tv on anywhere in the states?
Did you take photos of rappers too?
Nah, I should have. Just Freddy and a couple people.
Would you ever do something with the A$AP Mob?
Yeah they were really nice guys. We met Rocky at an airport and started talking. He was great. He seemed very different than his musical persona. He was very laidback and humble, and he’s sort of aggressive and explicit in his music. It’s a cool contrast.
I’m sure you’re used to seeing that divide since you’ve bumped elbows with so many rappers.
Maybe, we actually talked to Kanye [West] on the phone, and he was so nice. I didn’t know what to expect but he was so nice and chill.
When did you catch up with him?
We were talking about doing something at the Met Ball with him, but it never happened. We did have a conversation though.
What were your thoughts on that punk Met Ball? It was very divisive.
It’s totally crazy to see $40,000 [Alexander] McQueen gowns that are punk style, because the whole punk thing was DIY. But Malcolm [McLaren] had high prices early on, just not in that ballpark. The punk fashion thing was being co-opted very early on. I remember being in the UK years ago and seeing a guy with a big mohawk on a milk commercial. I realized then, my god, this is going to be mainstream eventually.
Order Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk here.
Marissa G. Muller is holding out hope that, one day, Blondie will collaborate with Kanye. She's on Twitter - @marissagmuller.