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Debbie Harry - Music & Memories

Tom Winnifrith
Friday 15 June 2012

I have rather given up on radio when driving. The adverts on Absolute (and the inane DJs) drive me absolutely mad. The non-stop plugging of the Absolute brand is infuriating. I got the message the 94th time (which is normally after about 45 minutes of listening). The station promises no repeats of the songs it plays. That is not hard if you only play 5 songs an hour with the rest of the time being oft repeated adverts, usually for the station you are already listening to. Moreover, since at least one of those five songs will be a deathly dull offering from Coldplay, I have given up on the station. And so the drive up to Heysham last night was a CD drive with, as the main course Blondie, whose lead singer, as all men my age know, was Debbie Harry.

Music is, as you may have guessed pretty central to my life. Not all music. I rarely listen to classical music and, as far as I can see, the last 15 years have produced only about a dozen half memorable tunes. For this grumpy old man, music effectively ends in 1997. Listening to non stop music is not just about the tunes themselves but about the memories they bring back and where those thoughts lead you to. I can happily bark along to Union City Blues, Hanging on the Telephone or Atomic (a rare song where the later electro remix is actually very good) with the best of them. The volume goes right up and I accompany Debbie in my own style. Since I was travelling alone there could be no complaints.

For some songs the lyrics themselves always bring back a smile or a tear. On my journey I also found myself listening to “From a land down under” – a one hit wonder for Men at Work. The way language is made to rhyme with sandwich (I asked if he spoke my language, he smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich) is wonderful.

With Blondie it is the memories. Now this is not a smutty reference to the fact that in 1980 every boy my age had a poster of Debbie (by then in her thirties) on his bedroom wall. She was the most gorgeous woman of that age. No argument. Although from the pop world if that sort of era I also had the hots for Nena (Neun und Neunzig Luftballoon/ 99 Red Balloons) and half the Go-Gos and half the Bangles. I digress. With Blondie there is more. Clearly at all of the parties I attended when young, Atomic or Heart of Glass was played and so you think back to them. Both songs were on my 40th birthday play list, something I spent many happy days compiling and both will be on my 50th Birthday playlist as well.

The Bangles I saw live in their prime – in fact before they hit the big time when they played to 3-400 at the Powerhouse in Birmingham and Jon West and I drove in after school and stood right by the stage. I was that close to Vicki Peterson and Susanna Hoffs. Great. Blondie I saw much later in Victoria Park, Bow. By the 2000s Debbie Harry was wearing odd glasses and jumped around looking like a deranged granny who had enjoyed one or two sherries too many. It was all a bit odd. But the music was still the music of my early teens, the music that accompanies the poster on the wall.

The music also makes me think of Neil Masuda, one of my father’s students who would act as babysitter for my sisters and me when my father was away. It was Neil who introduced me to West Ham, who buried my first cat with me and who has popped up every few years in the two decades since then. While finishing his PHD in Classics Neil became a journalist via the traditional route.

Starting on his local paper his big break was scooping a three in a bed splash on a local celeb: Howard Jones. Like to get to know you well. It appeared that Howard did. That got Neil onto the red tops in London. He tells a tale that after an equerry to Prince Charles dies of AIDS (in the early AIDS years) he was – as a handsome young reporter new to Fleet Street – sent to trawl certain gay bars to try to find men who had slept with this poor fellow. Such was Fleet Street at its nastiest and most sordid. In keeping with this image I remember Neil popping in to see me at University clutching a large bottle of pink champagne. Why does Neil spring to mind when I hear Blondie? As he moved back to a local paper in Oxford, he got to interview Debbie Harry, slightly before her deranged granny phase. What would I have asked? How did you feel about being pinned to so many bedroom walls? What was it like singing and partying on the Lower East side of New York in the 1970s in the pre-punk/ early punk era? Why did you bother with some fairly dire comeback records? Explain your relationship with Chris Stein? Do you share my views on music since 1997?

For me – as someone who partied in the lower East Side in the mid 1980s (seeing the Ramones live for the first time) that subject would be of most interest. Did Debbie ever go to Downtown Beirut? I am pretty sure she must have as it was round the corner from King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut and CBGBs where everyone hung out. Lucky Neil for having such an opportunity. And so Neil Masuda (who I must look up as he still lives in Oxford) springs to mind when I hear Blondie as does that poster, teenage alcohol fuelled parties and a deranged granny singing beautifully in the East End. You need to have something to think about on a 4 hour drive ahead of what promises to be a stormy crossing.

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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