From Fats Domino to Public Enemy: 6 songs that have inspired Blondie’s Debbie Harry
Blondie leader Debbie Harry has inspired a whole host of the greatest artists to have emerged over the last 40 years which, on reflection, is thanks to her knack for being able to stay fresh and remain relevant in a constantly changing musical landscape.
It is some incredible achievement that Harry has managed to prolifically and relentlessly make music which continues to hit the mark. Since she and Blondie first arrived in the late ’70s, the band continue to release new material and, in 2017, released the album Pollinator which remains some of their most interesting work to date.
It does beg the question as to where does Harry finds inspiration and, more specifically, who she looks up to as iconic figures that have earnt her respect. Fortunately enough in 2014, during a conversation with The Guardian, she named the six songs which have inspired her from different points in her life and her reference frame is as eclectic as you would imagine with it ranging all the way from Fats Domino to Public Enemy.
Check out the list, below.
6 songs that inspire Blondie’s Debbie Harry:
Fats Domino – ‘Blueberry Hill’
‘Blueberry Hill’ is a track that first was performed by Gene Autry in 1940 but has been covered by a whole host of artists such as Louis Armstrong but Fats Domino’s in 1956 remains the definitive version. Harry revealed that this was the song that reminded her of her childhood in New Jersey which was soundtracked by mercurial pianist Fats Domino.
“I do remember one of the first things that had an effect on me as a child: hearing Fats Domino do Blueberry Hill. It was music my parents weren’t into, so this was stuff just for me,” the singer commented. “I love it when musicians and their instruments sort of become an entity in themselves – you see it with Nina Simone and Ray Charles as well as Fats Domino. All their music is so emotional for me.
“If I’d grown up differently, maybe I’d have had the diligence to learn an instrument. Oh well – I don’t think I’m going to get there at this point!”
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – ‘I Put A Spell On You’
‘I Put A Spell On You’ is one of the definitive songs that helped create rock ‘n’ roll into what it would be following it’s release in 1956 by Hawkins. The track has of course been covered on a whole host of occasions from acclaimed artists like Nina Simone and Chaka Khan but the rawness of Hawkins’ original just encapsulates exactly what a rockstar should be.
Speaking about the track, Harry said: “Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was just terrific. Outrageous, bizarre, eccentric – all of the things you need in a great artist and performer. Elvis and Jerry Lee happened around the same time, but Screamin’ Jay was more on the outside, not as commercial and viable. And yeah, I’d have loved to have seen him on TV, but I don’t think he was really available at that point, if you know what I mean! You could hear what a personality he had on the radio anyway.
“Radio played a very important part in me having access to music as a kid. There were so many diverse radio stations in the New York area that I got a great listening education.”
Donovan – ‘Mellow Yellow’
Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan’s ‘Mellow Yellow’ was one of the most gorgeous tracks to come out of the ’60s with the psychedelically twinged number even managing to reach number two in the US chart in 1966.
The title of the track is apparently linked to smoking banana skins that people thought provided a hallucinogenic high which has since been debunked.
“The period where folk was crossing over into rock was really great,” the Blondie singer commented. “There were a lot of free concerts then, happenings and be-ins, with these hippy bands with masses of people in them, banging on something, droning away. A lot of those bands didn’t exist properly, of course – they just got together and strummed and banged and hooted – it was off the wall! But at moments, it did coalesce and become very interesting.
“Marc Bolan was very important to me at that time, but Donovan’s ‘Mellow Yellow’ really reminds me of back then. I felt like I was swirling around in it all and everything was happening around me.”
Funky 4 + 1 – ‘That’s The Joint’
This 1981 single was one of the early hip-hop classics which helped give the genre mainstream attention and also became Funky 4 + 1’s signature song. It is frequently cited as influential early hip hop record borrowing from disco, funk and jazz.
“In the late 70s, when everything started happening with Blondie, hip-hop was a real eye-opener. My biggest epiphany came when me and Chris [Stein, of Blondie,] went to an event in the South Bronx, and there were DJs scratching and people rapping live,” Harry said.
The track helped Harry be introduced into the world of hip-hop which of course shares a similar ethos to punk which she could relate to. “Believe it or not, this was put on by the police department in a gymnasium! It was a very local, neighbourhoody kind of thing, and just fantastic,” she added. “I also remember meeting Nile Rodgers around then, before we made Kookoo and how his music with Chic was sampled so much through hip-hop. I always thought there was something very jazz-like in Nile’s playing – those chord changes and the jittery rhythms. I like that idea that hip-hop partly came from jazz blues.”
Bizet – ‘Chanson d’avril’
This 19th-century piece of music from French composer Bizet is somewhat of a red herring in Harry’s list and is not the kind of music that you would associate with the fiery Blondie leader but it offers further proof of her expansive musical library.
Speaking about her decision to add the track to a list of inspirations, she said: “These days, I still surf through music on the radio, everything from Indian pop to Spanish music to classical. I love Mahler’s symphonies – anyone who doesn’t is mad – and the other day I caught Bizet’s Chanson d’avril again, which was really, really beautiful.
“I don’t really put albums on, as such, but when I do, I listen to them to study them. I don’t listen to music to create a mood, but I probably should because it’d make me less grumpy!”
Public Enemy – ‘Fight the Power’
“As I’m working all the time, festivals are the best way for me to see bands – and you get such a spectrum of artists, and so many new things,” Harry said. I went to a great Amnesty festival in Brooklyn, with Imagine Dragons, the Flaming Lips and Tegan and Sara – all great, and all such different styles. Last year, I saw Public Enemy at a festival we did in Chicago [Riot fest 2013]. I was standing side-stage and just loving every minute. When I run into people who complain that there’s no good music today, or go, uggggh, the old music was so much better, I have to laugh. There’s so much good stuff now, it’s almost impossible to keep track of it.”
This bonafide classic was conceived at the request of film director Spike Lee, who sought a musical theme for his 1989 film Do the Right Thing. First issued on the film’s 1989 soundtrack, a different version was featured on Public Enemy’s 1990 studio album Fear of a Black Planet and remains one of the greatest protest songs in the history of music.