Debbie Harry turned 66 on the 1st of July. It’s something that’s surely in the back of everyones mind as dusk falls over a resplendent Somerset House, the crowd awaiting an appearance from a true musical icon. Can Harry still cut it in 2011 now that she’s eligible for a bus pass?
Initial signs aren’t good. Emerging onto the stage wearing a pair of glittery, novelty sunglasses, Debbie Harry has the bemused look of a woman who has just wandered in from a hen-party she was too old to belong to. Perhaps they’re just a joke though, because they’re quickly discarded and Harry swiftly allays most of our fears over her performance. Her voice remains as strong as ever, and she’s still perfectly capable of slinking alluringly across a stage.
As for the rest of Blondie, the band is as tight as you’d expect them to be. Drummer Clem Burke, bafflingly placed behind large screens of Perspex, keeps things rolling along nicely – even finding time for a few rock’n’roll drumstick throw-and-catch moments – while Chris Stein on guitar is majestic, although chooses to leave most of the virtuoso pieces to his younger compatriot Tommy Kessler. In fact, it’s admirable quite how often Harry and Stein are willing – quite literally – to step back and let the others move to the front of the stage and command proceedings.
And despite a crowd that’s bafflingly static and subdued (an ill-advised “London isn’t as good as New York” comment probably doesn’t help matters), Debbie Harry seems to grow in confidence as the set goes on, engaging in some amusing banter, including several references to the hacking scandal (See how modern and contemporary they are?), along with a lovely introduction as a ringing phone sounds – “Hello? Is this Somerset House calling? Well, this is Blondie!” – before bursting into a spirited ‘Hanging on the Telephone’. Elsewhere in the set, ‘Atomic’ surges heroically, while Harry’s vocals on ‘Maria’ are as sultry as they ever were.
It’s not all good though; songs from new album ‘Panic of Girls’ don’t have quite the same ring of quality to them. ‘Girlie Girlie’ is an awkward foray into cod-reggae that might actually be quite catchy, but just doesn’t work coming from Blondie. Still, Harry seems to enjoy performing it, and it’s one of the few to really get the crowd going, so what do we know.
The set highlights are saved for the end, with a fiercely energetic cover of The Beastie Boy’s ‘Fight For Your Right (To Party)’, which seems to wake the audience from its slumber, and gives the band something genuinely edgy to get their teeth into, while following it up with ‘One Way Or Another’ is a stroke of genius, consolidating that energy into a lively, punchy ending. And with an inevitable encore of ‘Heart of Glass’ - a song entirely unsullied by the passing of time, and as glorious and imperious as it ever was - the night ends on a very, very strong note.
There are a few mildly awkward moments when Harry’s age begins to tell (her “twisting” during ‘Horizontal Twist’ reverts her briefly back to that tragic, too-old-for-the-hen-party figure from earlier), but despite a few new duffers, and a curiously quiet crowd, the band manages to largely throw back the years with ease. But it’s not just an exercise in nostalgia. There’s something about Blondie’s brand of danceable, light electro-punk that fits in curiously well with the music scene of 2011, and it’s good to know they’re still with us.