You may know Debbie Harry as a singer, the first modern female pop star, architect of a string of hits including six UK No 1s across three decades with her group Blondie. But it was a different side of her we saw at the launch of Kew The Music last night in Kew Gardens: Deborah Harry the performer, an actress with 54 credits to her name on IMBD. A favourite of cult directors, her roles that stick in my mind are Union City, Videodrome and Hairspray, in which she was not just “good, for a singer”, but plain good.
After a sadly lacklustre and broken-voiced support performance by Hugh Cornwell, his old Stranglers songs sounding naked without Dave Greenfield’s swirling keyboard arpeggios, Blondie came on to the strains of an old Russian song, the intro of demagogues, and launched immediately into a blistering rendition of One Way or Another. As we know from her hit, she’s not the kind of girl who gives up just like that, and a week after her 68th birthday Harry’s voice was astonishingly good: not merely intact, but stronger and more melodious than in her heyday, hitting both low and high registers with ease.
The songs were not carefully reconstructed museum pieces, but living, breathing things. Firebrand guitarist Tommy Kessler gives them a new lease of life, though occasionally straying into the sort of Guitar Hero territory that would have seen him strung from the nearest lamppost in Blondie’s punk heyday. Demented human beat factory Clem Burke still whips up a storm on the drums at nearly 58. But it’s Deborah Harry who is Queen of F***ing Everything.
Wearing a bright red dress topped with vines, like Mother Nature at a ball – presumably in homage to Kew Gardens, unless Harry wears this sort of thing all the time – she prowled the stage like a panther about to escape its cage. Every song was told like a story, and delivered like the actress she is: singing with passion, playing with the words, dropping frequently into speech. Throwaway classics such as Hanging on the Telephone and The Tide Is High were mixed with creditable new songs such as A Rose By Any Name and I Want To Drag You Around, building to epic versions of Union City Blue, Maria and Atomic, the latter so yearningly beautiful on the simple chorus, “Oh your hair is beautiful/Tonight/ Tonight” that it almost made me cry.
The whole thing ended, precisely on the final note of the encore, with fireworks over the green-lit Glasshouse. They couldn’t possibly match the ones struck on stage.
Blondie tour America in September/October. See http://www.blondie.net/