‘Welcome to Bedgebury Pinetum’ shouted the man with the mic, ‘home to the largest collection of conifers in the world’. Conifers. Possibly the last thing on our minds as we waited in the wind and rain atop a Kentish ridge to see Blondie, the goddess of pop. It seemed hard to believe that she would actually perform in these unlikely conditions.
A perspex cage had been erected around Clem Burke’s drum kit, presumably to keep it dry. Three hot air heaters were placed along the stage to tempt the rest of the band to appear. Finally, a little posse nudged its way out from the side of the stage, but Blondie herself was nowhere to be seen.
There was a huge pause while it seemed possible that Debbie Harry might be changing her mind about the whole thing. We waited and waited. And then it happened. Screams of adoration drowned out the wind as she almost wandered onto the set wearing a full length black mac with matching leather gloves and red hunter wellies.
Even if all she said was ‘sorry folks, but I really can’t sing in this awful weather!’ it would have been enough. Instead, she launched into One Way or Another, instantly electrifying a crowd of middle-aged fans, moshing with delight.
‘Hanging on the Telephone‘ followed and with it a sense of shock and awe. Her shock at singing in a rainstorm somewhere in wooded England, and our shock of seeing her come among us. ‘It’s 85 degrees back home’ she yelled between numbers. ‘We love you, Blondie’ someone yelled. ‘And we’ve got the biggest collection of conifers in the world’, another man shouted.
The three original members of the band, Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Clem Burke, first played together as Blondie in 1975 in a small club in New York’s red light district. They were late starters, Debbie Harry was already 30 and had been following a varied career as a vocalist, waitress and Playboy Bunny. Within 3 years they released Parallel Lines. Almost every single they released reached No 1.
But the band stopped touring in 1982 when Chris Stein, Harry’s then lover, became seriously ill with an auto-immune disorder. She nursed him back to health, and though they split as a couple they continued to work together. All three reformed as a touring concern in 1997 after a 15 year gap and have toured more or less continuously ever since, releasing further albums along the way.
Back in Bedgebury, the band were beginning to warm to the crowd, and gradually Harry started to peel off her layers. ‘this is the first time I have ever sung in Wellington Boots,’ she yelled in a way that suggested it was the first time she had ever heard of them either. ‘I can’t say I’m glad it’s raining, because it’s not good for you out there, but it’s good for my Wellington Boots!’ She could have said anything, for she looked so good in them. They were almost made for her florescent orange outfit and matching nail varnish.
Blondie is a band that delights from every angle. Firstly, Harry has a divine voice that has not diminished one iota. Her live renditions might be slightly softer than the nasal versions we played over and over again on vinyl, but they are hugely likeable. She performs with the freshness and vivacity of a teenager, interspersing the vocals with wild unaffected dancing. When we were dancing as teenagers with a hairbrush in front of our bedroom mirrors, we looked more like Blondie on stage than we ever dreamed.
Her performance is full of unexpected ad-libbing, Harry seeming to enjoy herself as much as the audience. She has an addictive quality. The more she sings, the more you want to hear her sing. And the more you like her. Because what comes across on stage, unimaginable from those steely-faced album covers, is a powerfully warm presence.
It goes without saying that she looks fantastic for 68, and it’s tempting to focus entirely on the main woman, but alongside her the musicianship is superb. On several occasions, when it seemed that a song could not possibly be improved or performed better, a drum solo from Clem Burke, or a guitar solo from Tommy Kessler would come along.
After a set that lasted over an hour and included a handful of their new numbers, notably A Rose by Any Name, as well as old favourites like Heart of Glass, the band left the stage only to return for a five-number encore which included Call Me, Relax and Dreaming. Stunned and delighted, a mesmerised crowd floated away through the mud. There was a sense of having witnessed the nearest thing to perfection as it was possible to imagine.