Blondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri entered the band’s orbit through Paul Zone and his brothers in the Fast, who introduced him to Debbie Harry and Chris Stein.
By late 1975, Gary Valentine was the first to cut his hair short; then Stein and Burke did the same and adopted a retro 1960s style. “There’s a picture of Debbie and me walking down Fourteenth Street,” Clem Burke said, “and everyone is looking at us, and I’m wearing what you would call a slim-fit suit. They weren’t looking at us because we were famous, because we weren’t yet. We just didn’t dress like everyone else then.” During the early years of the CBGB scene, no one had Mohawks or any of the other styles that are now punk clichés. The people on the scene mostly took their inspiration from Beatlemania-era fashion: black jeans and skinny ties. It was a pronounced contrast from the prevailing trends of the time, when earth tones, blue denim, and bell-bottoms prevailed. Designers weren’t in the habit of making black slim-fit jeans and suits—and even if they were, the members of Blondie didn’t have the money to buy new clothes. Instead, Burke purchased thrift store suits, wore them in a tub full of water, and then walked around in the summer so that the clothes would shrink around his body. “Everybody loved the skinny ties,” Lisa Jane Persky recalled. “There was a place in New Jersey where they had brand-new ‘old stock.’ It was all these old peg-leg pants from the early sixties, and they were brand new. We used to go there and get stuff all the time.” Burke once bought a bunch of unworn 1960s clothes from that store—such as Levi’s Sta-Prest jeans and button-down collar polka dot shirts—then lugged them to the Blondie loft. Some of those items ended up on the cover of the band’s debut album, because the guys in the band often shared clothes.
From Chapter 31 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Blondie’s fortunes began to turn around soon after Clem Burke joined the band. “He definitely was a wannabe rock star,” Debbie Harry recalled. “He came in looking cool to the audition and he played well. He seemed to know a lot about music, and he was into the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes, and the Ventures, all the stuff we were into.” As for Burke, he said it wasn’t really much of an audition. “We just talked, more or less,” he said. “I just knew that she was it. I was looking for my Bowie, my Mick Jagger, my Bryan Ferry, and it just turned out to be a woman instead of a guy.” Burke’s first Blondie gig was the same night bassist Fred Smith announced he was leaving to play with Television, and the despondent group fell apart again. “I kept in touch with Debbie and Chris, trying to keep the band going,” Burke said, “and then I brought Gary in. To me, that was the beginning of Blondie.” Roberta Bayley also recalled that the band finally gelled with the addition of keyboardist Jimmy Destri and bassist Gary Valentine, who moved in with Debbie and Chris. “They were more cohesive,” she said, “and they started rehearsing and trying to be a little bit more professional, and writing new songs.” Valentine taught himself how to play bass after seeing Television and other new downtown bands perform around town. “They weren’t great musicians,” he said, “but they were inventing themselves in front of you. Then you felt like, ‘Well, I could do that, too.’ And that’s what got me going.”
Even though the Zone brothers were oddballs, their family was still very supportive—especially their mother Vita Maria, who was the Fast’s biggest fan. “We started growing our hair long,” Paul Zone said, “and that was a big thing back then, when a lot of kids could have been ousted from their family for that. But even aunts and uncles, they just never really thought of us as strange or outcasts.” Still, they knew suburban life was not for them. “As long as I can remember,” he added, “we wanted to get to that train as quick as we could to get to Manhattan. It was only a few stops away.” When they started seeing ads in the Village Voice for an odd-looking band that turned out to be the New York Dolls, the brothers began frequenting the Mercer Arts Center, Club 82, and other venues. Peter Crowley began booking bands at Max’s Kansas City in 1974, and the Fast were among the first to regularly play there. “I met them hanging out at Max’s, a little bit before CBGB’s,” recalled Chris Stein. “We met Jimmy Destri, our keyboard player, through them, and we did a lot of shows with the Fast at CBGB’s.” In 1976, Paul Zone debuted as the Fast’s new frontman, and Debbie Harry introduced them at CBGB by waving a checkered racing flag. “We had a pretty good start because the name was established,” he said, “so people knew who the Fast were.” The future looked bright when they recorded a single with 1960s pop producer Richard Gottehrer, who helmed Blondie’s first international hit singles, but the Fast were done in by a combination of bad management and bad luck.
From Chapter 32 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Blondie first came to his attention when Richard Gottehrer was recording a 1976 music festival at CBGB. “I was in the truck recording all the bands for a live album for CBGB’s,” recalled Craig Leon, who was then working for Instant Records. “We did a sound check and Debbie came in the truck and she saw Richie and me sitting there, and she said to Richie, ‘I want you to make a record of me.’ ” The no-nonsense Gottehrer set up a rehearsal for Blondie to see if they had what it took to be stars—or at least release a catchy single. “I remember grinning from ear to ear throughout the whole rehearsal because the songs were so great,” he said. “She was great. You could tell right away they were special.” Unfortunately, Gottehrer had no luck convincing any major labels that Blondie was marketable, though he finally persuaded an old friend from his Brill Building years, Larry Uttal, whose label Private Stock Records was home to the 1960s pop singer Frankie Valli. Uttal agreed to release one Blondie single with an option on a full-length album, and Leon was dispatched to record their debut. The obvious choice for a single was the Valentine-penned “Sex Offender,” with “In the Flesh” as the B-side. That single was recorded at Plaza Sound (as were their first two albums), a midtown studio above Radio City Music Hall. Debbie Harry’s suburban parents took her to see Christmas shows at Radio City in the 1950s, when CBGB owner Hilly Kristal was in the chorus that backed the Rockettes. It is quite possible that Harry heard Kristal sing during a Radio City holiday show long before either was involved in punk rock. Plaza Sound Studios was a huge room that had previously been used as a radio studio for the NBC Symphony Orchestra and a rehearsal space for the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini.
From Chapter 33 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore