Blondie, O2 Arena: Debbie Harry still the personification of cool in a set packed with hits

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Debbie Harry performing on stage at The O2 Arena - Dave J Hogan
Debbie Harry performing on stage at The O2 Arena - Dave J Hogan

Blondie hasn’t been blonde for a very long time. At 76, Debbie Harry wears her hair stark white. With her extraordinarily defined features and swaggeringly sassy dress sense, she may still look like the most glamorous granny in rock and roll, but the group can no longer rely on their frontwoman’s weaponized sex appeal to stun onlookers into submission.

Nor, it turns out, do they need to. With her voice still gliding tunefully between ice-cream sweetness and growling ferocity, and her insouciantly eccentric stage presence still the personification of careless cool, Harry held the effortless focus of a smash-hit-packed set of the sharpest, snappiest, new wave pop an old punk could ever hope to hear, from a supercharged Hanging on the Telephone to a storming Atomic.

On their biggest UK tour since their 1998 comeback, the original New York punk band took no prisoners, blitzing the O2 arena with a dozen gleaming Top 20 UK hits (including six number ones) and a fistful of classic album tracks. This has not always been the case. I have seen Blondie blow hot and cold over the years, unwilling to conform to vintage band expectations and just play what the audience wants to hear. Maybe the pandemic has mellowed them.

“It’s so good to be back, you have no idea,” Harry murmured, then stopped as if to reconsider what we have all been through these past two years. “Well maybe you do.” Then she cocked her head and added, with comical sauciness, “I’d like to hear what those ideas are.”

Harry has always exhibited a kind of semi-detached eccentricity on stage, as if completely unfazed by her surroundings, whether that was a dingy rock club back in the late 70’s or a huge, modern, soulless arena. Part of her curious appeal is that she has never really been a people pleaser, lending her an oddball integrity in the midst of such a pop blitz. She drifted about the stage, did kooky dance moves, muttered whatever was on her mind (“Are you happy? I’m happy. Do I look happy? Well, I am f***ing happy!”) and occasionally beamed a winning smile more dazzling than the smartly arranged “pop art” lights and screens.

To counteract Harry’s innate star qualities, the group adopted a democratic slogan in their early days: Blondie is a Band. Only two members of that original line-up were still on stage 46 years later - Harry herself and drummer Clem Burke, the pounding, thundering, driving force whose sweaty physical energy and sheer percussive power holds everything together.

Founding member Chris Stein, 72, had to pull out of the tour at the last minute, due to heart problems. In a display of vintage punk unity, he was deputized by a Sex Pistol, with Glen Matlock on bass, the band mischievously squeezing a blast of the Pistol’s God Save the Queen into the glistening Giorgio Moroder disco of set-closer Heart of Glass. The other three band members have all been recruited over the past 15 years and bring a flashy energy to proceedings, especially when Tommy Kessler shows off his virtuoso, heavy rock guitar soloing against the splashy keyboards of Matt Katz-Bohen.

They all got their share of big screen time, but there is no question who the star of the occasion was. There are a lot of vintage artists who avoid close-ups or use camera effects to disguise the ravages of ageing as best they can. But there she was in all her wrinkled glory, dressed in a blaze of clashing colours, hot pinks and oranges vividly set against a frame of white hair. Although she hails from a different musical generation, Harry is only two years younger than Mick Jagger, but she shares with the Rolling Stone a certain on-stage F-you fearlessness: this is who I am, this is what I do, and age is just a number.

It is not so much about putting the sexy into septuagenarian as a reminder that music has never really been about youth: it is about life. And there was plenty of that in these old punks.

Touring the UK until May 7; tour.blondie.net

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