It’s the early 1980’s; I’m young, cool and aggressively defensive. I’m walking down the street with a couple of guys I know. They speed their pace and start verbally appraising the look of a female who’s walking in front of them. It goes something like..
” …. nice legs….. cool boots … look at that ass… slim…. and that gorgeous blonde hair.”
I’m growling and making controlled-explosive mouth sounds at their offensive behaviour, but I don’t know these guys too well and, anyway, confrontation – or the concept of ‘calling out’ hasn’t yet reached these shores. I look at my feet and hope she doesn’t mind hearing it. All of a sudden the two dicks I’m with make a strange noise, crease up, hands on knees, full-on guffawing, crying and back-slapping each other. I’ve missed what went on.
Back to March 1978, when the US band Blondie first appeared on Top of the Pops with ‘Denis’ – a version of a 1963 doo-wap hit song ‘Denise’ by Randy and the Rainbows. Like all 14-year olds, I was taking the weekly TOTP output seriously. My dad would be making sarcastic comments about performers, lyrics and the audience; my mum would be isolated in the kitchen, crashing pots and pans around. This was the context that stirred up punk in small-town England.
For many young lads, the TOTP vision of Debbie Harry – modestly dressed but with the blonde hair and pouty lips – suggested eroticism and domination by a sexy woman, but the sound of her voice seemed vulnerable and plaintive. This tension, compounded by Harry’s ‘I’m attainable/not attainable’ roleplay secured the band’s success, even before you consider the stream of brilliantly constructed pop songs released over several years. And of course, the rise of the picture disc meant that there were many versions of the same record to collect on coloured vinyl, picture disc, import and so on.
What I took from the ‘Denis’ performance was a vision of how to be a powerful young woman. It looked like Debbie Harry was certainly the boss of those guys in the band but it’s hard to identify exactly what was going on. She had confidence, style and a kind of sexuality that was far more intense than the’ nice girl with tits’ ideology that The Sun newspaper printed on page 3. Maybe it’s pure charisma, maybe raw ambition or drug-induced narcissism. It could have been Debbie’s own master plan or maybe some be-suited guy dreamed up and manipulated the whole thing? Whatever the reason, I’m sure that the persona and image of Debbie Harry has contributed to my own development.
At the time, a lot was made of the fact that Harry was in her 30s, which was seen to be rather old for leading a punky-pop band or being a glamour model. But that fact was also driving the boys’ fantasies and helping me to see that you don’t have to apologise or background yourself or look frumpy. You could just be you.
With time, Debbie became Deborah Harry. There was serious art music and broken heart music, the beginnings of rap music and overblown concept music along with too many pop hits to count. Harry, the persona was always a good bet for a red carpet run or a nightclub smooze-shot. She has aged perfectly like a true rock star. Only this year, she sang with all-girl punk band The Coathangers at a ‘heritage handbag’ event. Looking at this 74- year- old woman, you can tell she’s not 19 … or 32. She doesn’t look like someone in her 70s – just like a very very cool older woman.
Older women like this – whether famous or not – are fantastic. They refuse to wear practical appropriate clothing and hairstyles that make them invisible, drudgy and easy to ignore. There is nothing more powerful than an older woman dressed like a rock star who doesn’t care what people think.
So … back to the 1984 street scene at the top and the part I’d missed. The two guys in their early twenties following a blonde beauty were wrong-footed when she turned round to see who was commenting on her ass. The boys then realised that this was a much MUCH older woman – probably in her 50s. The moment that I hadn’t seen was when the boys froze in horror at their ‘mistake’ and the magnificent woman winked, blew them a kiss and strode off.
A power salute and a thank you to the woman that is Deborah Harry, to grown up girls and sparky older women everywhere. Keep it up!