Blondie were perhaps the ultimate New York band of the late-’70s, but their sound seemed to draw as much from the happening London scene of the time – Elvis Costello, early Joe Jackson etc. – as it did from the American East Coast sounds. Perhaps the reason for that is Nigel Harrison, the only British member of the band. We wish him a happy 71st birthday today.
Harrison grew up near Manchester and like many young men at the time, was drawn to rock because he loved the Beatles. Or else, loved the way they were swarmed by cute girls! He joined a local band, playing bass because none of his friends had one, so it was an instant invitation to join. To this day, he still can’t read music. But it hasn’t stopped him from becoming a highly-talented and respected four-stringer For Bass Players Only laud for “nimbly intuitive playing” incorporating “elements of funk, country, disco, metal and reggae” (which sounds somewhat like a description of Blondie at the height of their popularity.) He learned to play by ear, copying greats like Jack Bruce, Carol Kaye and “early Motown” – presumably James Jamerson.
His first big break came in 1971, when just out of his teens, he joined a British band called Silverhead. Deep Purple signed them to their label and got them to open a number of shows, but their record never took off. Nonetheless, there he made a bit of a reputation for himself, and met singer Michael Des Barres, whom he’s worked with off and on again to the present day. After Silverhead came an anonymous run with The Runaways. He played bass on their first album when the rest of the band decided that their “real” bassist, Jackie Fox, couldn’t play well enough.
From there came a low-profile band called Nite City. They didn’t do much…except catch the ear of Blondie, who in 1978 were looking for a new bassist after their first two albums. They recruited Harrison just in time for the work on their massive hit Parallel Lines to begin. Harrison played bass and co-wrote the album’s second hit, “One Way or Another”. He’d later co-write “Union City Blue” and a few other songs of theirs. However, the band were at each other’s throats in the studio and Harrison in particular didn’t like producer Mike Chapman, even though he now credits Chapman with producing well. Harrison played more or less ad lib, and Chapman wanted structure, asking for re-takes which Harrison seemingly refused to play the same way twice.
He stayed with them through their brief but very hot career peak, working on Eat to The Beat and Autoamerican (with hits like “Dreaming” and “Rapture”) and continuing on into 1982, with The Hunter. However, that album didn’t come close to matching the success of the past three and their tour ended up playing in venues far too big for the low demand for tickets. That coupled with Harry getting sick, and unspecified drug problems within the group, caused them to quit by year’s end.
Harrison and drummer Clem Burke teamed up with a couple of other musicians including ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones and Des Barres again to form Chequered Past. They put out one album allmusic gave a “meh” to, calling it “flawed fun”. “’A World Gone Wild’ rocks out nicely”, it said, but soon the songs all came to “sound a bit the same-ish.”
Harrison kept somewhat busy after that short-lived band, doing some record producing and getting into the business end of music. He’s worked as an A&R man for Capitol Records, then Interscope where he rose to the executive level.
As for Blondie… well, they got together again in 1997. They called Nigel who played on some demos for a comeback album, but they quickly fired him. This started a round of lawsuits, which continued for some time. When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted them in 2006, they listed Nigel Harrison as one of the members, logically enough and he and guitarist Frank Infante “were definitely ready to go” but Debbie Harry wouldn’t allow them to join them on stage “and it just got ugly really quickly.” The pair sued the rest of the band again, unsuccessfully. Harrison calls it “kind of sad” and adds “”the strange thing is we’re all in business together. We still have a corporation together.”
Complicated history with that band, but simple way of making his sound. Harrison says he goes for “a Fender bass and Marshall amp. That’s it. That’s the sound of the ’70s. It’s the sound of Motown.” And as it turned out, it was the sound of the once ground-breaking Blondie.