And It Was A Gas
Blondie’s Parallel Lines at 40
When Blondie made its 1975 debut at the New York City’s infamous rock club CBGB, it’s safe to say that no one expected to find their iconic record, Parallel Lines, to climb to the top of the charts only three years later.
Dismissed as another 60s-pop-throwback group doomed to fade into the background during the rise of disco, New Wave, and punk music, the six-piece band, featuring lead-singer-turned-sex-symbol Debbie Harry, gave very little hint to the groundbreaking success they would see with the release of their first and second albums, 1976’s Blondie and 1978’s Plastic Letters.
A brief seven months separated the release of Plastic Letters — which garnered little attention in the States outside of the punk and New Wave scene, though it saw some popularity in the UK — and Parallel Lines. But the difference those seven months made for the band is the stuff of legend. They left Private Stock, their first record label, for British-based Chrysalis Records. Producers were fired and hired as Mike Chapman was brought in to replace Richard Gottehrer. Chapman, who first discovered Blondie at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles, initially drew mixed emotions from the group, thanks in part to a commitment to more technically correct methods of recording and production that Gottehrer famously lacked.
Despite the initial inhibitions, recording sessions for what would become arguably the most well-loved and respected record of Blondie’s career began in June 1978 at New York’s Record Plant just three months before the album would be released. “They just wanted to have fun and didn’t want to work too hard getting it,” Chapman said of the experience in an interview with Sound on Sound in 2008. Whether or not this was the case matters very little in the grand scheme of things; at the end of the six-week recording session, Chapman had achieved his goal of producing a hit record.
The process was fraught with tension as drummer Clem Burke and keyboardist Jimmy Destri — talented but not necessarily technically correct musicians — were forced to sharpen their playing skills while Chris Stein, Blondie’s infamous guitarist, arrived at sessions under the influence. All the while, Debbie Harry, the enigmatic but undeniable icon of the group, was a force to be reckoned with in her own right, oftentimes flighty and, according to a Rolling Stone article released in 1979, “elusive; if you look at her too intently, she turns vaporous on you, like a Cheshire cat.”
Her incomparable ability, however, was unquestioned. After years of survival in New York City, working as everything from a waitress to a Playboy Bunny, Debbie Harry was a captivating, contradicting presence: worldly but innocent, magnetic but reclusive. She set, met and broke every stereotype, with her platinum blonde hair, angular features, heavily lined blue eyes and thrift-store-chic looks. Her voice, reminiscent of girl-groups of the 50s and 60s, had a heavy, intoxicating nonchalance, and there was an alluring self-awareness behind her sex-symbol status: she knew what she was capable of, and she worked it.
This was never more obvious than on Parallel Lines. The culmination of everything Blondie had been working toward on their first and second records — British girl group meets New Wave meets punk with a deliciously addictive pop flavor — burst into focus with their cover of The Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone.” “One Way or Another” follows, inarguably one of Debbie Harry’s best vocal performances, a growling, gritty rocker driven by Clem Burke’s drumming. The record takes an abrupt turn with “Picture This,” a glittering pop track written by Harry, Stein, and Destri, before descending into “Fade Away and Radiate,” an ominous, synth-driven track featuring entrancing drums and a hauntingly delicate delivery by Harry that ends with a nod to the reggae sound that the band would dive into in years to come.
The 60s-pop influence appears again in “Pretty Baby,” before showcasing Harry’s intoxicatingly unaffected, genre-crossing vocals in “I Know But I Don’t Know” and the feverish drive of “11:59.” “Will Anything Happen” blends power pop with punk, the rebellious tone of the band and Harry’s throaty vocals standing in stark contrast with “Sunday Girl.” The band has a chameleon quality to them, drawing influence from seemingly disconnected sounds and wrapping them up neatly behind Debbie Harry’s effortless shape-shifting.
But it’s “Heart of Glass”– the tenth song on an album full of catchy, grooving, genre-blending tracks–that defined the record, and, possibly, the band as a whole. Set to a disco groove constructed by combining Clem Burke’s live drums with the then-new Roland CR-78 drum machine, “Heart of Glass” is the perfect combination of New Wave and pop, disco and rock, European sonics and a defiance that was so incredibly New York. “Heart of Glass” was their first number one hit, and would go on to be ranked at number 225 on Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. One of the first songs the group ever wrote together, “Heart of Glass” went through multiple stages of evolution, from a ballad to a reggae shuffle, before Mike Chapman transformed it into the disco-rocker that describes love as a “pain in the ass.”
Though they would be accused of selling out to commercialism through disco, and made outcasts in the eyes of many of their New Wave and punk counterparts, Blondie remained unrepentant, charging forward and reaching levels of fame that few, if any, of their critics would experience. Parallel Lines — driven by “Heart of Glass” and its overwhelming mainstream success — launched them from an underground group with a cult following to the international pop group they are today, and remains their most popular record yet.
Forty years later, Blondie shows no signs of slowing down. The group has recently revealed that they plan to release “Heart of Glass” in all its incarnations on a six-song EP entitled BLONDIE: Heart of Glass, including a 1975 recording when it was simply called “The Disco Song,” proving once again that they are here to stay.
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One thought on “And It Was A Gas”
Great write up! We are performing a Blondie tribute tonight at the Famous Capitol Theater in Olympia WA, at their annual Night of the Living Tribute Bands show. We’ve been pouring over Blondie videos to mark character traits and attire choices. I must say, that I’ve come into a great appreciation for their music through this project. I always like them, but on a pedestrian level. I really like some of the chord progressions now, and find them fun and a little different to play. I’m acting the Jimmy Destri keyboardist part. Cheers!