Dusting ‘Em Off: Blondie – Parallel Lines

In the fall of 1978, Blondie released their third album, Parallel Lines. The previous year, in the fabled year of “’77”, Blondie along with Talking Heads, Television and the Ramones were at the forefront of a rock and roll explosion whose epicenter was CBGB’s in New York City. That same year Blondie had their first taste of commercial success when two singles from their second album 1977’s Plastic Letters including “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear” broke onto the charts in the U.K.  Their success in the United Kingdom led the band to work with U.K. producer/songwriter Mike Chapman for their third album, Parallel Lines.

At the time Blondie approached Chapman about producing what would become Parallel Linesi he was already established as a major player in British pop music. A very technical producer, Chapman forced the band to do take after take until every song was perfect. In promising to make the band a hit record he also took them out of the cellar of new wave (at the time a fading style, as this was three years before MTV and the new wave resurgence of the early ‘80’s) and transformed them into a technically precise pop band carrying on the ethos of ’60s girl bands and adding the aggression and anxiety of the mid 70s rock & roll. Sure they had been doing this for a few years by now, however, under Chapman’s direction the band became a more cohesive unit expanding songwriting duties to beyond founding members Chris Stein and Debbie Harry and sharpening their sound, even doing a duet of sorts on “I Know But I Don’t Know” between singer Harry and guitarist/songwriter Frank Infante.

The album begins with a phone ringing and being answered by Infante’s guitar and Clem Burke’s pounding drumbeat. Immediately Harry’s voice comes in singing of the frustration of not being able to contact a boyfriend who won’t answer. “Hanging on the Telephone” was the first single to crack the top ten in the U.K. and was actually a cover of a song originally done by the short lived Los Angeles new wave band the Nerves. The song is not much different than the original; however, Chapman’s production tightened up the rhythm section and pushed Harry’s vocals out front more, with a tougher growl to her voice giving the song a bit more “oomph”.

The second track not only keeps the momentum going, it is also a great example of the songwriting maturing previously mentioned. “One Way or Another” was the result of the first songwriting collaboration between singer Debbie Harry and newly added bassist Nigel Harrison. It was also the second single to hit in the U.S. following the earlier release of “Heart of Glass”. On a personal note, every time I hear this song I cannot help but remember a cheesy television show from 1979-1981 called “BJ and the Bear”. A show about a trucker and his pet chimp constantly harassed for some reason by Sheriff Lobo. There happened to be a chase scene during an episode and this song was used as the chase music.  Music sparks the oddest memories.

The band begins to slow things down with “Picture This”, a great track that carries on the girl group sound that Blondie had long since become an extension of (also heard on “Pretty Baby”) and was the first single released in the U.K.. However it is the sublimely atmospheric “Fade Away and Radiate”, an ode to television and its drug-like effects that is one of the album highlights. Chris Stein wrote the piece with a very sparse, soft opening and exploited Harry’s sultriness to create an allure in the opening line that if you didn’t already know what this song was about, you would swear it was sexual.  Featuring a guest appearance on guitar by Robert Fripp, “Fade Away and Radiate” is a great example of how this album was full of non-singles that were as fantastic, if not more so, than the hits.

The single “Sunday Girl” was the second number one in the U.K. and helped make Blondie the first new wave band to have a platinum album. A pop song throwback to the sounds of Brill Building Pop and the uninhibited innocence of rock & roll’s earliest songs, Chris Stein originally wrote the song as a Latin piece but later re-worked it as the more airy pop piece it became. Harry’s soft, sultry voice connects “Sunday Girl” to earlier singles like “Presence, Dear” and “In the Flesh”; at the same time the song is demonstrative of the sharper, tighter sound the band now had.

Despite clocking in at almost six minutes, “Heart of Glass” was one of, if not the biggest single in Blondie’s career. Chapman said of the song, “It was a great idea that needed to be put into the right shape to find a home on American radio play lists.”  “Heart of Glass” began as a rock-reggae fusion piece the band had been playing for years. Seeking to exploit the disco sounds that were prevalent and popular at the time, Harry and Stein reworked the song and under Chapman’s guiding hand turned it into dance-pop candy. Burke later noted the hit single was inspired in part by Kraftwerk and by the Bee Gees’ single “Stayin’ Alive”.  Both he and Stein give most of the credit to keyboardist Jimmy Destri. His introduction of synthesizers to the band led them to re-develop parts of the song into the hit that it became.  Harry’s voice is possibly at her most atmospheric on this track, but it could also be a result of Chapman’s “soft focus” production on her vocals that tend to make them shimmy in the light like they do.

“Heart of Glass” and perhaps by default, Parallel Lines, was a game changer. At the time, new wave was fading in popularity as the more serious post-punks and more rocking power pop bands stepped forward. (New wave would get a second life after MTV began airing the genre non-stop however, the bands of the second phase of new wave did not match the caliber of bands like Talking Heads and Blondie and tended to be more synth and electronic in nature.) Blondie’s single validated new wave (and by extension may have even validated punk) to the “powers that be” and demonstrated that commercial success could be found outside the cult and underground circuit. The success of both the single and album unfortunately spilled over to the recording of the band’s follow up Eat to the Beat which, despite being a good album, often sounds like leftovers from Parallel Lines even to the point of trying to recapture “Heart of Glass” in songs like “Atomic” (and falling short). Blondie wasn’t the first band to copy their own success and they certainly aren’t the last (Smash Mouth anyone?).

Chapman delivered on his promise of giving the band a hit record. Parallel Lines had six of its twelve tracks issued as singles either in the U.K. or U.S. including their biggest hit, “Heart of Glass” and would go on to sell over 20 million copies worldwide.  Critically, commercially and professionally Parallel Lines is considered Blondie’s best album and has appeared on almost every “Best Albums Ever” list in the last 25 years.  One listen and you can understand why. It’s a well written, well played, well produced gem of pop music.


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