Mike Chapman, producer of Blondie’s third studio album remembers the recording sessions being hard work. Aside from guitarist Chris Stein and Debbie Harry getting along (The two band mates were also in a long term romantic relationship), it seemed like the rest of the group disliked each other and preferred to spend their time intoxicated.
It was the producer’s opinion that the pioneers of Punk and New Wave were the least talented musicians he’d ever worked with. He felt an initial animosity from Harry, and was concerned at the lack of focus, and the performances that were being offered. However, on release, Parallel Lines produced some of pop culture’s most memorable tunes, delivered some of Rock’s best vocal performances, and was fast established as a classic album that would endure.
Blondie’s record label Chrysalis had expected the recording sessions to take six months, yet somehow the project was done and dusted in just eight weeks. In September 1978, not a full year after the Sex Pistols released Never Mind The Bollocks…, Blondie achieved an odd kind of musical alchemy and produced a set of tunes with roots in New Wave, an essence of Punk, and with the approachability of pure Pop. For a New York urban band, that some had dismissed as little more than a CBGB troupe, to deliver an album of such massive commercial appeal could only have thrilled producer who had convinced a doubting label (who had demanded a re-record at the time) that the singles would work wonders for the band’s notoriety.
In all publicity shots and appearances, the singer had refrained from exhibiting joy–but here there are traces.
The first four tracks alone issue more instant gratification than most albums dare attempt. These are quick and punchy tunes whose effects are as long lasting as they are fast acting. The quality here was like nothing else suggested by the band on previous releases. “Hanging on the Telephone”, “One Way or Another”, “Picture This”, “Fade Away and Radiate” move seamlessly through a terrain of clever contrasts. And we’ve not even mentioned the other singles “Heart of Glass” or “Sunday Girl”. If brooding New York City punks, who spat at mainstream success, were capable of becoming red-faced, this album scans like an embarrassment of riches.
It was on Parallel Lines that Harry delivered some of the best vocal performances of her recording career. Perhaps due to the diligence of her producer, who sensed a brittle kind of temperament, Harry was nurtured to address attitude, timing and phrasing. Tension in delivery was explored as moods were tempered. Chapman recalled that he much of the album’s classic songs were written with a lackadaisical approach. One day he asked Harry if she was ready to record her vocal part to which she replied, “In a minute,” whilst still scribbling the lyrics.
“One Way or Another” is a solid example, amongst many, that shows Harry’s fresh approach to expressing attitude. Her previous dry delivery opens up to a new snarling sound and is driven along by Clem Burke’s powerhouse drumming. It’s true that the drummer had been criticized for not always being tight in tempo, but at his best Burke elevates the percussion tracks way beyond simple Punk or Art Rock. A lot of magic comes through the smoke. Though this track is only about two-and-a-half minutes long, there’s a very real sense that the momentum is unstoppable. No one will ever charge this tune as being lyrically nuanced or intricate–but the married delivery of percussion and “I’ll get ya, get ya, get ya, get ya, get ya” contorts Harry’s face into an uncharacteristic smile. In all publicity shots and appearances the singer had refrained from exhibiting joy–but here there are traces.
The sense of emotions opening up to incorporate pleasure into process comes during “Picture This”. What initially sounds like a harmless little Pop ditty reveals itself as a sexually charged, voyeuristic piece, playful and teasing as it is accessible and fun. Harry, herself, smiles a knowing almost-smile in the video; a classic of its time showing the band perform as she walks a red neon-lit catwalk singing “I will give you my finest hour / The one I spent watching you shower / I will give you my finest hour…. Oh yeah!” Chris Stein’s guitar-work injects something better than a classic rock lick and bends low class behavior to high profile. This is great stuff; it’s where the adults play; brave enough to leave the lights on, and bold enough to remain sober, mainly.
This is an album on which Punk grew up and cleaned its teeth, but didn’t lose its bite.
An ability to step onto the dance floor to strut, rather than pogo, is clearly enjoyed on “Heart of Glass”. At a time when some members of the NYC underground considered ‘Disco’ a dirty word, Harry and her cohorts danced right up to the line of splashy hi-hat action and sparkling synths. The tune is now ubiquitous and seemingly light fare that could well have shared glitter makeup with ABBA, but at the time it was as brave move into pure pop. The single reached number one in no less than eight charts around the world, and arguably moved the band from the back of some people’s minds to the front of audiences’ everywhere.
These are tunes that not only defined Blondie as a band, capitalizing on previous energies that became more palatable as Pop, they also speak to what was happening in an era when the Alternative sound kicked truly into gear. What other punks and New Wave bands were doing in their assaults, intent on dismantling the mainstream, usually ended up in self-destruction or a complete homogenenization of sound. It’s a sad truth that whilst the legacy of Punk was massive, only very few bands that arrived on the New Wave actually lasted long.
It was Blondie’s ability to self-assess, evolve, and allow themselves to be nurtured that produced not only the best album of their career, but also a point of reference that future artists would aim toward. This is an album on which Punk grew up, and cleaned its teeth, but didn’t lose its bite.