Monday, 24 September 2018

Parallel Lines by Blondie, at 40

Parallel Lines, released on 23rd September 1978, was the third studio album from Blondie and proved to be their commercial breakthrough in the US, where it peaked at number six in April 1979.  Already very popular in the UK, the album became the groups first number one hit in February 1979.

To help celebrate its 40th birthday, here's a retrospective of the album...
Following the release of their second album, Plastic Letters, in February 1978, support had been rising for Blondie, especially in the UK (where it peaked at number 10).  Denis, their cover of Randy & the Rainbows' 1963 hit Denise, was a hit across Europe, peaking at number 2 in the UK in March and number 19 in Australia.  (I'm Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear, the second single, reached number 10 in the UK in May.

While touring on the west coast of America, the band met Mike Chapman, a renowned Australian producer.  Although their first two albums had been produced by Richard Gottehrer, who helped create the basis of their new wave and punk sound, Blondie’s then-manager Peter Leeds talked their record company, Chrysalis Records, into encouraging Chapman to work with the band on new music.  Drummer Clem Burke was enthusiastic - “he creates innovative and eclectic music” - but Debbie Harry was more reserved, though she only knew the producer by reputation.  “We were New York,” she said later, “he was LA.”  Her reserve disappeared after he listened to early demos of Heart Of Glass and Sunday Girl and was impressed.
from left - Nigel Harrison (bass), Frank Infante (guitar), Chris Stein (guitar), Debbie Harry (vocals), Clem Burke (drums), Jimmy Destri (keyboards)
Track Listing
1:  Hanging On The Telephone (Jack Lee)
2:  One Way Or Another (D. Harry/N. Harrison)
3:  Picture This (D. Harry/C. Stein/J. Destri)
4:  Fade Away And Radiate (C. Stein)
5:  Pretty Baby (D. Harry/C. Stein)
6:  I Know But I Don’t Know (F. Infante)
7:  11:59 (J. Destri)
8:  Will Anything Happen? (Jack Lee)
9:  Sunday Girl (C. Stein)
10:  Heart Of Glass (D. Harry/C. Stein)
11:  I’m Gonna Love You Too (Joe B. Mauldin/Niki Sullivan/Norman Petty)
12:  Just Go Away (D. Harry)

At the Record Plant, 1978 (from left) - Chris Stein, Clem Burke, Mike Chapman (with sunglasses), Nigel Harrison, Debbie Harry, Frank Infante, Peter Leeds
Terry Ellis, the co-founder of Chrysalis Records, asked Mike Chapman if he could record the album within six months and the producer agreed.  But after starting work at the Record Plant recording studio in June 1978, his opinion changed slightly.

“The Blondies were tough in the studio, real tough,” he told Sound On Sound.  “None of them liked each other, except Chris and Debbie and there was so much animosity.  They just wanted to have fun and didn't want to work too hard getting it.”  He was also surprised at their lack of musical ability.  “[They] were hopelessly horrible when we first began rehearsing...and in terms of my attitude they didn't know what had hit them. I basically went in there like Adolf Hitler and said, ‘You are going to make a great record, and that means you're going to start playing better.’”

Whilst rating Frank Infante’s ability as “an amazing guitarist” and acknowledging this contributed to the frosty relationship between Infante and Chris Stein, Chapman tried encouraging Stein and Jimmy Destri to concentrate on songwriting - to no avail - as well as working with Clem Burke’s timing on the drums.  Although he spent a lot of time improving the band’s abilities, he had little to do with Debbie saying she “was a great singer and a great vocal stylist, with a beautifully identifiable voice.”  He gave them a process for each song, recording them in a similar style with the basic track being recorded and then built upon it, with Debbie’s vocals added towards the end.  Often, when it came time to record, she would say “Yeah, just a minute” and he’d find her writing the lyrics.  “Many of the classic songs were created this way,” he said.
Filming the Heart Of Glass video
The biggest song on the album, Heart Of Glass, was based on one Chris & Debbie wrote between 1974 and 1975 called Once I Had A Love.  The band had demoed it with a slower, funkier sound using a basic disco beat which led to them calling it “The Disco Song”.

Heart of Glass was one of the first songs Blondie wrote,” Debbie told Dave Simpson of The Guardian in April 2013, “but it was years before we recorded it properly. We’d tried it as a ballad, as reggae, but it never quite worked.”  Mike Chapman credits Debbie with giving it a more disco twist, she says he convinced her and Stein of it.  In an interview with the NME (dated 4th February 1978), Debbie mentioned how much she liked Giorgio Moroder’s disco work - “It’s commercial, but it's good, it says something, that's the kind of stuff that I want to do” - and Blondie covered I Feel Love (written by Moroder and Donna Summer) at a benefit for Johnny Blitz in New York on 7th May 1978.  The song was released as 12” single in a 5:50 version but there were objections from US radio stations to the “pain in the ass” lyric, which the 7” version cut down on.  “At first,” Debbie told The Guardian, “the song kept saying: 'Once I had a love, it was a gas. Soon turned out, it was a pain in the ass.' We couldn't keep saying that, so we came up with: 'Soon turned out, had a heart of glass.' We kept one 'pain in the ass' in – and the BBC bleeped it out for radio.”

As well as being a hit, the song created some controversy because of its disco sound with Blondie, at the forefront of New York’s growing new wave music scene, being accused of selling out.  She told The Guardian, “People got nervous and angry about us bringing different influences into rock. Although we'd covered Lady Marmalade and I Feel Love at gigs, lots of people were mad at us for 'going disco' with Heart of Glass.”  Chris Stein said, “As far as I was concerned, disco was part of R&B, which I'd always liked.”
The album was recorded in six weeks, well ahead of schedule and Blondie shared their producers belief that it would reach a wide audience.  Chrysalis weren’t so convinced and executives told the band to go back and start again, only dissuaded by Chapman - now mixing the record in LA - who assured them the singles would prove popular.  He later said, “I didn’t make a punk album or a New Wave album with Blondie.  I made a pop album.”

Aside from the music the cover, now recognised as iconic album art, caused issues with the band too.  It was Peter Leeds’ idea and problems with him had been growing for some time, based around his thinking that Blondie was Debbie Harry with a band (which neither she nor the band wanted).  “I was not fond of Peter,” Harry told the Q Magazine Special Issue:  The 100 Best Record Covers Of All Time in 2001.  “He told the boys that they could all be replaced, I was the only important one.”  She saw the cover as a symbol of manipulation and said, “I don’t think it’s a great design, personally.”

Roberta Bayley, one of the ‘official’ photographers of the New York punk scene, was an old friend of Debbie’s and she hired Edo Bertolgio to shoot the cover.  He was a part of the Andy Warhol scene and, said Bayley, “the coolest downtown photographer I knew.”  Separate photographs of the band members were taken and Debbie later said Leeds had tricked the boys into pulling silly expressions, while she was encouraged to scowl.  Leeds then had the cover put together without showing them.
A cover shoot outtake, by Roberta Bayley
“Everyone just flipped out,” she told Q.  “We were shocked that the artwork had been completed without our approval and that the decision had been made without the band.”

“We were all pissed about how we were smiling in the cover photo” Chris Stein wrote in the 30th Anniversary liner notes.  “We picked out the shots that we liked but our manager picked the one shot he liked and went with that. Everyone was annoyed because we wanted to look more rock & roll”.

The incident brought things to a head with Leeds and in 1979 the band decided to part ways, replacing him with Alice Cooper’s manager Shep Gordon.

The other matter was the dress, which I thought she looked cool in (I had her poster on my wall for years).  “Stephen Sprouse designed [it] and most of Debbie’s stage clothes,” Bayley said.  Debbie told Michael Odell in Q Magazine in June 2011, “I got a lot of shit for that dress.”  It seems her hair, stare and fist-on-hips stance were punk but the dress wasn’t.  “In the UK, especially, the dress created two camps,” she said.  “People who wanted to fuck me and the ones who wanted to kill me for not being punk enough.”

The title of the album comes from lyrics, written by Debbie and included in the liner notes, for a song that doesn’t exist.

The lines I have written that you read between
The lines on the pages
The lines on the screen
Of lines spoken - I say what I mean.
It's parallel lines that will never meet

Ship in the desert
Ships in the night
Ships that pass in the night

Evangeline stream - Evangeline's dream,
It's parallel lines that will never meet.

The album yielded six singles:
Picture This (Harry/Stein/Destri), backed with Fade Away And Radiate (Stein), was released on 26th August 1978.  It peaked at number 12 in the UK singles chart, charted in the Swedish and Irish Top 20’s but was never released in the US.

I’m Gonna Love You Too (J. B. Mauldin, N. Sullivan, N. Petty), backed with Just Go Away (Harry) in the US and Fan Mail (Destri) in Holland, was released in September and only made the Top 10 in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Hanging On The Telephone (J. Lee), backed with Will Anything Happen (J. Lee) in the UK and Fade Away And Radiate in the US, was released on 30th October.  It peaked at number 5 in the UK chart, was Top 20 in Belgium, Ireland and the Netherlands and Top 40 in Australia and New Zealand.
Heart Of Glass (Harry/Stein) was released on 3rd January 1979 in 7” and 12” versions.  For the 7”, it was backed with Rifle Range (C. Stein/R. Toast) in the UK and 11:59 (Destri) in the US.  The 12” for both added the instrumental version.  It peaked at number 1 in the UK, US, Australian, Austrian, Canadian, German, New Zealand and Switzerland charts, was Top 10 in Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland , Norway, South Africa and Sweden and Top 20 in Finland.  It was number 2 in the 1979 UK Year End chart and 32 in the UK decade chart.  The BPI has recorded over 1.3m UK sales.

Sunday Girl (Stein), backed with I Know But I Don’t Know (Infante), was released in early May 1979.  It hit number one in the UK and Irish charts, was Top 10 in Switzerland, Norway, South Africa and Austria and Top 20 in the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Belgium.  In the UK, it was number 8 in the annual chart.  A UK 12” was also released, adding a French version of the title track.

One Way Or Another (Harry/Harrison), backed with Just Go Away, was released on 14th May 1979 in the US and Canada only (peaking at 24 in the former, 7 in the latter).  Rolling Stone currently ranks the song at number 298 in it’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time list.
Mike Chapman and Debbie Harry
The album was a huge commercial success, eventually breaking the band worldwide and was well received critically.

Rolling Stone gave it 4.5/5 stars (saying the album was “where punk and New Wave broke through to a mass US audience”), Blender gave it 5/5 (their critic Christgau wrote it was “a perfect album in 1978” with “every song memorable, distinct, well-shaped and over before you get antsy”) and Q gave it 4/5 (“a crossover smash with sparkling guitar sounds, terrific hooks and middle-eights more memorable than some groups’ choruses”).  Spin Alternative Record Guide gave it 10/10 (Sasha Frere-Jones called it “the perfect pop-rock record”), AllMusic gave it 5/5 and Slant Magazine gave it 4.5/5.  Christian John Wikane from PopMatters called it “a creative and commercial masterpiece by Blondie - indisputably one of the great, classic albums of the rock and roll era” and Scott Plagenhoef, of Pitchfork Media, wrote that the album popularised “the look and sound of 1980s new wave”.

Parallel Lines was ranked at number 18 on NME’s 100 Best Albums Of All Time (and 45th on their 500 list), Rolling Stone ranked it at number 140 on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Blender had it at number 7 on their 100 Greatest American Albums of All Time and it was at number 94 on Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Albums Of All Time.

Parallel Lines was number 1 in the UK (for 4 weeks, remaining on the chart for 114 weeks), number 2 in Australia and Canada, 3 in New Zealand, 6 in the US, 7 in the Dutch charts and 9 in the German and Swedish charts.  It peaked at number 16 in Norway and 24 in Austria.

The album was certified 4xPlatium in Canada and Platinum in the UK and US.  Several sources (including Blondie themselves) say the album has sold over 20m copies but with 1.7m sales in the UK, it’s probably closer to 6m (which is still an incredible achievement).

I’m a long-time fan but listening to the album again, as I wrote this, I still think it’s an excellent collection of songs, with a tight, poppy production, great musicianship and that wonderful breathy voice of Debbie’s.  Is it their best album?  You know, I think it probably is - it’s certainly the one that I would say perfectly encapsulates who they were.  I probably first heard it back in 1979 (my entry to Blondie was a cassette version of their “Best Of”) and I’ve been thoroughly impressed with it every since.

Happy birthday, Parallel Lines - and here’s to many more years of listening pleasure.
Photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe

Photograph by Mick Rock







sources:
Mike Chapman interview with Sound On Sound
Album Covers Galore - Parallel Lines
Blonde All Music biography
The Guardian: How We Made Heart Of Glass
UK Official Charts
US Billboard Charts
Wikipedia

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