Album of the Week, March 6: Parallel Lines by Blondie

BlondieParallelBlondie formed around the core of Debbie Harry and Chris Stein in 1974. Emerging from the ashes of the Stilettos, they called themselves the Angel and the Snake before adopting Blondie, inspired by catcalls Harry received from truckers. With a fluctuating lineup, the group became a mainstay of the early New York punk scene. Much like their British contemporaries, the Clash, they had eclectic tastes, a DIY ethic, enthusiasm that often outstripped finesse, and a knack for writing great songs. Their eponymous 1976 debut — featuring core members Jimmy Destri on keyboards and Clem Burke on drums — was a glorious punk hodgepodge. Plastic Letters featured some great songs but less consistency. After that, the lineup stabilized with second guitarist Frank Infante and bassist Nigel Harrison, and producer Mike Chapman was brought in. The result was a brilliant fusion of punk, disco, new wave, and raw pop — a true gem of the era.

Title Parallel Lines
Act Blondie
Label Chrysalis Release Date September 23, 1978
Producer Mike Chapman
U.S. Chart  #6 U.K. Chart  #1
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Hanging On the Telephone
  2. One Way Or Another [#24]
  3. Picture This
  4. Fade Away and Radiate
  5. Pretty Baby
  6. I Know But I Don’t Know
  7. 11:59
  8. Will Anything Happen?
  9. Sunday Girl
  10. Heart of Glass [#1]
  11. I’m Gonna Love You Too
  12. Just Go Away

Chapman was a notorious taskmaster, insisting that the band members master their instruments and that the songwriting tighten up. His enthusiasm for the band won their trust, and the result maintained their energy while increasing the quality of the music tenfold. With a handful of smart covers and some of the best Blondie originals, the disc bristles with pop power.

Things open with the ring of a phone through the receiver, giving way to a surging guitar and pounding drum. Harry nails a desperate, almost flirty vocal as the group rip through a cover of the Nerves’ Hanging On the Telephone. It’s a perfect start, and makes way for Harry and Harrison’s equally energetic One Way Or Another. Flipping the sexual energy from victim to pursuer, Harry’s subtle change of vocal style is perfect, and Stein turns in a classic new wave guitar lick.

Things calm down a bit on Picture This, a wonderful bit of long-distance romance with some delightful wordplay. Harry’s Fade Away and Radiate is a haunting love song to departed celebrities. She conjures up the smoky flicker of the projector over a smart guitar from Robert Fripp, giving us longing and resignation. (She liked the title enough to recycle it on the later hit Dreaming.) Pretty Baby is a near-Brill Building bit of retro glam with a honeyed vocal and a spot-on rhythm section. Infante’s rare contribution, I Know But I Don’t Know is an entertaining bit of wink-and-nod punk kitsch, the closest to filler on the disc but a nice showcase for the band.

On 11:59, they pull out the stops with a searing “rocket to the ocean.” Gripping and propulsive, it features a soaring vocal and smart lyrics, a standout that hints at future hits. It also features a gorgeous organ line, a bit of urgent carnival music that conjures up the Zombies. The Nerves’ Jack Lee wrote a second track for the band, the fun Will Anything Happen? It’s a nice pop track that keeps the energy flowing. Stein’s Sunday Girl was an international hit (but not at home), a nice bit of wistful power pop.

The monster hit comes next. An old track with many versions (often subtitled “The Disco Song”), Heart of Glass was the first of four Blondie chart-toppers. Some fans called it a sell-out, but its sultry disco sound had percolated through other tracks in the band’s catalog. Honed to glistening perfection by Chapman, it’s a brilliant kiss-off of a song, featuring great playing, one of Harry’s best vocals, and the radio-shocking (for the time) line “pain in the ass.” For this song alone, Parallel Lines is worth the price of admission.

The last cover is Buddy Holly’s I’m Gonna Love You Too, a smart choice that shows off the band’s sense of musical history and varied tastes. As with many Holly songs, it lends itself to interpretation, and Blondie make it their own. Just Go Away is a nice closer, a smirking slam of the door. It ends the proceedings on a strong note, promising wonderful things for all who return.

FURTHER LISTENING: Despite the tension, Chapman was invited back for the band’s next three albums, helping them hone their sound further while they explored more styles. The band broke up in 1982, with Stein suffering from a debilitating genetic disease and Harry splitting time between caring for him and a sporadic solo career. The group reunited in 1999 and continue with a varying lineup today, still featuring Harry, Stein, and Burke. Blondie’s best moments other than Parallel Lines are their debut and the charming, messy Autoamerican. Both Plastic Letters and Eat to the Beat have some fun highlights as well. Most of the 21st Century product is decent reunion material, with 2011’s Panic of Girls rising above the rest.

With a bunch of international chart-toppers and many more Top 10 hits, Blondie have been anthologized heavily. The best overview, especially for those interested in their radio singles, is 1981’s Best of Blondie. The 2006 collection Greatest Hits has more songs — including some less stellar moments — and an interesting DVD with most of the band’s videos.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

2 Responses to Album of the Week, March 6: Parallel Lines by Blondie

  1. Denny Sinnoh says:

    There was a pretty good doc of the making of the album over on Netflix. I watched it, but do not know if they still have it

    http://usa.newonnetflix.info/info/80074797/s

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