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The disco song: The Story Of Blondie’s Heart Of Glass

“You got a heart of glass, got a heart of stone. Just you wait til I get you home.” – Pet Shop Boys, West End Girls

Emerging right at the end of the 1970s, Heart Of Glass had one eye set dramatically to the future; to the coming decade, that would be swamped with New Wave, synth-based acts, most of them trying (and, let‘s be honest, failing) to emulate the effortless cool purr of Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry.

Heart Of Glass became the first of six UK chart-toppers for the band, and La Harry herself says it’s the song she‘s most proud of writing, along with 1980‘s Rapture (naturally). With their classic Parallel Lines album celebrating its 40th anniversary, Blondie have announced a new EP containing a “sonic saga” of six distinct versions of its – and their – signature 45, Heart Of Glass. Set for October 23 release, the “deluxe” (i.e. a bit expensive) extended play explores the song’s evolution from scratchy embryonic demo recordings to singular chart dominator.

When they emerged in 1974 from an embryonic incarnation called the Stilettos/Stillettoes (the spelling seemingly fluctuated), Blondie were initially dismissed by fellow New York punk scenesters. They were too kitsch, too pop, and Debbie Harry too much of a heart-stopping bombshell (Patti Smith, the cross-eyed one with the bird’s nest hair hissed at the platinum blonde one to “get the fuck out of rock ’n’ roll”); their aesthetic of ironic camp glamour didn’t chime with the earnest art punk of downtown Manhattan. However, Blondie had the last laugh, soon outgrowing the Lower East Side scene to become the biggest far-from-overnight sensation of the late 1970s.

Blondie’s first nine singles failed to chart in the US, though they were hits elsewhere, particularly Britain and Australia. Flicking through the band’s impressive and eclectic back catalogue, Blondie songs generally fall into a few different camps: rock, punk, disco, reggae and 1960s girl group pop being the most obvious ones.

There’s one track, however, that has its musical roots in every one of those genres, and it’s the single that finally broke Blondie in America, the very same Roland-driven juggernaut that decisively and definitively severed their ties with punk rock.

Sometimes casually referred to by its opening lyric, Once I Had A Love, Heart Of Glass was one of the first songs Blondie wrote, “But it was years before we recorded it properly,” guitarist and co-writer Chris Stein said, recalling its genesis. “We’d tried it as a ballad, as reggae, but it never quite worked. At that point, it had no title. We just called it The Disco Song.” That Disco Song needed to be sung in falsetto by a punk goddess, introduced to a Roland drum machine, written and rewritten by a neurotic, genre-omnivorous guitarist, and ultimately produced by an Australian perfectionist. The Heart of Glass experiment was more ambitious than the song’s inventors could have known.

In 1974, Stein brought a germ of a song to his then-girlfriend and bandmate, Blondie’s luscious lead singer Debbie Harry. “When Debbie and I were living in our top-floor apartment at 48 West 17th Street, I often messed around on a borrowed multitrack tape recorder,” Stein told Marc Myers of The Wall Street Journal. Harry free-associated her lyrics upon hearing the proto Heart of Glass: “I was just walking around the house, we were on the Bowery by then,” Harry recalled. “(I was) riffing on Da da da da da! Dah-dah dah-dah. Seeing what flowed out.” The song became a constant presence in the couple’s home, even in their bedroom. “I remember Chris lying on the bed strumming those chords endlessly,” she added. “Sometimes I had to fight for space on the bed—it was me or the guitar—but after a while I got my own bed and made up the lyrics. That’s how we wrote the song.”

Then, in 1978 we got this producer, Mike Chapman, who asked us to play all the songs we had. At the end, he said: “Have you got anything else?” We sheepishly said: “Well, there is this old one.” He liked it – he thought it was very pretty and started to pull it into focus. The boys in the band had got their hands on a new toy: this little Roland drum machine. One day, we were fiddling around with it and Chapman said: “That’s a great sound.” So we used it. “Rhythmically, I was trying to mimic a dance song, like (Shirley & Co.’s) Shame Shame Shame, drummer Clem Burke said. “I wasn’t doing a basic quarter-note bottom on it; a quarter-note bass drum. I was moving the rhythm around a lot more.”

“Even though it was complete, it was wrong, and I knew that if we could get it right it might be a big hit,” producer Mike Chapman said of Blondie’s daring disco ditty. That a then-unfamiliar-to-them producer could make something new out of a track they’d done so many times seemed ludicrous. Chapman heard out the band’s ideas about the song’s feel and texture, but drew the line where he saw fit. “In discussing what to do with Once I Had A Love I tried to include everybody, and after we played it a few times I said, ‘Let’s get rid of the reggae.’ We then tried to do it as straight rock, but that didn’t work, and I could see Debbie was getting a bit frustrated. So, I asked her, ‘Debbie, what kind of music that’s happening right now really turns you on?’” Chapman explained. “She said, ‘Donna Summer.’ I said, ‘OK, then how about us treating this song like it was meant for Donna Summer?’” Inspired by the experimental Teutonic europop of Kraftwerk and Summer’s game-changing Giorgio Moroder collaboration I Feel Love, Blondie transformed their campy throwaway into an era-defining dance floor anthem and never looked back.

“Chris always wanted to do disco songs. He’s a Dadaist,” declared keyboardist Jimmy Destri. “We’re running through this new wave/I hate disco/punk rock scene, and Chris wants to do Disco Inferno and Love To Love You Baby. We used to do Heart Of Glass to upset people. It was his idea to bring it back, but as a funky song.” Nonetheless, it was actually Destri who came up with the idea that would change the song’s D.N.A. permanently: “It was Jimmy who brought in the drum machine and a synthesizer,” Stein recalled of the Roland CompuRhythm CR-78 that provided the iconic and insistent clicking percussion that would ultimately open Heart Of Glass. “Synchronising them was a big deal at the time. It all had to be done manually, with every note and beat played in real time rather than looped over. And on old disco tracks, the bass drum was always recorded separately, so Clem had to pound away on a foot-pedal for three hours until they got a take they were happy with.”

At the time, using a Roland drum machine was an uncommon choice for a rock band to make, even on their lone disco tune. “These were used for like Guy Lombardo-type bands in the early days,” Stein said. “Guys who were playing in clubs and couldn’t afford a drummer so they had one of these things going. I associate these with really schlocky lounge acts.” To get the sound they needed, it was necessary to press two buttons—“Chacha” and “Rhumba”—simultaneously, with the tempo for the machine cranking the patterns to halfway up. “Recording with Mike was fun, if a little painstaking, remembers Chris. “We had to do things over and over.”

“The backing track took over ten hours to get down,” Harry wrote in Blondie’s 1982 book, Making Tracks. “We spent three hours just getting the bass drum. It was the hardest song to do on the album, and took us the longest in studio hours. Back then, it was very unusual for a guitar band to be using computerised sound. 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. There was the Disco Sucks! movement, and there had even been a riot in Chicago, with people burning disco records. Clem Burke refused to play the song live at first. When it became a hit, he said: ‘I guess I’ll have to.’”

“Recording the song took a little over a week, leaving us four weeks to finish the album. Then came the editing process. We must have made 30-to-40 edits for the final master,” Chapman said. “And we listened, and realised that we had created a very unusual record. It was us trying to do disco, and not really pulling it off. It really and truly was an experiment. It was unlike anything that any of us had done before. I knew this was the hit that I was trying to make.” 

“The lyrics weren’t about anyone, the singer insists. “They were just a plaintive moan about lost love. At first, 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.”

Parallel Lines was released on 17 September 1978, preceded by very different transatlantic lead singles: the swoonsome Picture This in the UK and their somewhat perfunctory cover of Buddy Holly’s I’m Gonna Love You Too in the US. After Hanging On The Telephone became a notable hit in Britain that autumn, that disco song, buried away, almost apologetically, as the fourth track of the LP’s second side, would have to wait its turn. It finally became the album’s third single in January 1979: “When we did Heart Of Glass, it wasn’t too cool in our social set to play disco,” Deborah once said. “But we did it because we wanted to be uncool.” Uncool, maybe, but releasing an unabashed dance record was also a resounding commercial progression. It was the pivotal moment in punk’s choreographed slamdance with the mainstream, changing Blondie’s fortunes at a stroke, and taking them out of the streets of the Bowery and into Studio 54 and the top of the charts. Chris takes up the story:

“As far as I was concerned, disco was part of R&B, which I’d always liked. The Ramones went on about us “going disco”, but it was tongue-in-cheek. They were our friends. In the video, there’s a shot of the legendary Studio 54, so everyone thought we shot the video there, but it was actually in a short-lived club called the Copa or something. I came up with the phrase “heart of glass” without knowing anything about Werner Herzog or his movie of the same name, which is a great, weird film. It’s nice people now use the song to identify the period in films and documentaries. I’ve heard a million versions. There are lots of great mash-ups. My favourite features the song being played at super-low speed, like odd industrial music. I never had an inkling it would be such a big hit, or become the song we’d be most remembered for. It’s very gratifying.”

The 1979 Billboard chart reveals that almost every No 1 single of that year was either disco or disco-influenced. Heart Of Glass slotted in so perfectly – it was No 1 for the week of 28 April preceded by Amii Stewart’s epic dancefloor rendition of Knock on Wood and followed by Peaches & Herb’s fruity Reunited – that it was almost as if the group hadn’t spent the past five years scuffling around with the CBGB’s demi-monde. Harry’s spun-sugar vocals float atop Destri’s dizzying synth line to shimmering effect. If the follow-up 45, the pretty Sunday Girl, was the sweetest confection of Blondie’s career, it’s Heart Of Glass that was the most impactful, the most famous and far and away their biggest selling single internationally.

“It was conflicted in a lot of ways, but it was fun. It was just very fast, how it happened,” Stein said about their landmark smash. It only took three incarnations of the song, five years since its inception, and a lot of synth-drum strife for Heart Of Glass to become an eternal, legendary, unmistakable part of culture. “I don’t know if I would’ve changed anything,” he added. “With me it’s a psychic thing that has to do with the beat,” Harry wrote in Making Tracks. “The 4/4 heartbeat rhythm has a calming effect on the listener. It’s popular because it’s biological.”

Forty years and several thousand listens later, Heart Of Glass still sparkles.

While come of the band’s output since reforming in the late ‘90s received mixed reviews, in the 2010s there seems to be an enormous respect and groundswell of affection for Debbie Harry and Blondie among the general public. Maybe people are realising they need to treasure the music legends still going since so many – Bowie, Prince, Aretha FranklinGeorge Michael, Michael Jackson et al – have left us in the past few years.

Last year’s Pollinator album was a marked return to form, and showed that at least some of the signature Blondie sound has been injected back into their music. Long Time, with its deliberate echoes of Heart of Glass and “racing down the Bowery” is certainly the closest they have come to “classic” Blondie since the show-stopping Maria propelled them to No.1 in the UK and into the record books. Pollinator deservedly shot into the album charts at No.4.

Lest we forget, Blondie remain the biggest selling American band in Britain ever. Quite right too.

Remastered from the original analogue tapes, next month’s limited edition Heart Of Glass EP will attempt to chronicle the evolution of the song in six movements; featuring the original 12” ‘disco’ version (the same 5:50 mix as  featured on later pressings of the Parallel Lines album), a Shep Pettibone remix from 1988’s Once More Into The Bleach compilation, the 1975 and 1978 demo versions, the instrumental mix and an unreleased Roland CR-78 ‘Scratch’ Version. The release also includes an extensive essay, with the original artwork reimagined by reimagined by the noted American illustrator Shepard Fairey.

The release will serve as the first trailer for the definitive Blondie box set, Blondie: The Complete Studio Recordings 1975-1982, which is currently in the works for release in the autumn of 2019. Encouragingly, Universal are touting the box as a comprehensive collection of all Blondie’s recorded work from their initial formation all the way to the breakup, featuring all six studio albums plus two discs of rare and unreleased material. Here’s hoping.

Steve Pafford is the co-compiler and liner notes essayist of Blondie’s Greatest Hits album (EMI, 2000)

The Heart Of Glass EP is out on 26 October and can be bought here from Blondie’s UK store and here from the US store

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