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33 at 45: The Story Of Blondie’s Parallel Lines

Helmed by MOJO magazine’s Jim Irvin, The MOJO Collection: The Ultimate Music Companion is a comprehensive book, first published in 2000 by Canongate books and now in its fourth+ edition, that attempts to determine the greatest albums of all time . . . and how they happened.

Organised chronologically and spanning seven decades, The MOJO Collection presents an authoritative and engaging guide to the history of the pop album via hundreds of long-playing masterpieces, from the much-loved to the little known.

From The Beatles to The Verve, from Duke Ellington to King Tubby and from Peggy Lee to Sly Stone, hundreds of albums are covered in detail with chart histories, full track and personnel listings and further listening suggestions.

One of my contributions was to cover Blondie’s third album, 1978 post-punk classic, Parallel Lines. Happily, this led to my commission to pen the sleeve notes for EMI-Capitol’s Blondie Greatest Hits set a couple of years later. This is it:

Skinny-tied New Yorkers combine punk, New Wave and disco to world-beating effect.

Despite being the last act out of the original New York punk scene to be offered a record deal, the blonde ambition of ex-Playboy Bunny girl Debbie Harry and her mop-topped male colleagues paid off when Parallel Lines became such a critical and commercial success that, by early 1979, Blondie had apparently become the biggest band on the planet.

Despite an early reputation as a bit of a novelty act (fellow CBGB act Patti Smith told them to ‘get the fuck out of rock ’n’ roll’), UK hits Denis and (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear (from 1978’s Plastic Letters) showed that a bunch of punks written off in their own city could cross over into the uncertain arena of pop.

Mike ‘if you can’t make hit singles, go chop meat somewhere’ Chapman, of the infamous Chinnichap production line (Sweet, Smokie, Suzi Quatro, Mud, Racey) was a risky choice for the producer’s chair. When he listened to their demos for the album, Chapman was rather taken with something called The Disco Song, a tune that had been skulking in their set since 1975 but hadn’t made the cut on either their debut or Plastic Letters.

It was played apologetically in a faux-reggae rhythm, but Chapman saw its potential and persuaded them to do it with a full-on funk swagger. The band really went for it, laying down a storming groove with a Roland Rhythm Machine and, according to guitarist and co-writer Chris Stein, a ‘bass-line copped from Goldfinger’, the James Bond theme. They retitled the result Heart Of Glass.

‘We didn’t expect the song to be that big,’ Stein recalls. (This is borne out by the fact that it’s buried at track four, side two on the original LP.) ‘(It was) a novelty item to put more diversity into the record. But it (turned out to be) a mark in history. It brought black and white music together. We weren’t thinking about selling out, we were thinking abut Kraftwerk and Eurodisco.’

Chapman taught Blondie the importance of tightening arrangements and honing the backing tracks to a glossy perfection. Critic Lester Bangs enthused: ‘The thing that makes Parallel Lines so assuredly avant-garde is precisely that it’s so airtight and multiple-choice. This is it. The masterpiece.’

From the gutsy Hanging On The Telephone to the luscious Sunday Girl – a pean to Debbie’s pet moggy – the success of Parallel Lines is down to a mixture of sweet ‘60s girl-group harmonies and edgy New Wave arrangements. It also spawned some enduring candy-coated punk-pop anthems in Pretty Baby, Fade Away And Radiate (featuring guitar wizard Robert Fripp) and 11:59, which many of their contemporaries would have given their skinny ties to use as singles.

© Steve Pafford 2000

The Story of Heart Of Glass is here



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