ALBUM REVIEW by Victor Stranges
Who would have thought that disco combined with punk and pop would provide a bona fide, yet credible, smash hit across the world? By late 1978 disco had almost outworn its welcome and the ghosts of Saturday Night Fever (1977) were still being felt in the pop mainstream.
Within twelve months of Blondie releasing “Parallel Lines,” the declaration that ‘disco is dead’ was picking up steam from disgruntled rock fans.
Disco Demolition Night was a Major League Baseball promotion held in Chicago which actually ended in a riot. It sounds laughable today, but a crate filled with disco records was blown up on the field between games for the twi- night doubleheader between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. Many had only come to witness the detonation instead of the sporting attraction for the night. Musical tribalism in the 1970s was alive and well but Blondie had cleverly seized the opportunity to catapult its status from a modest-selling band to shifting over 20 million units. The song that made this possible was “Heart Of Glass.”
The effect of the workshop environment in the studio created by Australian-born UK producer, Mike Chapman, cannot be underestimated. “Heart Of Glass" was a nightmare to record. It was an idea beyond the technology at the time,” said the band’s keyboardist, Jimmy Destri. In one of the earliest attempts at creating a click track in the pre-digital era, Chapman used a tiny Roland Rhythm box which was the basis for building the recording of “Heart Of Glass.” Starting with the drum machine beat, Clem Burke’s drums were first added starting with only the bass drum. Then a separate recording was made for the snare drum and another again for the high hats. Following that, it was the tom-toms and then the cymbals.
Nigel Harrison somewhat reluctantly added the funky disco octave bass lines and was encouraged to play right on the beat like a clock. Frank Infante added the “hooky” guitar parts that made the track swing and Chris Stein’s jungle-like guitar effect overdubs were achieved through the use of a Roland Space/Chorus Echo pedal.
The Kraftwerk influence on the track could be felt with Destri’s rhythmic monotone keyboard lines and to top it off, Deborah Harry added an almost lullaby falsetto throughout the track. An earlier version recorded in 1975 by the band called “Once I Had A Love (AKA The Disco Song)” shows the stark difference in vision that Chapman and the band had created on Parallel Lines. Though some mistake the lead singer, Deborah Harry, as “Blondie,” it was actually the name of the band that had its humble beginnings in Hilly Kristal’s music club, CBGBs in New York City. Blondie had more in common with The Ramones, Television, Patti Smith Group, and Talking Heads than they did with Donna Summer. The edginess of “Heart Of Glass” which was executed perfectly in a pop format was a revelation.
The Nerves’ song, “Hanging On The Telephone” kicks off the album and is distinct from Harry’s vocals compared to the new wave original. “One Way Or Another” is a meditative track and was so good that One Direction had to cover it. Thankfully we still have the original to listen to for posterity. “Fade Away And Radiate” is bold and starts off slow and breathy with Harry close-up and personal in the mix. The travels along a roller-coaster of emotions and ends in an almost punk-like reggae jam. A truly unique track worth checking out.
“Pretty Baby” could fit alongside the band’s earlier song, “In The Flesh” (1976), with its early 1960s influence. The song’s speaking parts pay homage to The Angels’ 1963 hit, “My Boyfriend’s Back” and the track has an endearing quality with its sincerity. Infante’s song, “I Know But I Don’t Know”, is a cool track with equal vocal parts from Stein and Harry. The song’s drony vocals give it a street cred that cascades with Burke’s wonderful beats and fills. An unusual bird, but fantastic.
There are no fillers on this album and that’s why it is so easy to listen to. The rest of the tracks, “11:59”, “Will Anything Happen?”, “Sunday Girl”, “I’m Gonna Love You Too” (a Buddy Holly cover), and “Just Go Away” have a new wave urgency but were more polished which gave the album its cross-over appeal.
The studio at the time was filled with tension, marrying a punk ethos with a successful pop producer gave rise to some ill feelings between Chapman and the band at the time.
Chapman later said, “I didn’t make a punk album or a New Wave album with Blondie. I made a pop album.” Years after writing for The Village Voice, Robert Christgau commented in the publication, Blender, that it was “a perfect album in 1978” and remained so with “every song memorable, distinct, well-shaped and over before you get antsy. Never again did singer Deborah Harry, mastermind Chris Stein and their able four-man cohort nail the band’s signature paradoxes with such unfailing flair: lowbrow class, tender sarcasm, pop-rock.” I agree wholeheartedly.