Counterbalance No. 121: Blondie's 'Parallel Lines'
The 121st most acclaimed album of all time is cold as ice cream but still as sweet. Dry your eyes, Sunday girl, and join us for another edition of Counterbalance.
Mendelsohn: Well, Klinger, I didn't really expect to come across Blondie's Parallel Lines hanging around just outside the Top 100 on the Great List. The only thing I really knew about the band up until a little while ago was that they had helped push hip-hop further into the mainstream consciousness with 1980's "Rapture" and that Deborah Harry worked as a Playboy Bunny waitress in the 1960s, neither of which really prepared me for the rather pleasant surprise waiting for me on Parallel Lines. Most of it was pleasant, after a while the tail-end of the record starts to just blend together. But it is hard to argue with the unbridled energy and hot pop licks that come flying out of the speaker with "Hanging on the Telephone" kicking off side one. It has been a while since a Side One/Track One has really caught my attention.
Klinger: Yeah, that's a good one. "Hanging on the Telephone" was written by Jack Lee of the LA power-pop group the Nerves, and I recall hearing a story that he was living in struggling musician-style poverty, about to have his electricity cut off, when he got the call from Debbie Harry asking if Blondie could cover that track. They also recorded Lee's "Would Anything Happen" for what turned out to be a worldwide blockbuster LP. Mysterious ways, Mendelsohn.
Mendelsohn: Right on. And as it turns out, before Parallel Lines was released, Blondie was also struggling a little—what we might consider an indie rock band, paying its dues in the underground of the New York music scene in the mid-1970s with the likes of Talking Heads, Television, and the Ramones. The band had met with some marginal success in the UK, due mostly to the reggae inspired rock that spotted their early records, but were unable to breach the American air waves until 1978's Parallel Lines. There were a couple of things that had to happen for Blondie to make that transition from CBGB regular to world famous. But before we go there, I'm wondering how do you view Blondie? New Wave mega act? Underground New York rock pioneer? What are they?
Klinger: I was about 10 when "Heart of Glass" became a ubiquitous hit single, so to me Debbie Harry has always been the woman who guest-starred on The Muppet Show, and Blondie has always been a top-selling group whose songs periodically get stuck in my head. Some of those songs ("Heart of Glass", "I'm Gonna Love You Too", "11:59") pop up toward the end of this record, so I'm a little puzzled by your earlier statement that this record trails off, but that's neither here nor there. What is clear is that Parallel Lines brought Blondie a level of critical respectability that they hadn't enjoyed before.
Mendelsohn: It's not so much that the back end of the album tails off, I just kind of get bored by the time I reach "Sunday Girl". And it's not that songs like "Sunday Girl", or "I'm Gonna Love You Too", or "Just Go Away" are terrible. They aren't really. Like everything else on this record they are well executed exercises in pop rockery. There's just so many New Wave grooves a guy can take and my limit comes somewhere in the middle of "Heart of Glass", the song that arguably made Blonide the New Wave band du jour. I'm not going to defend myself. The best I can do is point out that some of those songs are almost too slick, "Heart of Glass" included.
You mentioned the mysterious ways music comes together earlier and I would like to take a moment to expand on that. There was very fortunate series of events that helped catapult Blondie into mainstream success—some of it was just dumb luck, some of it as right place right time and whatever was left came down to a talented group of musicians emerging from the creative primordial ooze that was the New York music scene in the mid-1970s. Right off the bat you have Harry, who was real easy on the eyes and that always helps, along with guitarist Chris Stein and Co. who are working with high energy pop licks while incorporating some reggae, punk, and hard rock influences as they trade stage time with innovators like Television and Talking Heads. After a couple of records the mid-’70s have turned into the late ’70s and disco is becoming the next big thing. Enter producer Mike Chapman, who helps refine the Blondie's sound, pushing them from just another New York rock band with an average sound to a slick, well-produced hit making machine by tempering the rock and punk influences with the lush synths and dance beats of the burgeoning disco scene. Blondie was the recipient of some incredible luck by being in the music scene when they were, agreeing to let Chapman take the helm in the studio and incorporating just enough dance sensibility to make their music undeniable catchy. Mysterious or well executed, the result was the same.
Klinger: True, critics from day one have acknowledged the influence that Chapman's production had on Blondie's sound. Their former producer Richard Gottehrer had the early rock bona fides (not only did he co-write "My Boyfriend's Back", but he was also a "member" of the faux group the Strangeloves, whose "I Want Candy" became a big '80s staple via Bow Wow Wow), but his approach could easily have led down the path toward novelty act. Chapman's approach was more contemporary (he was behind the Sweet, produced Nick Gilder's "Hot Child in the City", and would later man the boards for the Knack), and he wisely shone the spotlight on Blondie's two most exciting features: Clem Burke's crashtastic drumming and Debbie Harry's voice, about which I can't say enough.
Listening to Parallel Lines all the way through, you hear how adept Harry was at adapting her voice to fit the mood of the song. She's icy cold on "Heart of Glass", scrappy tough on "One Way or Another" (I melt when she drops into that guttural tone for the last verses. Melt.) and then pretty much invents Madonna on "Fade Away and Radiate"—and that's just the beginning. It's really unusual to hear a rock singer bring that kind of diversity throughout one set of songs. Perhaps it's her experience with both cabaret and folk-rockers Wind in the Willows. Regardless.
Mendelsohn: We all melt under the vocal gaze of Debbie Harry, Klinger, all of us. Harry's vocals really make this album for me and for all the reasons you just listed—especially her stellar work on "One Way or Another". We have made it fairly deep into the Great List and I'd be hard pressed to single out a lead singer who could go toe-to-toe with Harry. She has the sensuality of Dusty Springfield and the rock swagger of Mick Jagger and Joe Strummer combined—plus looks to boot. She is almost the entire package. If she had the song writing talents of someone like Carole King, Blondie may very well have rivaled the Beatles. Although her name does show up in the credits for almost half of the songs on the record.
Klinger: Ooh, sounds like someone's a smitten kitten! While I think you might be overplaying your hand a little bit, I do admire your enthusiasm. And I don't blame you one bit, of course.
Mendelsohn: Of course I'm smitten and that's causing me to be a little excessive, please pardon my transgression. But then, I wouldn't be alone in wanting to be alone with Debbie Harry. In fact, the unrelenting attention Harry received was part of the reason the band fell apart. I'm just wondering if Blondie's influence reaches beyond 1985? Are they the forgotten band from the 1970s New York music scene? Are they marginalized by mainstream success and perceived pop novelty status? I keep trying to tell myself that Blondie is critically acclaimed and deserves this spot on the list, but it still feels weird.
Klinger: Well, it's important to note that in the early '80s, Chris Stein was stricken with a very rare debilitating disease, causing Harry to take time to care for him and preventing the band from enjoying the momentum they'd been building up. I've long been of the impression that the entire "serious" pop world had a very convoluted relationship with Blondie, and a lot of that may be down to two factors: 1) the seeming ease with which Blondie got themselves out of CBGB ghetto in which so many bands were toiling, and b) the fact that Debbie Harry is in fact a very attractive woman.
The Ramones may have gotten signed first, but their albums went nowhere on the charts. Blondie got a good amount of attention and a smattering of hit singles in Europe, which practically made them Abba compared to, say, Patti Smith. There was some degree of professional jealousy and when Blondie did actually become worldwide celebrities with full-fledged hit singles and everything, some of those folks could be forgiven a little ambivalence. Along the way, I'd be surprised if critics weren't to some degree compelled to choose up sides. And critics, who are mostly male and, well frankly a little nerdy, seem to have the same issue that a lot of insecure young men have with attractive women. A good case in point might be a statement I remember some old-timey critic making to the effect that he couldn't conjure up a single pornographic thought about Debbie Harry—as if that's her damn job. (Was it Lester Bangs? Maybe. I can't remember, and I'm not about to Google "Debbie Harry" "pornographic" and "Bangs", thank you very much.) I could go on about the nature of nerd rage in re: pretty women, but I'll leave that to someone with more expertise.
Mendelsohn: Ah yes—sweet, sweet nerd rage. Where would music criticism, or the Internet, be without it? Thankfully, nerd rage has yet to silence Blondie.