Blondie: Parallel Lines

Parallel Lines

Editor’s Note: Parallel Lines is indisputably one of the great, classic albums of the rock and roll era. It is a creative and commercial masterpiece by Blondie. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the album’s release, Capitol Records has issued a deluxe edition that, unfortunately, does not inspire much celebration. The low rating for the review of this album refers only to the fact that after five previous issues of Parallel Lines by the EMI family of labels, the pricey deluxe edition is an attempt to wrest more money from previously released material.

“Capitol Records to Be Run By a Supercomputer Named HAL”, was the pronouncement of a recent headline. The post documented private equity firm Terra Firma’s restructuring of EMI and the dismantling of EMI-owned Capitol Records. Due to the rapid dismissal of employees and executives at Capitol, the idea of an automaton-like creature heading the label is certainly within reach. How else to explain the uninspired Deluxe Collector’s Edition of Blondie’s classic 1978 alubm, Parallel Lines?

If the early part of Blondie’s career is taken into consideration, the record industry’s current fall from grace isn’t that steep. Blondie had toured around the world incessantly since their eponymous 1977 debut, yet found very little in the way of financial remuneration by their manager or label. Audiences in Australia shined to the chart-topping “In the Flesh”, while the UK was more receptive to “Denis” (also a chart-topper) and “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear” (a Top 20 hit) from the band’s follow-up, Plastic Letters (1978). Blondie had a legion of fans in their New York home base and on the West Coast, but radio simply would not play them in the US.

Years of uphill battles with management and internal fissures within the group greeted producer Mike Chapman (Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Nick Gilder) when he brought the band into New York City’s famed Record Plant studio to record Parallel Lines — which marked their third album and Chrysalis Records debut. Whereas Richard Gottherer, Blondie’s first producer, executed a relatively laid-back approach to directing the band, Chapman, by contrast, was an exacting task-masker. The synergy between his mastery of the control board and Blondie’s unbridled energy magically spawned a batch of radio-friendly hits and solid album cuts.

Blondie broke through the elusive US mainstream thanks to a mini-phenomenon called “Heart of Glass”. The song had a life long before Mike Chapman took hold of it. Known alternately as “Once I Had a Love” and “The Disco Song”, the elements of a hit were always there in both the reggae and funk versions that the band recorded on demos and performed in concert. The synthetic sheen of the Parallel Lines version was the missing “it” factor. The pitch in Debbie Harry’s voice glistened with icey precision, while the band emulated the programmed sound of Eurodisco. Nearly buried on side two, the song was unlike anything else on the album. Kraftwerk by way of Saturday Night Fever (1977) was how drummer Clem Burke characterized its sound.

The impact of “Heart of Glass” has been dulled over the years by rampant overexposure, constantly recycled on budget disco compilations and new wave collections, but hearing it on Parallel Lines emphasizes its virtues. The fact that hard-core club-goers of the era might repudiate the song’s viability in favor of, say, anything from the Salsoul label, is beside the point. “Heart of Glass” was the sound of a band with unapologetic pop aspirations and firm underground roots. It bridged two sensibilities that were diametrically opposed to one another.

However, the nine tracks that precede “Heart of Glass” and the two that follow it are what make Parallel Lines a great album and not just a showcase for the trans-continental number one hit. A dial tone introduces a cover of the Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone”. The song is less than two and a half minutes long, but it’s the perfect vehicle to introduce the band. Jimmy Destri’s keyboards practically bubble over, Chris Stein and Frank Infante vigorously wield their axes, Clem Burke drums with equal parts restraint and abandon, Debbie Harry fuses the manic and lustful in an aggressive vocal performance, and Nigel Harrison’s bass line relentlessly chugs along beneath the cacophony. The combination explodes like dynamite on the song’s “Hang up and run to me” tag.

Sustaining the momentum, “One Way or Another” hooks immediately with one of the most recognizable guitar riffs of the rock and roll era. Written with Nigel Harrison, Debbie Harry taunts and teases over a track that melds surf rock with Boris Karloff. Her nefarious phrasing is fun and frightening. Listen how “getcha, getcha” becomes “gitch ya gitch ya” in the first verse, for instance, or the nervous, wicked laughter that accompanies “I’ll meet ya” in the second verse.

“Picture This” momentarily brings the album into soft focus with cascading guitar lines and Harry’s nuanced vocal, while Stein’s “Fade Away and Radiate” is heavy on post-nuclear imagery such as cool neon glows and silver screens. “Stars live in the evening / But the very young need the sun”, Harry dreamily intones on the sprightly “Pretty Baby”, followed by Frank Infante’s mostly cloying “I Know But I Know”. It’s the only track on the album that falls into the filler category, and offers ample explanation for why Infante sparingly took hold of the microphone.

The one-two punch of Jimmy Destri’s superb rocker “11:59” and the other cover, written by the Nerves’ Jack Lee, “Will Anything Happen?”, makes Stein’s “Sunday Girl” sound even sweeter. A jaunty number one hit in the UK and Australia, Blondie memorably performed the tune with Scottish bagpipe players at their 1979 New Year’s Eve show in Glasgow. A clip of that performance, which does exist, might have made a more interesting bonus feature than the rare but interminable footage of Blondie lip-synching the tune on the UK music program Top of the Pops that appears on disc two of the Deluxe Edition.

Following “Heart of Glass” is the third cover on the album, an exuberant rendition of Buddy Holly’s “I’m Gonna Love You Too”. In retrospect, it might have made a more effective album-closer than the spunky “Just Go Away”, which brims with Debbie Harry’s attitude, but ends with an awkward, stumbling drum bit. Harry’s scathing jibes are like a punch in the gut, and perhaps that’s what Chapman wanted the last track to convey. Certainly, there were enough figures in Blondie’s circle that had a hook coming to them after trying to manipulate the band and pit Debbie Harry against the rest of the group. In that regard, the sequencing of “Just Go Away” after “I’m Gonna Love You Too” succeeds, and Parallel Lines, whose title is based on a poem that Harry wrote but did not apparently set to music, retains its potency.

So why does Parallel Lines: Deluxe Collector’s Edition fall so flat? Rest assured, it has nothing to do with the music contained therein. Parallel Lines has already been released in at least four different editions: the no-frills CD release in 1987, a 1994 DCC gold edition, a Japanese mini-album, and a superb (and affordable) 24-bit remastered 2001 re-issue. There’s nothing deluxe about the Deluxe Collector’s Edition. For an album purported to be one of the most iconic releases of the ’70s, EMI has assembled an underwhelming and unjustifiably dull tribute.

The re-designed cover image warns of the plentiful demerits inside the package. Debbie Harry’s sourpuss expression on the cover virtually screams, “Do Not Enter”. There is no essay nor extensive liner notes inside the flimsy eight-page booklet to contextualize the album’s impact or offer any insight into the making of the album. Debbie Harry, Clem Burke, and Chris Stein each provide a brief quote about the album; ex-band members Jimmy Destri, Nigel Harrison, and Frank Infante do not. (One assumes they were not asked.) Aside from the basic songwriting and production credits, there is no lyric sheet or facsimile of the back cover to even link the deluxe edition to its original LP incarnation. The infinite number of picture sleeves from the singles issued around the world might have made an interesting centerfold, but no such illustrations are to be found. Half a dozen photographs by Roberta Bayley (including the CD inlay) are the only visually stimulating ingredients, and far superior reproductions of those images can be found in her Blondie: Unseen 1976-1980 book, which is a much better investment than this package.

That’s only the beginning of the problems. There are at least four different edits of “Heart of Glass” that have been released on official compilations and re-issues over the years. In a revisionist move, EMI has substituted the original 3:54 album version on this deluxe edition with the extended 5:50 version. To be fair, the 2001 re-issue also favors the extended version, but a true re-release would include the original album version. All one needs to do is watch the video for “Heart of Glass” to hear what’s missing on the extended version: the “oo-oo, whoa-oh” that trails the third and final verse before the song fades out.

A single version of “Heart of Glass” appears as one of four bonus tracks. The other three include the French version of “Sunday Girl” and dated, mid-’90s remixes of “Hanging on the Telephone” and “Fade Away and Radiate”. All four tracks have been previously released (nothing a visit to iTunes can’t help you find, if you so desire them).

Perhaps the most offensive feature about Parallel Lines: Deluxe Collector’s Edition is the $25.00 list price of the set. With 75% of the “deluxe” portion of the package already widely accessible, this is an egregious price tag. (Does EMI know we live in the age of YouTube, iMeem, MyPlay, and PluggedIn?) The video for “Heart of Glass” has at least six uploads on YouTube that total well over three million views. The videos included here for “Heart of Glass”, “Hanging on the Telephone”, and “Picture This” are already available on the Sound and Vision (2006) set and the Greatest Video Hits (2002) DVD. Worse, the audio track is gravely inferior, and no effort has been made to enhance the picture quality. The mix used for the “Heart of Glass” video is the 1981 Mike Chapman remix that appeared on The Best of Blondie LP, and not the original album version.

Blondie made dozens of television appearances all around the world in support of Parallel Lines. At $25.00, one would expect a treasure trove of rare appearances and interviews licensed from the different owners of the footage. The aforementioned “Sunday Girl” clip is all consumers get for the money. Not even the most die-hard Blondie fan could get excited about watching Harry stand there in her shades, lip-synching to the track.

For those who already have Parallel Lines, there is no need to “upgrade” here, unless you want a high-end coaster for your coffee table. First-time buyers of Parallel Lines are treated to a more honorable and more affordable ($11.99) package on the 2001 re-issue. Not only is the sound 24-bit remastered on that version, but the bonus tracks include “Once I Had a Love” and some rare live cuts. In addition to an amusing essay by Mike Chapman, a few photos and some picture sleeves also make the booklet more than the wallpaper of the Deluxe Edition.

If only the Parallel Lines: Deluxe Collector’s Edition was half as inspiring as Blondie’s current tour in support of it. In a recent NYC performance, Blondie packed the album’s twelve songs into a 40-minute set, performing Parallel Lines in its original sequence. Debbie Harry had not sung many of these songs in three decades, yet even the most cynical observer could not deny her commitment to the material. Time has treated Harry’s voice well, and the band, including original members Chris Stein (guitar) and Clem Burke (drums), was faithful to the original arrangements, save for a nearly instrumental rendering of “Just Go Away”.

The show commemorated a heady time in Blondie’s history, a time when they transformed from the underdog to one of the most commercially and critically successful acts of the late-’70s and early-’80s. Parallel Lines: Deluxe Collector’s Edition makes no such commemoration. Save your money for gasoline and catch Blondie in concert instead.

RATING 2 / 10