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  • Tony Harris

UNPARALLELED

Updated: Jun 6, 2020


When I wrote my previous blog, "Remasters Of The Universe", the mission was to get as many of you as possible to blow the dust off those albums you had bought but probably had not even dreamt of playing for at least a couple of decades and give them another chance. What became apparent was that often our treatment over the years had been sometimes a too little harsh on some of those platters we had once loved - though sometimes, (especially with the over-use of a synth-drum) thoroughly well deserved.


Similarly, so-called classic albums become so iconic that you never look to play them because everything about them seems so familiar. Similarly, and I believe it is true of this album, you almost think of it as a shorthand for a greatest hits.


Presenting Exhibit A.


Blondie's "Parallel Lines" is an album everybody is certain they know but the familiarity of some of its tracks had certainly stopped me ever contemplating giving it much of a spin in the last thirty years. Admittedly it has two number ones, two further UK singles and another US single - all of which feel like playlist staples because after all, nobody didn't like Blondie did they?


Yet it's a much more curious piece than I remembered...


"Parallel Lines" was Blondie's third album after the first album had broken through in Australia and the second "Plastic Letters" had started to create a buzz around the UK and Europe with "Denis" and "Always Touched By Your Presence Dear" giving them chart breakthroughs. Blondie would be the very epitome of a New York new-wave band with a CBGB's heritage if that title hadn't already been taken by the Ramones. And if you doubt that they were hewn from the same rock, listen to the Buddy Holly cover "I'm Gonna Love You Too".


They were loud, ragged and heavily influenced by The Stooges and Velvet Underground with the odd touch of 60s Brill Building dramatics. They oozed iconoclastic punk attitude rebelling against all the 70s rock traditions even though, in actual fact, Debbie Harry was already older than both Ronnie Wood and Robert Plant.


Their record company seemed to have the kind of faith they would be unlikely to have nowadays heading into a third album but they knew that their lead singer had something special so they drafted in a classic pop producer to give their work a different lustre. Consequently, they were introduced to Glam Rock genius, Mike Chapman, who had in previous times delivered solid gold hits for The Sweet, Suzi Quatro and The Knack.


Despite the mission being to bring some new wave polish to this new album, apparently the band had some very stereotypical new wave characteristics - they couldn't actually play very well and (with the exception of Harry and her partner and guitarist, Chris Stein) did not like each other very much at all. The famous cover only emerged because the band only agreed to smile if Harry scowled and even then they still didn't like it.


Equipment was regularly thrown around the studio and Chapman had to spend a lot of time with many members of the band individually perfecting their parts particularly Stein and drummer Clem Burke who apparently kept poor time - certainly by the time he joined the Eurythmics in 1986 he was much closer to a stripped back version of his idol, Keith Moon. Lyrics were finished moments before being recorded but it is a testament to the value of a seasoned professional that the album emerged at all, let alone to such acclaim.


There was a real variety of their influences on display from the pure pop "Pretty Baby" (written about Brooke Shields) and the Spector-ish 60s froth of "Sunday Girl" (written about their cat) to the Stoogesesque "I Know But I Don't Know" - all of which meshed into a delightful contemporary collage. Although for me, the highlight is the darkly atmospheric "Fade Away and Radiate" which sounds like it could have walked off the grooves of a Velvet Underground album; like so much of the album, it has a deep and well-developed lyrical sensibility.



However, the real success also didn't quite come in the traditional way because, although the first two singles, the cracking opener "Hanging On The Telephone" and "Picture This" were great power-pop singles, they did not seem to have the requisite power to draw in new audiences. In the US, they had released "I'm Gonna Love You Too" (thinking that as their previous big hit "Denis" had been a cover, they could repeat the magic).It rightly stiffed.


"One Way Or Another" - an early Girl Power anthem if ever there was one - which is now seen as a quintessential Blondie staple of any setlist or compilation and had probably stronger potential, was actually only released as a single in the US, even though it now seems so very very familiar, not least because of the snarling vocal, inspired by Harry's stalking ex-boyfriend.



The real breakthrough came hidden away in the middle of side 2 which came from a demo that Chapman had heard and felt had real merit even though the band had discarded it several years before. It was called "Once I Had A Love"...


Of course, the rest is history.



"Heart Of Glass" was really just seen as an experiment by the band reflecting the disco sound of artists like Donna Summer and the underground New York club scene that Harry liked and frequented. Frank Infante's guitar hook combined with the four to the floor disco beat complete with Keith Moon fills created an until then unimagined New Wave dance collision. The single put Harry on a million teenage bedroom walls and Blondie firmly on the dance floor. They would go on to experiment far more with the sounds of the clubs going forward with more disco, with "Call Me", electro, reggae, and of course, with the phenomenal "Rapture", Harry delivered one of the first mainstream rap records.


Undoubtedly, connecting the iconic cover and the still ubiquitous single makes "Parallel Lines" feel entirely familiar and yet there are all sorts of treats across the whole album. Nothing is quite as polished as "Heart Of Glass" and so it really should be classified as another interesting test of the band's expanding capacities as they search for their own sound. It certainly proved capable of hitting number one in 16 countries. They would own the world for the next two years, though never with quite as much unmanufactured panache; they were fresh, exciting and genuinely varied.



Nevertheless, "Parallel Lines" must also be considered an object lesson in, at least once in a while, listening to the man in charge. Chapman gives it a little more shine to their sound in all its multifarious component parts, but only just enough to make all the difference. The sheer diversity of the album meshed together as a fantastic whole but still sounded raw enough to make them credible fashion leaders - and in 1978 you would not have said that of poor old Robert Plant.


So, you never know he may be right.


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