Blondie – Parallel Lines

Blondie – Parallel Lines
Released September, 1978

Blondie formed in 1974 after guitarist Chris Stein met Deborah Harry when she joined his band The Stilettos. A couple of failed bands later they formed Blondie. The band soon become crowd favourites at the infamous CBGBs in New York and were pioneers in the New Wave movement. After a couple of lacklustre releases Blondie came up with a bona fide hit with their third release “Parallel lines” in 1978. They stayed true however to their punk roots, merely tightening up on the songwriting and production, to bring together a group of smart and catchy pop songs.  Of the twelve tracks, six went on to be singles. Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Parallel Lines” at #140 on their “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list and to date has sold over 20 million copies internationally.

What we have on “Parallel Lines” is a melding new wave and punk with a delectable pop sheen. As a fashion icon and one of the first artists to embrace the music video format, Blondie’s look was as important as the music, with Deborah Harry the perfect front woman. The band wasn’t all about looks though. Deborah Harry is quoted as saying “We came along during this big guitar period when everyone sat around and just listened. Part of our goal was (to get them) dancing again. But I don’t think anyone in the band really expected to (become as big) as we did.” Blondie were the cool kids of the late 70s, with Harry the ever impressive Prom Queen. At a time when the limits of genres were being tested, Blondie were one of the first bands to cross from punk to pop successfully and they did so effortlessly and gracefully.

The real strength of “Parallel Lines” however lies not just in its style and marketability, but in its durability. 35 years later all of the songs still stand up and wouldn’t sound out of place on the radio today. Every track is killer and could’ve been a single in its own right, well maybe other than ‘I Know But I Don’t Know’ which is firmly rooted in their punk beginnings. Sandwiched halfway through on Side B, hit single ‘Heart of Glass’ was a departure for the band. Its disco infused beat was nothing like the world had seen and firmly cemented the band as a radio favourite. Harry’s falsetto voice here is different, with less of the attitude and sass we see on earlier tracks. It’s one of the few disco tracks of the era that doesn’t feel kitsch today. The band also wear their love of rock on their sleeves with ‘Pretty Baby’, ‘Sunday Girl’ and a rockabilly punk cover of Buddy Holly’s “I’m Gonna Love You Too”. The first two tracks may very well be the most perfect album openers we’ve heard yet, starting with ‘Hanging on the Telephone’, the band then hits hard with ‘One Way or Another’ with its crunchy guitar and catchy refrain of “I’m gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha”. And for those of you playing along at home, the weird prog rock guitar on the track “Fade Away and Radiate” is by none other than Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame. I’m hard pressed to just pick a couple of favourite songs here as they all have their endearing moments.

It’s clear that both Blondie and the album “Parallel Lines” went on to influence many different genres and styles of music. Debbie Harry was punk’s first sex symbol and went onto influence many generations of female singers to this day. Lady Gaga can only wish to have even a fraction of the style and influence Harry had. It is important to also acknowledge how great the band behind the lady was. Harry did not carry the band on looks alone. It’s hard not to see how much the they’ve influenced modern music. Whenever I listened to “Parallel Lines”, which was around 10 times over the course of the week, I was immediately put in a better mood. The grooves are infectious and it’s hard not to sing along and join in the fun. “Parallel Lines” is most deserving of its many accolades.

I’ve heard songs like ‘Hanging On The Telephone’ and ‘Heart Of Glass’ before. Of course I have. Who hasn’t? So I was determined to use this album to discover unheard (by me, anyway) gems. And boy, does “Parallel Lines” deliver! An impressive six of the twelve tracks from “Parallel Lines” were released as singles, and the album made it to number one in the UK. Ranked at a fairly conservative 140 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Parallel Lines is a well rounded album, showing strengths in many musical areas. One of the best songs I’ve never heard, ‘Fade Away and Radiate’, has a real gothic feel. A very dramatic intro that opens with just Debby Harry’s vocals accompanied by a bass drum. It builds to quite a crescendo, with a very subtle lead guitar in the background. Indeed, so subtle the bass seems more of a lead than the guitar. You don’t need me to tell you about ‘Heart Of Glass’. You know it, you love it, it reached number one everywhere in the universe. Moving on. I always thought ‘One Way Or Another’ was by someone like Nancy Sinatra. I don’t know why. But I was pleased to see it was written by Harry and bassist Nigel Harrison. It’s quite good fun, and also now I’m kinda scared of Debby Harry. It’s followed by a much more mellow (but still a little creepy [watching you shower? For an hour?]] ‘Picture This’. I think this track best shows off Harry’s voice, going from sweet to a howling rock voice. Every member of the band is ace, but they’re all so tight you almost don’t notice. The whole album is a rock solid performance, and I’m ashamed with myself that I’ve never paid it much attention before.

I found “Parallel Lines” to be quite an easy listen but at times I must admit I found it pretty boring. The album is a pleasant blend of pop and punk, and is certainly easy on the ear.  Having said that, in my opinion there are tracks that are true keepers, and ones that I could do without.  Album opener, ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ is a fantastic start to the album, grabbing your attention with Harry’s piercing vocal. Track two is another classic and is timelessly recognisable. ‘One Way or Another’ is one of those songs about stalking that just makes it sound kinda appealing. The next 7 tracks are forgettable and I inevitably end up skipping these ones. ‘Picture This’ to me is just tragic, the lyrics are corny high school poetry at its finest. I guess ‘Fade Away and Radiate’ is passable. It’s got a sexiness and coyness to it due to Harry’s restrained vocal and the synth backing. But mostly it goes nowhere. I won’t even talk about the rest. Another 5 presses on the skip button later and all is forgiven when you’re greeted with the high pitched voice of Harry as she sings about a ‘Heart of Glass’. Once again the lyrics are a bit empty and repetitive, but the song is so unique and Harry’s vocal so intoxicating, that all is forgiven. Ironically, the song was originally written in jest, but became one of Blondie’s most successful tracks. This album didn’t really get me excited, the only songs I enjoyed were the ones I already knew, but it’s clear to see that “Parallel Lines” was one of the precursors for the pop rock sounds that would come in not only the following decade (see Madonna) but in Euro-pop and dance circles even today.

“Parallel Lines” is an album that remains highly influential. The amount of musicians that wouldn’t exist without Blondie is staggering. The pop music scene of the 1980’s just wouldn’t have been the same if not for Blondie. No Debbie Harry? Okay, then no Madonna, Chrissie Amphlett or Chrissie Hynde. No Blondie? Okay, then no Duran Duran, Culture Club or, um, Dead or Alive. Their seemingly effortless merging of post-disco dance/pop with post-punk new wave laid the groundwork for the New Romantic era, and for some reason, extremely effeminate front-men. No doubt the record’s producer, Australian songwriter Mike Chapman (Suzi Quatro, Sweet, Smokie), infused the group with his own glam-rock pop sensibilities. This multi-million selling album contains some of the catchiest pop tunes you’re ever likely to hear, including one of my favourite songs of all time, ‘Heart of Glass’. Built around Clem Burke’s hypnotic dance drum beat and a pulsing bass line, Harry’s dreamy vocals lift this up above your average dancefloor hit. Although it nudges the six minute mark, I just want it to keep going; such is the song’s hold on me. Harry’s powerful presence would be nothing without the exceptional musicianship of the band. Her boyfriend at the time, and founding member, guitarist Chris Stein has written (or co-written) some wonderful pop music, and his best contribution here is the marvellous ‘Sunday Girl’. My other favourites include ‘Picture This’, ‘Will Anything Happen?’, keyboardist Jimmy Destri’s ’11:59′ and new bass player Nigel Harrison’s ‘One Way or Another’. The only track that seems out of place to me is guitarist Frank Infante’s ‘I Know But I Don’t Know’, which is nothing more than a repetitive riff and some nonsensical lyrics delivered in a deadpan duet style. That’s a minor quibble though, this is a hugely enjoyable album from a talented band that deserves its spot in music history.

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