Graded on a Curve: Blondie,
Parallel Lines

Celebrating Clem Burke in advance of his 67th birthday tomorrow.Ed.

A bit of history: When Blondie signed on with Australian producer Mike Chapman (of Chapman and Nicky Chinn glam rock fame) to record their 1978 breakthrough LP Parallel Lines, little did they know what they were in for. Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, and the rest of the band had a rather punk attitude towards the studio, and everything else for that matter; as Chapman noted later, “They were really, really juvenile in their approach to life—a classic New York underground rock band—and they didn’t give a fuck about anything. They just wanted to have fun and they didn’t want to work too hard getting it.”

Chapman the perfectionist called Blondie “hopelessly horrible” and explained his attitude towards the sessions in frankly dictatorial terms: “I basically went in there like Adolf Hitler and said, ‘You are going to make a great record, and that means you are going to start playing better.’” And they did. The result was a landmark record that everybody should own but you know what? I really kind of miss the hopelessly horrible band that gave us Parallel Lines’ predecessor, Plastic Letters.

Sure, Plastic Letters lacks the gloss of Parallel Lines’ disco-inflected “Heart of Glass” and a song quite as catchy as “Hanging on the Telephone,” but it possesses the same gritty and off-kilter NYC charm as the first recordings by the Dictators and the Ramones. Spies, strange happenings in the Bermuda Triangle, and cheating at poker by means of telepathy—Plastic Letters may be an imperfect recording, but boring it ain’t.

That said, Parallel Lines is still loads of fun, and retains that good old punk spirit on such numbers as “Hanging on the Telephone” (love Harry’s New Yawk squawk), “One Way or Another” (great chainsaw riff meets manhunt disguised as love song), and the belligerent closing track, “Just Go Away,” which boasts wonderful shouted backing vocals and really snotty vocals by Harry. And then there’s the pneumatic “I Know But I Don’t Know,” which features some great vocals by an unnamed member of the band, who accompanies Harry and sounds about as New York, New York as they come.

“11:59” is tough but has a gooey center, while on “Sunday Girl” Harry comes on like the Angel of the Lower East Side. Meanwhile, the Buddy Holly cover “I’m Gonna Love You Too” is a high-spirited lark and does full credit to the genius in the nerd glasses—love the short but frantic guitar solo too! “Will Anything Happen” is another punker and a winner as well, while “Fade Away and Radiate”—which features guest Robert Fripp’s inimitable guitar work—is a mesmerizing change of pace in its moody and touching evocation of dead film stars. “Fade Away and Radiate” is as poetic as anything recorded by self-proclaimed Blondie nemesis Patti Smith—Blondie’s appearance on the New York punk scene famously irked Smith no end—and when all is said and done Chris Stein actually proves to be the better poet.

As for Parallel Lines’ signature song “Heart of Glass,” I’d be lying if I said I was ever crazy about it. I will gladly concede its genius but I find it a bit slick, and every bit as brittle as the material being sung about. And it anticipates Blondie’s future direction, i.e., towards such other brilliant but even more slick productions as “Rapture” and “The Tide Is High,” which have their admirers for good reason but I prefer to admire from afar.

There’s no denying that Deborah Harry’s singing improved, and that Blondie demonstrated its hit-making savvy by tapping into the era’s lively disco/rap/reggae pop gestalt. But while 1979’s Eat to the Beat and 1980’s Autoamerican proved that even punks can grow up and get serious, just wanting to have fun and not wanting to have to work too hard at it is an ethos too, and in the end it’s an ethos I’ll choose over frosty studio perfectionism any day of the week.

Parallel Lines is not just a pop masterpiece; it marks a pivotal moment in the direction of a great pop band. I listen to such wonderful earlier Blondie tracks as “Fan Mail,” “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence Dear,” and (yes!) “Rip Her to Shreds” and I’m enraptured, while I listen to “Rapture” and I’m merely impressed. “Heart of Glass” and “Rapture” are tasty pop confections, no doubt about it. But on “Fan Mail” Harry has the hunger, and hasn’t slept for days, and days, and days, and Blondie sounds all the meaner for it. Just listen to the way Harry hangs on to the ending. Rip her to shreds, Debbie!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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