Blondie: Parallel Lines – [Record 124]
Parallel Lines is the third studio album by American new wave band Blondie, released in September 1978 by Chrysalis Records. The album reached #1 in the United Kingdom in February 1979 and proved to be the band’s commercial breakthrough in the United States, where it reached #6 in April 1979. As of 2008, the album had sold over 20 million copies worldwide.
1. Hanging on the Telephone.
2. One Way or Another.
3. Picture This.
4. Fade Away and Radiate.
5. Pretty Baby.
6. I Know But I Don’t Know.
8. Will Anything Happen?.
9. Sunday Girl.
10. Heart of Glass.
11. I’m Gonna Love You Too.
12. Just Go Away.
Background: In February 1978, Blondie released their second studio album Plastic Letters. It was their last album produced by Richard Gottehrer whose sound had formed the basis of Blondie’s new wave and punk output. During a tour of the west coast of the US in support of Plastic Letters, Blondie encountered Australian producer Mike Chapman in California. Peter Leeds, Blondie’s manager, conspired with Chrysalis Records to encourage Chapman to work with Blondie on new music. Drummer Clem Burke recalls feeling enthusiastic about the proposition, believing Chapman could create innovative and eclectic records. However, lead vocalist Debbie Harry was far less enthusiastic about Chapman’s involvement as she only knew him by reputation; according to Chapman, her animosity towards him was because “they were New York. He was LA”. Harry’s cautiousness abated after she played Chapman early cuts of “Heart of Glass” and “Sunday Girl” and he was impressed.
Recording: In June 1978 the band entered The Record Plant in New York to record their full-length third album with Chapman. However, Chapman found the band difficult to work with, remembering them as the worst band he ever worked with in terms of musical ability. Although praising Frank Infante as “an amazing guitarist”, sessions with Chris Stein were hampered by him being stoned during recording and Chapman encouraged him to write songs rather than play guitar. Similarly, according to Chapman, Jimmy Destri would prove himself to be far better at songwriting than as a keyboardist and Clem Burke had poor timing playing drums. As a result, Chapman spent time improving the band, especially with Stein who Chapman spent hours with rerecording his parts to ensure they were right. Bassist Nigel Harrison became so frustrated with Chapman’s drive for perfectionism that he threw a $50,000 synthesizer at him during recording. Chapman recalls the atmosphere at The Record Plant in an interview for Sound on Sound:
“The Blondies were tough in the studio, real tough. None of them liked each other, except Chris and Debbie, and there was so much animosity. 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 didn’t want to work too hard getting it.”
Chapman took an unorthodox approach when recording with Harry who he describes as “a great singer and a great vocal stylist, with a beautifully identifiable voice. However, also very moody”. Chapman was far more cautious of demanding much from Harry as he saw her as a highly emotional person who would vest these emotions in the songs they made. He remembers Harry disappearing into the bathroom in tears for several hours during recording. During a day of recording, Harry sang two lead parts and some harmonies, less work than she did so previously with Gottehrer. This was due to Chapman encouraging her to be cautious about the way she sang, particularly to recognise phrasing, timing and attitude.
Blondie recorded Parallel Lines in six weeks, despite being given six months by Terry Ellis, co-founder of Chrysalis Records, to do so. A traditional set-up was used and Chapman fitted Neumann microphones to the toms, snare and hi-hat, as well as several above the site. When recording, Chapman would start with the basic track, which was difficult to record at the time by way of “pencil erasing”. Chapman explained in an interview for Sound on Sound, “that meant using a pencil to hold the tape away from the head and erasing up to the kick drum. If a bass part was ahead of the kick, you could erase it so that it sounded like it was on top of the kick. That’s very easy to do these days, but back then it was quite a procedure just to get the bottom end sounding nice and tight.” A DI/amp method was used to record Harrison’s bass and Destri’s synthesizer, while Shure SM57 and AKG 414 microphones were used to capture Infante’s Les Paul guitar.
After the basic track was complete, Chapman would record lead and backing vocals with Harry. However, this process was hampered by many songs not being written in time for the vocals to be recorded. “Sunday Girl”, “Picture This” and “One Way Or Another” were all unfinished during the rehearsals of Parallel Lines. When recording vocal parts, Chapman remembers asking Harry if she was ready to sing, only for her to reply “Yeah, just a minute” as she was still writing lyrics down. Chapman notes that many “classic” songs from the album were created this way.
During the last session at The Record Plant, the band were asleep on the floor only to be awakened at six o’clock in the morning by Mike Chapman and his engineer Peter Coleman leaving for Los Angeles with the tape tracks. Despite Blondie’s belief that Parallel Lines would resonate with a wider audience, Chrysalis Records were not as enthusiastic and label executives told them to start again, only to be dissuaded by Chapman’s assurance that its singles would prove popular.
Parallel Lines took its name from an unused track written by Harry, the lyrics of which were included in the first vinyl edition of the album. The sleeve image was chosen by Blondie’s manager, Peter Leeds, despite being rejected by the band, and contrasts the exuberant band against a defiant, demure Harry with her hands on her hips.
Music and lyrics: Music critic Robert Christgau called Parallel Lines a pop rock album in which Blondie achieved their “synthesis of the Dixie Cups and the Electric Prunes”. According to Allmusic’s William Ruhlmann, the album’s “state-of-the-art pop/rock circa 1978” showed Blondie deviating from new wave and emerging as “a pure pop band.” Music journalist Ken Tucker said that they eschewed the “brooding artiness” of their previous albums for more hooks and pop-oriented songs. Mike Chapman remarked on its music at the time: “I didn’t make a punk album or a New Wave album with Blondie. I made a pop album.” The album’s eleven pop songs have refined melodics, and its sole disco song “Heart of Glass” has jittery keyboards, rustling cymbals by drummer Clem Burke, and a circular rhythm. Burke credited Kraftwerk and the soundtrack to the film Saturday Night Fever as influences for the song and said that he was “trying to get that groove that the drummer for the Bee Gees had”.
According to Rolling Stone magazine’s Arion Berger, Parallel Lines eschewed “cartoonish postmodernist referencing” of Blondie’s previous new wave songs for a “romantic fatalism” that was new for the band. “Sunday Girl” deals with the theme of teen loneliness, while “Fade Away and Radiate” is about falling in love with dead movie stars. On the latter song, Debbie Harry, who daydreamed as a child that Marilyn Monroe was her birth mother, compares a flickering image onscreen to the light of a dying sun. Music critic Rob Sheffield said that the lyric “dusty frames that still arrive / die in 1955” is the “best lyric in any rock’n’roll song, ever, and it’s still the ultimate statement of a band that always found some pleasure worth exploiting in the flashy and the temporary.”
Critical Reception: Parallel Lines received acclaim from music critics. In a contemporary review for The Village Voice, Robert Christgau gave it an “A–” and felt that, although the band still cannot write a perfect hit single, the album is a consistent improvement over Plastic Letters. He rated it higher in a retrospective review and argued that it was “a perfect album in 1978”, but remains so with “every song memorable, distinct, well-shaped and over before you get antsy. Never again did singer Deborah Harry, mastermind Chris Stein and their able four-man cohort nail the band’s signature paradoxes with such unfailing flair: lowbrow class, tender sarcasm, pop rock.” Darryl Easlea of BBC said that Mike Chapman’s production and flair for pop songwriting helped make Parallel Lines an extremely popular album in the United Kingdom, where it was a number-one hit and charted for 106 weeks during the late 1970s. Q magazine called the album “a crossover smash with sparkling guitar sounds, terrific hooks and middle-eights more memorable than some groups’ choruses.”
In his review of post-punk albums from the 1970s, Spin magazine’s Sasha Frere-Jones said that Parallel Lines may have been “the perfect pop-rock record” and Blondie’s best album, while Christian John Wikane of PopMatters called it “a creative and commercial masterpiece by Blondie … indisputably one of the great, classic albums of the rock and roll era.” Pitchfork Media’s Scott Plagenhoef credited the album for popularizing “the look and sound of 1980s new wave” with classic songs that showcased the depth and complexity of Harry’s sexuality and singing. Sal Cinquemani of Slant Magazine was also impressed by her singing, which he felt varies from “purring like a kitten and then building to a mean growl”, and cited “Heart of Glass” as the album’s best track because of her “honey-dipped vocal”.
Parallel Lines was ranked at number 140 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, number 18 and 45 on NME’s 100 Best Albums of All Time and 500 Greatest Albums of All Time respectively, and number 7 on Blender’s 100 Greatest American Albums of All Time. Rolling Stone wrote that the album was “where punk and New Wave broke through to a mass U.S. audience”. The album was also ranked at number 94 by Channel 4’s list of 100 greatest albums of all time.
Marketing: Parallel Lines contains several of Blondie’s best-known hits, including “Heart of Glass”, “Hanging on the Telephone”, “Sunday Girl” and “One Way or Another”. Six of the twelve tracks were issued as singles, either in the US or the UK. It is notable that the original album version of “Heart of Glass”, also a single version in the UK, was replaced with the longer disco version on pressings of the album released as of March 1979. However, the original surfaced on some later reissue editions.
The album was reissued and remastered in 2001 along with Blondie’s back catalog and featured four bonus tracks: a 1978 demo of “Heart of Glass”, live cover of T. Rex’s song “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” and two live tracks taken from Picture This Live live album.
30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: On June 24, 2008, an expanded 30th Anniversary Edition of the album was released, which featured new artwork and bonus tracks along with bonus DVD. The liner notes once again featured lyrics to the unfinished “Parallel Lines” song. The Parallel Lines 30th Anniversary Edition included the 7″ single version of “Heart of Glass”, which was featured on the original pressing of the album, the French version of “Sunday Girl” and some remixes, plus a DVD with albums, promo videos and TV performance.
The band also launched a world tour of the same name to promote the re-release and celebrate the event.
Notes: The album version of “Heart of Glass” was replaced with the disco version (5:50 minutes long) on pressings of the album released as of March 1979. The original length version of “Heart Of Glass” appeared on the original US CD release in 1985 Chrysalis VK 41192 [later F2 21192] although the CD artwork proclaimed it was ‘Disco Version’. Later editions of the Capitol disc had the mistake removed from the inlay but it remained on the disc until its deletion. 1994 DCC Compact Classics Gold CD release [Capitol Special Markets USA] GSZ 1062 features original version (3.45) with 5’50 version as a bonus track – this edition also featured booklet with full song lyrics. Chrysalis through EMI/Toshiba in Japan issued Parallel Lines with a mini LP card sleeve in 2006 – notable for its reproduction inner sleeve complete with lyrics and Chrysalis Records label on the actual disc.
A promotional CD of the album was given away free with the British newspaper The Mail on Sunday on 5 December 2010, including the bonus tracks “What I Heard” and “Girlie Girlie” from the band’s 2011 album Panic of Girls.