The album that broke Blondie: why the making of Parallel Lines wasn't a gas

Blondie in 1978: From right - Clem Burke, Chris Stein, Debbie Harry, Jimmy Destri, Frank Infante, Nigel Harrison
Blondie in 1978: From right - Clem Burke, Chris Stein, Debbie Harry, Jimmy Destri, Frank Infante, Nigel Harrison

It wasn’t a record that would let the world ignore it. “I’m in the phone booth, it’s the one across the hall,” Debbie Harry barked over drums as demanding as an angry partner kicking down your door, “if you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall.”

Two minutes later she was snarling “one way or another I’m gonna find ya, I’m gonna get ya,” like a savage East Village stalker, and before you could escape her clutches she was showering you with seductive promises: “Picture this, my telephone number”.

Upon its release 40 years ago this month, Blondie’s third album Parallel Lines caused widespread rapture. The radio listening public were gradually seduced by its string of immaculate alt-pop singles – Picture This, Hanging On The Telephone, Sunday Girl. The underground disco world began lighting up to a track buried deep into the album by the name of Heart Of Glass. 

And the kids in America, already hooked on The Cars and soon to fall for The Knack’s My Sharona, looked at its iconic cover image – five smiling band members in uniform black suits and skinny ties and one scowl-pouting Harry bursting brazenly from the monochrome background stripes – listened to the razor-slashed “trash-pop” tunes within and realised that this was the record that defined the wiry, radio-friendly strain of post-punk they were calling new wave.

Between them, they sent Parallel Lines to Number Six in the Billboard chart, on its way to 20 million sales and a pivotal place in pop history. Its aesthetic would become the standard of alternative cool across music, art and cinema, its sounds would embed themselves deep into underground culture and the story of its making would act as both inspiration and warning for future rock generations.

Debbie Harry in 1978

A band from the original CBGB punk scene, written off for not being “punk” enough, had become the multi-platinum figureheads of a scene all their own, all thanks to an album born of turbulence and with a fall-out bordering on the atomic.

“We were never really interested in being underground or being so-called punk rock,” Blondie drummer Clem Burke explains today. “We really wanted to be played on the radio and have some kind of success.”

Success that was a long time coming for Debbie Harry. A New Jersey arts college cheerleader turned avant-jazz scenester, her first brush with the spotlight came as backing vocalist with acid hippy act The Wind In The Willows in 1967. The following years were a whirlwind of grit and anti-glamour. She go-go danced at Union City, waited tables for Janis Joplin and Andy Warhol at NYC rock club Max’s Kansas City, had a brief stint as a Playboy Bunny in LA and lost herself in the New York heroin scene, living in a Harlem drug den surrounded by armed dealers.

Cleaning up at a Woodstock arts commune didn’t entirely extract her from nefarious clutches. In the early Seventies she became a self-proclaimed New York Dolls groupie and claims she narrowly escaped being abducted by serial killer Ted Bundy when she accepted a late-night lift in 1972: “I got in the car and the windows were are rolled up, except for a tiny crack,” she told the Daily Mail, “the inside of the car was stripped… I wiggled my arm out of the window and pulled the door handle from the outside. I don't know how I did it, but I got out.”

Debbie Harry during her 'bunny' days Credit:  AFP

When she joined The Stilettoes in 1974, whose guitarist was one Chris Stein, a romantic and creative connection developed. Together they formed Angel And The Snake, then Blondie – named after regular gig catcalls – and found themselves at the heart of the burgeoning New York punk scene in 1975. While a history of drugs and deviance was a boon to the male musicians down at CBGBs, Debbie was quick to realise that her image, backstory and no-nonsense attitude – joking that she wished she’d invented sex and that her youthful looks were down to “junk and yoga” in interviews – would be as much an albatross as a golden egg.

“By straight press standards, I suddenly became highly controversial,” she told NME in 1979. “By American standards, I’m considered pretty wild. But then, it seems to me that they really desire wanton women over here – so here I am, the new bad girl!”

Harry found it an uphill struggle to prove her creative worth. Early single Rip Her To Shreds was advertised with a photo of her in a black, transparent top adorned with the legend “Wouldn’t you like to rip her to shreds”: “I was furious when I saw that f-----' ad!” she told NME. “I told them not to f-----' put it out anymore – and they didn't.” 

Rip Her To Shreds and In The Flesh were minor hits in far-flung territories, and it was only with a cover of Randy And The Rainbow’s Denis and (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear, from 1978’s second album Plastic Letters, that Blondie hit the top end of the European charts. They were still relative unknowns in the USA, but extensive world tours boosted their confidence and with guitarist Frank Infante and bassist Nigel Harrison bolstering the roll call, a solid six-piece line-up giving them a sense of stability. They approached their third album a changed band.

“The band was a completely different band than the band that had made the two previous albums,” Burke says. “We were on the cusp of something. The band really became a great band when the other two guys joined. I’m not sure we could’ve made Parallel Lines without the band the way it became.”

Or without a change of helmsman. Blondie’s first two albums were produced by Brill building stalwart Richard Gottehrer, but for Parallel Lines the band plumped for Australian glam impresario Mike Chapman, hitmaker for The Sweet, Mud, Smokie and Suzi Quattro.

“I was really pushing for Ben and Bjorn from ABBA to produce us at that time,” Clem says. “But as soon as Mike came on board it seemed like a really good idea. We never really fit into the punk rock box except for our attitude, which I think was, for better or worse, punk rock. There was definitely an element of commercial bubblegum music. As there was in the Ramones as well, as there was in Johnny Thunders And The Heartbreakers.”

Debbie Harry and Chris Stein in the studio in 1978

Harry was more wary, unsure about such an LA producer recording such a New York band. Chapman originally wanted the band to record in LA, but Blondie insisted that he leave his Californian comfort zone and slum in at CBGBs in the brutal New York winter. For his part, Chapman paints a somewhat scornful picture of the Blondie he began producing at New York’s Record Plant studios in June 1978. “Musically, Blondie were hopelessly horrible when we first began rehearsing for Parallel Lines, and in terms of my attitude they didn't know what had hit them,” he told Sound On Sound magazine.

“I basically went in there like Adolf Hitler and said, 'You are going to make a great record, and that means you're going to start playing better’… 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 f--- about anything. They just wanted to have fun and didn't want to work too hard getting it.”

Blondie were given six months to record Parallel Lines, but they raced through it in just six fraught weeks. Chapman pushed the band hard, spending hours with Stein to perfect guitar parts and driving Harry to tears during sessions. Harrison became so frustrated at Chapman’s perfectionism that he threw a keyboard at him.

Burke remembers the sessions differently, however. “There’s a whole thing about it being such an arduous process of making that album, I didn’t particularly find it that way. We were all in it together, we had a blast working with Mike. Every band has their moments, their acrimony and has their asides with the various members. As much as we learned from Mike, I think vice versa, he learned quite a bit from Blondie. I don’t think he’d encountered characters like us before. He was from that Mickey Most school of production and the other artists he was producing, he was writing the songs. Mike was used to being a real taskmaster.”

Burke speaks fondly of recording Sunday Girl (“a perfect little pop song… I think it’s about Chris and Debbie’s cat”), coming up with stalker anthem One Way Or Another during an improvised studio jam with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp (“out of context it’s semi-prog… it’s one of our more rockiest songs, it gets played on stations that would play The Scorpions or Motley Crue. People just love that song for adverts nowadays”) and having their biggest international hit fall into their laps.

While Blondie were on tour in Japan they received a mix-tape from an LA friend Jeffrey lee Pierce of The Gun Club. On it was a the only release by LA band The Nerves, a song called Hanging On The Telephone. Hearing that Blondie wanted to record his single, The Nerves’ songwriter Jack Lee flew in to New York to play the band a demo of another song he’d written, Will Anything Happen.

“On the demo at the beginning it went ‘Debbie, this is for you’,” Clem recalls. “He kinda looked like James Dean a little bit. He wound up having two songs on the album solely written by himself, so that was a good business move… I spoke to Noel Gallagher a couple of years back. I was soliciting people that I would run into here and there, and I asked him for a song, and he said off-the-cuff, ‘I’ll trade you for Hanging On The Telephone’, and I said ‘well guess what Noel, we didn’t write Hanging On The Telephone.’”

Primary amongst the album’s pop perfections was ‘Heart Of Glass’, the disco monster that almost never was. As recording wound to a close, Chapman asked the band if they had any more songs tucked away. They dusted off ‘Heart Of Glass’ from their very first demo, the classic tale of the all-time classic that the band themselves had pegged as a potential b-side.

“It’s kind of a combination of Kraftwerk, Donna Summer and The Bee Gees more or less,” Burke says. “With the drum machine and the sequencing, we thought we were being very experimental. The whole dance scene that was evolving in New York was very much underground at the same time as the whole New York new wave punk rock scene, and quite as subversive. Club 82 was the predecessor of CGBG… on a Wednesday a rock band would play, but all the music as a backdrop was dance music – Shame, Ring My Bell, things like that. That was absorbed into the consciousness of a lot of people, some of the people in Blondie.”

Parallel Lines wound up in a blitz of activity, all night sessions of frantically scrawled lyrics, experimentation and snatches of sleep on the studio floor. And things would only get more manic. Despite lead single I’m Gonna Love You Too – a Buddy Holly cover which only really helped line the pockets of Paul McCartney, who owned the publishing rights – stiffing, a string of hits helped the album hit Number One in the UK and Number Six in America, spawning their first US chart topper in Heart Of Glass and making Blondie new wave’s biggest stars.

Success is so often the mother of dissent, of course, and so it was for Blondie. In promoting their latest breakout act, Blondie’s label Chrysalis spot-lit Debbie to the detriment – and annoyance – of her bandmates: “there’s a lot of much prettier faces than mine on an awful lot of record covers that don’t sell shit!” she told NME in 1979, frustrated at accusations that Blondie’s image was everything.

Debbie Harry in 1978 Credit: Chris Walter

Manager Peter Leeds was dismissed with a rumoured $1 million kiss-off (“I often wonder what would’ve happened if we had stayed with him,” Burke says) and by the time the band entered the studio to record 1979’s Eat To The Beat, Chapman remembers “more drugs, more fights. It was becoming a real mess... The music was good but the group was showing signs of wear and tear. The meetings, the drugs, the partying and the arguments had beaten us all up.”

Burke considers Chapman’s account “completely unfair”, but admits that cracks had started to show. “That absolutely occurred and you can only reign so much of that in. We worked so hard prior to the success of Parallel Lines without the rewards, other than raising the profile and growing the foundations for Parallel Lines… A lot of attention was drawn to Debbie, maybe too much so. There was a lot of acrimony – people say ‘what was the beginning of the end?’ and the beginning of the end was the success of the band, ironically. Success is a double-edged sword.”

So, though they’d go on to have three more US Number Ones – Call Me, The Tide Is High and Rapture – it was Parallel Lines that captured Blondie at their harmonious peak. Its sharp-cut collage of punk vigour and radio hooklines would help form the bedrock of alternative culture for decades to come, and its striking cover would give new wave a defining image, the 10-dollar suit and skinny tie becoming an emblem of underground style that would be adopted by everyone from Elastica and The Strokes to the Reservoir Dogs. 

“We were just trying to emulate the look of the Sixties,” Clem explains. “I would go in the shower wearing the suit so it would shrink on my body. It’s not rocket science, it’s a white shirt, a black suit and a black tie. But at the time people didn’t really look like that, people had longer hair. Who wanted to look like the Dave Clarke Five? It’s unfathomable, when you see photos of bands now, it looks like today and the photo was taken 45 years ago.”

Though the musical impact of Parallel Lines can be heard everywhere today – indie rock, dance and pop music all owe it equally sizable debts – for Burke its lasting legacy is in its DIY authenticity. “I resent when people immediately try to make that comparison with Debbie and who came after, the other blondes, because I think that’s really unfair to her, she’s so much more than that. She always was. It wasn’t prefabricated. You look at a record now and there’s seven songwriters on it – none of that existed, we did it ourselves. We didn’t even have a stylist. That influence is underlying in a lot of what’s going on today.”