1978 – seemingly a year of endless creativity and possibility with so many cool bands releasing albums. If we imagine there were still music snobs back then who were tribal and protective over their own personal favourites, then it is likely that despite these attitudes, most would have agreed that Blondie were ‘alright’.
The single “Denis”, released earlier in the year (from the Plastic Letters album) reached number 2 in the UK chart and was one of those Top of the Pops appearances that really would have made an impact at the time. Women tended only to be on the show as part of the dance troupe Pan’s People but here was a female as a gang leader of a male band who appealed to both sexes. Gosh!
Of course, I witnessed none of this happening at the time but it was the female-led gang on the cover of Parallel Lines that caught my attention as a young boy about seven years later. The contrasting black and white, the smiling men, the stern looking woman. This stood out among my parent’s vinyl collection which was a sea of uncool Americana, overblown guitar twiddleshit and Cliff Richard.
I wouldn’t have noticed the strange sartorial combo of suits with baseball shoes at the time but I did notice Debbie Harry’s attitude. She was no smiley children’s TV presenter. Her growl was present from the first song. There was no sweetness in a woman who would get your phone and ‘ring it off the wall’. I would never dare to leave her hanging on the telephone and I was sure that men twenty years older than me would ‘hang up and run to’ her just because she told them to.
It’s worth pointing out that “Hanging on the Telephone” was a Top 5 hit (UK) as it’s often forgotten when you consider the album also spawned two number ones. It’s a great opener.
“One Way or Another” came next and was another attitude-laden stomp. It’s hard to listen to it seriously now when you recall it was also performed on The Muppet Show. Analysing the lyrics as a boy I learned the merits of words like ‘gonna’ in the pop vernacular. Blondie took it further here with snappy ‘getcha’ and ‘meetcha’ merges. I still love how the music and vocal seem to become one in the bridges – ‘I’ll see who’s arouuuund’ and ‘who’s hanging ooooouuuut’ blend in with the music, the final syllable and synth sound growl together as one. At the key change her voice becomes raspier, hard to imagine a vocalist doing this today in the digital autotune age.
“Picture This” sounds like it could have been from a certain late 70s film musical. The opening line, (‘All I want is a room with a view’) sounds wistfully cinematic…you can see her staring outside with frustration. But being Debbie Harry this isn’t some pathetic needy display. She knows what she wants and she has some fine couplets to tell you about it and you could have had it if it weren’t for your job at the garage. Again, it’s worth pointing out that Debbie Harry is no real singer but the imperfection in her voice adds to the realism and emotions of the songs.
“Fade Away and Radiate” is not a song often remembered and the least pop so far. The dramatic opening can make you jump and the song goes through prog-like transitions, a Brian May style guitar solo, and then a cod-reggae wig out for the last 30 seconds. Impressive.
The sonic diversion doesn’t last for long though as “Pretty Baby” is pure pop. It starts off like a sped up‘ “Rip Her to Shreds” before slowing down to an intro. On this song the chorus is actually the verse which means there is nowhere to go but up. The cool spoken word intermission recalls the likes of The Shangri-Las, a tactic they first adopted on the intro to “X Offender” on their debut album. It has such a powerful finale, her vocal range tested to the limit before paving the way for side closer “I know but I don’t know” which is a repetitive fun groove and just about stays on the right side of throwaway.
I always think “11:59” is a great song but it seemed more powerful years ago. It certainly has the urgency you’d expect for a song about watching the clock and hoping to stay alive. Like “Union City Blue” being one of the better songs on Eat To The Beat despite being surrounded by better singles, 11:59 has the same issues on Parallel Lines. Ask someone to name 10 Blondie songs and they probably wouldn’t pick this one but it must be up there with their best. Another song recalling the girlgroup, Motown era without really sounding like a pastiche. I’d like the organ and drum outro to go on for so much longer.
“Will Anything Happen?” continues with the urgency, a stop-start stomper. Her double tracked vocal is more prominent here and you wonder if she could have milked this sound more.
This song and the final two songs suffer a little on side B due to the pop behemoths at its centrepiece…
“Sunday Girl” and “Heart of Glass”, well what can I say about those? “Sunday Girl” may sound twee and probably overplayed but it’s an incredible melody. The album version thankfully doesn’t have the French verses tacked on like some of the inclusions on later compilations did.
“Heart of Glass” sees them delve into new territory, the disco elements take them to the dancefloor, the pulsing synth and understated funky guitar. The double-tracked harmony in the chorus is lush. Not a moment is wasted in this song, solo breaks don’t overstay their welcome. Unlike “Sunday Girl” this isn’t the radio edit, coming in at just under 6 minutes but it seems like one of those 12” versions of a single rather than an overblown album track.
Parallel Lines is not a perfect album. Yet, like many classics, the imperfections and flaws add to the charm. It is of its time but easy to listen to and appreciate 40 years on.