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Six band members posed in front black and white striped backdrop
The iconic cover of "Parallel Lines" (that no one in the band wanted). Photo: Edo Bertoglio

Blondie’s “Parallel Lines” Hits the National Recording Registry

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Blondie was a New York band finding its way in the mid 1970s, deeply enmeshed in the city’s arts scene but having more success in Europe after two albums than in the States.

Lead singer Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein, then a couple in and outside the band, counted the young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat as a friend; the pair bought his first painting on canvas for a couple hundred bucks. They lived just off the Bowery and a few doors down from CBGB, the epicenter of punk rock.

“It was a great, decrepit atmosphere,” Stein laughed in a recent interview with the Library, with Harry joining in the conversation from a different location.

Then came “Parallel Lines,” their 1978 album that went platinum in multiple countries and helped define New Wave music. The production was crisp. The songs were short, tight and just a bit paranoid. There was “One Way or Another,” the sweet-but-cynical “Sunday Girl,” the hard-driving “11:59” and the sublimely strange “Fade Away and Radiate.”  All very New York, all very punchy and all very edgy. But it was “Heart of Glass” that sent disco lights spinning and propelled the band into the pop music stratosphere.

Today, fashion boutiques and high-end grocery stores fill the old neighborhood. Basquiat’s paintings sell for tens of millions (he died in 1988; Harry and Stein sold their painting of his long ago). Blondie was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

And, just a few weeks ago, that landmark album, “Parallel Lines,” was enshrined in the National Recording Registry at the Library, cementing the band’s legacy as a key part of American pop culture in the last years of the 20th century.

“‘Heart of Glass’ was the turning point,” Stein said. The song, finally released as a single in early 1979, was a megahit, particularly in the U.K.

But what set that album apart? The band had been performing for years, after all, with different versions of “Glass” in their live sets long before it was recorded.

In their interview with the Library, Stein and Harry broke it down into several key parts.

First, the group was paired for the first time with veteran producer Mike Chapman.

Chapman, an Australian native, achieved phenomenal success as a producer and songwriter in Britain in the mid-1970s. He had far more experience than anyone in the band and a sharp ear for radio singles.

Not only did he produce “Parallel Lines,” but in 1978 and 1979, he also produced the Knack’s No. 1 album “Get the Knack” (and it’s No 1 hit, “My Sharona,”) and co-wrote and produced Exile’s No. 1 hit “Kiss You All Over.” He co-wrote “The Best” and “Better Be Good to Me,” huge hits for Tina Turner, and “Love Is a Battlefield,” a No. 1 hit for Pat Benatar. He also produced Blondie’s run of hits in the 1980s.

So in a New York recording studio in the summer of 1978, he took charge. He didn’t have them play together as they had recorded in the past, but had them play individually (often after intense rehearsals), then stacked the tracks on top of another. It built a bigger, punchier sound and made the group much more “precise,” Harry said. Stein and Harry wrote most of the songs, and Chapman confidently tightened up the production, making the album sound like a unified set.

Disco was king at the time — the charts were dominated that year by the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack  — but there was a new, post-punk sound taking shape, too. The Cars debut album came out a couple of months before “Parallel,” with hits like “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl.” (That album was also inducted into the NRR this year.)

“Parallel Lines” fit this new mold perfectly, with the disco-inflected “Heart” finding the sweet spot. Released as a single early in 1979, it became one of the year’s 20 biggest selling singles.

Then there was that iconic album cover.

Broad black and white stripes filled the backdrop. The band’s five male members, all laughing or smiling, wore black suits and ties with white shirts. Harry, the lone woman, stood in the middle in a white dress, a scowl on her face and hands on her hips. It fit the attitude of the times perfectly — cool new wave, danceable pop. (The band hated the cover and weren’t aware it was going to be used. “We wanted to look like brooding rock stars,” Stein said.)

If the band didn’t like the look of the album, the executives at Chrysalis Records weren’t thrilled with how it sounded.

“They didn’t hear any hits,” Harry said.

Despite the drama, the album went No. 1 in the U.K. with three Top 10 hits. It peaked at No. 6 in the U.S. “Glass” was omnipresent on the radio and in clubs. It launched the band on a four-year run of hit records and concert tours that would ultimately land them in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The cover, meanwhile, became instantly identifiable with the band. It still shows up as a pop culture meme, with casts of TV shows or other groups donning the suits, poses and backdrop.

The band had later hits such as “Call Me,” from the soundtrack of “American Gigolo,” and the No. 1 hits, “The Tide Is High” and “Rapture, but they broke up in 1982.

Most members pursued other music ventures, while Harry branched out as an actress, often starring in offbeat films such as John Waters “Hairspray” (now in the National Film Registry) and David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome.” (She’s continued film work ever since.)

The band reunited in the 1990s, and with drummer Clem Burke as a stalwart, Harry and Stein have kept the band going. Their most recent album, “Pollinator,” in 2017, showed them to be precise as they had been in the late ’70s with danceable tracks such as “Long Time” and “Already Naked.” They’re now on a summer-long tour that will carry them to Europe and back to the States.

Harry and Stein both say that Blondie’s existence has always been more about pushing artistic boundaries than just the pursuit of hits. Stein says that while the band achieved a spot in history, it’s not quite like they dominated the charts, the Grammys or arena-sized concert venues. They do some mass market business, but they’re not a mass market band.

“The old problems of art and commerce are sometimes very restrictive,” Harry said, “and I think that we, somehow being a bit of a fringe element, got to do some things that were groundbreaking.”

“We’re still big in CVS,” Stein joked. ” ‘Tide Is High’ is on almost every time I go in there.”

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Comments

  1. I’ve been a fan got years and simply love the band. I saw them in upstate New York a few years ago, a surprise trip from my wife. Priceless!!! Thank you for the many years of just BEING YOU!!!

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