‘Long-overdue recognition’ – Parallel Lines by Kembrew McLeod
Parallel Lines, Blondie’s third album, opens with the noise of a phone ringing, and then a moment of silence, before Debbie Harry bursts in with a torrent of words: ‘I’minthephoneboothitstheoneacrossthehall’. Before Parallel Lines, Blondie were the runt on the New York punk scene, with one minor hit in Australia and a support slot with Iggy Pop to their name. Afterwards, they had sold more than 20 million records, Debbie Harry had become a genuine pop culture phenomenon, and they had smuggled rap, disco and gay culture references into their chart-topping singles. Kembrew McLeod’s contribution to the 33 1/3 series tells the story of Parallel Lines, and the band’s journey from outsiders to mainstream superstars.
Blondie were a product of a New York scene which coalesced in the mid-Seventies around venues like The Mercer Arts Centre, The Bowery and CBGBs. The movement, which ended up being labelled punk, bought together influences from Pop Art, the Off Off Broadway theatre scene, and pioneering bands like the New York Dolls, The Stooges, Velvet Underground and Jayne County, whose combined a garage rock sound with a trashy, gender-bending aesthetic. For all the ‘year zero’ sloganeering of punk, most of the bands had stumbled upon their sound while trying to be something else entirely. The Dolls were aiming for the Shangri-La’s, and The Ramones were inspired by the Bay City Rollers, but their unpolished playing and amphetamine-fuelled energy meant that they created something else entirely. After a couple of false starts, Blondie were the band who managed to combine the energy of the New York scene with the gloss of their pop influences.
In Kiss This (1997), the music journalist Gina Arnold looked at the impact of sudden massive fame on an underground genre – in this case, the scene around Gilman Street, whose alumni included Green Day and Rancid. Arnold describes a ‘holocaust of sorts on the Gilman Street scene of old in the form of a pride of A&R people on the prowl for fresh talent’ in the wake of Green Day’s massive success. This sparked tension in the underground community: one Green Day gig was picketed by ‘punks who passed out literature urging fans to boycott Green Day’s upcoming record,’ while influential fanzine Maximum Rock & Roll refused to cover them. Singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s response was to dismiss the ‘no sell out’ attitude as rich kid snobbery, but the band was clearly hurt, to the point where one protestor was ‘threatened with bodily harm’. Success bought with it significant levels of angst and self-doubt.
For Blondie, though, mainstream success was always part of the plan, and didn’t necessarily mean compromising their artistic instincts: ‘we would like to combine a certain degree of experimentation with mass appeal,’ Debbie Harry said prior to the recording of Parallel Lines. To this end, they worked with producer Mike Chapman, whose previous collaborators had included The Sweet and Mud. Chapman concentrated on turning the band into a tight musical unit, as he explained to Sight and Sound: ‘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. 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.'”
In The Manual: How to Have a Number One Hit the Easy Way, Bill Drummond of The KLF explained that a hit single had to tap into the aspirations of checkout girls in supermarkets, who were the demographic which could propel a record to the top of the charts. Blondie made their decision to open Parallel Lines with their cover of The Nerve’s song ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ when they saw their Australian tourbus driver tapping the wheel in time with the original.
Despite this polish, though, there’s still a subversive joy to Parallel Lines. Blondie were writing music to be enjoyed, rather than taken seriously, undercutting the pompousness of mainstream rock bands like ELP and Yes. At a time when Boston were printing ‘No Synthesizers Used’ badges on the front of their albums, Blondie were incorporating influences from disco, rap and European bands like Kraftwerk into their songs. Lyrically, Debbie Harry delivered dark and sexually-charged lines, channelling the character of ‘Blondie’, an androgynous/trans being inspired by Jayne County and experimental theatrical performers such as Jackie Curtis. The influence is particularly noticeable in Harry’s delivery of sexually-charged lyrics (‘I will give you my finest hour / the one I spent watching you shower’, from ‘Picture This’), or her subversion of the male stalker narrative in ‘One Way or Another’, which were closer to County’s strident ‘Fuck Me or Fuck Off’ than they were to the submissive roles played by the majority of contemporary mainstream female singers.
This fusion of styles bought controversy. Gay clubs had acted as incubators for the punk scene on both sides of the Atlantic, as John Lydon described in his autobiography No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs: ‘you could be yourself, nobody bothered you, nobody hit on you… the gay clubs always had the best records’. However, by 1979, a conservative backlash had emerged in the form of the ‘Disco sucks’ movement, which reached its apotheosis when the radio DJ Steve Dahl held a Disco Demolition Night at a Chicago Baseball ground, where disco records (and many more by other black musicians) were destroyed in a giant bonfire. The movement, depicted in Whit Stilman’s movie The Last Days of Disco, tapped into a latent seam of homophobia and racism within the mainstream rock world. By embracing rap and disco, Blondie made enemies of many within the New York scene, including the editors of Punk magazine.
It might be stretching it to argue, as McLeod does, that Parallel Lines ‘paved the way for everything from punk to disco to the gradual acceptance of gay and transgender life’, but its enormous success made it a Trojan horse for bringing black music and gay culture to the attention of mainstream American audiences. There is always an issue when non-musical experts write about music, and McLeod does concentrate much more on the cultural aspects of Blondie’s impact than about the music itself (the first half of the book is dedicated to Blondie’s early career and influences – there is far less discussion or analysis of the songs which make up Parallel Lines, or the way it was recorded), but the music sections do provide some insight into the album-making process alongside a fascinating overview of the milieu which spawned it.
Any Cop?: Nearly four decades on from its release, Parallel Lines still retains an energy and freshness, and it is easy to see how it helped to pave the way for current acts who blend pop, dance and rock influences to create their sounds. Kembrew Mcleod gives some long-overdue recognition for the ground-breaking quality of the work.
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- July 1, 2016 / 9:00 am