From Utter Chaos To Sublime Pop

By Paul Rigg

Blondie’s third album, Parallel Lines (23 September 1978; Chrysalis Records), was a pop sensation that brought the band international success and sold over 20 million copies but, like a lot of classic albums, it was born out of almost total disorder.     

One key element of this chaos - and success - was producer Mike Chapman, who had been sought out to add greater pop sensibility to the band’s sound. Chapman brought with him a particular way of working that required technical discipline and, as he and the band entered New York’s Record Plant to record, he soon realised he had his work cut out with Debbie Harry’s mood swings, guitarist Chris Stein’s heavy dope smoking and the group’s general lack of enthusiasm to perfect the songs. Bassist Nigel Harrison reportedly became so frustrated with Chapman’s methodical approach that he threw one of his instruments at the producer during the recording process. They were ‘the worst band I ever worked with in terms of musical ability,’ Chapman said later.

Furthermore, the lyrics to several songs such as Sunday Girl and Picture This were often being written moments before they were due to be recorded and as the stress and tension escalated, Harry was often to be found sobbing in the toilets. Finally, upon hearing the album, the record company executives at Chrysalis Records told the band that they would have to scrub everything and start again.  

It was hardly an auspicious start, but Chapman was rightly convinced that the album contained a bunchful of hits and while many believed that the hugely charismatic figure Debbie Harry was Blondie, in fact many of the band contributed lyrics and quickly tightened up their act under Chapman’s guidance.

The opening four-tracks of the album - Hanging on the Telephone, One Way or Another, Picture This, and Fade Away and Radiate – impact the listener like the rat-tat-tat of a jammed open AK 47. The first, a Nerves’ cover song, is pure power rock, while One Way Or Another talks of female sexual determination and, like Picture This, contains some wonderful guitar licks. On the other hand, the band deliver a curve ball with the ballad-like
Fade Away and Radiate, featuring a Robert Fripp guitar riff that sends the track into another space. On the original 1979 Parallel Lines tour at Hammersmith Odeon Debbie Harry draped herself in a cloak full of reflective mirrors to sing this song, and put the entire audience into a near-hypnotic state by the unforgettable ‘double-whammy’ effect of her voice and image.


Chris Stein’s retro-pop number Sunday Girl, possibly played on his
favoured ’56 maple-neck Strat, provided another smash and perfectly sets up Heart of Glass, which was a reggae backed song before Chapman got his hands on it. The resulting disco version became the band’s first No. 1 in both the U.S. and the U.K., and charted all over the world.  

In sum, half the songs on Parallel Lines were so catchy that they became singles and helped transform the entire music scene, as punk moved into new wave. Debbie Harry became an international icon and the band again proved the maxim that great art often emerges from chaos and trauma.