Saturday 20 October 2012

BLONDIE: Parallel Lines


(#205: 17 February 1979, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Hanging On The Telephone/One Way Or Another/Picture This/Fade Away And Radiate/Pretty Baby/I Know But I Don’t Know/11:59/Will Anything Happen?/Sunday Girl/Heart Of Glass/I’m Gonna Love You Too/Just Go Away

If this were just any everyday music blog – for example, a blog about UK number one albums – you’d expect me to tell you that Parallel Lines was the second “punk” or should that be “New Wave” album to go to number one in Britain, at a time when it had really ceased to matter. Given that it entered our charts in late September 1978, and therefore took nearly five months to reach the top, it might be noted that the colossal success of “Heart Of Glass” as a single was the deciding factor in this happening. But that alone wouldn’t explain its omnipresence at birthday parties or on bedroom Dansettes, and nor do I think would it explain what a bi-focused album Parallel Lines is.


Then I remembered that on the inner sleeve of the original issue – not reproduced on the 2001 remastered CD edition – there were lyrics to a song called “Parallel Lines” which never seems to have had music written for it, let alone be recorded. And it spoke of “ships that pass in the night” and concluded that “it’s parallel lines that will never meet.” If, by “Evangeline’s stream – Evangeline’s dream” they meant the virgin Evangeline – the one about whom Nick Tosches imagines the dying Elvis to have nightmares about in the opening section of Hellfire - then one of the album’s premises becomes clear. That cover, too; it might look impressively and implacably postmodern to unwary eyes but closer up it looks as though they are all in prison, or cut and paste together. Most of the group stand and grin like Beatles, but Chris Stein gives a rueful half-grin, and Debbie Harry stands afront, scowling. It is as though only these two know “the truth.”

Equally this is an album which starts with a desperate Debbie pleading “Hang up and run to me” and ends with a harried Harry snarling “Go away and stay away!” – and her roars and growls are such that one performance is not quite distinct from the other – and it becomes obvious that the parallel lines that will never meet here are the wanting of somebody, and the aftermath of somebody. On half the record Harry craves love like the rest of us would crave oxygen, while on the other half she reflects with some aggressive sadness on what a letdown it was. There is never any in-between. The song that encapsulates the two approaches best is “One Way Or Another” where both meet; in its first half, Debbie is ardent, artful, wanting to get her man (“I’ll meet ya!”), while, jump-cutting to the second half, she has him and now wants rid of him (“I’ll lose ya!.../Lead you to the supermarket, check out some specials and rat food”). In each half her fervency sounds identical. Nowhere on the album is she ever unambiguously with someone else, except unhappily.

In his sleevenote to the 2001 CD edition, producer Mike Chapman comments on how initially insular and withdrawn Harry and Stein seemed when he came to visit them with a view to doing Parallel Lines. Having heard the songs and deciding that they were great, Chapman then confesses to being something of a hard taskmaster in the studio, pushing the band to play these songs better than they had ever played them before. The approach works, however many band members were pissed off at the time (Clem Burke might have been the reincarnation of Keith Moon, but there are times when four to the floor will suffice), since even on its lesser tracks (“I Know But I Don’t Know,” “11:59”) the band play with a commitment that could only have come from being pushed very hard. Although Burke is the only individual player (other than Harry) whom the listener really notices – and he is rewarded by having the album’s last word with his drum commentary at the end of “Just Go Away” – the band work as a tightly integrated unit, and there is a fervid energy that pulsates through the record; on their super-speedy cover of “I’m Gonna Love You Too” they almost convince you that Buddy Holly invented punk rock, and the ensemble performance on “Just Go Away” in particular is a titanic swell of joint crescendo-led light (including the band’s yelled, English-accented “Go aw-AY!”s). 

Jack Lee, once of The Nerves, wrote both “Hanging On The Telephone” and “Will Anything Happen?,” and both represent the kind of fusion of Count Five and the Shangri-La’s that you hoped might have come about with Blondie; the latter, in particular, is a sobering reflection on the former – hear the disappointed disquiet in Harry’s voice when it changes from hopeful to sober (“Will I see you again?/And if I do, will anything happen?”) which is worthy of that other professionally disappointed New Yorker Mary Weiss. “Sunday Girl” is the type of Blondie prototype pop that got adopted as a Commandment by the scores of predominantly Scottish (and mainly Glaswegian) indie groups which would appear from the mid-eighties onward – from the Shop Assistants to Camera Obscura – mainly because it is bright, peppy, mid-tempo and closer to girl groups than boy punk. But “Picture This” is not quite the glowing longing Harry’s performance might suggest; the chorus states semi-sardonically that “you’d be on the skids if it weren’t for your job at the garage” and the song concludes with a barked order: “Get a pocket computer/Try to do what ya used to do/Yeah.” In other words, the dream became an uncomfortable reality.

The album, like most albums, dips a little in the middle; Frank Infante’s “I Know But I Don’t Know” seems intent on being an Iggy Pop B-side (with very Pop-esque back-up vocals from Infante himself) while Jimmy Destri’s “11:59” is prototype apocalypse paranoia (“Today could be the end of me/It’s 11:59, and I want to stay alive”; Lena is right to comment that this is “a very Cold War album”). Neither is a great song but the band’s commitment and energy see them through relatively painlessly. “Pretty Baby,” written by Harry and Stein, raises the eyebrows with its references to a “petite ingénue” but the perspective here is more sorrowful than anything else; Harry, who lest we forget was thirty-three years old, with several lives behind her, when she made this record, seems to be reflecting on her own memories of the past, maybe thinking about the “teenage starlet” she herself could never be, with the song’s references to La Dolce Vita and “Incense And Peppermints” (the latter a US number one single when Harry was in the soft-rock psychedelic group Wind in the Willows). There is a moment where she sings “Ah, I, I should have known you’d look at me…and look away…oh” and the entire song pauses. That “oh” is one of the most touching things she’s ever done as a singer; behind it lie universes of premature disappointment.

That leaves, essentially, two songs, one of which was the group’s key to the kingdom; “Heart Of Glass,” that supreme marriage of drumkit muscle and Roland CR-78 mechanics (on the original 12”, though not here, Chapman finally allows Burke to cut loose at the end), of girl group past and peopleless future, their attempt to do a Moroder – a cover of “I Feel Love,” though never recorded, was a mainstay of Blondie’s stage act in 1978 – and a lament for the same misconception Freda Payne skirted around on “Band Of Gold” at the opposite end of the decade (“Soon turned out to be a pain in the ass”). If Harry sounds more detached than Payne ever did, it is detachment borne of painful experience (she makes the throwaway “Mucho mistrust” sound like Gray’s Elegy). And yet, as elsewhere on this Chapman-produced record, there are the elements of rinky-dink Farfisa organ and sporty wordless backing vocals (the one on “Heart Of Glass” reminds me of Green Gartside). You feel that underneath the pavement of electronic disco resides the sandy grins of Racey (although another Chapman-produced act, they were even more up for “it” than Debbie; singer/keyboardist Richard Gower’s performance on both record and video of “Lay Your Love On Me” drips with the gurning despair of somebody who is clearly dying for “it”; he can’t keep still for a second) but the airy airlessness of “Heart Of Glass” makes it a natural descendent of Bowie’s Low (but would Bowie have put such an emphasis on the word “amusing” as Harry does?) and, like much of this album, appears to sum up what was best about the seventies while also preparing to take all of it into the eighties (the instrumental break on “Picture This” anticipates R.E.M.).

Finally, though not the last track on the album, is its most disquieting track; “Fade Away And Radiate.” Even at a time when the word “radiate” had far more sinister connotations than it would now, this remains an exceptional and disturbing piece of work, and an unexpected blood-sister to Walker’s “The Electrician” and direct precedent to Harry’s own performance in Videodrome (as well as less obvious successors like Royksopp’s “The Girl And The Robot”); Burke’s drums sound like the loudest heartbeat ever recorded, while Debbie – there she is, watching her Other (but not “watching you shower” as she does for an hour on “Picture This”) sit there, mindlessly watching television, until eventually, like the girl in Bowie’s “TVC15,” he becomes the television (“Beams become my dream/My dream is on the screen” – and the film critic David Thomson has reminded us that the word “screen” can have two meanings; to show something to us, or to hide something from us). The music is slow, jittery and mournful (even the bizarre closing voyage into cod-reggae cannot dispel the uneasiness) and meanwhile Robert Fripp’s guitar is like the poltergeist on the other side of the screen, trying its best to come through, to be heard, to be noticed (this in turn ties the record in with things like Daryl Hall’s Sacred Songs and Fripp’s own Exposure - both 1979, neither a record you would want to listen to in a dark not of your own making). “Dusty frames that sill arrive/Die in 1955,” sings a numbed Harry – the year James Dean died, but also the year when television made it into the majority of homes, as though these filaments are still transmitting pictures, thoughts and people from the time Harry was ten into a 1979 “now.” The lines merge into closedown, the lights go out, and they tell us something we knew all along.

”Please don’t push me aside.”

Back then, we asked nicely.