There’s a hair salon just round the corner from my house. It’s called Parallel Lines and the signage is black and white stripes with red script. I’ve never ventured in, but I like to imagine that Debbie Harry works there, in a kind of Stella Street scenario. Sometimes, she wears that binbag from the ‘Atomic’ video and coos ‘Oh, your hair is beautiful’ just like in the song. If I really run with the fantasy, she’s the mastermind behind Grace Jones’ buzz-cut (in my Stella Street script, Jones pulls the pints at the pub next door, and has her own line in filthily named cocktails). Most of the time though, Debbie just waits for customers, filing her nails insouciantly and pouting at herself in the mirror.
Back in reality, I suspect an iconic album has been hijacked for kudos. It says a lot about the status of Parallel Lines, thirty-three years after it was first released, that its imagery is still a byword for a certain kind of Manhattan cool. That cover! Debs in a virginal white dress, surrounded by her band of merry men in black suits and Converse sneakers. They look like they’re having so much bloody fun. God would I have loved to be a Blondie boy sauntering down the Bowery, my skinny tie flapping in the breeze and my head full of infectious new wave hooks. I’m getting the CBGBs just thinking about it.
Blondie blew in from the Lower East Side at a truly great time for pop music, and they made it even greater. The ‘new wave’ was a loose, contentious term – it meant anything from punk with a melodic punch to synth-pop or even what we would think of as ‘post-punk’ – but its domination of the charts in the late 1970s briefly made Top of the Pops the smartest show on the box. Many of my favourite acts from this period had a way with the knowing wink and the mis-mime, but the sheer joy of big tunes and loving arrangements limited any danger of becoming clever-clever. ‘Oliver’s Army’ is a good example; Elvis Costello can spit and politick and cock his glasses at a professorial angle all he likes, but nothing dims that gleeful piano, a sincere homage to ‘Dancing Queen’ banging out in the taproom of the Bull and Bush.
That record is from 1979, perhaps the most astonishing year in the history of the British pop charts. Look at the Top 75 from this week thirty-two years ago, and marvel at Chic’s ‘Good Times’ brushing past Public Image Ltd’s ‘Death Disco’: utterly, diametrically opposed, and both complete game-changers. Then consider Blondie’s ‘Heart of glass’, one of the year’s many great chart-toppers. Their hipper fans saw it as a cynical dancefloor cash-in, but most now think of it as the band’s defining statement. Punk and disco, the two great influences on late seventies Anglo-American pop, are mixed to perfection: it’s a true martini moment. It also pretty much invented the 1980s, and all subsequent revivals. Moroderish sequencers, a creamy female vocal, a camera-literate image; ‘love’s true bluish light’ was, more accurately, a blueprint. Back on Stella Street, Debbie’s doing Kim Wilde’s highlights for her. Alison Goldfrapp’s booked in for later. Karen O even popped in for a quick demi-wave a couple of years ago.
‘Heart of glass’ was recorded in NYC and the video sees the band larking around in Studio 54, but Blondie’s sound is actually as European as it is American. Their producer, Mike Chapman, was a veteran Brit used to churning out hits for second-rate glam rockers (he was the man behind ‘Tiger Feet’, ‘Blockbuster’ and ‘Living next door to Alice’, as well as, rather more strangely, Tina Turner’s ‘The Best’). I forgive him everything for Parallel Lines, though, and especially the impeccable suite of three that kicks off the first side. ‘Hanging on the telephone’, ‘One way or another’ and ‘Picture this’ are a little soap opera all on their own. They celebrate the urgency and frustration of desire, played out in subway stations, Laundromats and burger joints. From the moment that phone beeps, and Debbie announces she’s in the booth across the hall, we are thrust into a scenario of longing and libido. The whole of ‘Hanging on the telephone’ is the sound of that blood rush when you realise the guy or girl you’re obsessed with might actually answer your call. By the end, Debbie can only yell ‘hang up and run to me’, over Clem Burke’s frenetic tom fills. We presume he leaves her hanging, because ‘One way or another’ tries a different approach. It’s a fantasy of abduction; Debbie intends to kidnap the object of her desire in a supermarket, and the mock-sirens towards the end suggest she’ll have some explaining to do, possibly down at the station.
All this overheating raises the blood pressure, and that’s when Debbie decides to change tack yet again and see if she can croon her way to glory. ‘Picture This’ has a vocal to do time for: honey in the verses, grit in the choruses. She’s still stalking, but she’s gone from being possessed to regaining her self-possession, by way of a coy mock-modesty. ‘All I want is a room with a view’, she sings, as if it were the smallest thing to ask for. She’ll even be generous, though her largesse is undercut by a tacit admission that she’s still obsessed: ‘I will give you my finest hour, / The one I spent watching you shower’. That’s a killer couplet, but it is only outdone by the next one: ‘All I want is a photo in my wallet, / A small remembrance of something more solid’. Yet what she really wants is to burn her own image indelibly into this guy’s head. ‘Picture this – my telephone number’, she cries, and we’re back in that booth across the hall. Ah, the days before mobiles, when girls would huddle over the coin-ops on street corners, passersby momentarily catching a stream of mascara behind glass…
Though thoroughly New York, and thoroughly new wave, ‘Picture This’ eschews archness. Instead, it revels in mood swings. The key change from Debbie’s first ‘oh yeah’ at 1:38 is triumphant. She thinks her chorus, with its keening licks and gorgeous background harmonies, has done all the work, and her beau is coming back. The following instrumental cruises melodiously, but storm clouds gather around ten seconds later, the keyboard banking up ominously. Debbie shrugs her shoulders; nothing for it but to try another cooing verse, I guess.
‘Picture This’ was the lead single from Parallel Lines, and its least successful (though hardly a disaster, peaking at number 12). Nevertheless, Blondie performed it to perfection on Top of the Pops. Debbie points her box brownie at us, and suddenly the song becomes about her own image, and the level of control she has over it. The cameraman may be filming her, but she’s really behind the lens. Undoubtedly, Madonna was watching and taking notes. But quite apart from the cultural studies cleverness, there is something completely natural, inevitable about this performance, and the band behind it. As with so many groups of their era (The Clash, The Stranglers, Devo, Talking Heads), if Blondie hadn’t happened, somebody would have had to invent them. They were necessary, essential; a five-piece justification for pop itself. When I listen to their best songs, my spine tingles and my eyebrows rise; body and mind are on equal terms. I somehow doubt that a treatment in the Parallel Lines salon on the Iffley Road can ever match that.