Blondie’s Parallel Lines Turns 40: 8 Memorable Covers
Parallel Lines changed everything. Not instantly, but soon enough. When it came out in September ’78 (exactly 40 years ago yesterday), it cheesed off purists (Blondie went disco???) and earned just enough critical praise to stir interest (Christgau: “as close to God as pop-rock albums ever get”) without immediately pushing Blondie’s greatest album into the ranks of the revered — it reached a modest #25 on the ’78 Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, a few notches behind now-shrugged-at aging-warhorse albums like the Who’s Who Are You, Van Morrison’s Wavelength, and Bob Dylan’s Street Legal.
The charts, both in the States and (especially) Europe, had other ideas: First single and Buddy Holly cover “I’m Gonna Love You Too” was a #3 in Belgium, then their take on the Nerves’ power-pop nugget “Hanging On The Telephone” hit #5 in the UK, and then “Heart Of Glass” was a smash everywhere, at which point from there through the early ’80s Blondie might as well have been to Top Of The Pops as Charles Nelson Reilly was to Match Game. “I wanna be your number one,” went their 1980 cover of the Paragons’ “The Tide Is High,” and all of Great Britain went “you got it.”
Debbie Harry became the closest pop ever got to a cross between Ronnie Spector and Bette Davis, her writing partner Chris Stein joined her as one of rock’s great wise-asses, Chrysalis Records proved you could go platinum on an independent label, and the ’80s got the single most wide-ranging blueprint for what that hubristic decade would sound like at its best. If the Ramones-ian strain of punk was a bulwark against disco glamour and studio-pop gloss, Blondie’s “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, then beat ‘em” infiltration of the pop consciousness was on the Trojan horse side of things, re-normalizing three-and-a-half-minute hook-fests as a primary mode of rock songwriting at the same time they reinforced that just about any genre — girl-group R&B, breezy chanson, nervy synthpunk, and yeah, disco, too — had its place in a rock world that seemed hellbent on abandoning them.
I’ve had my say before on why Parallel Lines is Blondie’s best album, so here’s eight moments where other bands pay their own tributes to it — successful and otherwise.
The Associates, “Heart Of Glass” (1988)
Three years before their ’82 new-romantic cult classic Sulk earned them a rapt audience and Melody Maker Album Of The Tear honors, the Associates — originally consisting of multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine and singer Billy Mackenzie — debuted with a single that perfected the idea of cover version as publicity stunt: a minimalist but intensely belted DIY version of David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” released mere weeks after the original hit the UK Top 10, but without copyright permission or any other wait for a potential co-sign. Instead of getting sued, they got signed, and the rest is history — potential-laden, burnout-damaged, eventually tragic history.
The big what-if of the Associates was always tied into the departure of Rankine from the band and Mackenzie’s reluctance to tour, both of which sabotaged their futures right when they were primed to use Sulk as a launching pad for next-big-thingdom. But the fact is that Mackenzie never quite got that spark back, no matter how deeply he was able to display all his singular talents. Having a Roy Orbison-goes-Scott Walker voice that made Morrissey sound as expressive as Cake’s John McCrea wasn’t enough to overcome often-anemic production. This “Heart Of Glass” cover comes damn close, though — sure, the production sounds like Public Domain New Order, and those soggy drum machines and synth-calliopes in the famous three-four-time bridge do Jimmy Destri and Clem Burke dirty, but the shift from Deborah Harry’s feigned c’est la vie dismissal layered over a carefully elided, gradually admitted bitterness to Mackenzie’s open-wound glamorous misery is a neat trick.
Lush, “Sunday Girl” (1994)
Shoegaze greats perform the French version of the sneakiest pop pleasure on Parallel Lines: I’m tempted to leave it at that and hope that it’s recognized as the enthusiastic endorsement I mean it to be. A highlight of a bootleg recording from an 8/28/94 session for French radio, Lush’s take on “Sunday Girl” is melodically and spiritually faithful to the original (and by “the original” I mean Blondie’s actual French version), with the same sense of paradoxically cheerful longing and upbeat catchiness.
Singer Miki Berenyi admitted during Lush’s reunion that she’d been “completely obsessed” with Blondie since she was 11 — superficially because of Debbie Harry’s sense of style, but more pointedly because of her cool-yet-playful demeanor as a singer and her role as one of the key songwriters in a team responsible for some of new wave’s cleverest lyrics. (Berenyi: “Anyone who manages to rhyme ‘restaurant’ with ‘debutante’ deserves credit in my book.”) No wonder Berenyi inhabits that melody so well, balancing that carefree melody and its wistful undertones no matter how loud and reverb-y her guitar is. Not bad for a song inspired by a runaway cat.
Phenobarbidols, “11:59″ (2001)
The acerbically titled How Many Bands Does It Take To Screw Up A Blondie Tribute?, released in 2001 (the year of White Blood Cells) and graced with enthusiastic thank-you notes from Harry and Stein on the back cover, isn’t the most revolutionary idea: What if almost all of Blondie’s songs sounded really punk, but in a stylistically cramped garage-adherent way instead of a down-for-whatever “we’re not doing disco as a joke” way?
The end result is that just about everything sounds as riddled with seething energy as “11:59″ was, so this “11:59″ stands out as a high point — there’s not much to change, so there’s not much lost, and singer/guitarist Betsy Palmer actually gets Harry’s vocal nuances down near-perfect. Phenobarbidols had too good of a name to have as short of a discography as they did — one album, one EP, and a few compilation appearances, all on the Sympathy For The Record Industry label — but given this performance, maybe they burned bright enough to leave nothing but ashes behind them.
The Bad Plus, “Heart Of Glass” (2003)
Please welcome Gotcha Covered three-timers The Bad Plus, they of the omnipresent rock-classics-as-jazz-standards iconoclasty and one of the most surprising things to come out of Minneapolis since the Eric Milton no-hitter. You know the drill by now — pianist Ethan Iverson knocks around the familiar rhythmic emphasis of a pop song’s melody into a shiftily timed, off-kilter form with unexpected melodic tangents, while bassist Reid Anderson and drummer David King play as much to build a chaotic mood as they do to hold down a groove. This one’s so out-of-control manic, like the Bill Evans Trio trying to score a tornado, that when the band finally decides “OK, now we play it straightforward” across the last minute, it’s like getting to break the surface of the warmest, most turbulent yet comfortable ocean so you can breathe again.
British Electric Foundation (Feat. Kate Jackson), “Picture This” (2013)
The band that Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh formed once they jumped ship from Human League, British Electric Foundation eventually transmutated itself into Heaven 17 once Glenn Gregory got on board. The B.E.F. name was subsequently reserved for a (so far) three-volume series of special-guest cover songs, Music Of Quality And Distinction, the inaugural ’82 volume of which made a previous Gotcha Covered appearance a year back for its take on Glenn Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman.” Volume 2 didn’t arrive until 1991, by which time it was B.E.F.’s synthpop that felt more out-of-step than the classic pop and R&B songs they covered; it’s worth a listen anyways because Chaka Khan, Mavis Staples, and Tina Turner all make appearances and talk about your can’t-go-wrong singers right there.
It’s Volume 3, released all the way out in 2013, that really leans into the idea that synthpop is now as much of a legacy genre as the punk, new wave, soul, and pop covered on the album — and, given the album’s subtitle of Dark, does so from a perspective of giving all these songs a gloomier treatment to bring out the uneasy undercurrents of otherwise innocuous or upbeat songs. And it comes across best when former Long Blondes singer Kate Jackson helps transform one of the more understated, poppy tracks on Parallel Lines into an ambient-orchestral ballad that sounds as cold and fragile as thin ice.
She & Him, “Sunday Girl” (2013)
Check it out, Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward did a thing. She & Him (“Them” was already taken, name-wise) seem like the kind of music act that’s almost easy to make fun of until I listen to them, at which point I have to hang somewhere between “I guess actors who sing shouldn’t be that weird, even the one from that stupid Siri ad” and “hey this is actually pretty good.”
It’s just, you know, not Lush good, and it’s too faithful to the original to be all that fascinating. But if I’m being that judgmental I might as well just gripe about how Deschanel sings the bilingual Greatest Hits version of the song, and I’m thankfully past my “best-ofs are for poseurs” phase. Up next on my received music geek ideas chopping block, my “surprised that movie stars can also sing nearly as good as Debbie Harry” phase, which I probably should’ve ditched after Videodrome did a hell of a job proving the inverse.
Until The Ribbon Breaks, “One Way Or Another” (2014)
One of the most famous “uh actually this hooky good-times pop song is actually pretty unnerving” songs of the ’70s, “One Way Or Another” has lost more of its disconcerting pull than any song inspired by an actual real-life stalker ex-boyfriend really should. (Oh look, there’s One Direction covering it while mugging with David Cameron!) Even Harry herself was at least somewhat complicit in this when she performed it on The Muppet Show, though at least there you get the fun visual of her backed up by the all-felt version of Blondie.
But maybe the original works better for ironic thrills than a straight up slow-and-intense literalized version might, as Until The Ribbon Breaks were called on to do for the one-season CBS crime series Stalker (and man, is there something deeply miserable about the phrase “one-season CBS crime series”). This is the kind of song that people might call “sensual” if they were mostly just paying attention to the timbre of the thing and not wondering about the implications of inescapable obsession in the lyrics, but maybe those people are into that kind of thing, hopefully in a perfectly healthy way, and who am I to judge. I will say that making Blondie sound kind of like Massive Attack is a noble goal that should sound a lot more unsettling than this.
The 99 Call, “Fade Away And Radiate” (2015)
Clive Painter, the guitarist from the Real Tuesday Weld, Tram, and about 10 other musical acts, joined up with fellow Tram-ster/partner in slowcore Paul Anderson for the group the 99 Call, and they released a covers album that (a) they actually titled Cover Me and (b) took as an opportunity to do their own versions of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You,” bad news for those of us who remember Duran Duran’s lowest point. Neither of the 99 Call’s versions are nearly as cringeworthy, which is a fortunate though not exactly laudatory achievement.
But turning the most obvious choices for reflective moments from well-known artists into slowcore ballads isn’t especially revelatory — pretty, maybe, but a diversion at best, even when a deep cut like “Fade Away And Radiate” is involved: Blondie’s original was a masterpiece of smoldering minimalism carried for an entire nail-biting verse by Harry’s voice, as compelling being awestruck as she was coming across as flirtatious or tough, and then it cranked up the temperature and brought in Robert Fripp on guitar for his second-greatest guest appearance this side of “Heroes.” Not saying it can’t be done, but a good cover of this — one that either captures or subverts the James Dean cathode noir integral to the song — could do better than the vaguely pretty but mostly anonymous piano-and-guitar ambling that’s missing almost all of the TV-casualty haze the song calls for.