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Monday, 28 May 2012

Songs in the key of Griff: Heart of Glass

Ok, Heart of Glass by Blondie - what do you know about it? Well, presumably the obvious stuff; it was written by singer Deborah Harry and guitarist Chris Stein and featured on the band's third
studio album, the platinum-selling Parallel Lines, which was released near the end of 1978. Hugely popular at the time, and remaining the band's most popular and best-selling album, as well as being chock-full of hit singles, Parallel Lines has also garnered its fair share of critical plaudits. Heart of Glass was plucked from the album and released as a single in January 1979, topping the charts all over the world. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the song number 255 on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time

That's the official line on Heart of Glass, but it's not the one that I'm here to peddle. No, I would prefer instead to deal with the song, and its place in the Blondie canon, in my own idiosyncratic manner. So read on, and if the things I write are a little disparaging then do try to keep in mind that Blondie were, and still are, a band who hold a very dear place in my heart. For this is a 'songs in the key of Griff' piece with a difference; in some respects, I come to bury Heart of Glass, not to praise it.

Firstly, let's remind ourselves of the song. The version on the video below is the globe-straddling, chart-topping, mega-pop hit that you'll all be familiar with. However, I've chosen not to embed the famous Studio 54 video that is normally associated with the song but to go with a mimed performance from, what I believe is, a German pop TV show of the time. Have a look.

What did you think? Good song? Great song, maybe - or is something missing? The reason I wanted to use this video is that, in line with the theory I'll develop below, I believe it shows the band going through the motions in the most desultory fashion possible whilst their iconic lead singer, in a vain attempt to entertain, attempts a few woodenly choreographed moves, but mainly stands rooted to the spot, apparently overcome with ennui. Harsh, maybe, but look again, this just isn't a band enjoying itself and loving the music. This is a band, presumably in the middle of an expansive world tour, at the very top of the arc of pop fame, and who all look as though the very life is ebbing from them minute by minute. In my opinion, the video above demonstrates Blondie consumed by the big-label pop machine culture. So, why do I think this is? Let me explain.

First taking recognisable shape in 1975, Blondie grew out of the nascent New York punk scene with an idiosyncratic sound; one-part garage punk, one-part bubblegum pop, one-part New York, heroin chic art-rock, and one-part provided by the cynical, street-wise, squatter glamour of lead-singer Debbie Harry (pictured below).

Right from the band's inception, they experimented with mixing styles and genres in beguiling and unpredictable ways. In the early 70s, New York city was very much the crucible where disco music was formed; in 1974 New York City's WPIX-FM premiered the first disco radio show. But it wasn't on the airwaves that disco developed but, obviously, on the dance floors. In clubs favoured by the African American, Latino and gay communities, the sound was developed as a reaction against the po-faced, macho-posturing of rock music and the derogation of dance music by counterculture intellectuals during this period. Ever ones to experiment with new styles and forms, the band recorded a demo in 1975 of a song which utilised a scratchy, funky, rhythm guitar riff and a basic, slowed-down, disco beat. Never really firming the demo up into a completed song, the band referred to it simply as 'The Disco Song' and put it on the back-burner. Have a listen:

It's an odd little piece, don't you think, a real chimera. You feel as though the, unsteady on its feet, disco rhythm is going to fall apart at any minute and the lolloping reggae bass-line almost succeeds in unbalancing the whole thing. Debbie Harry, provides the vocal in her trademark early style, coming across like a wise-cracking, gum-chewing, New York waitress busting a cocky customer's ass; the line "soon turned out to be a pain in the ass" fitting perfectly with that persona. Yes, it's a not-quite-altogether, grubby piece of musical hybridisation, and I love it. This is a band capturing the moment, at the moment, and having fun doing so. Those of you who've played in bands will know the carefree, creative, doesn't really matter attitude that goes with this; it’s a feeling you can't fake and its why we call it PLAYING music; it's play, pure and simple.

The band went on to release their debut, and still their best, album, the eponymous Blondie, in 1976 and followed this up with the patchy Plastic Letters in 1977. Around this time, the band had another stab at recording a demo of 'The Disco Song', by this time known as 'Once I Had A Love'.
Have a listen:

I like this. It's more recognisably in the pop-rock style of Blondie at the period. The woozy bass line has been replaced by something more solid and Debbie's tough and brassy vocal complements the rough and rugged instrumentation. I find this version very evocative, it has the muffled, grimy, unpolished spirit of a live performance; it sounds like the sort of thing that's vigorously making the venue pound whilst you're in a cubicle in the toilets doing something illegal.

So, what happened next? Well next, the band then decided to record the song for the album, to be called Parallel Lines, which was to be produced by old-style, uber-pop producer Mike Chapman. How did Chapman, a man who had made his reputation churning out formulaic pop songs to provide a conveyer belt of hits for the likes of the Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Smokie and Mud, get teamed up with the unprofessional, art-school squalor style that Blondie represented, you may well wonder. Simple, at this time Blondie were gaining recognition as a punk/New Wave act in Australia and the UK. At home, in the US, however, they were still very much an underground band. Terry Ellis, the English co-founder of Chrysalis music, wanted to assign a producer who could virtually guarantee that the material Blondie brought to the summer 1978 sessions evolved into hit material; and he believed that man was his compatriot Chapman.

Chapman says, of his recruitment:

"I wasn't being used as a songwriter, but as a song manipulator and song construction consultant/technician. There was a lot of stuff that needed to be put together, because as loose as the band was, their songs were even looser." 

The band was, says Chapman:
"Musically the worst band I ever worked with."

So how did producer and band regard one another in the studio? Chapman says of the time:

"The Blondies were tough in the studio, real tough. None of them liked each other, except Chris and Debbie, and there was so much animosity. They were really, really juvenile in their approach to life
— a classic New York underground rock band — and they didn't give a fuck about anything. They just wanted to have fun and didn't want to work too hard getting it."

Regarding his own attitude:

"By then the only writing responsibilities I had were to come up with a hit or two each year for both Suzi Quatro and Smokie, and those were easy gigs because they were nice people to work with. There was no suffering on those sessions. Blondie, on the other hand, was all about suffering."

"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'."
"My relationship with Blondie was very interesting. As I’ve said, I was a perfectionist in the studio, and it was extremely hard for Debbie and the guys to accept my authority. I expected greatness from them and I got it. I had no choice but to use the whip to get those performances and make all those hits. Poor Debbie! She really didn’t know what hit her at first."

And what were his views on 'Once I Had A Love (the disco song)’?

" 'Heart Of Glass', on the other hand, was called 'Once I Had A Love' and they had it in a lot of different versions, but it wasn't right in any form. After they'd played me the covers, as well as some of their sketchy song ideas, I decided the first thing we should work on was 'Once I Had A Love’, I thought that track was the one that probably needed the most attention, because even though it was complete, it was wrong, and I knew that if we could get it right it might be a big hit. So there we were on the first day of rehearsals, in some little hole-in-the-wall on the Lower East Side, and all of the band members were being very, very cautious about having a new producer. This was not their idea, they would have gone back to Richard Gottehrer. And although they knew who I was and what I'd accomplished, they didn't quite understand what was going to happen. Neither did I."


"At the first rehearsal we worked on "Heart of Glass." This proved to be a blessing and a huge step forward in cementing our working relationship. It was a great idea that needed to be put into the right shape to find a home on American radio play lists."

"When we were rehearsing Heart of Glass, the song was a little different from the way it ended up.
It was sort of reggae-punk. I was worried that the reggae ingredient might lessen its potential in the US, so I discussed changing the vibe on the very first day. Debbie and Chris really liked the vibe that Georgio Moroder had with Donna Summer, so we decided to give it a bit of that and it sort of snowballed from there."

So, in an attempt to make a commercially viable pop hit, Chapman takes the song and basically remodels it into a clone of Donna Summer's 1977 disco smash hit 'I Feel Love'. Here's how that sounded:

Hear the similarities? Compare especially the vocals. As I've outlined above, one of the defining aspects of the Blondie sound is Harry's brassy, rock-pop singing style. Chapman, however, opts instead to ask her to modify it and then smooth it out with a sleek double-tracked vocal behind a single-track to produce a high-pitched cooing which sounds like Harry doing a karaoke version of Summer, and removes virtually all trace of emotion.
On top of that, for this track, Chapman changed the entire way that Blondie, a live rock band, recorded. The entire production of Heart of Glass was built around the use of a Roland CR-78 Drum Machine. This, for a band that included the drumming phenomenon that is Clem Burke! To add insult to injury, when it came to record the real drums, Chapman insisted on recording them one piece at a time; the kick drum first, then a hi-hat after that, followed by a snare etc etc.

Chapman recalls:

"Clem didn't want to do it this way at all, and he was very, very moody, but Debbie and Chris were running the show and they said, 'Just do it.' He hated it, and he probably still does, but at the end of that first day we had a great drum track and we all knew it."

Apart from Clem, presumably.

Once the band had recorded their parts to Chapman's satisfaction he set about manipulating the song to his own ends and, admittedly, came up with a hit record bought by many millions of people. He then changed the song title, explaining;
"At the same time, we also changed the title. I said, 'You can't call it 'Once I Had A Love'. The hook line in there is 'heart of glass'. Let's call it 'Heart Of Glass'.

The final change to the song, as we were first introduced to it, was to deal with the issue of the use of the expression "pain in the ass" within the lyrics which, at the time, did not sit easily with the BBC in the UK. The radio edit changed it to "heart of glass" and a hit was born. Interestingly, in Australia, the song was banned altogether from the radio on account of its "strong language."

( Blondie singer Debbie Harry and keyboard player Jimmy Destri in the studio with Chapman - presumably they've just heard his take on 'Once I Had A Love')

Blondie's Chapman produced Parallel Lines became the perfect encapsulation of money-spinning, high-tech, 1978, pop-rock (all 38 glossy minutes of it), and became a ubiquitous feature in virtually every home in the UK. I own it, and I do like it, after a fashion, but, for me, it comes nowhere close to matching the surprising musical delights offered up by Blondie on their debut album. Why is that? Simply, it lacks soul. To a certain extent, it's the sound of a band ground down by the pop-machine and simply going through the motions; which brings us back to the video at the top of the article.
You see, I like my music raw, genuine and emotional, and no amount of industry awards or platinum records can alter the fact that, if music doesn't move me, then it can never mean anything to me. No doubt, Chapman has become a very rich man through the rewards from his career in music and, after working with Blondie, he continued to fashion hits, penning Simply the Best for Tina Turner and Love is a Battlefield for Pat Benatar.
Chapman/Blondie’s Heart of Glass continues to be enjoyed on dance floors around the world. But is it art? When you take a classic New York underground rock band and turn them into anodyne, radio friendly purveyors of hummable, but emotionless, pop hits what have you achieved? Money, yes; fame, yes;  the regard of others in the 'industry', yes. But like Blondie might have said in 1976 - so fucking what?

I hope you've enjoyed this little tale of how a song can evolve from being a fun, mess-about in the rehearsal room to a massive, multi-national hit. Finally, I'm probably not supposed to do this but you can download the demo version of 'The Disco Song' 'here' and the demo version of 'Once I Had A Love' 'here'.


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