Blondie’s “Parallel Lines”

Album Cover for Blondie's Parallel Lines

This week, I’ve been listening to Blondie’s third album “Parallel Lines” from 1978. I remember this record being among my parents’ collection, though the only songs I heard were “One Way or Another” and “Heart of Glass.” Singer Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein founded Blondie in 1974, after working together as former members of pre-Punk band The Stilettos. A few years later, they released their debut album and the new-wave single “X-Offender.” Blondie came out of the NYC art-rock scene of the early 1970s to become an important part of the new wave movement of the late 70s/early 80s. In New York City, these were bands descended from the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, and Television. The new wave had many of the same influences as punk rock, but took a different stylistic approach.

Picture This

Blondie released the third track, “Picture This,” as a single in the UK where it hit the top 20 charts. Like much of the album, this great track beautifully combines early 1960s pop musicality with 1970s art-rock sound and a touch of punk attitude. Much of the Blondie sound comes from the use of non-distorted electric guitar with the recently invented chorus pedal, dry punchy drums, and rolling clean bass. Of course, Harry’s cool vocals front the band, truly making it Blondie.

The verses follow a I-IV pattern repeated three times, but then finish differently each time depending on what they are leading into. The first verse completes with an unusual V#-I, pulling into the second verse which ends with a more normal I-V, and then the third just continues a I chord. These are played with picked arpeggios on the chorus guitar in one channel. A clean electric guitar strums each chord once at the beginning of each bar and plays a leading arpeggio during third beat of each measure. The bass walks us up and down each bar from one chord to the next.

The choruses rise up to a IV-V-IV-V progression. This progression along with the intensified vocals and organ, give the chorus excitement through the tension of an unresolved progression begging for cadence. The IV-V-IV-V leads into a extended VI chord, which brings even more tension. The post-chorus then repeats II-VI-II-VI, which threatens to never resolve. Then the next verse starts off with the tonic chord again, returning to the more comfortable I-IV pattern. The song however, does NOT end with the tonic, but just drops the listener off the cliff on that post-chorus pattern.

The lyrics play with the sense of sight, focusing on words and metaphors involving viewing, watching, seeing, and picturing things. Most of the three-line verses follow either an AAA rhyme scheme, or an AAB rhyme with the last line ending with the word “you.” The first and third lines of each verse always begin with the same four words, usually, “All I want is…” except the second verse, which has “I will give you…” The first line makes a statement of either wanting or giving something, the second line gives further meaning to the first, then the third repeats the statement.

All I want is a room with a view
A sight worth seeing, a vision of you
All I want is a room with view
I will give you my finest hour
The one I spent watching you shower
I will give you my finest hour
All I want is a photo in my wallet
A small remembrance of something more solid
All I want is a picture of you

Fade Away and Radiate

On the fourth track, “Fade Away and Radiate,” Blondie delivers and haunting new-wave Television style epic. The slower tempo, beating tom drums that open the song, the soaring guitar effects, the restrained vocals, all lend to the sense of something bigger. There’s not really a chorus, though we do have a bridge and an up-beat coda. This lack of a chorus, in this case, adds to the sense of a warning or story-telling coming in phases.

In the verses, we have a i-IV-I-vi-ii-I-ii-I. Though the song is in a major key, each verse opens with the tonic in minor. It’s an odd choice that contributes to the eerie mood. The bridge stomps down through a ii-Isus2-ii-vi pattern, suggesting some sort of threatening opera. Then with the coda,the tempo gets picked up with reggae-inspired rhythm. This reminds me of how the Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground would sometimes end song with a Latin-inspired rhythm.

Heart of Glass

We certainly cannot ignore Blondie’s massive hit “Heart of Glass.” On this track, the band takes a decidedly disco turn. The band wrote the song in 1975 after hearing the Hues Corporation’s song “Rock the Boat.” Blondie recorded a version under the title “Once I Had a Love,” but were not quite happy with it. They had long referred to it as “The Disco Song” and on the album “Parallel Lines,” they decided to perform it in the disco style.

I don’t know what discussions they had about this, but the decision is a bigger one than might seem today. Blondie were considered part of the NYC punk rock scene, despite their already cleaner sound. To many punks, punk rock music represented a sincere pure-attitude return to rock ‘n’ roll, rejecting what they perceived as soulless nature of disco and corporate rock. For Blondie, a member of the punk family, to record a pop radio friendly disco song struck many as betrayal. Let’s not forget that Harry and Stein were once in a band performing a song called “Anti-Disco.”

So, what makes this song “disco”? Let’s start with the clear four-on-the-floor drum pattern. This means the kick drum hits on every beat, the snare drum hits on every third and fourth beat, the hit-hat strings the beat together hitting on every eight note, opening on the upbeat. The clean bass provides syncopated rhythms, bopping along with octave hops. We have string-like organs lines providing swirling pads. Soften male vocals provide “la la la” backing vocal. Harry delivers ‘ooo-ah’ vocals that soar like Donna Summer. The clean electric guitar shuffles through funk strumming patterns. It’s bright, clean, poppy, it encourages dancing in colorful clubs.

The verses repeat a I-vi chord progression. This breaks from punks conservatively I-IV-V based patterns. The chorus breaks away from I-vi to follow a IV-IV-I-I-IV-II-V-I pattern. Interestingly, the chorus is NOT where we find either titles of the song, those appear in the verses. The chorus has an AABB rhyme scheme. Within the lines, there some use of assonance that ties them together: “between/pleasing/peace/teasing”, “find/fine”, “confusing/losing”, “just/good.” These are well-crafted lyrics for sound.

In between what I find is pleasing and I’m feeling fine
Love is so confusing, there’s no peace of mind
If I fear I’m losing you
It’s just no good, you teasing like you do

Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light”

Talking Heads Remain in Light album cover.

I’ve been listening to the Talking Heads’ fourth album “Remain in Light” from 1980. I first loved the video for “Once in Lifetime” as child seeing it on Mtv. My love and of the song and video have continued ever since. And also the amazing performance of the song in the concert film “Stop Making Sense.” Somehow I managed to never really hear the rest of this album. I looked forward to this week of getting to know the rest of the album. I heard most of these tracks for the first time, which was exciting.

Unfortunately, I lied when I said it was exciting. With the first listen, I kind of liked this album. After seven days, I didn’t care for it much at all. Overall, I was glad that the week was over. The Talking Heads and crew do some innovative things here, but I fail to find the results interesting enough; there’s a lot of repetition without much variation, making the 4½ – 6 minute songs feel very long.

Born Under Punches

“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” kicks off the album with two percussion hits followed by Byrne’s exclamation “hah!” Immediately, we’re brought into a very textural layering of rhythms. Like Paul Simon some years later, Brian Eno and the Talking Heads were drawing influence from African rhythms. In contrast to Simon, they seem to be playing with possibilities encountered in African music rather than copying what they heard.

This song is full of layers of hand percussion and drum kits, looped and manipulated. Synth bleeps and bloops provide unique rhythm elements rather than pads and melodies. The bass comes and goes ,bouncing to signal openings of bars with sharp plucks providing off-beat movement.. clean electric guitar blips and chops hyperactively, adding to the fractal-like texture of the music. What’s happening musically is very fascinating, even if it wears thin in the listening.

While I talk below about chord progressions, the Talking Heads don’t overtly play chords in most of these songs. The individual instruments focus more rhythm and melodic riffing; yet they work together to form chords over bars, often strengthened by the bass and pad synths.

Listening Wind

Towards the end of the album “Listening Wind” provides a bit of a break from the frantic skittering rhythms of the album. As far as the chord progression, the song follows a basic i-VII. This fragile progression feels less like a chord progression and more like it sinks down to the VII and returns to the minor tonic. With the slow pace and rhythmic delay, the sound is of a slow and determined approach. This movement and emotion suits the lyrics about an African terrorist responding to Western imperialism.

Mojique sees his village from a nearby hill
Mojique thinks of days before Americans came
He sees the foreigners in growing numbers
He sees the foreigners in fancy houses
He thinks of days that he can still remember…now.
Mojique holds a package in his quivering hands
Mojique sends the package to the American man
Softly he glides along the streets and alleys
Up comes the wind that makes them run for cover
He feels the time is surely now or never…more.

The overall sound and use of synths in this song reminds me a lot of David Bowie’s album “Outside” from fifteen years later. Of cours, i love those marimba sounds, which are undoubtedly synthesizer here. Coincidentally, Brian Eno worked on that album as well. I like the undulating delay with echos of the filtered squelches and plucks drifting into the dreamy distance. The song creates a cloudy haze, as the main character responds to the listening wind, from without and within.

Once in a Lifetime

I’m not surprised that they chose “Once in a Lifetime” to promote as the single. With this track, they created the most approachable and enjoyable song. They made use of much of the same experimental techniques and rhythms, but within a more traditional song structure. There distinctive verses and choruses, with a bridge.

The verses follow an unusual chord progression of V-iii-V-iii. The bass emphasizes the change from one chord to the next, with two quick beats in on the first chord and then one on the new chord. The chorus then repeats V-I-iii-IV. This chord progression tricks us, because it never truly resolves; yet, it provides an undeniable forward movement.

Many of the lyrics on this album seem impenetrable nonsense. However, I suspect they are much like the lyrics here. Given enough time, we can fill them with meaning. For me, this song speaks of how time can progress on us when we’re not paying attention. By playing the game idly with obedient sleepwalking, we will wake one day not recognizing the life we’ve made for ourselves.

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?