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

The Wailers’ “Catch a Fire”

Cover of The Wailer's album "Catch a Fire"

This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Marley and the Wailers’ fifth album “Catch a Fire” from 1973. Caribbean music was only just starting to get noticed by the rest of world. This great album combined with an international tour, drove the band and reggae into world-wide fame.

The closest thing to reggae we listened to in my house growing up was Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue.” In my late teens, I actually gave some reggae a listen. I was intrigued by the heavy use of syncopation. Attempts to emulate the strumming patterns on guitar challenged me. It wouldn’t be until my mid-twenties that my girlfriend’s music collection gave me a decent introduction to the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers. I came to appreciate his music and stop simply associating it with hippies and stoners. This was real, passionate and sincere music with immediate socio-political concerns. There was more rebellion here than just some smoke.

Concrete Jungle

The Wailers open the album with “Concrete Jungle.” Marley sings about Moving from Jamaica to an American city to find the big city life to just as oppressive, only in a different way. While the song definitely reggae, there’s something about the sound and rhythms that also remind me of Stevie Wonder’s funk. This could be an intentional incorporation of the music of American cities, or perhaps just a cross-pollination of genres in the early 1970s.

The song follows a I-I-vi-IV chord progression for the verses and the chorus, with a I-IV pre-chorus. The rhythms are particularly interesting to me. The way guitar is used is one of the defining features of the genre. The guitar is firmly a member of the rhythm section. Short syncopated percussive claps of guitar chords emphasize the upbeat. A quick stroke of the pick hits these strings and they are immediately muted preventing the chords from ringing out. The Wailers will often use two electric guitars.. on that plays on the eight-note upbeat and the other adding an additional hop by playing an adjacent sixteenth note.

The bass guitar rests a lot more than we often hear in rock and pop music. There will be a deep bass note on the first beat of the measure, with a waking melodic groove until the third beat and then rest. While in most of the music I listen to will have the kick drum emphasize the first and third beat of each measure, that is not the case here. There is still often a snare or timbale on the second and fourth beat, but not always.

Stir It Up

Probably my favorite song on the album is the mellow “Stir It Up.” The Wailers released this song as a single in 1967. A cover of the song by Johnny Nash had found success internationally in 1972, leading to The Wailers joining him on an international tour. For this album, they re-recorded the track. The “Catch a Fire” version starts with an up-beat double-sixteenth chop pattern. A Moog synth provides a deliciously modulated pad that provides the memorable sound of the track.

The song follows a basic I-I-IV-V chord progression throughout. The muted electric guitar keeps the syncopated rhythm pattern. A Clavinet supports the guitar with its equally percussive chops. A percussive bass groove hits the first and second beat then rolls through rest of the bars rising. During the verses, the bass takes more rests, hitting that first beat still, providing a restrained lower end. And while all of this might seem like it’d be chaotic in description, its actually very smooth and relaxing.

Overall, I was disappointed when I started with this album, because I was hoping for songs like “Redemption Song.” Now, I see that that is from a much later album. However, after a week, many of these songs grew on me. They have strong melodies and accompaniment. There are hooks throughout that I found myself singing throughout the day when not listening to the album.

Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew”

Album cover for Bitches Brew

This week, I’ve been listening to Miles Davis’s double-album “Bitches Brew” from 1970. I spent time with Davis’s album “Kind of Blue” last year, which I enjoyed even if I wasn’t sure how to understand it. He once again challenges me in a different way, with this album. Here the band creates more of an other world through sound and rhythm. When I was in college studying fine art, I would often play this album in the painting studio. “Bitches Brew” providing an interesting, but unobtrusive, atmosphere that encouraged my own focus and creativity.

These are musical pieces without vocals that eschews techniques commonly used in music to make songs immediately digestible. There’s no hooks, clear melodies, or obviously repeated motifs for the listener to grab unto. That’s not to say that there’s no melody or motifs, or even hooks. They don’t come forward at once, but require time and repeated listening to reveal themselves. Just as these long (the title track is just over 26 minutes) pieces evolve within themselves, a feeling for them also evolves within the listener through repeated exposure.

Bitches Brew

This double LP opens with two very long tracks that took up a full side of a vinyl record. The 20 minutes track “Pharoah’s Dance” opens the album, while “Bitches Brew” fills the second side with a lengthy 26 minutes. Engineers like to keep the side of a record to 22 minutes or less, due to physical limitations of a 12 inch record. Above 22 minutes, the grooves have to get tighter, resulting in a gradual loss of sound quality. It’s also a long time to listen to a single piece of music.

Most of my listening to these albums happens in the car while driving, which means that I often did not hear these all in one sitting, but rather broken up into pieces. I do listen to these some at work in headphones, but that is less focused listening. That’s a shame, because this album really opens up in headphones.

On this album, we often hear two drummers and two bassists simultaneously playing. These pairs are panned hard left and hard right; With headphones, we can clearly hear the rhythms interweaving back and forth, supporting each other in creating complex textures. Two keyboardists at electric pianos also interact in the same way across the stereo field. I was overwhelmed at first by how much was going on where there’s typically a much more straight-forward simple foundation being laid out. Here that foundation is constantly evolving, undulating, and folding in on itself.

It allows for the players to come in and out of the basic down-beat and up-beat to perform complex rhythms knowing that their counterpart can support the beat until they come back. At times, the drums feel chaotic and then meld into a complex fabric bed, or an alien landscape, over which travels the electric guitar, trumpet and saxophone.

At the start of this the track “Bitches Brew,” the trumpet plays into a tempo-synced delay echo effect bouncing from right to left.Staccato blasts of trumpet echoed, creating an opening rhythm and atmosphere. Drums, electric piano and bass tumble out of these blasts, rolling and collapsing. This builds into the song that then takes us on a journey into the brew.

Spanish Key

The second LP opens with “Spanish Key,” which is a little more rocking than atmospheric, at least at first. The basses throb at a persistent galloping rhythm from the start. A brushed snare, shakers, and tambourine build up the rhythm, followed by loosed rolls across the toms. Sparse, mellow, short melodic motifs on the trumpet begin to evolve, growing into extended melodies. The electric piano quietly adds harmony. Saxophone grows, like a drone fading in and out. Three minutes into the track, rock-influenced lightly-overdriven electric guitar shuffles, scratches rhythms and scuttles. Occasionally that guitar hints at melody, bending notes and short blasts of solo riffs.

Just as these excursions flirt with flying into outer-space chaos, the instruments join into a simultaneous rhythmic cadence, then pause. A trumpet or bass may then continue on while the other instruments rest. The piece returns to Earth, momentarily. This cadence becomes motif of the song, repeated at the end of these phrases as a reminder where we are.

The tracks on this album make use of this technique often. There’s a motif: rhythmic, melodic, or both, that the band joins in to ground the piece before it loses the listener in chaos. This is followed by the band calming down for a moment, the drums and bass relax, but then the melodies and harmonies get folded, interpreted, transformed used as a basis for apparent improvisation. Then things evolve, rising in intensity, which often involves, pitch, tempo, texture, and rhythm. With multiple instruments doing this, they journey beyond and away from each other, while retaining some sense of interplay.

I don’t know if, or how, any influence from this album might show up in my own music, but I’ve definitely enjoyed getting an introductory experience with it. Miles Davis expands my feelings on what music can do, even when I don’t understand what he’s doing from a critical or technical standpoint.

The Smiths’ “The Queen is Dead”

This week, I’ve been listening to The Smiths’ 1986 album “The Queen is Dead” for what I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. I remember my introduction to this album well. It happened twenty-five years ago, when I was sixteen. I went to a rural school in Ohio. A new kid from Colorado lent me a mixtape to introduce me to music he was into. Between the tracks by groups like Fugazi and the Rollins Band, was a song got my attention. When I asked my friend about the song, he groaned. “My friend made that tape for me and put that song on their as a joke to annoy me.” I immediately fell in love with The Smiths. This week was neither an introduction, nor a revisit, as I’ve been listening to it ever since I first heard it.

The music mixed the old and the new; innovative but through a lens of nostalgia. Just the sound of it felt like warm sadness with lyrics unapologetically near maudlin. The lyrics were boldly melancholic, self-aware, sardonic, and sad. There was a touch of humor without comedy. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, but the atmosphere made it feel like a lost memory.

The song “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” was my introduction to the Smiths. It remains one of my favorite songs by any artist. The lyrics of this song show obvious influence from the New York Dolls’ “Lonely Planet Boy which is also one of my favorites.

Johnny Marr also borrowed a guitar riff from the Rolling Stones’ cover of “Hitch Hike” which was also copied by The Velvet Underground. Light reverb touches the light jangly multi-tracked strummed acoustic guitars creating the first layer of nostalgic atmosphere. The strumming is a standard rhythm guitar pattern. Mike Joyce, likewise, plays a standard and appropriate drum pattern without flourish. Andy Rourke’s bassline provides the only real melodic interest to the musical accompaniment. During the chorus, Marr plays the synth-string on an Emu Emulator with long high-notes with a few trills, again with a light reverb. Later, also is a flute line hauntingly, but playfully, played under a verse. All of these simple elements come together beautifully through layering and production.

While the instrumentation is simple, the chord progression itself is fairly unusual. The tonic chord barely gets used as one until the chorus, which is part of what let’s the chorus sounds as if it is an answer to some question not quite posed by the verses.

The title track “The Queen is Dead is a beautiful mess of organized chaos. A sample from the movie “The L-Shaped Room” starts the track. Then a tom drum loop pounds introducing the drive of the song. This is joined by the rest of the drums, which were recorded separately. A driving bassline supports the track.

Layers of rhythm guitar play V-V-V-V-V-V-VI# for most of the song, closing with a coda of V-VI#-I. At least, that’s how I hear the chord progression. I always feel a little uncertain when there’s a borrowed chord (the VI#), if I’m notating it correctly. A wild guitar with incredible feedback through a wah pedal enhances the sense of chaos and urgency. It also buries the less crazy rhythm guitars.

The opening verse makes clear the speaker’s opinion of English royalty. I’m not sure what exactly is meant by the “boar between arches” line. A search online lead me to plenty of discussions, but not real consensus. I particularly liked the idea that potential play on words with ‘boar’ and ‘bore’ and ‘arches’ with ‘archers’. I also saw mention that the arches were historically a symbol for royalty and that Richard III’s emblem was that of a boar. The Richard III bit seems more coincidence than meaningful to me. It’s also not certain if the speaker feels hemmed in, if the marshes are hemmed in, or if the Queen is hemmed in. Regardless, what we have here are biting comment on the Queen written much more poetically than usual pop and rock lyrics.

Farewell to this land’s cheerless marshes
Hemmed in like a boar between arches
Her very Lowness with a head in a sling
I’m truly sorry but it sounds like a wonderful thing

Near the middle of the album, “I Know It’s Over” possibly received the most plays throughout my twenties. This so slow jazzy blues number tells of loneliness and lost love. Even more so, what the speaker has lost is love, but the possibility of a love to another. “I know it’s over and it never really began, but in my heart it was so real.” Her pending marriage drives home the truth that he will never be loved. He bitterly warns the groom, “Loud, loutish lover, treat her kindly, though she needs you more than she loves you.” Though, it’s clear that he’s not speaking to the groom directly. All of these conversations are imagined from an empty room “as I climb into an empty bed.”

Musically the song rolls through the 50s chord progression (I-vi-IV-V) at a slow tempo starting at about 70 BPM and rising to about 76 BPM for the climactic coda. The drums are minimal through most of the track, focusing mostly on a jazz-inspired use of cymbals and tapping the rim. The electric guitars gently strum chords giving plenty of room for the vocals.

Of course, I could go on and on about one of my long-time favorite records.

Television’s “Marquee Moon”

This week, I’ve been discovering Television’s debut LP “Marquee Moon” from 1977. Somehow, this band has managed to escape my notice until now. It’s a shame it took this weekly project for me to learn about them. This album immediately became one of my favorites. Television played post-punk when punk rock was in its infancy.

Proto-punk generally favors shorter straight-forward songs with little-to-know instrumental sections; Television goes off into more complicated song structures that display some influence from The Who. A few moments would vaguely remind me of The Who’s 1973 album “Quadraphenia” which is also one of my favorites.

The album opens with “See No Evil” introducing the sound of the album. We have drums and electric bass guitar in the center. There are three guitar: one purely rhythm guitar in the left channel, a rhythm-lead in the right channel, and the solo lead in the center. The clean rhythm-lead guitar runs through a series of melodic picked riffs. I especially like the arpeggios in the chorus that continue even as the other instruments rhythmically pause. of New York City rock-n-roll lead vocals of Tom Verlaine grab the listeners attention much like those of New York contemporary Patti Smith. Television has a similar sound as Patti’s band on “Horses” and I love that raw dirty-clean guitar sound.

I love all of the songs on this album, which made it difficult to only choose a few to discuss. I’m skipping over the epic title track “Marquee Moon” mostly because it’d be so much to tackle. It’s the song that first made me think of “Quadraphenia” with the end of the song reminding me a lot of “Reign O’er Me.”

Guiding Light” really caught my attention. It stands out as being one of the slower songs, almost leaning towards a spiritual sound. The song starts with clean guitar arpeggios repeating a I-IV chord pattern. This is joined by bass and a piano beautifully accompanied by the echo of the room. The unusually long prechorus has two parts, the first in V-I chord progression and the second part II-IV. The chorus is a standard I-V progression, with the final I getting extra emphasis as a strong cadence. One thing I love about this song is the use of the natural room ambience and space between the instruments and notes. It’s a very natural sound.

The lyrics feature a nice mixture of poetic and straight-forward rock n roll. For example, I especially like the last two lines of the first verse of “Guiding Light”: “I hear the whispers I hear the shouts And though they never cry for help”. What does it mean? I’m not sure I could say. It’s not even really a complete sentence, but it feels. I saw the lyrics described as “impressionistic” and I’d say that’s correct, though I may be putting my own interpretation on what that person meant. You more feel the meaning of the lyrics than you could possibly getting out of them directly.

I fell in love with every song on this album. This one will get frequent listens from now on. I’m only disappointed it took me so long to actually hear it.