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 Strokes’ “Is This It”

Album cover for The Strokes' "Is This It"

This week, I’ve been listening to The Strokes’ debut album “Is This It” from 2001. I kind of remember when this came out and I didn’t think much of it. In retrospect, I don’t know why I had no interest in The Strokes. Somewhere I must’ve picked up the wrong impression of them and wrote them off without actually hearing them. They are totally a type of band that I love and would’ve really been into in 2001 as well.

The very first day of my listening week, I pretty much fell in love immediately. Here’s a group of people the same age as me, their formative years took place during the grunge and britpop eras of the 90s. While certainly influenced by those styles, it’s clear that they particularly appreciate vintage New York City rock n roll. That’s stuff like The Velvet Underground, Television, and Patti Smith. The Strokes manage to be inspired by these greats while still producing their own sincere rock n roll without pastiche. Lead singer and principal songwriter Julian Casablancas told producer Gordon Raphael that he wanted his voice to sound “like your favorite blue jeans.” To me, this indicates that the Strokes romanticized the cool spirit 70s American rock rather than simply seeking to emulate their heroes. That makes all the difference.

The Modern Age

The second track “The Modern Age” opens with floor toms played on the downbeat and slightly-overdriven guitar giving quick syncopated chord strums on the up-beat. These are joined by bass that thrums on the tonic, and another guitar steadily beating out chords. This over-driven constant rhythmic accompaniment sounds somewhat like a dirtier Velvet Underground. The vocalist then sings the opening lines, up against the mic and in our face without reverb and dirtied up by a cheap amplifier and speaker.

While we can hear some natural room, the instruments on this album are notably dry. There’s not much, if any, additional reverb added. They’ve also mixed the drums in a more traditional rock way; that is the way drums were mixed before disco encouraged produces to bring the percussion to the front. Part of the joy of this album is that it frequently feels more like a great recording of a band rehearsing in the basement than a studio album. The band sound loose and authentic, like a band more concerned with playing than with getting a perfect take.

The lyrics are somewhat flippant nonsense with a quality of rock poetry. There’s a clear feeling and emotion that comes across in the words and delivery, but the specifics are vague even with the disjointed apparent details. The use of rhyme comes and goes where convenient, almost more for the attitude than a devotion to structure. The lines pull from the language of rock n roll and teenage New York sidewalks, not from books of poetry and literature. What’s more important is the emotion and attitude.

Oh, in the sun, sun having fun
It’s in my blood
I just can’t help it
Don’t want you here right now
Let me go, oh let me go

Last Nite

I believe that “Last Nite” was the Strokes’ biggest hit in the United States. It’s certainly the song I already knew before this week. I love it. It’s both knowing and adolescent, which so much great rock n roll can be.Like the above song, the lyrics hint at some mixed emotions, romanticized angst and indecisive confusion. But they also come across so vaguely affected that they can be nonsense that suits the sounds more than communicates anything specific.

The song opens with a single fuzzy electric guitar playing an octave chord at a continuous 1/8 note pattern. OK, so technically, we can’t call it a chord if it’s only two notes, and that’s probably especially true when they are the same note an octave apart. Eh well. The drums and two more electric overdriven guitars join in, the drums are dry and centered, the two guitars are panned hard left and right. The drums play a basic rock pattern, with a kick drum fill at the end of every second measure. The two new guitars play the same pattern, but this time adding a sus4, higher up on the neck. A bass then joins playing the same tonic note, then up to the third, and back to the tonic. This all adds up to a mechanically basic rock n roll sound, somewhere between the Velvet Underground and Stereolab.

When the vocals of the first verse, the two guitar panned to the left begins playing a riff that reminds me of something. It’s somewhat like the Bo Diddley, but I think it may actually be something else. I can’t place it. The guitar on the right, starts playing choppy syncopated chords. These two rhythms interact in a rather angular way with each other; This exciting interplay creates a unique stereo effect and strong movement. The bass provides some melodic movement to the accompaniment.

Julian’s energetically disinterested vocals maintain focus throughout the track. The melodies are pretty simple, but the rhythm and delivery more than provide interest. Again, they too are a little fuzzy, just pushing the equipment to the breaking point without getting into unpleasantness. They have a delightfully dirty gritty sound. With the lyrics, the rhymes are again present, but not in a literary poetic way. More as a casual product of the musical style:

Last night she said
Oh baby I feel so down
Oh it turn me off
When I feel left out
So I, I turned around
Oh maybe I don’t care no more
I know this for sure
I’m walking out that door