Blondie – Parallel Lines – Our Four Plus Shootout Winner from 2016

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame.

Can this kind of music get any better? This album is a MASTERPIECE of Pure Pop, ranking right up there with The Cars first album. I can’t think of many albums from the era with the perfect blend of writing, production and musicianship Blondie achieved with Parallel Lines.

As expected, if you clean and play enough copies of a standard domestic major label album like this one, sooner or later you will stumble upon The One, and boy did we ever. This side two had OFF THE CHARTS with presence, breathy vocals, and punchy drums. It was positively swimming in studio ambience, with every instrument occupying its own space in the mix and surrounded by air. There was not a trace of grain, just the silky sweet highs we’ve come to expect from analog done right. 

And the band is ALIVE with enthusiasm for the catchy batch of tunes. This is the key. Permit me to steal a bit of commentary from our recent listing for Revolver about what we listen for first and foremost here at Better Records:

Life Is Grand

The band is on fire here. Right off the bat the electric guitar transients were just jumping out of the speakers in a way that no other copy managed to achieve. It had the LIFE that we prize so highly here at Better Records.

At the risk of being definitive about things that are better left ill-defined, I would say that the Number One quality we look for in a pressing is that element of Life or Energy. We can put up with many shortcomings, including even some tonality problems, but when a record fails to convey the spirit and enthusiasm of the musicians, it’s pretty much over.

MoFi Compressed Muck? Not On Your Life!

Gone is the compressed muck of the MOFI (and most domestic pressings, to be fair). In its place is the kind of clarity, transparency and pure ROCK AND ROLL POWER previous pressings only hinted at. I became a giant fan of this album the moment I heard it, but the sound always left much to be desired. So many copies were thick and compressed; the music was cookin’ but the sound seemed to be holding it back.

And like an idiot I’m sure I had traded my original domestic pressing in for the MOFI when it came out in the early ’80s, the kind of dumbass audiophile move I discuss in the commentary to the left entitled Audiophilia 101: What Kind of Fool Was I?.


Wikipedia notes that Michael Chapman relished the praise heaped on his work on Parallel Lines, commenting soon after its release:

There’s loads of hits, it’s a great album, but who gives a fuck. It’s easy, you see. When we go into the studio, we go in and make hit records, and it just happens. We don’t think about it. If you’re going to be in the music business, you gotta make hit records. If you can’t make hit records, you should fuck off and go chop meat somewhere.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Hanging on the Telephone 
One Way or Another 
Picture This 
Fade Away and Radiate 
Pretty Baby 
I Know But I Don’t Know

Side Two

11:59
Will Anything Happen? 
Sunday Girl 
Heart of Glass 
Gonna Love You Too 
Just Go Away

AMG 5 Star Rave Review

Blondie turned to British pop producer Mike Chapman for their third album, on which they abandoned any pretensions to new wave legitimacy (just in time, given the decline of the new wave) and emerged as a pure pop band. But it wasn’t just Chapman that made Parallel Lines Blondie’s best album; it was the band’s own songwriting, including Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, and James Destri’s “Picture This,” and Harry and Stein’s “Heart of Glass,” and Harry and new bass player Nigel Harrison’s “One Way or Another,” plus two contributions from nonbandmember Jack Lee, “Will Anything Happen?” and “Hanging on the Telephone.”

That was enough to give Blondie a number one on both sides of the Atlantic with “Heart of Glass” and three more U.K. hits, but what impresses is the album’s depth and consistency — album tracks like “Fade Away and Radiate” and “Just Go Away” are as impressive as the songs pulled for singles. The result is state-of-the-art pop/rock circa 1978, with Harry’s tough-girl glamour setting the pattern that would be exploited over the next decade by a host of successors led by Madonna.

Music and Lyrics

Music critic Robert Christgau called Parallel Lines a pop rock album in which Blondie achieved their “synthesis of the Dixie Cups and the Electric Prunes”. According to Allmusic’s William Ruhlmann, the album’s “state-of-the-art pop/rock circa 1978” showed Blondie deviating from new wave and emerging as “a pure pop band.” Music journalist Ken Tucker said that they eschewed the “brooding artiness” of their previous albums for more hooks and pop-oriented songs.

Mike Chapman remarked on its music at the time: “I didn’t make a punk album or a New Wave album with Blondie. I made a pop album.” The album’s eleven pop songs have refined melodics, and its sole disco song “Heart of Glass” has jittery keyboards, rustling cymbals by drummer Clem Burke, and a circular rhythm. Burke credited Kraftwerk and the soundtrack to the film Saturday Night Fever as influences for the song and said that he was “trying to get that groove that the drummer for the Bee Gees had”.

According to Rolling Stone magazine’s Arion Berger, Parallel Lines eschewed “cartoonish postmodernist referencing” of Blondie’s previous new wave songs for a “romantic fatalism” that was new for the band.

“Sunday Girl” deals with the theme of teen loneliness, while “Fade Away and Radiate” is about falling in love with dead movie stars. On the latter song, Debbie Harry, who daydreamed as a child that Marilyn Monroe was her birth mother, compares a flickering image onscreen to the light of a dying sun. Music critic Rob Sheffield said that the lyric “dusty frames that still arrive / die in 1955” is the “best lyric in any rock’n’roll song, ever, and it’s still the ultimate statement of a band that always found some pleasure worth exploiting in the flashy and the temporary.”

Reception

In a retrospective review for Blender magazine, Robert Christgau said that Parallel Lines was “a perfect album in 1978” and remains so with “every song memorable, distinct, well-shaped and over before you get antsy. Never again did singer Deborah Harry, mastermind Chris Stein and their able four-man cohort nail the band’s signature paradoxes with such unfailing flair: lowbrow class, tender sarcasm, pop rock.”

Q magazine called the album “a crossover smash with sparkling guitar sounds, terrific hooks and middle-eights more memorable than some groups’ choruses.” Christian John Wikane of PopMatters called it “a creative and commercial masterpiece by Blondie” and “indisputably one of the great, classic albums of the rock and roll era.”

Sasha Frere-Jones, writing in Spin, said that it may have been “the perfect pop-rock record”. Pitchfork Media’s Scott Plagenhoef credited the album for popularizing “the look and sound of 1980s new wave”.

Parallel Lines was ranked at number 140 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, number 18 on NME’s 100 Best Albums of All Time, and number 7 on Blender’s 100 Greatest American Albums of All Time. Rolling Stone wrote that the album was “where punk and New Wave broke through to a mass U.S. audience”. The album was also ranked at number 94 by Channel 4’s list of 100 greatest albums of all time.

Wikipedia

Audiophile Reissues

Gone is the compressed muck of the MoFi (and most domestic pressings, to be fair). In its place is the kind of clarity, transparency and pure ROCK AND ROLL POWER previous pressings only hinted at. I became a giant fan of this album the moment I heard it, but I always felt that the sound of my old original left something to be desired. So many copies are thick and compressed; the music wants to cook but the sound seems to be holding it back.

And like an idiot I’m sure I had traded my original domestic pressing in for the MoFi when it came out in the early ’80s, the kind of dumbass audiophile move I discuss in the commentary Audiophilia 101: What Kind of Fool Was I?

Audiophile Versions of This Album Suck

As previously noted, the MoFi, one of those Jack Hunt turgid muckfests (check out City to City #058 for the ultimate in murky MoFi sound), is incapable of conveying anything resembling the kind of clean, clear, oh-so-radio-friendly pop rock sound that Mike Chapman and the band were aiming for. The recording has copious amounts of Analog Richness and Fullness to start with. Adding more is not an improvement; in fact it’s positively ruinous.

EMI and Simply Vinyl both released Heavy Vinyl versions of the album with little sonic success. I remember being underwhelmed by the Simply Vinyl version, the perfect example of the smeary sub-gen sound you get when a record is made from a dub tape. The EMI 180 was brighter and thinner and every bit as wrong in its own way. Choosing among them would have been difficult.