We're on the other side of it now, the side where Blondie is jacked into greatest hits collections, the soundtrack to Coyote Ugly, displaced into stock timestamp, where Deborah Harry's sexuality is shelved in a jar of history, where Jimmy Destri's Kraftwerk inspired synthesizers, Chris Stein's rock guitar and Clem Burke's born-in-punk drums are treated less as an inspired great leap forward and more as another band that jumped the underground ship of solidarity for the golden halls of platinum sales. Doesn't make sense to me, either.
The place that bore Blondie forth--the New York art scene, back when it crossed over into music with a seamlessness now almost completely lost--wasn't one that had enough women like Deborah Harry, and while her persona would go on to contribute to the 80's shattering of the band, it did, for a time, do the trick of getting people to look again at a band that was little more than another underground punk trick at the time. In 1977, the shift began--first in the pages of Rolling Stone, and then in Australia--but it was Parallel Lines that changed their name forever. Jettisoning Richard Gottehrer in exchange for up-and-coming producer Mike Chapman, a man Deborah Harry would eventually call "dictator", the album went on to become the best-selling album of Blondie's career, a non-stop success in the late 70's that spawned six hit singles out of its twelve available tracks, an album that they were never to surpass. A somewhat cruel perfectionist, Chapman helped--or possibly, forcibily took--the sound of New York's punk new wave and sanded it down to the tightest definition of the term, mixing in a poppy, disco sensibility that spoke to a global audience looking for something with the edge that rock brought while still possessing the innate "let's go and fuck somewhere" that disco was playfully hinting at. It couldn't have come at a better time--disco had its queens and kings, that's for sure--but what it didn't have was the sort of back-and-forth between masculine and feminine that Blondie exuded. Maturity was in short supply. There was a mountain of skinny, sexual boys decrying their broken hearts, androgynous nerds playing at instrumental epics, there were a thousand Van Halen cocks thrusting their way into pumping fists, and Bon Scott was somewhere in the back of it all, drinking himself to death and yelling at everybody about how much it hurt to get dumped. We had anger, yes, we had sadness, sure, and if it was fucking you were looking for?
Plenty of that as well.
What Harry and crew brought was something else entirely. They sealed the deal by crossing over from the hits of the past--hits like their former producer's "My Boyfriend's Back" girl power smile--and the sound of the late 70's. Disco bubbled through the shiny production values, giving us something to dance to, while punk gave us the sneering attitude that Deborah Harry exuded in a fashion--laconic, faux-sleazy and raw--that no male singer could pull off. Johnny Rotten could snarl, and the Ramones could yell, but none of them had her moan, her plain spoken challenge to the current status quo. She was sexier than anybody else at the time, and yet you could tell she didn't give a damn at all. On top of all that, she was scary as hell. While Cronenberg made it explicit in the 80's, nobody needed to see Videodrome to know that you never fucked Debbie Harry. Listen to "One Way or Another". Debbie fucks you.
When the idea for doing a countdown of 1978 first came up, the joke between Martin and I was that we'd spend the entire time trying to find albums we liked as much as This Year's Model, Van Halen, and Parallel Lines. As the weeks of compiling mp3 mixes and trading cd's wore on, the joke turned into a reality, and the text messages we sent each other took on an air of finality: there wasn't anything else like Parallel Lines, was there? That couldn't be right. It's too successful to be the considered the best of the year. It's too obvious. It was too pop-driven, its ambitions were too on-the-nose, it's an album that's been done a hundred times since. But the truth came down clean, and it didn't matter that there were no debates to be had. (Save those for Goblin versus Eno!) There might have been songs from Van Halen or AC/DC that rocked harder than "One Way Or Another", but nobody else had "Heart of Glass". Wire, Brian Eno and Steve Reich might have cornered the market on the years ambition, but none of them had a "Hanging on the Telephone" to call their own. Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen might have brought the masculine--but Deborah Harry's feminine chic was backed up by some skeevy punks as well. In other words, everything that we were looking at in 1978's music--the cross-over combination, the ambitious chase of the new sound, the legacy of actual, provable change--Parallel Lines had it all, and the reason why it was the obvious choice for "album of the year" was buried within that. It captured everything that the rest of the great albums of that year had, and if it sold 20 million copies as well--so what? Just because popularity shouldn't be used as an indication of quality doesn't mean that it automatically indicates shallowness, either. Sometimes the nail fits the hammer because it's the right fucking nail.
Going into 1978 with a mission for finding the gems that we've ignored was a fun way to spend some time. Learning the origins of dub, discovering the vagaries of Italian prog, dicking around at the dawning of the New Wave--but in the end, we came back to what we already knew in the first place.