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The Song That Launched Blondie

Anatomy of a Song:  "Heart of Glass"

Up until 1978, Blondie was a punk band with a cult following and not much visibility in the U.S
beyond New York's lower East Side.  Eager for a hit album, Chrysalis, the band's label paired
Blondie with Michael Chapman, an inventive producer who had success recording other downtown
artists, including Suzi Quatro and Sweet.

  The result was "Parallel Lines," Blondie's third album, and the single "Heart of Glass.",  After the
song's release in early 1979, it became Blondie's first Billboard pop chart hit, climbing to No. 1 in
April 1979 ,helping to pave the way for synth-pop and electronic dance music (EDM.)    

  Mr. Chapman and the song;s co-writers - Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein - talked about
the hit's evolution, Donna Summer's influence and the struggle to adapt the high impact European
techno sound.

Chris Stein
  
When Debbie and I were living in our top-floor apartment at 48 W 17th St., I often messed  around
on a borrowed multitrack tape recorder.  It let me record a rhythm guitar track and then layer melody
and harmony lines on top.  I wrote and developed my songs this way.  In the summer of 1974, I wrote
a song and referenced the catchy feel of "Rock the Boat" by Hues Corporation, which was a big hit
then.  Debbie and I began calling it "The Disco Song."

Debbie Harry
  I used to keep a notebook to jot down lyrics and ideas that came to me.  On this one, Chris was
constantly experimenting with the song, and the lyrics just floated into my head.  The words I came up
with expressed a very high school kind of thing, of falling in and out of love and getting your feelings hurt.  But instead of dwelling on the pain, the words sort of
shrugged off the breakup, like, "Oh, well, that's the way it goes."

  Chris and I both came from an art background, and we were familiar with existentialism, surrealism, abstractionism and so on.  The feeling I wanted to get across
was, "Live and let live," like this is what happened and not its not happening, you know?  I threw in the "Ooo-ooo,ohhh-oh" fill when we started performing the song at
CBGB. It was a 1960's girl group thing.  Chris and I both loved R&B.

Chris Stein
  The Shangri-Las were a big influence on us.  When I was a kid, I didn't get it.  I thought they were commercial and weird.  All those soap opera scenarios they sang
about were strange.  But after Debbie and I started Blondie, i realized how fantastic and raw their music was and that their gang-related sensibilities were appealing.

Debbie Harry
  The whole Blondie thing was about a distinctive approach.  In the mid-70's, there weren't a lot of girls singing in a feminine way.  The music was gritty.  So we
combined punk rock with an R&B feel.  That's what gave us an identifiable sound and kept us going.  Soon, the kids who came to our shows began asking for "The
Disco Song."

Chris Stein
  
The hook was the verse, when I had the song's key pivot from major to minor on the same chord.  It was catchy.  But we always playing the song differently.  We tried
a calypso beat, a funk approach and others.  Nothing ever seemed  to work comfortably.  In 1975, we made a demo of the song that was pretty stripped down, calling
it "Once I Had a Love."  Then we forgot about it.

Debbie Harry
  In 1978, Terry Ellis, co-founder of Chrysalis, wanted MIke Chapman to produce our third album.  Terry was very excited about us making a really commercial, pop
record.  We had no problem with that, since we thought we were doing that already, you know?  This was just taking it to another level.  But we were neophytes and
didn't have any experience making an intense, tight-sounding radio record.

Mike Chapman
   I first met Chris and Debbie in New York at the Gramercy Park Hotel.  They played me tapes of new songs for the album.  The music was great, but I wanted a song
that could really pop.  I asked if they had anything else.  They said, "Well, we have this song, we call "The Disco Song."  When they played it, I thought it was quite
good, but the song wasn't 100% there yet.  At our first rehearsal for the album, all six members of the band were there.  To break the ice, I wanted to start with a song
that was most comfortable for them -"Once, I Had a Love."  It needed a new title.

Chris Stein
   
Originally Debbie's second line of the song was, "Soon, turned out, he was a pain in the ass."  Mike thought that might not play well on the radio, so he threw out the
phrase,"heart of glass," which everyone liked.  Debbie worked it in as "Soon turned out, had a heart of glass."  That's the title we used on the song.

Mike Chapman
   
I asked Debbie which singer she liked most in the music business.  She said, "Donna Summer," particularly on "I Feel Love."  I never expected that.  I said to her
and Chris, "Why don't we give song a Giorgio Moroder feel?"  Giorgio had produced  Donna's great albums.


    We went into New York's Record Plant in June 1978, but the sound I wanted turned out to be a Pandora's box of nightmares.  The first step was to get the tempo
right.  I had this Roland drum machine that I wanted to use in sync with Clem Burke's drums.  You hear the machine on the opening.  To provide Clem with a guide.  I
recorded the vocals in falsetto.  After we had the kick drum pounding, I changed the arrangement so it would skip a beat along the way, to give it a dance feel.  I had to
get the Roland to skip the beat at the same time.

    Then we recorded the rest of the drum parts individually - the high hat, the snare and the tom-tom.  The eight tracks of drums took a week, and synchronizing them
with the drum machine was the toughest part.  We only had a 24 track recorder, and we couldn't cut and paste like you can today. What I was asking Clem to do was
close to enslavement, and he was ready to kill me.  I also brought in two EMT 250's, the first digital reverb machine.  I discovered the EMT in Montreux, Switzerland, a
year earlier.  They gave the snare drum - and later, the vocal - more dimension and an electronic vibe.  

    Once we had the drum tracks, I turned to the bass.  With my vocal track standing in for Debbie, bassist, Nigel Harrison and I spent an entire day on it.  In the end,
we had the most amazing bass line.  Next came, Jimmy Destri on the keyboards.  We didn't have sequencers then, so we ended up recording three different parts
using a Roland SH-5 and a Minimoog, which we spent hours trying to figure out how to use.  When we had the rhythm-section track.  I turned to recording Debbie's
vocal on top.

    I cleared the studio so it was just Debbie in the middle of the room alone with her headset on and me in the control booth.  She sang three or four takes.  Her pitch
was beautiful and expressive, so you hear every aspect of her personality.  But after listening back, I thought we should overdub Debbie singing a background vocal in
places.  To illustrate what I wanted, I came in early the next day and had my engineer, Peter Coleman, record me singing the background.  When Debbie arrived, I
played it for her with her lead vocal.  She thought it sounded great and wanted me to leave it.  So I'm singing background on the record.

Debbie Harry
    Singing those takes was excruciating, especially the high notes.  I wasn't singing in falsetto - that was the soprano part of my voice.  Mike knew what he wanted, I
couldn't get away with a stinking thing.

Mike Chapman
    
The guitars were the last element.  Chris provided the ambient sounds, and Frankie Infante came in next to do the aggressive guitar parts.  Recording the song
took a little over a week, leaving us four weeks to finish the album.  Then came the editing process.  We must have made 30 - 40 edits for the final master.

Debbie Harry - the last word . .
    I think many people connect with the sense of loss or sadness that's underneath the song.  They also connect with the melody's descending scale, sort of and
"Ahhh, yeah,oh well," like a musical sigh.  A lot of people have things like that feeling in their lives.

    When we were recording, we all went to Studio 54 at night.  But the "Heart of Glass" video wasn't shot there.  It was shot in some club on the West Side with palm
trees.  I still have the gray one-strap Stephen Sprouse dress I wore in the video and the gray scarf.  The clear plastic shoes?  They melted somewhere along the way.

Take a trip back to the Big Apple in the gritty 70's as Blondie marries "Punk" to "Disco" with "Heart of Glass."

"Heart of Glass"





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Excerpted: The Wall Street Journal, Mike Myers