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Blondie: Once I Had a Love

Picture a transparent plastic sheet placed over an image on a light projector. A lecturer draws diagrams all over it in erasable marker in order to explain: This variable, when it meets a set condition, leads to that. “Heart of Glass” was similar experiment. Drawn out over several years, it culminated in a multi-platinum discovery that launched Blondie from the Bowery and into the annals.

“‘Heart of Glass’ was one of the first songs Blondie wrote, but it was years before we recorded it properly,” guitarist and co-writer Chris Stein said. “We’d tried it as a ballad, as reggae, but it never quite worked. At that point, it had no title. We just called it ‘The Disco Song.’” “The Disco Song” needed to be sung in falsetto by a punk singer, introduced to a Roland drum machine, written and rewritten by a neurotic, genre-omnivorous guitarist, and ultimately produced by an Australian perfectionist. The “Heart of Glass” experiment was more ambitious than the song’s inventors could have known.

In 1974, Stein brought a germ of a song to his then-girlfriend and bandmate, Blondie’s irreverent lead singer Debbie Harry. “When Debbie and I were living in our top-floor apartment at 48 West 17th Street, I often messed around on a borrowed multitrack tape recorder,” Stein told Marc Myers of The Wall Street Journal. “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.” One of those was “The Disco Song,” an attempt to crystallize the times in and around the Bowery and beyond. Stein continued: “In the summer of 1974, I wrote a song and referenced the catchy feel of ‘Rock the Boat’ by the Hues Corporation, which was a big hit then.”

Harry free-associated her lyrics upon hearing the proto “Heart of Glass.” “I was just walking around the house, we were on the Bowery by then,” Harry recalled. “[I was] riffing on Da da da da da! Dah-dah dah-dah. Seeing what flowed out.” The song became a constant presence in the couple’s home, even in their bedroom. “I remember Chris lying on the bed strumming those chords endlessly,” she added. “Sometimes I had to fight for space on the bed—it was me or the guitar—but after a while I got my own bed and made up the lyrics. That’s how we wrote the song.”

“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,” she continued. “But instead of dwelling on the pain, the words sort of shrugged off the breakup, like, ‘Oh, well, that’s the way it goes.’”

“Rhythmically, I was trying to mimic a dance song, like [Shirley & Co.’s] ‘Shame Shame Shame,’ drummer Clem Burke said. “I wasn't doing a basic quarter-note bottom on it; a quarter-note bass drum. I was moving the rhythm around a lot more.”

“The Disco Song,” as Blondie recorded it in June 1975, sounded more like floating than rocking. Its trailing, slowly meted melody is in no particular hurry to resolve its lines and move on. Produced by New York Rocker editor Alan Betrock in the basement of his mother’s Long Island home, the five song demo included Ellie Greenwich and Barry Mann’s “Out In The Streets” alongside originals “Platinum Blonde,” Puerto Rico,” Thin Line,” and “the Disco Song,” which also briefly traded under the name “Pain In The Ass.” This earliest version—while lacking the bite of “Heart of Glass” as we know it—illustrates the band had an idea of their destination, but lacked the requisite directions. “The hook was in the verse, when I had the song’s key pivot from major to minor on the same chord,” Stein said. “It was catchy. But we were always playing the song differently. Nothing ever seemed to work comfortably.”

By 1977, “The Disco Song,” now renamed “Once I Had A Love,” had been retired from the band’s set. Their two Richard Gotteher-produced albums for Larry Uttal’s Private Stock label had made waves overseas, but the band were relatively unknown on their home turf. A million dollar buy out of their contract found the band deeply in debt to their new label Chrysalis, and desperately in need of a hit.

The numerous prospective Blondie producers who had come to call may have had Big Names, but they hadn’t impressed the band. Phil Spector was a particularly mismatched candidate. “He was completely whacked,” Stein told Nick Hasted of Uncut. “At one point in a meeting he said, ‘Oh, you wanna listen to this.’ And he brought us into a music room and played what he was working on, Leonard Cohen—at such distorted volume it just sounded like, ‘WHA-A-A-AH!’ The record company guy nudged me and said: ‘Play your cards right, and you could sound like that, too.’” Though Blondie was open and generous with different iterations of how to sound, and whom to emulate, their position on Spector’s take was a solid no, thanks. They loved the idea of charting, but the Wall of Sound seemed more like something to crash into in a freak accident, than something to build and architect a career on.

For Blondie’s September 1977 run at Whiskey A Go Go in Los Angeles, Chrysalis dispatched producer du jour Mike Chapman to ascertain if the band had hit potential. Blondie had other ideas. “We were mocking ourselves,” Harry recalled. “There was political reference, there was morality. If there was a place to make fun of something, it was in there. We were dreadful and wonderful—reckless, and very energetic. It wasn’t like we were trying to be professional.”

“Terry was very excited about us making a really commercial pop record,” Harry said. “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.”

"On Parallel Lines, I was given the responsibility by Terry Ellis to put this band at the top of the charts” Chapman told Richard Buskin of the website Sound on Sound. “He knew they could achieve that and I knew it, too, but I also knew that, given how they were when I began working with them, it might never happen.” This wasn’t enough to dissuade him, nor to knock him out of his supreme confidence. “Terry said, 'Can you do it, Mike?' and I said, 'Yes, I can.' He said, 'OK, I'm going to leave you alone. You've got six months.' So I had to go in there and knock this band into shape.”

Although Chapman liked Blondie’s live show and saw the potential selling power of and value in the band’s charisma, he was dogged in getting their actual music to the level he thought matched their personas. “Musically, Blondie were hopelessly horrible when we first began rehearsing for Parallel Lines, and in terms of my attitude they didn't know what had hit them—I basically went in there like Adolf Hitler and said, 'You are going to make a great record, and that means you're going to start playing better.’” [8] Chapman decided to travel to the band’s hometown to write and record their third album. “The rehearsal space was dirty and grungy,” Chapman said. “Yeah, it was pretty crummy. But if I took Debbie and Chris to L.A., their dark stuff would disappear in the sunshine.”

“We played Mike all the songs that we were currently performing that we thought would be good,” Harry said. “He said, ‘Well, what else have you got?’ I sort of panicked, like, Oh, god, what else do we have? So we dragged out ‘Heart of Glass.’”

“Even though it was complete, it was wrong, and I knew that if we could get it right it might be a big hit,” Chapman said of Blondie’s “Disco Song.” That an unfamiliar-to-them producer could make something new out of a song they’d done so many times seemed ludicrous. Chapman heard out the band’s ideas about the song’s feel and texture, but drew the line where he saw fit. “In discussing what to do with 'Once I Had A Love' I tried to include everybody, and after we played it a few times I said, 'Let's get rid of the reggae.' We then tried to do it as straight rock, but that didn't work, and I could see Debbie was getting a bit frustrated.

“So, I asked her, 'Debbie, what kind of music that's happening right now really turns you on?'” Chapman explained. “She said, 'Donna Summer.' I said, 'OK, then how about us treating this song like it was meant for Donna Summer?' They all looked at me as if to say, 'What?' I said, 'Well, it's disco, right?' 'Yeah, it's disco,' they mumbled, but when Debbie then said, 'I like disco,' the others basically went along with it.”

Stein remembers meeting the disco idea with more enthusiasm. “We loved the idea. As a band, we had already been referencing the electronic-dance feel of Kraftwerk, which released ‘Trans-Europe Express” a year earlier. We felt that would be a move forward. But getting that sound back then was a mystery to all of us. It had to be invented.”

They arranged a semblance of what the album would become and headed to the studio, the famous and prime Record Plant on 44th Street, in June of 1978. “When we’d finished rehearsals, not much was together. ‘Heart Of Glass’ was,” Chapman said. But there were still hurdles to be cleared within that song, too. “When we got to the studio and tried to play it as a group, it sounded awful,” he added. “I said, ‘Maybe we’ve got to piece this together, and treat it as an experimental piece.’”

Keyboardist Jimmy Destri came up with the idea that would change the song’s D.N.A. permanently. “It was Jimmy who brought in the drum machine,” Stein recalled of the Roland CompuRhythm CR-78 that provided the iconic clicking percussion that would ultimately open “Heart of Glass.” At the time, using a Roland drum machine was an uncommon choice for a rock band to make, even on their lone disco song. “These were used for like Guy Lombardo-type bands in the early days,” Stein said. “Guys who were playing in clubs and couldn’t afford a drummer so they had one of these things going. I associate these with really schlocky lounge acts.” To get the sound they needed, it was necessary to press two buttons—“Chacha” and “Rhumba”—simultaneously, with the tempo for the machine cranking the patterns to halfway up.

A ghostly guitar track was added next. “For years I thought some of the ambient swishing sounds on the recording were synthesizers,” Stein remembered. “Then a couple of years ago we took the tracks apart for a TV documentary and I realized that a lot of the weird noises were actually coming from my guitar, which I had fed through a Roland tape-loop echo machine.”

Chapman was unconcerned with the enormous amount of time and effort necessary to nail “Heart of Glass,” as long as they got the track he wanted in the end. “Synchronizing them was a big deal at the time. It all had to be done manually, with every note and beat played in real time, rather than looped over,” he said. "When it came to the real drums, we had to record them one piece at a time, which none of us had ever done before. They were all looking at me like, 'Wow, this is cool. We're experimenting.' I said, 'Let's just have fun with this.’”

“The backing track took over ten hours to get down,” Harry later wrote. “We spent three hours just getting the bass drum. It was the hardest song to do on the album, and took us the longest in studio hours.”

“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,” Chapman said. “I also brought in two EMT 250s, 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.”

“We had to create our own basic living track. Because of the synthesizer being monophonic and also analog, you'd have to manually play the synthesizer at the two bars,” Burke said. “I recorded the bass drum along to someone playing the basic rhythm track. I recorded the rest of the drums on top of that. That's a big thing. You couldn’t patch in the drum machine.” The effort took a team of people, including Chapman and Stein, who kept careful track of the different elements with Burke as he played. “They were sitting in the control room, making sure that the bass drum and the synthesizer were in sync with one another. The others were present at the time, I think, too, but they might have all gone out to do some cocaine or something. You never know.”

Harry credits this strenuous, diligent effort with helping to architect the sound of Parallel Lines as a whole. “Mike was conducting us as we played; there was lots of eye contact. The emotions were more intense on that album,” she said.

“At the end, we let it roll forever. We had the Farfisa organ, and set up some echo-delays, so we had half a dozen different things echoing in time with the drum,” Chapman said. “Then, Frank [Infante] played the hook, and it started to make sense. It was a fairly skeletal track that Debbie sang to. But once she started singing, she realised that to hit those notes she couldn’t belt them, she had to go into a falsetto she hadn’t done much before.”

Harry wasn’t used to the range, so her focus was on making sure she could hit the notes Chapman asked her to in the first place, rather than the lyrical content or feeling. “I don’t think there’s one particular emotion that I connected to when recording the vocal,” she said. “I don’t really work like that. It’s usually sort of in the moment. In those days, just being able to pull it off technically for me was a pretty major achievement.”

Chapman, per his extremely hands-on approach, was the only person with Harry as she laid down the vocal track. “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,” he said. “She sang three or four takes. Her pitch was beautiful and expressive, so you hear every aspect of her personality.”

Harry wasn’t as enthralled at the time. “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, and I couldn’t get away with a stinking thing.”

After Chapman heard the lead vocal, he decided the song would benefit from more of Harry’s voice. “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 track,” he said. “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.” Cleverly, Harry escaped having to exert more of her voice, and the end result worked beautifully.

Still, something wasn’t quite right. Chapman wanted to rearrange another aspect of the song: “We also changed the title,” he recalled. “I said, 'You can't call it 'Once I Had A Love'. The hook line in there is 'heart of glass'. Let's call it 'Heart Of Glass'.'”

“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-to-40 edits for the final master,” Chapman said. “And we listened, and realised that we had created a very unusual record. It was us trying to do disco, and not really pulling it off. It really and truly was an experiment. It was unlike anything that any of us had done before. I knew this was the hit that I was trying to make.”

Scheduled for release in September 23, 1978, Parallel Lines wasn’t the album that Chrysalis had anticipated. “I ran into Chris Wright, one of the owners of Chrysalis, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, weeks after I’d delivered Parallel Lines,” Chapman recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t hear a ‘Denis’ on there.’ My legs went weak. They just didn’t get Parallel Lines.”

Early reviews were unnecessarily harsh. Harry Doherty at Melody Maker was “not too enamoured of [Chapman’s] handling of Deborah Harry's vocal. He forces a strict delivery that is uncharacteristic of her usual casual, street-corner drawl.” Nick Kent of the NME said the album, “...appears hamstrung by the insurmountable problems of being rushed, of lacking any tangible raison d'être and of ultimately sounding inconsequential. Not so much bad as unnecessary.”

It was former producer Alan Betrock’s New York Rocker review that most accurately tapped into the album’s beating pulse, even if he got part of it entirely wrong:

“'Heart Of Glass', formerly 'Once I Had A Love', formerly 'The Disco Song', is Kraftwerk cum Talking Heads, and will not be a disco hit. A twelve-inch on red vinyl will not be issued. Blondie will sell lotsa records. Blondie will be very rich. I am jealous. You are jealous. You don't care. We are not happy. Nobody is happy. You will run out and buy this record. You will rewrite the lyrics of these songs in bathrooms and on graffiti-streaked walls.”

Chrysalis wasn’t giving radio much to work with either. “Picture This” languished at the bottom of the Australian charts, but eventually cracked the top 15 in Britain. “There were a couple other singles released from the record that didn't do that much,” Stein said. “I think the first song they released [in the US] was, like, a fucking Buddy Holly song, you know?” “I’m Gonna Love You Too” stumbled out of the gate, barely grazing the charts in Belgium and the Netherlands. An ominous sign for a band that had risked everything over the previous year. The album’s second single, a cover of The Nerves’ 1976 ripper “Hanging On The Telephone,” fared slightly better, reaching #5 in the UK that November.

“The key, radio-friendly songs were usually at the beginning of a record,” Burke said. “‘Heart of Glass’ is buried on the second side of the album. We didn’t record it to be our big breakthrough. We had no idea. We were trying to sound like Kraftwerk.” The five minute, fifty second version of “Heart of Glass” was issued on a non-red vinyl 12” just before Christmas 1978. On January 19, 1979, the band hosted NBC’s Midnight Special, performing an energetic version “Heart of Glass” in front of a live studio audience. From there the song began a steady climb. It went #1 in Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the UK before summiting the Billboard charts on April 28, 1979, redefining Blondie’s image as a grimy New York band of rascals, and placing the spotlight on the group as an international disco icon.

“We were in Milan sitting in the bar of a beautiful hotel full of great Fellini hookers in black ostrich feather outfits waiting in the lobby,” Harry recalled. “Somebody came down from upstairs where he had gotten a call from America saying it had actually reached #1. Everybody started toasting, laughing, jumping on the tables and screaming, but the Italians were nonplussed at how happy we were acting.”

“It was like a movie sequence,” Burke recalled. “‘Boys—we’re at the top!’ And when we got back to the States, we realised we had become mainstream. We’d go to other parts of the country, and people didn’t expect a bunch of beatniks dressed in black and smoking joints to walk in. They expected a pop band. That was a major paradox in Blondie. At the time, you had to be Television, or The Monkees. There was no in-between.”

“We're sort of tottering on the edge of this pop thing, that's totally legitimate and commercial, and something that's totally suspicious,” Harry said. “That's the line we walk and that's the image we have. The odd thing that happens is we have this number one hit all over the world. The really radical kids reject us because we're too smooth and then the people that are ‘too smooth’ look at us in horror and think that we represent radicals.”

Some of the band’s peers were jealous, or taunting, or both. Various interviews from 1979 capture some of the disappointment that edged the band’s celebratory mood after “Heart of Glass” reached #1 across the world:

"All I ever wanted to do was have a No. 1 record," Nigel Harrison told the Los Angeles Times. "But now I have this guilt complex because people act as if we've done something wrong by having a hit record."

Added Jimmy Destri: "These new wave kids think they know everything about rock 'n roll, but they won't accept anything else. They should listen to the album and realize that we haven't changed our direction that radically. We haven't become the Bee Gees.”

“A lot of people we’d hung out with on the scene for years said we’d sold out by doing a disco song,” Harry told Melody Maker. “This is a blatantly ridiculous statement. We’d been consciously looking for a sound to break into American radio, and ‘Heart of Glass’ was one of the most innovative songs Blondie recorded. If it hadn’t been a hit, nobody would have said anything about it, except maybe ‘Oh, blondie did a disco song, isn’t that cute.’ The reason it’s a hit is because it’s a good song. We used to do it in 1975 as a funk song, we simply changed the arrangement and feel. It’s Euro-disco sound—a cross between Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder—was novel then.”

"The hard part about success is that all your friends, all these people that you like, turn against you,” Stein told Rolling Stone. “It's amazing. Everything in this whole fucking scene is like a Grade B novel. Here's the band: they starve, they have no money. You sign bad deals, sign your life away to various deals, right? You spend all your money getting out of bad deals, then all the people you respect turn around and say, 'You sold out. You suck. I don't like you anymore.'”

The reception made it more thrilling and more complicated, as did the business and legal complications the band found themselves in, having entered a contract they found themselves unable to fulfill. “It was a lot of work in a short period,” Harry reflected. “We were touring, we had hits all over the world, and we had an obligation to fulfill for three albums a year, so they put us on suspension. That means that the term of your contract would be lengthened by the amount of time that you didn't fulfill your obligations. It was a no-win situation.”

“I always thought that if ‘Heart of Glass’ could capture the mass market discreetly and tastefully, it would open the entire world to Blondie, and it did,” Chapman said. “The trick was to accessorize the band’s coarse sound, not replace it or have them sell out. There was real danger in changing them too dramatically. Debbie’s voice was the key to the sound. I knew if I let Debbie be Debbie, listeners would feel what she was singing.”

“It was conflicted in a lot of ways, but it was fun. It was just very fast, how it happened,” Stein said about the success of “Heart of Glass.” It only took three incarnations of the song, five years since its inception, and a lot of synth-drum strife for “Heart of Glass” to become an eternal, legendary, unmistakable part of culture. “I don’t know if I would’ve changed anything,” he added. “I just saw the song on another fucking movie trailer. When it comes on, it represents the period. It says Studio 54, disco, and whatever the fuck. That’s nice, to have a certain definition.”

“With me it’s a psychic thing that has to do with the beat,” Harry wrote in 1982. “The 4/4 heartbeat rhythm has a calming effect on the listener. It’s popular because it’s biological.”

Amy Rose Spiegel & Ken Shipley, July 2018