Was it one of disco’s last stands, or the new wave crashing onshore for the first time? Could have been either, or maybe both, but either way Blondie found a way to be cool by trying to be “uncool”. “Heart of Glass” hit #1 in the U.S. this day in 1979.
Blondie came out of the New York City punk scene in the mid-’70s but found their first glimmer of success across the sea in Britain, where their first two albums sold decently and the song “Denis” had been a gold-selling, #2 hit the year before. Success at home however, had eluded them. So Chrysalis Records decided it was time to bring in a “name” producer to help them with their third album, which ended up being Parallel Lines. Chapman, ironically, had also probably had more success in the UK than U.S. through working with acts like Sweet and Suzi Quatro, but was a well-respected presence in music on both continents. What he found when he turned up at the New York studio didn’t please him. They were “a classic New York underground band…they didn’t give a f***…they didn’t want to work too hard.” He saw potential there, but also a bunch of rather lazy, irritable musicians. So “I went in there like Adolf Hitler, and said (or screamed perhaps) ‘You’re going to make a great record and that means you’re going to start playing better!’”
That they did, grudgingly, and quickly put down eight or nine tracks. But they needed more so they played an early demo of this one for him. At the time they nicknamed it “The Disco Song.” They sometimes played it in their set, because as Debbie Harry put it “it wasn’t too cool in our social set to play disco. We did it because we wanted to be uncool.” By then, the song was about four years old and she says “we’d tried it as a ballad, as reggae, but it never worked.” Chapman however “liked it. Thought it was interesting, and started to pull it into focus.” Interestingly, she’d said prior to the album’s release that she really liked the work of European producer Giorgio Moroder, then best-known for working with Donna Summer. “It’s commercial, but it’s good,” she said, “that’s the kind of stuff I want to do.” Which “Heart of Glass” not only turned out a little like, but in time got Moroder’s attention. He worked with Debbie the following year on the hit “Call Me.”
One of the ways he did that was by getting drummer Clem Burke to use a Roland drum machine for it. It became the one of the first huge hit singles to do so. Eventually, they made some five different versions or remixes of it, with most versions of the album having a full-length 5:50” take on it (which also was the 12” single) and the American 7” single being whittled to 3:22”.
Parallel Lines came out late in ’78, to little initial interest at home, although it did get some notice in Britain again, where “Hanging on the Telephone” had hit the top 10. “Heart of Glass” seemed almost an afterthought, being the fourth song chosen to be put out as a single. Turns out, fourth time was the charm. As Pitchfork put it “after two albums of middling success, a reinvention was in order. ‘Heart of Glass’ came just in time.” They add “by melding disco’s then commerciality with (Harry’s) stunning image and big city cool, ‘Heart of Glass’ propelled Blondie from cult status to household name.”
That it did, though not without a little hesitation. The lyrics (at times Harry’s ascribed to no one in particular, just a general feeling of relationships being tiring but at other times says was inspired by a stalker Chris Stein saved her from) refer to love as a “pain in the ass”…which was rather racy language for mainstream radio in the ’70s. Some radio stations balked at playing it at first, others beeped out the three-letter “four letter word.” Obviously enough played it though; the song hit #1 in not only the U.S., but the UK, Canada, Germany, Switzerland and other lands including New Zealand where it ended up the year’s biggest single (in Canada, it came in at #2 for the year). It earned them platinum singles in Canada and the UK (where they’d not have another one until 20 years later with “Maria”) and a gold one in the States.
If one looks at it as a disco single, there’s nothing surprising about its status. It replaced another disco hit, “Knock on Wood” by Amii Stewart at the top, and followed a string of disco hits at #1 including “I Will Survive”, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” and “Tragedy.” However, if one considers it a “new wave” or post-punk song, it was breaking new ground – the first such song to top U.S. charts. Making one lean towards the latter is the surprising fact that it wasn’t a dance hit in North America… it only rose to #58 on Billboard‘s Dance Music charts.
Disco, new wave or pop, no matter what you term it, “Heart of Glass” was a shining example of late-’70s hit music at its best. It’s actually risen on Rolling Stone‘s all-time best of charts, being ranked at #138 in last year’s rankings, up by about a hundred spots since the last time they tried to compile such a list. Pitchfork, meanwhile consider it the 18th greatest song of the ’70s (they had David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” as #1 in case you were wondering.) Meaning, they found a pretty cool way to be uncool!