March 19, 2015

How Blondie Created ‘Heart of Glass’



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 (who opens at New York’s Cafe Carlyle March 24) and guitarist Chris Stein (author of the recent “Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk”)—talked about the hit’s evolution, Donna Summer’s influence and the struggle to adapt the high-impact Euro-techno sound. 

Edited from interviews:
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 the 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 now it’s not happening, you know? I threw in the “Ooo-ooo, ohhh-oh” fill when we started performing the song at CBGB. It was a 1960s “girl group” thing. Chris and I both loved R&B.

Mr. Stein: The Shangri-Las were a huge 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.

Ms. Harry: The whole Blondie thing was about a distinctive approach. In the mid-‘70s, 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.”

Mr. Stein: The hook was in the verse, when I had the song’s key pivot from major to minor on the same chord. It was catchy. But we were 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. 

Ms. 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 would 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. 

Mr. 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 I threw out a 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.

Mr. 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 this song a Giorgio Moroder feel?” Giorgio had produced Donna’s great albums.

Mr. Stein: 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.

Mr. Chapman: 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 track guide, I recorded the vocal 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 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. 

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 keyboard. 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.

Ms. Harry: I don’t think there’s one particular emotion that I connected to when recording the vocal. 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. I think the emotional content and thinking came later, with experience. 

Mr. Chapman: 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 track. 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.

Ms. 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, and I couldn’t get away with a stinking thing. 

Mr. 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-to-40 edits for the final master.

Mr. Stein: For years I thought some of the ambient swishing sounds on the recording were synthesizers. 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. 

Mr. Chapman: 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. 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. 

Ms. Harry: 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 an “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. 

By Marc Myers
With many thanks to The WSJ