Female singers with attitude are doing well at the moment. But long before Cardi B and Nicki Minaj came along, there was Debbie Harry.
Lead singer of 1970s hitmakers, Blondie, Debbie Harry made it acceptable for rock bands to have female lead singers in an era when music was a boys’ club and women, if they were allowed on stage at all, tended to be dancers or backing singers rather than the lead singer.
Of course there had been female singers before. That was nothing new in itself. Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Petula Clark and many more stood in front of musicians and sang their songs.
But that was a different style of music. In rock music, it was pretty much unheard of…until Debbie Harry came along.
And she brought an edge…an attitude…with her. As the old saying goes, men wanted to be with her, women wanted to be her.
Previously female singers were expected to cultivate a slightly subservient “girl next door” image and not rock the boat too much.
Debbie Harry cast that model aside when she and guitarist Chris Stein decided to form a band together. They’d later be joined by Clem Burke on drums, Gary Valentine on bass and Jimmy Destri on keyboards to create the classic Blondie line-up.
Blondie were a hit in iconic venues like CBGB’s long before the charts took any notice…until 1978 when Blondie released their “Parallel Lines” album and, seemingly overnight, they were everywhere.
Produced by super-producer Mike Chapman (who, with fellow songwriter and producer Nicky Chinn, largely created the soundtrack to the 1970s through their work with bands like Mud, The Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Smokie and many more), “Parallel Lines” hit the top of the charts around the world.
The first track from the album was “Heart Of Glass” which did very well commercially. But my favourite track is “Hanging On The Telephone”.
I think that’s because, although “Parallel Lines” is stuffed full of hit material across quite an eclectic musical spectrum, “Hanging On The Telephone” is the song that feels closest to the band’s roots in dingy New York clubs in the early part of the punk era.
“Hanging On The Telephone” sets off at a million miles an hour and doesn’t give up until about two minutes twenty seconds later. It’s a really short song by modern standards, but you feel you’ve had your money’s worth by the time the final power chords stop reverberating around your head, such is the intensity of the experience.
Of course, this was the 1970s, so some of the lyrics seem a bit quaint to younger ears…
I’m in the phone booth, it’s the one across the hall
If you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall
I know he’s here but I just had to call
Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone
Why you’d bother with all this when you could just text them is a continuing mystery to younger listeners, but that’s the way it was back then, when nobody carried a phone, complete with built-in computer, around in their pocket at all times.
Clearly Debbie Harry is finding it hard to get the attention she’s expecting. Perhaps she’s judged an unsuitable partner by her boyfriend’s mother…
I heard your mother now, she’s going out the door
Did she go to work or just go to the store
All those things she said I told you to ignore
Oh, can’t we talk again?
This played well to Debbie Harry’s image as someone who made her own rules and lived on her own terms.
I’m sure she was much less of a wild child than her image in the 70s. She spent years, and largely gave up her own career, to care for her band-mate and then-partner Chris Stein when he fell seriously ill, for example.
As time went on, she pursued other genres and developed an interest in jazz, far away from the full-throttle punk where she started. Debbie Harry was never as commercially successful again as she had been in her Blondie days, but she seemed quite happy to follow her musical muse, wherever that might take her, without being in the limelight all the time.
But back in the 1970s, she tore up the rule book for how female singers were expected to behave. She fronted a rock band, stuffed full of great musicians, and led it from the front on her terms. She created an image of someone who took no prisoners and couldn’t care less whether you were interested in what she had to say or not.
Debbie Harry set the template for female artists to be recognised for who they were, even if they weren’t the “girl next door” that record companies had pretty much exclusively promoted up till that point in time.
I’d like to think that was because record companies suddenly had a collective attack of conscience, but I suspect it was more to do with Blondie selling 20 million copies of “Parallel Lines” around the world.
Nothing makes a record company re-invent their view of the world faster than seeing a competitor having a monster worldwide hit and wanting to emulate that success for themselves.
Blondie were a great band in so many ways, but perhaps making it acceptable for women to forge a career in music on their own terms was the biggest contribution they made to the music industry.
Given all that, you might be surprised to learn that although the members of Blondie wrote many great songs amongst themselves, and despite “Hanging On The Telephone” being in many ways the definitive Blondie track, it’s actually a cover.
Written by Jack Lee of The Nerves, it appeared on that band’s only release, a 1976 EP which achieved little commercial success. Somehow Blondie got to hear about it and created the definitive version of “Hanging On The Telephone” with Debbie Harry slightly disdainfully snarling her way through what, in other hands, might have been a more conventional love song.
You can find The Nerves’ original version here (https://youtu.be/emy5mA8Ixtc ). Whilst recognisably the same song, Blondie brings something else to the party.
The musicianship of Chris Stein, Clem Burke, Gary Valentine and Jimmy Destri shines through…and Debbie Harry’s vocal for “Hanging On The Telephone” makes a relatively run-of-the-mill rock song into an attitude-infused, era-defining, mould-breaking experience.
No wonder it hit the top of the charts around the world…this is a song that needs cranking up to 11…
If you’ve got this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here…