Aye. That Chris Stein’s a lucky so and so. Dreamin’. Dreamin’ is free. Aah Debbie Harry…..(tails off….)
The Best Of Blondie was one of the first albums I bought. The very first was ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ by Adam and the Ants. I bought Complete Madness and the Blondie album not long after. I recently dug out my old vinyl and played Blondie for the first time in ages. Reading the sleeve notes and credits and all that kinda stuff, I realised that Blondie didn’t actually do the originals of some of their tracks. I knew about ‘The Tide Is High’. I got big into reggae about 10 years ago and heard John Holt’s original. And I knew that ‘Hangin’ On The Telephone’ was an old new wave track, although I’d never heard the original version. But I didn’t know that ‘Denis’ was also a cover.
‘Denis‘ began life as ‘Denise‘ and was a reasonably big doo-wop hit for Randy & The Rainbows, making #10 in September 1961. Randy & his Rainbows aren’t that well known. You could probably call them one hit wonders. In the doo-wop world, if Dion & The Belmonts were The Beatles, Randy & The Rainbows were Freddie & The Dreamers. ‘Denise’ sounds like something you might hear in the background of ‘American Graffiti’ or one of those coming of age American films. I like it. So too did Blondie.
As well as pre-Beatles teen pop, Blondie had an ear for more exotic music. I don’t know who in the band heard John Holt/The Paragons version of ‘The Tide Is High’. The track was released to massive indifference in 1965 and sank without a trace. It got no radio play and made no chart anywhere. But someone somewhere in New York must’ve heard it, cos in 1980 Blondie took it all the way to #1 in the UK. We won’t mention Atomic Kitten at this point.
The Nerves were about to chuck it. They had no money and no success. Main Nerve Jack Lee had a wife and child, with another on the way. Without money, his electricity and phone were about to be cut off. Lucky for him he still had his phone when Debbie called out of the blue. “This is Deborah Harry, I’m in a band called Blondie, we really like your song Hanging On The Telephone and we want to record it on our album.” Ker-ching! Blondie’s version isn’t that far removed from the original. A glossier production and far better drumming. Otherwise, the guitars stay the same and it’s the same record. Apart from the way she sings “show you my affection“. Even as a 10 year old I knew that was sexy. I’ve always wanted to be able to play ‘Hanging On The Telephone’ on the guitar. I still can’t.
Even though they hated one another, Blondie’s success went globally bonkers mental when they got together with producer Mike Chapman. Being from LA, he had no concept of the New York CBGBs scene that was crucial to Blondie’s sound. The band distrusted him and thought he’d been sent to destroy their music. In today’s terms, it’s a bit like Pete Doherty and Babyshambles being forced to record with Mark Ronson or the Xenomania team. Maybe no bad thing, but that’s another discussion. Anyway, Chapman went on to produce all the big hits – ‘Sunday Girl’, ‘The Tide Is High’, ‘Hanging On The Telephone’, ‘Dreaming‘, ‘Atomic‘, I could go on but you get the idea. His biggest success was with ‘Heart of Glass’, a track Blondie had been playing in various styles for years. By the time Blondie came to record it with Chapman, disco was the new thing, and the band duly obliged with Chapman’s wishes that they embrace the new scene wholeheartedly. What had previously been an ordinary sounding plodding bluesy track suddenly became a bona fide disco-rock crossover smash hit, and Debbie’s face was everywhere. Here’s the demo version that Chapman got to work on. The moral of this tale? Never underestimate the importance of a good producer.
“Call me Mr Phil Spector…please call me…….”