One of Blondie’s definitive songs, ‘Heart of Glass’ has often been seen as the moment the band transcended their punk roots and turned their attention to pop. There’s perhaps no greater showing of this musical evolution than in their performance for The Old Grey Whistle Test back in 1979. The BBC show was famed for casting some of the most searing punk bands into mainstream TV but when Blondie arrived they were teetering on pop-stardom already, embracing a new sound in disco and, because of it, toeing the line of “uncool”.
“Anybody trying to define ‘cool’ quickly comes up against cool’s quicksilver nature. As soon as anything is cool, it starts to vaporise”, Lewis MacAdams wrote in his book, Birth of the Cool. And this is precisely why Blondie’s anthem, ‘Heart of Glass’, was so “uncool” at the time. Songwriters, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, understood this. While everyone in New York City and London was trying desperately to be cold as ice and razor sharp. But the truth is, the more they tried to grasp at it — this ethereal state of being “cool” — the more it slipped from away their hands, the more it dissipated into thin air.
Blondie were made in the punk/new wave scene of New York’s legendary punk club CBGB’s in the mid to late ’70s. Up until their third album Parallel Lines, they were fairly underground in the States, albeit growing in popularity in the United Kingdom and across Europe. It was this popularity that saw the band gain a coveted place performing on the famed Old Grey Whistle Test on New Year’s Eve, 1979.
The Old Grey Whistle Test is certainly still held in high regard in Britain’s music circle, despite also struggling with aligning with their previously noted ‘cool’ factor across the decades. It was still the most potent alternative music show on the box, and it could still draw in a crowd. When the bigger bands rolled into town, the show would put out the proverbial red carpet in the form of a heaving sweating crowd. It was a crowd who may not have taken to the pop nuances of ‘Heart of Glass’ so kindly.
When Blondie met Mike Chapman in 1978, the Australian hitmaker, things changed. They went from punk to pop in a matter of moments, Chris Stein told The Guardian about joining forces: “Then, in 1978, we got this producer, Mike Chapman, who asked us to play all the songs we had. In the end, he said: ‘Have you got anything else?’ We sheepishly said: ‘Well, there is this old one.’ He liked it – he thought it was very pretty and started to pull it into focus.” The track, which also has an alternative reggae-infused disco take somewhere in the ether of the internet, was originally written in 1975 and once simply known by the band as ‘The Disco Song’.
The group, with Chapman overseeing proceedings, revamped the undeniable bop. “The boys in the band had got their hands on a new toy: this little Roland drum machine,” recalled Stein. “One day, we were fiddling around with it and Chapman said: ‘That’s a great sound.’ So we used it.”
A disco number, ‘Heart of Glass’ shot right up to number one in the US charts. Many in the punk scene scoffed at Blondie, saying they betrayed their roots by turning their attention to dancefloor-filling tunes. Mike Chapman told Ultimate classic rock publication, “’Heart of Glass’ is a masterpiece in many ways. It will never sound dated. It is simply one of those tunes that work in every way.”
Debbie Harry muses back on that time, in Salon, “Chris liked a lot of disco songs, and so did I,” Harry said. “We really did like covering those songs, like ‘Love to Love You Baby’ and ‘Disco Inferno,’ but it was also really fun to play that stuff because we were in the middle of this whole ‘I hate disco’ scene. It was fun to provoke people.”
It seemed as if Blondie were a few steps ahead at the time, and they knew exactly what they were doing when many accused Blondie of being “uncool” by going disco. They proved it too, with performances like this one. Harry is a demon on the mic, possessed and in charge simultaneously; an act that has been finely curated over the years. Meanwhile, the rest of the band are as sharp as a highly-polished pin, Clem Burke embodying Keith Moon and Chris Stein providing some searing solos, making it one of their finer shows. Put together, it provides not only the perfect moment the band crossed from a punk band into pop icons but the reason they did so.
With songs like ‘Heart of Glass’ Blondie put distance between themselves and a music scene which seemed destined to burn out. The band made it clear that they were more than a garage rock outfit, they were stars. Watch Blondie perform ‘Heart of Glass’ on The Old Grey Whistle Test from back in 1979.