The Story Behind The Song: On ‘Heart of Glass’, Blondie ride a rebellious new wave
On this day in 1979, Blondie would finally make their way to the top of the charts as ‘Heart of Glass’ would prove to be their first UK number one. It was a song that highlighted Debbie Harry and Co.’s rightful place atop the crest of the new wave and the far-reaching punk credentials that came with them.
‘Heart of Glass’ typifies Blondie and their transcendence from the underbelly of New York’s punk scene to their starring role in the new wave movement and beyond. It is a song that saw them climb the charts and affirm their place in the annals of rock and roll history—but not without upsetting a few friends along the way.
‘Heart of Glass’ was released as the third single from their 1978 record and was an instant radio-ready classic. It was the first breakthrough into the wider collective consciousness as it’s album Parallel Lines saw Blondie, and most notably their lead singer Harry, become icons of the coming decade before it even arrived.
The searing punk power that emanated from the Clem Burke’s rhythm section was pulsating, but with Harry’s vocals and Chris Stein’s intuitive disco-flecked licks, Blondie were suddenly climbing the music ladder three-rungs at a time. The song signalled a bright new future for the band but it had actually come out from their past.
Debbie Harry and Chris Stein wrote an early version of the track called ‘Once I Had a Love’ in 1974-75 during the band’s earliest beginnings. This earlier version was first recorded as a demo in 1975. At that point, the song had a slower, funkier sound with a basic disco beat. For this reason, the band referred to it as ‘The Disco Song’—you can listen to a cut of that below.
In an interview with EW, Harry revealed ‘Heart of Glass’ was pretty set from the beginning. “Once we had the track nailed down, it stayed that way since 1975—that’s when we first started working on it,” she said. The singer also revealed that it almost didn’t get off the ground, admitting: “People got upset because I sang ‘ass’. Maybe because it’s a three-letter word and not a four-letter word? I think we got banned in a few places because of that. We were very raw and minimalist then.”
“We were living in a loft in New York’s then-notorious Bowery area, rehearsing at night in rooms so cold we had to wear gloves,” Harry later told The Guardian in a separate interview in 2013. “’Heart of Glass’ was one of the first songs Blondie wrote, but it was years before we recorded it properly. We’d tried it as a ballad, as reggae, but it never quite worked. At that point, it had no title. We just called it ‘The Disco Song.'”
“The lyrics weren’t about anyone,” she continued. “They were just a plaintive moan about lost love. At first, the song kept saying, ‘Once I had a love, it was a gas. Soon turned out, it was a pain in the ass.’ We couldn’t keep saying that, so we came up with, ‘Soon turned out, had a heart of glass.'” With the chorus in place and the knowledge of the song’s potential nagging away the song would always be up for contention on the band’s new album.
Rehearsals for Parallel Lines in late 1977 saw Harry, Stein, drummer Clem Burke, keyboardist Jimmy Destri, guitarist Frank Infante, and bassist Nigel Harrison play producer Mike Chapman all the songs that they had. “Most of the ideas were unfinished songs that I needed to help them arrange and basically finish writing,” Chapman tellsUCR.
He continued: “One of the demos was a song called ‘Once I Had a Love.’ It had a reggae feel and I told them the title was too long and suggested they call it ‘Heart of Glass,’ which was one of the lines in the chorus. I thought the song was an obvious hit if the arrangement was right. We spent the first day of rehearsal rearranging it and I decided that it should have a bit of a Donna Summer vibe, which pleased Debbie. She loved Donna Summer.” It’s an undeniable comparison and is a compliment to Chris Stein’s bravery—traversing the punk picket line.
It may have been a song from the past but ‘Heart Of Glass’ with its signature disco sound could never have worked without a few more years experience with electronic music, Harry says “the advent of synthesizers came into play, and all the little gadgetry and rhythm machines.”
“Synchronising [the synthesizer and drum machine] was a big deal at the time,” Stein said in an interview with The Guardian. “It all had to be done manually, with every note and beat played in real time rather than looped over. And on old disco tracks, the bass drum was always recorded separately, so Clem had to pound away on a foot-pedal for three hours until they got a take they were happy with.” It all worked out as the song put synthesizers on the underground map.
With all that in mind, the innovation of Blondie’s writing process, the disco rhythm, the changing guitar patterns, and Mike Chapman’s polish it is still Debbie Harry’s heavenly vocal that steals the show. It is a beautiful and ethereal tone that mirrored the sounds that rang through Studio 54, packaged them up with punk credentials and saw Blondie become a household name.
Purist punks were not impressed. In her 1982 book, Making Tracks, co-written with Stein and Victor Bockris, Harry says it best herself: “When we did ‘Heart of Glass’ it wasn’t cool in our social set to play disco, but we did it because we wanted to be uncool. A lot of people we’d hung out and been close friends with on the scene for years said we’d sold out by doing a disco song.”
Defiant, Harry continues: “This is a blatantly ridiculous statement. It always pissed me off that people could have the nerve to pretend to be so stupid. We’d been consciously looking for a sound to break into American radio, and ‘Heart of Glass’ was one of the most innovative songs Blondie record…The reason it’s a hit because it’s a good song.”