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Music

How Blondie's 'Hanging on the Telephone' kept the lights on

@jackwhatley89

Blondie and Debbie Harry’s discography is one of the most potent in punk rock. Filled with disco-adjacent dancefloor fillers, they were the first band to really transition from punk into the pop charts. One song that helped their rise to international stardom was ‘Hanging on the Telephone’. Shared on their iconic album Parallel Lines, the song was one of the best on the LP, but it wasn’t a Blondie original.

By 1978, punk was on the wane, in a big way. lambasted by TV critics and even those names who had helped create it — punk was over as quickly as it had begun. While many punk bands fought their hardest to remain ‘real’, Blondie saw the crest of a new wave and grabbed their surfboards.

A mix of punk and pop would see the fledgeling genre become a haven for a bunch of acts that had previously enjoyed the punk moniker but now wanted a few extra pounds in their pocket. However, for Blondie, the genre was simply a much better fit for their style. With Harry and her vocals upfront, Stein’s undeniable ear for a tune and Burke behind the kit, the group were always destined to make crossover hits. On Parallel Lines, they showcased them with aplomb.

‘Heart of Glass’ is arguably the band’s greatest song and coupled with ‘One Way Or Another’ spoke loudly of a band who had carved out their own path. Though the group had seen some success in Australia and the UK, this was the album that helped them crack America and become worldwide legends. But, arguably, it was one cover that was the most sincere letter to their homeland. ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ is one of the band’s finest tracks and it helped keep the light son for Jason Lee.

Lee, the singer and songwriter for California punk band The Nerves was near-destitution when he was contacted by Blondie and Debbie Harry to ask if they could cover the song. As he told Mojo in 2007, “I remember the day vividly,” he recalled. “It was a Friday. They were going to cut off our electricity at six o’clock, the phone too.” Luckily, Harry got through before they did and Lee hungrily agreed to have the song covered.

The cover from Blondie is almost an exact replica of The Nerves original which, undoubtedly, would have irked Lee. He recalled of the song’s brilliance: “Even people who hated me – and there were plenty – had to admit it was great.” The Nerves version of the song was full of adolescent angst and pure unbridled energy. But, under the tutelage of Blondie, the song was pulled into a new wave era.

As Harry becomes increasingly distraught with the person who refuses to pick up the telephone “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” she sings. Soon she employs her sexuality: “Your voice across the line gives me a strange sensation” before exclaiming: “Hang up and run to me.” It’s a powerhouse pop tune expertly produced by the band and Mike Chapman.

Hanging on the Telephone‘ may well be one of the songs that helped Blondie to crack America. It may even be regarded as one of Blondie’s best songs. But, one thing is for sure, nobody loves the song more than Jason Lee.