The partnership between Blondie and producer Mike Chapman created a perfect pop record - and catapulted the group from the underground to mainstream chart success.
If Blondie's Parallel Lines album was the New York erstwhile-punk band's finest hour (all 38 minutes of it) and a perfect encapsulation of top-drawer, high-tech 1978 pop-rock, then it also marked the career apex of its producer, Mike Chapman, a man who had already established himself with a form of music that has come to define its era.
In popular music terms, the 1970s was a decade that swung wildly from glam, reggae, progressive and AOR to metal, disco, corporate, punk, new wave, neo-mod and pure pop. And there, at both the start and end, was composer/producer Chapman, crafting glam rock — with writing partner Nicky Chinn — by way of acts like the Sweet, Suzi Quatro and Mud, and then classic power pop on his own with Blondie, Pat Benatar and the Knack.
'Co-Co', 'Poppa Joe', 'Little Willy', 'Wig-Wam Bam', 'Block Buster' and 'Ballroom Blitz' by the Sweet; Suzi Quatro's 'Can The Can' and 'Devil Gate Drive'; Mud's 'Dyna-Mite' and 'Tiger Feet' — all are synonymous with the visual excesses of glittery jackets, flared trousers and platform shoes as much as they are with the glam music that melded pop melodies with crunching, fuzzy guitars and heavy drums, bathed in a sound that was a throwback to Sun Records in the mid-'50s. Featuring catchy songs often performed by talented musicians, the 'Chinnichap' formula certainly worked during the halcyon period of 1973-74, when it accounted for 19 Top 40 UK singles, including five chart toppers. And when glam's sparkle had faded, Chapman then caught a second wave with his aforementioned solo productions. Not that the partnership with Chinn had ever really been about songwriting once the hits began rolling in.
"I first met Nicky in late 1969 when I was working as a waiter in the discotheque of a London club called Tramp," recalls Chapman, a native Australian who had relocated to the UK in June 1967, at the height of flower power. "That was the last real job I ever had. I was in a struggling band named Tangerine Peel and needed to do something to pay the rent. I'd been writing pop songs for a couple of years — all of which was second nature to me, having grown up listening to 'Peggy Sue', 'That'll Be The Day', 'Wake Up Little Susie', 'Blue Suede Shoes' and so on — and by 1969 I felt like I was on the right track. At the same time, Nicky was a regular customer at Tramp; a rich English kid with nothing better to do than go out every night and dance very badly. After he told me he'd heard I was in a band and that he, too, was a songwriter, I took my guitar to his apartment in Mayfair and we set about trying to write together.
"Over the next two weeks we knocked out four little pop songs, but I quickly discovered that Nicky's musical taste was completely different from mine, and that would cause us a lot of problems as the years went on. He was into James Taylor, Carole King and Joni Mitchell — all of the things that I couldn't stand. I appreciate them now, but at that point, never having been much of an album buyer, I was more into great pop songs like the Archies' 'Sugar, Sugar' and all of the Creedence Clearwater material; anything with a big old hook, guitars and a great beat. The minute I saw him, David Bowie also influenced me, as did Marc Bolan in about 1970, but Nicky Chinn didn't understand any of that. I had to explain to him what it was all about while he'd sit there with a blank look on his face and ask me, 'Have you heard the new Joni Mitchell album?'
"One night, after I'd quit the job at Tramp to concentrate on my songwriting, we were sitting in Nicky's apartment and he said, 'Why don't we call Mickie Most?' I'd been talking about how great Mickie was, and so we looked in the phone book and there he was. I said, 'I'm not calling him. You call him,' so Nicky called, Mickie answered the phone, and he said, 'Sure, come in tomorrow and play me your songs.' The next day we went to his office — a huge, square room on Oxford Street, with a desk in each corner facing toward the middle. Mickie was sitting at one desk, blasting out music; Peter Grant, who was managing Led Zeppelin, was at another, making deals and cursing people in all four corners of the world; and then there was Ronnie Madison, who was trying to do the accounts; and Dave Most, Mickie's brother, who was a promo man, screaming at radio guys. I'd never seen anything like it."
While all this was going on, Chapman attempted to play five songs that he and Chinn had written, only for Mickie Most to stop him after about eight bars of each of the first four numbers, muttering, 'No, no, no, no.' Feeling dejected, Chapman nevertheless managed to make it all the way through the fifth song, a number titled 'Tom Tom Turnaround', and at the end of his performance Most asserted, "That's a hit." Which it was, after he cut it with an Australian trio named New World.
After Richard Dodd recorded the very first sessions with the Sweet, Peter Coleman was Chapman's full-time engineer all the way through the 1970s, helping him to shape the aforementioned glam rock sound that had been influenced by Tony Visconti's productions of T-Rex, which themselves had been influenced by records of the late-'50s and early-'60s.
"For me, a track like 'Ride A White Swan' was pure magic," Chapman says. "Its groove epitomised what I was trying to accomplish, and then, when I heard 'Hot Love', it was like, 'Oh, my God, that's it.' So Visconti was a big influence on me in terms of the sonic approach, while the grooves all came from the mid-to-late-'50s. On top of that, it was about what could be done with the drums to make them sound a bit different from everybody else, as well as how freaky we could get with the guitars and vocals. There was that kind of slapback echo sound together with very '70s-sounding rock guitars, and it was the combination of those elements that became the blueprint for glam rock, which all came out at once with Gary Glitter. Mike Leander put all of the elements together, as did Slade to a certain extent.
"Still, if you listen to those records side by side, they're all different. They all have the same sort of vibe to them, but none of the drum sounds are alike, none of the guitar sounds are alike, none of the vocal sounds are alike. All of us producers were trying very hard to sound different from one another, even though we were following the same path, and it's pretty hard to do that. When I listen to the emo kids these days, I can't tell the difference between one band and another, and that's because producers aren't trying to be different anymore, they're just trying to do what everybody else is doing. Back in 1973 and 1974, the challenge was 'Let's have a hit, but for God's sake, let's make it sound different to Gary Glitter, T-Rex and Slade.' For my part, I had the Sweet, Suzi Quatro and Mud going all at once, and I had to make all three of them sound different, which they did."
"I understood why Mickie liked that song," Chapman says. "It was different to the other four that Nicky and I had written together. Nicky didn't write melodies, he saw himself as a lyricist, and those songs contained a lot of his lyrics. On the other hand, 'Tom Tom Turnaround' marked the beginning of me coming up with titles that would prompt him to look at me and go, 'What's all that about?' You can imagine what he said when I told him I was going to write songs with titles like 'Can The Can', '48 Crash' and 'Ballroom Blitz'.
Five sixths of Blondie, with Mike Chapman (centre, in sunglasses) and manager Peter Leeds (far right), in the control room of the Record Plant's Studio A during the recording of Parallel Lines.
From 1970 to 1975, New World, the Sweet, Suzi Quatro and Mud all required three hits a year, and the responsibility for this basically fell to Mike Chapman — an annual total of 12 hits.
"If somebody asked me to do that now I'd run screaming," he says. "I don't know how on earth I managed to do it, but I pulled it off. I was so focused on what I needed to do next, whether it was the next hit for the Sweet, Suzi Quatro or Mud, or whether Mickie needed another song for New World, like 'Living Next Door To Alice' before I cut it with Smokie. I was constantly aware of the requirements and my head was just full of all these bizarre words. They'd pop into my head and suddenly I'd go, 'That's it, that's the song.'
"In the beginning, with the first half-dozen songs that Nicky and I wrote together, I'd compose the melodies because he didn't have any musical knowledge. I'd play guitar, he'd sit there with a pen and paper, and we'd come up with the words together. But then, as the songs became more and more bizarre, it was pretty much me sitting there and writing these tunes while he didn't have a clue what the hell I was doing. It was impossible for me to explain what a title meant when I didn't know the meaning myself. And it's also very difficult to actually write a song with somebody who doesn't know what you're talking about to start with.
"So, pretty much what happened from that point was Nicky would go out and hustle the records, calling the record companies and chasing the promo guys. He was really, really good at that, and I couldn't have done it. His role in the partnership was never really to write songs with me or produce the records. It was to take care of the business side of things. That was his forté. And from 'Can The Can' onwards his contributions to the songs became less and less. He'd be out and about all day, I'd be sitting in his apartment with the guitar, and when he'd come back and ask, 'What have you got?' I'd generally have most of the song written. Then, once I had a first verse and chorus, he'd understand where I was going and he would sit down and try to help me with the words... There's a wonderful photo of us in the studio with Suzi, where I'm sitting at the console and he's in a corner reading the Financial Times."
As his relationships soured with both Nicky Chinn, with whom he didn't see eye to eye, and the Sweet, who appreciated neither his pop sensibilities nor his autocratic work methods, Mike Chapman determined to "get the hell out of England," and in 1975 he relocated to Los Angeles. There, while still churning out the hits for Smokie and Suzi Quatro, he could focus on a US market that hadn't afforded him much success, and it was in 1977 that Terry Ellis asked for Chapman's feedback on Blondie, who he was thinking of signing. Chapman subsequently saw the band play on three successive nights at the Whiskey a Go Go on the Sunset Strip. After his rave review prompted the Chrysalis boss to purchase Blondie's contract from Private Stock Records, reissue their eponymous 1976 debut album and release the 1977 follow-up, Plastic Letters, Chapman was hired to produce the third LP.
By then, working with Mud, Suzi Quatro and Smokie, he had already produced albums containing others' material. Parallel Lines, on the other hand, was the first such project on which he contributed none of the songs. Instead, he was assigned by Terry Ellis to ensure that what Blondie brought to the summer 1978 sessions evolved into hit material, and ensure this he did. Following its release in September of that year, the album would hit number one in the UK chart, peak at number six in the US, and yield chart-topping singles in the form of 'Heart Of Glass' in the US and UK and 'Sunday Girl' in the UK, where 'Picture This' reached number 12 and 'Hanging On The Telephone' peaked at number five.
"I wasn't being used as a songwriter, but as a song manipulator and song construction consultant/technician," Chapman says. "There was a lot of stuff that needed to be put together, because as loose as the band were, their songs were even looser. Of course, being that I'd started out as someone who wasn't really into albums but into writing singles, I had done a complete turnaround, and I was loving every minute of it. You see, by then the only writing responsibilities I had were to come up with a hit or two each year for both Suzi Quatro and Smokie, and those were easy gigs because they were nice people to work with. There was no suffering on those sessions. Blondie, on the other hand, was all about suffering."
It was through Nicky Chinn's own efforts that he and Mike Chapman became involved with the Sweet. This was after Chapman followed Chinn's advice to have a proper band demo their songs in the studio rather than record them himself on a small Revox multitrack tape machine. One of those songs was titled 'Funny Funny', and although not intended for the Sweet, it subsequently became the group's first hit after Mickie Most made a rare slip by allowing them to sign with RCA.
"Here was a Deep Purple-type rock band with a song called 'Funny Funny', but it was on the charts and that's all I cared about," Chapman remarks. "Then again, Phil Wainman was the producer, and it was difficult for me when we were cutting it in the studio. The song was in my head, I'd be trying to tell him what to do, and he ended up telling me to go sit in the back of the control room or leave the control room altogether. 'I'm the producer,' he'd say. 'Go away, you're getting on my nerves.' 'OK, sorry,' I'd reply. 'It's just that the song's in my head and I'd like to help you.'
"As the hits went on I slowly but surely inched my way closer to the console, and I started producing full-on in 1972 when Mickie Most called and asked me to work with Suzi Quatro. He had cut a few things with her but just couldn't find the right style, and to my surprise he called me at home one night and asked me to write a song for her and produce it. This was his big new artist that he'd found, and he handed me the opportunity on a plate. I was so excited. Within two days I came up with 'Can The Can', and a week or two later I was producing Suzi in the studio. Then, having decided we needed another band, Mud came along right after that, and so now I was producing Mud and Suzi Quatro, and also having a lot more to do with the Sweet's production as we got into tracks like 'Wig-Wam Bam' and 'Ballroom Blitz'."
"The Blondies were tough in the studio, real tough. None of them liked each other, except Chris and Debbie, and there was so much animosity. They were really, really juvenile in their approach to life — a classic New York underground rock band — and they didn't give a f*ck about anything. They just wanted to have fun and didn't want to work too hard getting it."
For Parallel Lines, the group's line-up comprised lead singer Debbie Harry, Clem Burke on drums, guitarists Chris Stein and Frank Infante, English bassist Nigel Harrison and keyboard player Jimmy Destri. Yet, even though Chapman loved Blondie's first two albums and was enamored with the group members' offbeat sense of humour, he doesn't mince his words with regard to what he describes as "musically the worst band I ever worked with."
"The only great musician among them was Frankie Infante," he asserts. "He's an amazing guitarist. The rest of them were all over the bloody place. Jimmy Destri was a pretty good songwriter, but he wasn't a great keyboard player. What he did, he did well, and I didn't ever try to push him beyond that because I knew there wasn't anything beyond that. Chris Stein was always so stoned, and although Clem Burke had all the right ideas, he had no sense of timing. I mean, he had a lot of ability, but I always felt he was trying too hard, and that's what I used to tell him.
"If you're going to use the Keith Moon approach, you'd better be able to pull it off, because if you don't it's just going to be a shambles. Sure, there were some timing discrepancies on some of those Who records, but Keith Moon had the ability to do all that manic stuff and keep the groove solid at the same time. Clem hadn't learned how to do that yet — he would later on — and so although Nigel was a very competent bass player the rhythm section was totally out of whack.
"Nigel actually brought a lot to the table. He brought terrific songwriting, a sense of humour, and the fact that he was English added another dimension to the band. He got along great with Debbie and OK with Chris, whereas Chris never wanted Frankie in the band. The fact was, Frankie made Chris look like a terrible guitar player. Then again, I loved Chris, and I worked very, very hard with him for years and years because I felt he deserved my time. He, to me, was a wonderful, wonderful songwriter, a great songwriter, and he was always so concerned about his playing ability. I'd say to him, 'Why would you even worry about that when you're such a great songwriter? You can't be everything. Let Frankie play those solos.'
"He didn't like that idea, and so I'd send everybody else out of the studio and I would sit with Chris for hours and hours; just me recording and him playing to get all his parts right. I wanted him to get his parts right because I knew that was important to him. To this day, when he listens to those records, he knows the work that was put in and he's proud of it. And thank God we did that. I think a lot of other producers would have said, 'No, you're not playing that part right. I'll bring in a studio player.' But that was never an option with Blondie.
"Debbie is a great singer and a great vocal stylist, with a beautifully identifiable voice. However, she's also very moody. I love Debbie and I learned a lot from her about the psychology of recording vocals. Up until her I had been pretty barbaric in my approach to vocalists, like 'Get out there and sing!' Once I encountered Debbie, I learned how to soft-shoe it a little more. The vocals I got out of her I really had to fight for psychologically, and when I listen to them now I remember those sessions very clearly. They were tough times, with a lot of tears, a lot of disappearing into the bathroom for hours. She's a very emotional person and those songs meant a lot to her. When she was on — bang, it all happened really quickly. She'd never had to work hard in the recording studio prior to meeting me. She'd go in and do one pass and that was it. I'd have her out there, singing over and over again, until I felt that she had lost the plot, at which point I'd say, 'OK, that's it for today, let's try it again tomorrow.'
"Things like that didn't sit too well with her in the beginning, but it worked in the end. Musically, Blondie were hopelessly horrible when we first began rehearsing for Parallel Lines, and in terms of my attitude they didn't know what had hit them. I basically went in there like Adolf Hitler and said, 'You are going to make a great record, and that means you're going to start playing better.'"
"On Parallel Lines, I was given the responsibility by Terry Ellis to put this band at the top of the charts. He knew they could achieve that and I knew it, too, but I also knew that, given how they were when I began working with them, it might never happen. Terry said, 'Can you do it, Mike?' and I said, 'Yes, I can.' He said, 'OK, I'm going to leave you alone. You've got six months.' So I had to go in there and knock this band into shape."
In the event, the album took six weeks, not months, to record at the Record Plant in New York, before Mike Chapman and Peter Coleman opted to get away from the big city by taking care of the manual mix on an obscure Sphere console during about 10 days at a small studio named Forum in Covington, Kentucky. Indeed, since only five weeks were initially booked at the Record Plant, the final recording sessions were switched from that facility's Studio A to what Chapman now describes as "the slummy room at the top. It was a real bomb of a studio, but hey, a case of whatever we could get... There was an API console in the room that we started in, the main monitors were Westlakes, and we recorded to 24-track.
Suffering the effects of Mike Chapman's incredibly high playback volume during mixing for Parallel Lines.
"Back then, I liked pretty much any speakers that were big and loud. For nearfields, the only thing we had in those days were Auratones, and we'd normally just use one of those to check out the sound in mono, since we still had AM radio playing number one records. Then again, having grown up listening to everything on '11', I'd turn things up as loud as they could go, thinking that if it felt good and sounded good at that level it must be right. That having been said, for the early records that I produced in England I was always working on Neve consoles, and they all had that little mono speaker. Well, we would check all of our mixes back on that tiny little mono speaker. It sounded dreadful, but if your mix was good coming out of that, and at 4000 watts, then you knew you'd got it right."
Not as informed about — or interested in — recording technology as he would become once computers entered the scene, Chapman would usually remedy a sonic problem by instructing engineer Peter Coleman to "just keep turning the knobs and I'll tell you when it's right."
"I used to act dumb by using a lot of that terminology in the studio," he now admits. "I did that for two reasons: I wasn't very technically proficient because I just hadn't paid enough attention over the years; and with most bands, especially Blondie, it was important for them to see me as somebody who was fighting for performance rather than trying to make them sound spectacularly hi-fi. I was there as one of the foot soldiers."
Evidently, this approach paid off. "He was a very good producer," Jimmy Destri later remarked. "He wasn't very technical, but he was very organic and he was a very good mixer on his own, too. I mean, he knew the console like nobody else I've ever seen. He would say things like, 'Jimmy, if you shut out the lights I'll be able to EQ by ear' without even looking at the console! He taught me a lot about making records, that's what Mike did. And he was another member of the band at that point, and he was just like in there with us. And from Parallel Lines and onwards, Mike was integral, he was really integral, as we couldn't go in the studio without him. As far as the recording process of those albums goes, we all learned a lot from Mike."
Not that his input was always appreciated. Tension was often a part of Blondie's make-up, and during the Parallel Lines sessions Nigel Harrison and Mike Chapman butted heads when the producer kept pushing the bass player to improve his performance.
"We almost came to blows," Chapman recalls. "He told me, 'Shut the f*ck up! What do you know? I'm trying my best,' to which I responded, 'Well, it's not good enough.' Still, no matter who I pissed off — and Jimmy was certainly among them — the Blondies all basically knew I would get it right. They sometimes didn't like the procedure, they didn't like the amount of time they had to spend doing it, but after we'd finished Parallel Lines they understood why I did what I did and they were all very proud of the record."
In geometric terms, parallel lines conform to a pattern but they don't connect, and neither do the characters in most of the songs on the aforementioned album: Harrison and Harry's 'One Way Or Another'; Destri, Harry and Stein's 'Picture This'; Harry's 'Just Go Away'; Stein's 'Sunday Girl' and 'Fade Away And Radiate'; Harry and Stein's 'Pretty Baby' and 'Heart Of Glass'; even non-band-member Jack Lee's 'Hanging On The Telephone'.
These were supplemented by Infante's 'I Know But I Don't Know', Destri's '11:59', Lee's 'Will Anything Happen' and an energetic cover of Buddy Holly and the Crickets' 'I'm Gonna Love You Too'. And as directed by Mike Chapman and adorned with Deborah Harry's slut-next-door appeal, this added up to a platinum-selling album. Yet only some of the songs were completely written when the participants first entered the studio.
"Debbie and Chris had a great set of ears," says Chapman. "When they said they wanted to record a song, I never said, 'No', even if it was an outside song, and in this case there were three of those numbers right from the start. 'Heart Of Glass', on the other hand, was called 'Once I Had A Love' and they had it in a lot of different versions, but it wasn't right in any form."
Originally recorded by the band in 1975 with a relatively slow tempo and blues/reggae vibe, 'Once I Had A Love (aka The Disco Song)' made its way onto a digitally remastered 2001 reissue of Parallel Lines courtesy of a 1978 Chapman-produced demo.
"After they'd played me the covers, as well as some of their sketchy song ideas, I decided the first thing we should work on was 'Once I Had A Love'," Chapman now recalls. "I thought that track was the one that probably needed the most attention, because even though it was complete, it was wrong, and I knew that if we could get it right it might be a big hit. So there we were on the first day of rehearsals, in some little hole-in-the-wall on the Lower East Side, and all of the band members were being very, very cautious about having a new producer. This was not their idea, they would have gone back to Richard Gottehrer. And although they knew who I was and what I'd accomplished, they didn't quite understand what was going to happen. Neither did I.
"In discussing what to do with 'Once I Had A Love' I tried to include everybody, and after we played it a few times I said, 'Let's get rid of the reggae.' We then tried to do it as straight rock, but that didn't work, and I could see Debbie was getting a bit frustrated. So, I asked her, 'Debbie, what kind of music that's happening right now really turns you on?' She said, 'Donna Summer.' I said, 'OK, then how about us treating this song like it was meant for Donna Summer?' Thay all looked at me as if to say, 'What?' I said, 'Well, it's disco, right?' 'Yeah, it's disco,' they mumbled, but when Debbie then said, 'I like disco,' the others basically went along with it.
"Anyway, we fooled around with the song, and after a couple of hours of very intensive work we had it sounding pretty much the way it sounds today. We had a little Roland drum machine, and I said, 'Why don't we just put a groove together in this and play along to it?'
"At the same time, we also changed the title. I said, 'You can't call it 'Once I Had A Love'. The hook line in there is 'heart of glass'. Let's call it 'Heart Of Glass'.' So that's how the song evolved, and after leaving the studio that day all of us were on the street, getting cabs or whatever, and Debbie walked alongside me and said, 'Mike, I really like what you did with 'Heart Of Glass'.' 'Thanks, Deb.' 'You're welcome.' We had broken the ice. Still, recording 'Heart Of Glass' was tortuous. In those days, we didn't have MIDI, so we used the Roland drum machine and, because I added a time change in the middle, I had to actually sing through the song with that thing going at the same time, and then press the button to stop and start it again so that we were on the right beat."
"You see, 'Heart Of Glass' was the only track that we put together piece by piece. Everything else was played together as a band, and since we didn't use click tracks for that whole album I set up a mic in the middle of the room. Debbie didn't want to sing scratch vocals, and I didn't want her to, either, because it would have blasted her voice. So while she and Peter Coleman sat in the control room and laughed at me, I would be in the live area with the rest of the band, keeping time and singing scratch vocals for all of the songs. I was isolated and wore a set of headphones, and I'd say, 'OK, here we go. Count it off, Clem, and watch me for your time.' Then I'd launch straight into it, getting very nasally while screaming and jumping up and down, and when I'd look into the control room Debbie would be in fits of laughter because I looked so stupid. We didn't have video cameras in those days — I wish we had. It was entertainment for her.
"I had all the energy that the band needed. You know, 'Just take the energy from me.' That's why I liked to stand in the middle of the room with them and conduct and sing and scream and jump up and down. I didn't care if it ended up leaking onto the drum mics so long as the performance was right and the groove felt good. Never mind if I was completely out of tune. I'm sure that the vibe I gave off was part of the reason they were able to put that into the track.
"I basically served as the drum machine on most of the songs, whereas on 'Heart Of Glass' we used the Roland. It took us ages to get that part right. Then, when it came to the real drums, we had to record them one piece at a time, which none of us had ever done before. They were all looking at me like, 'Wow, this is cool. We're experimenting.' I said, 'Let's just have fun with this,' and by the end of that first day we had all of Clem's drums down. We put the kick drum down first, then a hi-hat after that, followed by a snare... He didn't want to do it this way at all, and he was very, very moody, but Debbie and Chris were running the show and they said, 'Just do it.' He hated it, and he probably still does, but at the end of that first day we had a great drum track and we all knew it.
"After that we put down sequenced parts with various different keyboards, trying to incorporate that Donna Summer vibe, and then we added lots of Chris's guitars with echoes on them. At that point I realised everybody was actually having fun with this track. Having made hit records for the past seven years, I had a handle on what I was trying to accomplish, and I knew that with each piece that we added we were getting closer and closer to our goal — which was to have this incredible track that didn't sound like anything else. It was a combination of all sorts of different things, and although Debbie's voice and the song's structure meant it was Blondie, it was Blondie as they had never sounded before. When Debbie sang it, she really did become Donna Summer, and I thought it was good that the track wasn't like anything else that was on the album."
At the Record Plant, the recording setup for Parallel Lines was a traditional one. The drums were miked with a Neumann U47 on the kick and KM84s on the toms, snare and hi-hat, along with a couple of U87s overhead.
"After the basic track was cut, we'd go through the whole thing and tighten up the kick drum with the snare, by way of pencil erasing," Chapman says. "That meant using a pencil to hold the tape away from the head and erasing up to the kick drum. If a bass part was ahead of the kick, you could erase it so that it sounded like it was on top of the kick. That's very easy to do these days, but back then it was quite a procedure just to get the bottom end sounding nice and tight."
While the bass combined a DI signal with that from Nigel Harrison's amp, and the DI/amp method was also applied to recording Jimmy Destri's Farfisa synth, Frank Infante's Les Paul was recorded with a combination of Shure SM57 and AKG 414 mics on his Marshall cabinet.
"Chris had all kinds of weird and wonderful guitars," Chapman remembers, "and he also had some weird amps, although he liked Fenders, too. He didn't care so long as it sounded good in the control room."
Once the basic track was recorded, this would be followed by the lead vocal, backing vocals and then overdubs, and while there'd be plenty of the latter on subsequent albums, in the case of Parallel Lines it was rare for a song to utilise all 24 tracks. Not that this was always obvious in advance. Many of the songs, such as 'Sunday Girl', 'Picture This' and 'One Way Or Another', were still only half-written when the rehearsals took place, the last-mentioned simply comprising a riff with no melody or lyrics.
"Debbie started writing that song during the rehearsals and it was finished just prior to going into the studio," Chapman explains. "Then again, I don't think the lyrics to 'Sunday Girl' were written until we got to the studio, and the same probably applied to 'Picture This'. I also remember 'Fade Away And Radiate' being very sketchy at the rehearsal and Chris repeatedly saying, 'I want to get Robert Fripp, I want to get Robert Fripp'. I was thinking, 'Oh heavens, no! Who knows what he'll do?' As things turned out, having his guitar part was a good idea.
"'Pretty Baby' was in fairly good shape, but, as with many of the songs, Debbie didn't finish writing the lyrics until we were in the studio. In fact, a lot of the time she was still scratching out lyrics when I was asking her, 'Are you ready to sing?' 'Yeah, just a minute...' Some classic songs were quickly knocked out like that by our Debbie."
"It's like the old days for me," says Mike Chapman with regard to producing LA 'blast pop' band the Automatic Music Explosion, among numerous recent new-artist projects. "Unlike alternative groups like the White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who I think are wonderful, today's emo-style bands are so contrived, all doing the same thing as each other. There's nothing special about them, whereas AME is like stepping back into the past with a fresh approach. It's pure pop music, they're great musicians, they put on a great live show and the whole album rocks like hell."
That's quite an endorsement from a man who, in addition to following Parallel Lines with three more Blondie albums — Eat To The Beat (1979), Autoamerican (1980) and The Hunter (1982) — helmed projects during the '80s and '90s by Deborah Harry, the Divinyls, Lita Ford, Rod Stewart, Altered Images and Bow Wow Wow. After splitting with songwriting partner Nicky Chinn, Chapman also enjoyed compositional success with Tina Turner's 'Simply The Best' and Pat Benatar's 'Love Is A Battlefield' (both co-written with Holly Knight). And now, based on the East Coast, with a resumé that includes 140 Top Ten hits and estimated worldwide sales of 350 million records, he has "fallen in love with the whole package" that comprises AME: singer/songwriter/guitarist Matt Starr, lead guitarist Chris Price, bass player Jeff Covey, drummer The Max and singer/tambourine player Jodie Schell.
"Jodie's got an awesome presence onstage and an amazing, animal-like voice that can also sound cool, controlled and extremely sexy," he remarks. "When I saw Matt Starr basically running the show with his boundless energy, I knew that all I had to do was make a great record. We all know, in this day and age, that the music business is floundering. Nobody knows what they're doing, nobody knows where it's going, and everybody's so focused on so many things that nobody's focused on anything. With this band, and a number of other bands that I'm contemplating working with right now, all I need to do is focus on what I've always focused on: great songs and making a great pop record. And if I can pull that off, then no matter what the business is doing there will be a place for it.
"I believe that the old fashioned way of making pop records is still the best way, and so we cut these tracks on two-inch tape and dumped everything into the 48-track Otari Radar setup at my house where, in a Westlake-style room that I designed, there's also a 48-channel SSL K-Series console, two Otari MTR90 multitrack machines and a full-blown HD Pro Tools setup — I don't use Pro Tools, but since everybody else does, I have that to transfer stuff into my Radar. While the main speakers are custom-designed Radians, I still use [Yamaha] NS10s to monitor, and I recorded AME all-live just the same way as I've always done it, in the room together, and then comp'd each song from the best two or three takes.
"They know these songs back to front, and so the whole thing took a couple of weeks. No click tracks, just honest, straight-ahead rock & roll performances. That's what the business needs and that's what I'm coming back for. I work with a lot of young artists these days — the new artists are all I care about — and they're not letting anything stop them. The spirit is alive out there. They're still playing and they're still writing, and if the business could just figure things out, there are still people like me who can make great records with these kids. I'm telling you, there's a dozen bands that I've found in the last 12 months that I could put in the charts..."
One number for which she didn't have to put pen to paper was Parallel Lines ' dynamic opening track, 'Hanging On The Telephone', which was also the opener on a 1976 EP by guitarist Jack Lee's short-lived LA power pop trio, the Nerves. Blondie had shared a bill with the Nerves on one of their first visits to the West Coast, and they had already worked on the song by the time they introduced it to Mike Chapman.
"That track was magic from the beginning," he says. "Unlike some of the others, it was an easy one to cut because it was more like Blondie's normal, frantic sort of style, and I also vibed it up a lot. Initially, they didn't know quite how much to put into it, but I told them, 'Look, this is more like the stuff on your first two records. Let's give it that sort of punk/new wave attitude.' I knew that the energy level on that track would make or break it. If we didn't have that energy we'd miss the point, because the musical structure of the song is very tense — it sits you on the end of your chair, and we had to have a track that did the same thing.
"They were all very much into giving it that full-on energy, and of course this was Clem's favourite way of playing. If he really liked something, that in itself added extra energy. So, I think we did four takes and I then took the best one to work on and fix things. If there was a guitar mistake or a bass mistake, we'd punch in and out. In those days, I didn't cut the tape a lot like I'd do later on."
While Burke's sharp drumming and Nigel Harrison's pumping bass are punctuated by Frank Infante's electrifying, punk-edged guitar lines, 'Hanging On The Telephone' is nevertheless powered right from the start by Deborah Harry's energetic, in-your-face vocals as she spits out the song's staccato-style opening lines with machine-gun rapidity: "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 there, but I just had to call..."
"Debbie always got it right away whenever I tried to describe what to do, but a lot of the phrasing was totally down to her," Chapman states. "She has a strange way of delivering certain phrases, and I found myself accepting things from her that I never would have accepted from anyone else. I would have had other people change it, whereas with her I'd think, 'No, no, no, I've got to leave it like that,' or else it just wouldn't be her. For instance, in 'Hanging On The Telephone', the lines 'I heard your mother now she's going out the door. Did she go to work or just go to the store?' — I remember listening to those and thinking, 'This is the dumbest lyric I've ever heard.' However, it was so dumb, it was beautiful, it was brilliant, and when Debbie then sang it in her inimitable way it suddenly sounded even funnier. It just sounded like the weirdest, most bizarre thing I'd ever heard."
"I can't remember all of the specific phrasing issues, but I know there were many times with different songs where Debbie would phrase something in a very strange way and I'd think, 'Well, if I change that and make it normal, I'm going to take some of the character out of her voice.' It was always very important to me with the Blondies in general to present them the way they were. This wasn't a band that you messed around with or tried to reconfigure or reconstruct. Either it was going to work or it wasn't, and 'Hanging On The Telephone' was one of those cases of 'Just get out there and play it full-on!'
"I used to say to them, 'Think of being onstage. Imagine you're playing this to an audience, because we're trying to record something that you're going to have to listen to for the rest of your lives. So if this is not a high-energy performance, you're going to say, "How come we now do it better live than on the record?"' So many bands end up saying things like that: 'How come it always sounds better live?' Well, that's never going to happen with me as a producer. And in the case of 'Hanging On The Telephone', that's probably the best track on the album in terms of energy, although 'One Way Or Another' has a similar edge."
Once Harry's lead vocal had been recorded and comp'd, she and Chapman then contributed the backing vocals, with him harmonising an octave under her on the chorus title line, as well as on the 'whoa-oh' chants as she insists, "Hang up and run to me," and the song races breathlessly towards its manic finale.
"That 'whoa-oh' backing was something that I came up with because I felt that it just sort of added even more energy to the end of the song," Chapman recalls. "Then, after we had the track down, I said, 'You know, we should put a telephone ring on the front of this.' The Blondies all thought that was stupid and too gimmicky, but I said, 'C'mon, guys! Gimmicky? This is Blondie. Let's give it a try!' I told Peter Coleman to call anyone he knew in London in order to record a British phone ring, and then once we stuck that on the front of the song they all went, 'Oh, yeah, that does sound pretty cool.' It certainly heightens the impact of the opening: the ring, then a pause and — wallop! — in it comes.
"That's the magic of Parallel Lines. Every track is perfect from top to bottom, and it's a beautiful album because it works in every respect. It's hard to find a flaw in it, and there aren't many records during your career that you can say that about."
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