“Everyone was like, ‘Blondie’s gone disco!’” drummer Clem Burke recalled of the group’s first number one hit.
It was spring 1979, when the rallying cry among rockers everywhere was “Disco Sucks!” New wave and punk bands joined the growing united front against what they heard as mechanized, soulless music, spitting out now-forgotten rants like “Kill The Bee Gees” and “Disco Zombies.” In one infamous incident, thousands of hard-line rock and punk fans burned piles of dance records at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in a “Disco Demolition Night.”
So for Blondie, whose previous hits had been mod-flavored rockers like “Hanging On The Telephone,” to suddenly be in league with the Brothers Gibb, if only in spirit, was seen as high treason.
But then, the New York quintet was never fully embraced by the doctrinaire crowd at CBGB’s, ground zero for America’s punk movement. Too poppy and too pretty by far, they carved out their own niche, mashing Carnaby Street, Phil Spector, burlesque and art school cool into a sexy package.
“Heart Of Glass,” originally entitled “Once I Had A Love (The Disco Song),” had been lurking in the band’s set for years. “We’d had it kicking around for a while,” said Debbie Harry, “and used to play it in bars as far back as ’74 or ‘75.”
And the band’s affection for disco music was no big secret. Burke said, “We all used to hang out at Club 82 in New York, which was essentially a gay disco. And in the early days, we used to cover songs like ‘Lady Marmalade’ and ‘I Feel Love.’”
Bent on establishing a rougher-edged identity on their first two albums, Blondie kept “The Disco Song” in reserve for a future session. In early 1978, as they entered the Record Plant in New York for album number three, the time was right.
“Everyone has a different theory about ‘Heart Of Glass,’” Burke said. “If you talk to our producer, Mike Chapman, he’ll say he revamped the song. I know two of the big influences behind revamping the song were Kraftwerk and for me, ‘Stayin’ Alive.’ To this day, that is one of my favorite songs, as unpunk as that sounds. I think it’s a great record. I was trying to get that groove that J.R. Robinson did for the Bee Gees.”
Burke shared the drumming duties with a newfangled machine called the Roland Compu-Rhythm CR-78. “It was one of the early drum machines, and it took forever to program it,” Harry said. “We had to practically record each beat by hand.”
Still, a little punk attitude seeped through to subvert the straight dance rhythm. “The instrumental bridge skips a beat,” said Burke. “That’s the anti-disco part. To screw people up when they’re on the dance floor.” In the fadeout, Burke also pounded out some decidedly un-disco fills that paid tribute to his idol, Keith Moon.
Though the band thought “Heart Of Glass” was catchy (“We only did it as a novelty to put more diversity into the album,” Chris Stein said), Mike Chapman convinced them to place it deep in the running order of their album, Parallel Lines. “We buried the song in the middle of side two,” Chapman said. “I didn’t want their fans to hear it too early on the record and think, ‘Oh, Jesus, they’ve become a disco band.’”
Chrysalis Records hated “Heart Of Glass,” along with all of Parallel Lines, delivering the old death blow line: “We don’t hear a single.” There turned out to be three Top 40 hits, including “One Way Or Another” and “Dreaming.”
Though MTV was still two years away, the video for “Heart Of Glass,” with its jump-cut editing and enraptured close-ups of Harry’s kewpie-doll face (oh, those lips), helped propel the song up the charts.
When it went number one in March 1979, Andy Warhol threw a party for the band at the posh disco club Studio 54. There was a Blondie backlash in the music press, and from some of their former CBGB compadres, begrudging them their success. Even Blondie bassist Nigel Harrison sheepishly called the song “a compromise with commerciality.”
But Burke saw it differently. “Disco had room for everybody. It was an integrated scene, whereas the punk scene had tunnel vision.”
“‘Heart of Glass’ wasn’t really a disco song anyway,” Harry said. “It had disco elements, and I think that was repulsive to a lot of people. But we always wanted to experiment and try different things.”
The band went their separate ways in 1982. Harry had an uneven solo career. Stein fought off a long illness that sidelined him for much of the decade. Burke played with Iggy Pop, Eurythmics and the Romantics. Blondie reunited in 1998, and have released two albums since then.
As for “Heart Of Glass,” Burke said, “We’ve stripped it down, and taken the synths out. On our last tour of England, we were doing a version that kind of sounded like the Darkness, believe it or not. But it’s the one song that is always in our set list, no matter what.”
Maybe disco didn’t suck after all.