The Story Behind The Song
Los Angeles, one Friday afternoon in 1978. A disconsolate Jack Lee sits alone in his apartment, waiting for the phone and electricity to be disconnected. It could have been different. Lee had been a guitarist with The Nerves. Formed in LA in 1975, they delivered a highly charged garage rock and toured with The Ramones and Mink Deville. An eponymous EP failed to chart, the group imploded, and Lee's dream of making it in the music industry had turned to dust. Now he was staring at financial ruin and a desperate future.
The phone rings. For all he knew, it would be his last call for some time. He picks up, expecting more bad news. It's a familiar voice: Debbie Harry of Blondie, an acquaintance since The Nerves shared a stage during one of Blondie's first tours on the West Coast. She asks to cover one of his songs from The Nerves EP. "Which one?" he asks. He realises the irony when Harry replies, "Hanging On The Telephone".
By the time he put the phone down, Lee's fortunes had suddenly changed for the better. Indeed, through Blondie, the Nerves influence in the music industry would be far greater than their ephemeral career would suggest because the frenetic and catchy Hanging On The Telephone would be a standout song on Parallel Lines, Blondie's multi-million selling album. It is a tribute to the original that the cover closely follows it, even copying the British telephone ring at the beginning, but the production of Mike Chapman and Harry's energetic vocals and coursing attitude gives the edge to the latter.
Blondie's version was released in October 1978. Lasting a little over two minutes, it packs a powerful punch; the high tempo power pop and Harry's performance conveying the sexual frustration of the lyrics. The single was backed with "Will Anything Happen?" – another Jack Lee composition. Indeed, such was Lee's contribution, one could say that he was an unofficial group member for this single.
Our appreciation of Blondie's version is also a hat-tip to the excellent original by The Nerves. Not surprisingly, Lee regretted that his version was not the hit it deserved to be; instead of launching his career, it helped propel Blondie to stardom. Indeed, after a string of hits in 1978, Hanging On The Telephone cued up Blondie to be one of the biggest acts in the UK over the next two years. But at least the financial rewards reaped from having written two tracks on Blondie's biggest album meant that Lee could hang on the telephone for as long as he wanted without fear of the telecom company disconnecting it.
We hereby instate Hanging On The Telephone by Blondie on The Wall as No. 3 Best Single of 1978.
When I saw the video for this song I was transfixed. To the 16-year-old me Debbie Harry was a jaw-dropping, sexual fantasy. Putting that to one side, I think this is a classy cover and Debbie delivers one of the most powerful vocal performances of her career. Dave B