“Hanging on the Telephone” couldn’t really sound more like a Blondie original if it tried. Right from the start it has all that Blondie power, tempered with the impatience of their preceeding single “Picture This”, and along with Harry’s deadpan vocal and those searing, walking guitar lines – it couldn’t have really be written by anyone else could it?
“Hanging on the Telephone” actually started life about 3000 miles from Blondie’s beloved NYC, as slice of West Coast power pop. Written by guitarist and songwriter Jack Lee, it was recorded by his band The Nerves for their one and only self financed EP in 1976.
Originally from San Francisco, The Nerves had moved to Los Angeles in the mid 1970s. Playing a brand of unfussy but compelling power pop, the band took the uncommon step of DIYing their own releases and shows. Too early to be considered punk, their songs gained attention in what were becoming early punk circles, and the band played shows alongside The Ramones, The Diodes and The Screamers amongst others.
Despite increasingly positive press coverage, after an especially arduous tour in 1977, which saw the band driving almost 25,000 miles across America in a Ford LTD, The Nerves imploded.
Originally written and recorded in 1975 at the Different Fur studios in San Francisco, the lyrics were allegedly inspired by the tense relationship Jack Lee was having with his future mother in law.
So how did this delicious slice of perfect pop end up with Blondie?
Rumour 1 has it that it was Blondie friend and associate Jeffrey Lee Piece, later of The Gun Club, who passed a cassette mix tape onto the band during his tenure as President of Blondie’s US fan club. And Rumour 2 states that Blondie had come across The Nerves all on their own, during one of their own early tour dates on the West Coast.
Take your pick.
After two good, but not great LPs, Chrysalis had decided to put Blondie into the studio with producer Mike Chapman. Chapman had been behind more hits than hot dinners in 1970s UK chartland. As a writer and producer at Mickie Most’s RAK studios he’d worked with Suzi Quatro, Sweet, Mud, and Smokie producing 12 monster hit records a year at one point. Mike knew how to take a good song that extra mile and turn it into a hit record.
In an interview with Richard Buskin in SoundOnSound in 2009, Mike had this to say about recording “Hanging on the Telephone” during the Parallel Lines sessions in New York;
“That track was magic from the beginning, 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”.
“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, she has a strange way of delivering certain phrases …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.”
“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!… 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.”
“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. 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”.
Blondie were so taken with Jack Lee’s songs from that first self produced Nerves EP, that they even recorded another track, namely “Will Anything Happen?” for the B-Side. Blondie’s version of the Chapman produced Nerves song “Hanging on the Telephone” took them to No. 5 in the UK charts in 1978.
But what of Jack? Possibly still recovering from the 25,000 road trip, Jack quietly retired from music but not before releasing his own LP “Jack Lee’s Greatest Hits Volume 1”, and taking the time to write “Come Back and Stay” for Paul Young in 1981. Jack still very occassionally plays shows as Jack Lee’s Inferno, and tracks by Jack and by The Nerves have been subject to various re-issues over the years. They are still highly regarded and the original EP is very hard to find.
It’s a fantastic slice of classic power pop and if you’ve got a guitar handy, this tutorial not only shows you how to play “Hanging on the Telephone”, it also highlights some of the subtle differences between The Nerves original, and the more polished Blondie version.