That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
If you’re a fan of power pop – roughly speaking, the place where early rock n’ roll, ‘60s bubblegum, and the British Invasion converge – then Blondie probably ranks high on your list of faves. Refracting modern rock through multiple lenses – ’50s pop, ’60s girl groups and ’70s punk, to name a few – the band sucked you in with clever, poppy melodies while maintaining a distance sharpened by dark, ironic humor.
If it doesn’t quite represent their commercial peak, the band’s 1978 album Parallel Lines is without much doubt their finest work, crashing out of the gate with “Hanging on the Telephone,” a near-perfect snapshot of illicit romance and sexual frustration, come and gone in 2 minutes 17 seconds.
For those who were still on the fence after Blondie’s hit-or-miss second album, Plastic Letters, “Hanging on the Telephone” sealed the deal. It helped send the third album to #6 in the US, #2 in Australia and straight to #1 in the UK. But even diehard fans are often unaware of one little detail about this most rocking of Blondie’s songs: They didn’t actually write it.
That honor goes to Jack Lee, of short-lived LA power-pop band the Nerves (not to be confused with either the ‘90s-vintage Chicago band or more recent Minneapolis group of the same name).
If you’ve never heard of the Nerves, join the club. The band’s only release during their lifetime was a single four-song EP in 1976, which included “Hanging on the Telephone.” But if their recorded legacy is slim, the band was nothing if not industrious, opening for the Ramones during a tour of the U.S. and Canada, and giving many first-wave L.A. punk bands opening slots of their own.
In 1978, after four grueling and commercially unrewarding years, the band disintegrated. Bassist Peter Case would go on to success with the Plimsouls (of “A Million Miles Away” fame), while drummer Paul Collins went on to found the Beat (not to be confused with the English Beat).
According to a 2007 interview in Mojo Magazine, around this time guitarist Jack Lee was nearly destitute. Ironically, on the very day his electricity and telephone service were due to be cut off, he received a call from Blondie’s Deborah Harry – an acquaintance since the two bands shared a stage during one of the New York band’s first West Coast tours – asking if the band could record a cover of “Hanging on the Telephone.” He said yes. Eventually, another Lee composition – “Will Anything Happen?” -would become Track 2, Side 2 of Parallel Lines.
Presumably, Lee’s financial woes were soon a thing of the past. Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone” 7” release failed to dent the US charts, but went to #5 in the UK. And, as noted earlier, the album itself went on to huge international success, being certified platinum in the US in 2008.
Of course, we won’t presume to dive into an aesthetic morass by claiming Blondie’s version is the definitive one (though it is) but the song has also had a busy afterlife, being covered a surprisingly diverse cast of would-be successors.
To be fair, most don’t significantly alter the structure, tempo or feel of the better-known Blondie version. But some versions deserve honorable mentions.
Def Leppard – Hanging on the Telephone
Not even pop-metal superstars Def Leppard were immune to the song’s charm, though their version doesn’t stray far from the Nerves / Blondie versions.
Acid Reign – Hanging on the Telephone
English metalloids Acid Reign turn in what must rank as the fastest version of the song, clocking in at 1:42.
Jolly Boys – Hanging on the Telephone
“Hanging on the Telephone” is somewhat of an odd choice for Jamaica’s Jolly Boys, seeing as the mento band—a Jamaican folk music style akin to calypso—began performing around the time the members of Blondie were in diapers.
Cat Power – Hanging on the Telephone
Finally, melancholy American neo-folksinger Cat Power performed a lovely take on the song. Or rather, a take on a take: Her version is only an excerpt, recorded for, unsurprisingly, a mobile phone commercial. One imagines that Jack Lee remains grateful.