In 1979 Blondie, the New York band fronted by Debbie Harry, had their first US hit with “Heart of Glass”,a propulsive, glitter-smothered track about a love affair gone wrong, and a shoo-in for radio playlists. It was a bold new sound for the new-wavers whose first album had combined Sixties pop melodies with choppy guitars and a snarly attitude. Blondie played regularly at the punk mecca CBGB, and hung around with Television, The Ramones and the New York Dolls. With “Heart of Glass” they had gone full disco, and not everyone was happy about it.
The beginnings of the song had emerged five years earlier. Harry and her partner and bandmate Chris Stein had written a new track inspired by The Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat”,but weren’t keen on the result. “We tried it as a ballad, as reggae, but it never quite worked,” Harry said in 2013. “At that point, it had no title. We just called it ‘The Disco Song’.” And so they shelved the demo until 1977 when they played it to Mike Chapman, who was producing their third album, Parallel Lines. He spied a hit, and suggested they rearrange it with what he called “a Donna Summer vibe”. This sat well with Harry, who had been known to cover Summer’s “I Feel Love” at gigs.
The final version of “Heart of Glass” was an irresistible collision of Giorgio Moroder-esque synth and Harry’s dreamily dispassionate vocals. In a symbolic merging of rock and disco, a Roland CR-78 drum machine was laid over live drums in the studio — no small achievement, given they had to be synchronised manually.
The song tells of a lover who was “a gas” and “seemed like the real thing” but turns out to be untrustworthy. Unusually, his betrayal is met not by heartbreak but a resigned shrug. As Harry told Q magazine, “I was tired of hearing girl singers write or sing about being beaten by love. So I said, ‘Well listen, there are also a lot of girls who just walk away.’”
“Heart of Glass” went to number one in the UK and the US. The band appeared on the front of Rolling Stone, and Andy Warhol threw them a party at Studio 54. But feathers were ruffled. These were tribal times for musicians and their fans, and the song had arrived in the build-up to the Disco Sucks! campaign, which culminated in dinosaur rockists blowing up records at Chicago’s Comiskey Park baseball stadium during the so-called Disco Demolition Night.
Shortly after the song’s release as a single, The New York Times reported it had “appalled Blondie’s fans and fellow musicians on the underground new‐wave scene” — so much so that bassist Nigel Harrison felt compelled to apologize for their “compromise with commerciality”. Clem Burke, Blondie’s drummer, initially refused to play it live, though he relented when it became a hit. Stein stood firm, meanwhile, and shrugged off the criticism. “It’s not selling out,” he said. “It’s only one song.”
In December 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the song number 255 on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. It was ranked at number 259 when the list was updated in April 2010. Slant Magazine placed it at number 42 on their list of the greatest dance songs of all time and Pitchfork named it the 18th best song of the 1970s.
In 2018, “Heart of Glass” ranked at number 66 in the UK’s official list of biggest selling singles of all-time, with sales of 1.32 million copies.
These days “Heart of Glass” is viewed as a classic, one that broke down musical barriers and paved the way for the crossover hits of the future. Fittingly, it now lives on across different genres. The opening verse was borrowed by Tricky for his 1998 B-side “Anti Histamine”, sung in typically ghostly fashion by his collaborator Martina Topley-Bird, while the intro is sampled in the rhythm trackfor Missy Elliott’s 2002 hit “Work It”.
There have been mash-ups: the Crabtree Remix, from producer Jonas Crabtree, combined elements of “Heart of Glass” with the second movement of Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto, with wonderfully haunting results (you can find it on the soundtrack of the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale). Meanwhile ABX of The Hood Internet amalgamated it with Arcade Fire’s 2010 song “Sprawl II”— Harry later performed both tracks with Arcade Fire at Coachella festival.
Cover versions have been suitably plentiful, if variable in quality. Scottish post-punks The Associates nailed it with their 1988 version that stuck close to the original, though the same can’t be said for Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen, who did a comically awful cover, complete with naff house arrangement from French producer Bob Sinclar, as a charity single for the clothing brand H&M in 2014.
Miley Cyrus’ shard-rocking effort from last year’s virtual iHeartRadio festival (later made available as a single) was undoubtedly an improvement. Indeed, with its swaggering guitar line and rasping vocals, Cyrus’s version is probably closer to what the disgruntled 1970s fans who railed against Blondie’s disco experiment wanted all along. In what could be a compliment, but might equally be construed as a veiled insult, Harry decreed that Cyrus had made the song “uniquely hers”.
Watch the video below to learn more about Blondie and their hit song, Heart Of Glass!