How Blondie rescued a song from obscurity and turned it into a breakthrough classic

Blondie group photo
(Image credit: Maureen Donaldson/Getty Images)

As with The Paragons’ 1967 rocksteady tune The Tide Is High, which Blondie also covered, Hanging On The Telephone is also often mistaken as a Blondie composition. The original version was released in 1976 by pioneering power-pop-punk trio The Nerves as part of their sole release, a four-track EP on LA’s Bomp! Records, a label with a rich archive of proto-punk releases whose impressive roster included Iggy & The Stooges, The Germs, Devo and Stiv Bators & The Dead Boys, among others. 

The Nerves were short-lived. They were fronted by vocalist/guitarist Jack Lee, who wrote Hanging On The Telephone, a song about his interfering mother-in-law, in 1973. With its drive and urgency, it sounds like the Buzzcocks in a ruck with the Stooges. In the DIY punk spirit, The Nerves embarked on a huge US tour that included dates playing support to The Ramones

But the strain and the cost of the trek finally did for the group. They split in 1978, just months before Blondie released Hanging On The Telephone as a track on their breakthrough album Parallel Lines in September of the same year, and as a single the following month. 

Blondie first became aware of the Nerves’ track via punk rock subculture aficionado Jeffrey Lee Pierce (of post-punk psychobilly rockers the Gun Club). He gave his friends Debbie Harry and Chris Stein a cassette mixtape of recent faves, which they played when on tour in Tokyo. Upon returning to the US to record Parallel Lines, and hearing that The Nerves had split, they decided to record a cover of Hanging On The Telephone.

Speaking to Mojo in 2007, Jack Lee recalled receiving the request from Debbie Harry. “I remember the day vividly,” said Lee. “It was a Friday. They were going to cut off our electricity at six o’clock – the phone too.” 

Parallel Lines was overseen by celebrated glam-rock producer Mike Chapman, who insisted on including the 70s-era ringing telephone intro to Hanging On The Telephone. The cover version he delivered was highly polished – especially compared with the stripped-back original. But Blondie’s version doesn’t lose any of the original’s swagger. It embellishes the song with Jimmy Destri’s futuristic-sounding synth fills and a twin-guitar attack from Stein and Frank Infante. 

As one of the ultimate new wave tracks of the post-punk era, there’s no argument that Blondie didn’t make Hanging On The Telephone their very own. Of course, it helped that The Nerves’ original version was generally unheard – if not unknown – in 1978. In the UK at least, Hanging On The Telephone became synonymous with Parallel Lines. The single reached No.5 in the UK, which helped make Parallel Lines Blondie’s first ever No.1 album.

A regular contributor to Louder/Classic Rock and The Quietus, Burrows began his career in 1979 with a joke published in Whizzer & Chips. In the early 1990s he self-published a punk/comics zine, then later worked for Cycling Plus, Redline, MXUK, MP3, Computer Music, Metal Hammer and Classic Rock magazines. He co-wrote Anarchy In the UK: The Stories Behind the Anthems of Punk with the late, great Steven Wells and adapted gothic era literature into graphic novels. He also had a joke published in Viz. He currently works in creative solutions, lives in rural Oxfordshire and plays the drums badly.