Hanging on the Telephone original
The Hanging on the Telephone original found on a mixtape
In 1973, Jack Lee wrote “Hanging on the Telephone” for his band, the Nerves. The band released the “Hanging on the Telephone” original on their self-titled 1976 EP, but it was a commercial failure. Despite their limited lifespan and success, the Nerves were ahead of their time. They became founding members of the US West Coast power pop and new wave scenes. Blondie discovered the “Hanging on the Telephone” original on a mixtape and recorded their version in 1978. It was an international hit.
The Nerves, vanguard of the LA power pop scene
Formed in 1974, the Nerves consisted of guitarist Lee, drummer Paul Collins and bass-player Peter Case. All three band members composed and sang. In the mid-70s, the Nerves played jangly guitar-based songs with great hooks. This was the sound of 1979, but in 1975 it was considered unusual. Largely ignored by the west coast rock clubs, Collins served as the Nerves’ manager, booking and promoting the band’s gigs. In 1976, the Nerves moved from San Francisco to LA.
The Nerves provided a focal point for LA’s emerging punk scene, promoting and financing their own concerts as well as those of other early punk groups. They encapsulated the Do It Yourself ethos that marked the late 70s indie scene by financing and releasing their only EP on their own label Bomp! Records. The Nerves’ self-titled EP featured four songs, two of which Lee composed. It didn’t receive mainstream attention, but was admired amongst punk and power-pop circles.
The groundbreaking Hanging on the Telephone original
Recorded in 1975 at the Different Fur studio in San Francisco, the “Hanging on the Telephone” original appeared as the lead track on the Nerves’ EP. If you listen to it today, it sounds like many other songs from the late 70s. But it was groundbreaking for 1976.
Like the Blondie version, the “Hanging on the Telephone” original starts with a dial tone. It then launches into a pumping bass and angular guitar attack. It’s a rawer, more punk, sound than its more famous cover.
The indie band life
In 1977, the Nerves became the first independent band to tour the US (and Toronto). They covered nearly twenty-five thousand miles in a 1969 Ford LTD wagon and played with bands like the Ramones, the Diodes and Mink DeVille. These self-financed tours put a strain on the Nerves though. They debanded in 1978, less than a year before Blondie made “Hanging on the Telephone” into an international hit.
Lee felt disappointed that the “Hanging on the Telephone” original wasn’t a hit. But he’d always recognised the potential of his song.
Even people who hated me – and there were plenty – had to admit it was great.”Jack Lee
Case and Collins went on to front the Plimsouls (who had a Billboard Top 100 hit with “A Million Miles Away”) and the Beat (the American Beat, not the English one), respectively.
In 1981, Lee released a solo album, Jack Lee’s Greatest Hits Volume 1. The album featured re-worked recordings of Nerves songs and new material. He also wrote three songs that appeared on British singer Paul Young’s 1983 album No Parlez, including “Come Back and Stay”. No Parlez sold three million copies and “Come Back and Stay” was an international hit. Today Lee performs annually with his group Jack Lee Inferno.
In 2008, Alive Records re-released the Nerves’ EP on vinyl and CD. It’s considered a collectors item.
Blondie discovers the Hanging on the Telephone original
Jeffrey Lee Pierce, lead singer of the Gun Club and President of the West Coast Blondie fan club, gave Blondie a cassette tape compilation which included the “Hanging on the Telephone” original.
We were playing it in the back of a taxicab in Tokyo, and the taxicab driver started tapping his hand on the steering wheel. When we came back to the US, we found that the Nerves weren’t together anymore and we said, ‘Gee, we should record this.'”Deborah Harry
Recoding Blondie’s version
Deborah Harry rang Lee to ask about recording “Hanging on the Telephone”. At the time, he was struggling financially and readily agreed.
I remember the day vividly. It was a Friday. They were going to cut off our electricity at six o’clock, the phone too.”Jack Lee, Mojo magazine, 2007
Producer Mike Chapman beefed up the sound and worked Blondie hard to produce a polished version of “Hanging on the Telephone”. He tightened the rhythm section with a double backbeat and got Harry to belt out her lyrics. Frank Infante’s guitaring is sharp and the complete product infectious. Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone” is more produced-sounding than the Nerves’ version but a lot of the original sound remains. Both vocalists sing at the same pitch and both songs come in at just under two minutes.
Success and legacy
“Hanging on the Telephone” was Blondie’s second single on their platinum-selling album third Parallel Lines. It failed to chart in the US, but made it to number five in the UK in November 1978. This was the first Blondie song to reach the UK top ten. Music critics praised “Hanging on the Telephone”, many citing it as one of Blondie’s best.
Blondie make this song their own by injecting a previously absent sense of urgency to the build, with Harry’s tone developing from stern to desperate as she begs: ‘Hang up and run to me.'”The Independent
While the Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone” original was more groundbreaking for its time, the Blondie version made “Hanging on the Telephone” a rock standard. Bands like L7, Def Leppard and Cat Power have produced their own covers.