This is the 43rd post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Jack Lee, Paul Collins, and Peter Case formed power pop band The Nerves in the mid-70s, and in 1976, the band relocated from San Francisco to Los Angeles. There, Lee, Collins, and Case put on a series of self-promoted and self-financed concerts that functioned as a gathering space for the city’s burgeoning punk scene.
The band carried that same spirit of financing and promotion its own projects to its 1976 EP, which included a song called “Hanging on the Telephone.” Lee had written it in 1974, taking inspiration from his relationship with his then-girlfriend and from an illustration in Alan Aldridge’s book, “The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics.”
The band toured with The Ramones and Mink DeVille. In 1978, the band broke up, and Lee was broke, having spent so much money on The Nerves.
“It was a Friday,” Lee told Mojo in 2007. “They were going to cut off our electricity at six o’clock, the phone too.”
The reason Lee remembers that day is because before the phone was disconnected, the phone rang. It was Debbie Harry, calling to ask if Blondie could record “Hanging on the Telephone.”
It was a no-brainer for Lee to say yes, and Blondie featured the song on its third album, 1978’s “Parallel Lines.” The single version of Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone” peaked at Number 5 on the UK charts.
Producer Mike Chapman has been credited for much of what made “Parallel Lines” great, but when it came to “Hanging on the Telephone,” he said, “That track was magic from the beginning.” In an interview with Sound On Sound, Chapman said,
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… They were all very much into giving it that full-on energy, and of course this was [drummer Clem Burke’s] favorite way of playing. If he really liked something, that in itself added extra energy. So, I think we did four takes and I then took the best one to work on and fix things.
In 1981, after Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone” made “Parallel Lines” a critical and commercial success, Lee released a solo album called “Jack Lee’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1,” featuring updated versions of Nerves songs, as well as some new material. Lee’s solo version of “Hanging on the Telephone” bore a lot of resemblance to the original one, though it sounded a little less loud and a little less desperate.
British thrash metal band Acid Reign released “Hangin’ on the Telephone” as a single in 1989. Coming in at a minute and 41 seconds, Acid Reign’s cover was faster than any of the previous versions. It was also more aggressive, as frontman H (Howard Smith, if you’re not into the nickname and brevity) sang over crunchy guitars and pounding drums.
Australian pop-rock band The Sharp featured “Hanging on the Telephone” on its 1993 single, “Yeah I Want You.” That single included three other covers: The Cure’s “Love Cats,” Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up,” and Lou Reed’s “Vicious.” Unlike previous versions of “Hanging on the Telephone,” The Sharp’s version had subdued vocals, particularly in the opening lines: “I’m in the phone booth, it’s the one across the hall/If you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall…”
British hard rock band Skin covered “Hanging on the Telephone” for its 1994 EP, “Look But Don’t Touch.” If anything stood out on this version, it was the layered guitars. The single reached Number 33 in the UK singles chart.
Prank phone callers The Jerky Boys starred in a self-titled movie in 1995, and among the acts on the soundtrack was L7 covering “Hanging on the Telephone.” It was what you’d expect from an L7 cover of the song — snarling vocals, brash guitars — but that’s what made it so satisfying. It was right up there with the band’s cover of “Cherry Bomb.”
(By the way, you should check out L7’s cover of “Cherry Bomb.” Just not right this second, when you should be checking out “Hanging on the Telephone” covers instead.)
Scheer, an alternative metal band from Northern Ireland, released a cover of “Hanging on the Telephone” on its 1996 EP, “Wish You Were Dead.” The band followed a similar path as The Sharp, opting to not perform the verses as quickly or pointedly as Harry or Lee had done. But when Scheer got to the chorus, the guitars and drums kicked in, with Audrey Gallagher singing the lyrics with a measured and even prolonged delivery.
The 2001 compilation album “How Many Bands Does It Take to Screw Up a Blondie Tribute?” featured The Kirby Grips, a band that quite deftly combined the ’60s pop melodies of girl groups with the energy and gritty guitars of punk on its cover of “Hanging on the Telephone.” I can’t speak for the other groups’ contributions on the album, but The Kirby Grips certainly didn’t screw up its part of the tribute.
In 2006, Def Leppard released an album of covers, called “Yeah!” What stood out about its version of “Hanging on the Telephone” was how not like Def Leppard it sounded. I wasn’t necessarily expecting the loud drums or guitars of “Armageddon It” or “Photograph” or “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” but I was at least expecting something familiar in the band’s sound. Even Joe Elliott didn’t sound like himself. As far as versions of the song go, it was a fine, faithful cover, but the fact that I had to check multiple times to make sure I was really listening to Def Leppard and not some generic band spoke volumes.
That same year, UK pop group Girls Aloud featured “Hanging on the Telephone” on a limited edition bonus disc to “The Sound of Girls Aloud: The Greatest Hits.” In terms of production, this might be the most polished version of the song, as it favored a bubblegum pop sound over the gritty guitar flourishes of the previous covers.
Jimmy Somerville’s 2009 covers album “Suddenly Last Summer” showcased his falsetto voice over bare, acoustic instrumentations. The stripped-down nature of these performances allowed listeners to pay more attention to the lyrics, particularly in Somerville’s “Hangin’ On The Telephone.” The previous versions — with their loud guitars and banging drums — highlighted the anger and frustration of the song. By stripping all that away, Somerville drew out a vulnerability that demonstrated the sadness of the song in a new way.
Swedish singer Mika Sundqvist, who performs as Micadelia, included a cover of “Hanging on the Telephone” on her 2009 album, “Free Ride.” She didn’t slow it don’t down so much she dialed back the delivery. Harry fired off each line, one right after the other, but Sundqvist sang them gently. Harry sounded like she wanted a fight, whereas Sundqvist just wanted to talk.
The Jolly Boys are a Jamaican band that formed in the 1950s, playing a style of folk music that predated reggae and ska. Though the band saw lineup changes, it survived into the 2000s with some of its original members. In 2010, The Jolly Boys released “Great Expectation,” which included covers of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab,” New Order’s “Blue Monday,” and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” At 72, singer Albert Minott was one of the younger members of the group, and yet he and his bandmates sang with the energy of men a third his age.
Singer-songwriter Kurt Baker included “Hanging on the Telephone” on his 2010 covers album, “Got It Covered.” As a cover, it wasn’t all that different from ones we’ve heard, but the video was entertaining enough.
Flowers Forever, a side project of Tilly and the Wall guitarist Derek Pressnall, recorded a version of “Hanging on the Telephone” that was used in the 2012 movie “Electrick Children.” And by “used,” I mean that the song itself played a pretty central role to the film’s plot. (I won’t spoil it for you, and it’s a weird enough use that you won’t be able to guess without Googling it.) It’s a pretty straightforward cover; it won’t blow your mind, per se, but it’s still enjoyable.
In the introduction to Cover Songs Uncovered, I mentioned I had had many conversations about cover songs with friends, discussing which cover songs are our favorites, which ones are so bad they require you to listen to them right now, which songs should never be covered, what makes a good cover song, and so forth. Many of these conversations were at River Gods, the spot James Reed and I recently discussed on the Pop Culture Experiment Radio Show.
I have probably had more discussions about this with my friend Robert than with anyone else. Robert and I bonded over, among other things, newspapers, Converse, and Talking Heads. (If you’ve read the “Take Me To The River” post, you’ll see this is a theme on how I have bonded with some of my favorite people.)
Robert’s widely ranging taste in music, combined with his insatiable curiosity, has meant he has not only shared my sense of geeking out on cover songs, but he’s been a willing participant and enabler. Many times over the last 10 years, we’ve taken turns telling the other that popular songs were actually covers.
This was especially fun when we shared a DJ night, called “Bastards Of Young.” We got to play “did you know this was a cover” more than we had previously, because we could just play the original, and wait for the other to recognize it. It was in this manner that Robert informed me that “Hanging on the Telephone” was a cover. (He was also the one to tell me that “Don’t Turn Around” and “Torn” were covers.)
It’s because of Robert, then, that the original version of the song is now my favorite. This is not meant as a slag on the Blondie version, which I heartily enjoy. Nor does it mean any of the lesser-known covers didn’t stir me: The Kirby Grips’ take was fresh and fun, and Jimmy Somerville could sing “Happy Birthday” in a way I would find deeply moving. If I had not learned about The Nerves’ original version through Robert, but had instead learned it from a Spotify search or a Rolling Stone article, I might not have the same sentimental attachment to that version.
But because of the DJ night I shared with Robert, The Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone” became a shelf for me to store several great River Gods memories. There are many songs that function as shelves for River Gods memories, and it’s a shame that the shelves have collected all the River Gods memories they’ll ever get to collect.