"Hanging on the Telephone" was first recorded by a little-known L.A. new wave pop outfit called the Nerves. The group had a brief lifespan, managing only to release a single self-titled EP before disbanding, but not before having the opportunity to share a live bill with Blondie on one of their first visits to the West Coast. The like-minded Blondie must have liked what they heard, deciding to record "Hanging on the Telephone" for their third album, the platinum-selling Parallel Lines. The track's driving power and infectious melody would lead off the album and spearhead its commercial breakthrough, becoming the group's first single to crack the Top Ten in the U.K.
Producer Mike Chapman beefed up the sound and imposed a tough rehearsal schedule and diligent work ethic in the studio, tightening up the rhythm section and pushing Deborah Harry's rough and ready vocal's to the fore. All the hard work payed off, the track kicks with bristling energy right out of the gate. Harry, in particular, answers the call, belting out the opening lines after a few mock telephone rings with confidence while guitarist Frank Infante's biting guitar lines cut sharp shards between the steady pulse of bass and drums. The energy level remains high with help from a compact arrangement and Harry's rushed phrasing as she conveys the lyrics' inherent frustration, trying to make contact with her boyfriend (flipping the gender pronouns of the original) through the phone, "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/I know he's there/But I just had to call." The attack lightens with drummer Clem Burke's chopped beat and skittish keyboard effects moving through the bridge where Harry repeatedly asks with wounded softness, "Oh, why can't we talk again?/Oh, why can't we talk again?" The chorus is just as compact but allows some breathing room for harmonizing on the title line with a bed of organ helping to fill out the sound. After powering through a hooky guitar solo, the band sprints to the finish, Harry's vocal getting throatier with each line, finally demanding, "Hang up and run to me!" with singalong "whoa-oh" backing vocals driving home one last hook before the band smashes to a grand finish.
The 2001 reissue of Parallel Lines includes a rather faithful live version of "Hanging on the Telephone" recorded in Dallas, TX, in 1980.