Keep me hanging on the telephone

Posted on Friday, April 05, 2019

Some thoughts on the evolution of technology (and terminology) inspired by Debbie Harry (why not?) and this Blondie hit from 1978.

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 she’s there, but I just had to call

Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone

I was 22 in in the fall of 1978 when this song was released and I wonder how much early-twenty somethings would understand.

Maybe they know what a phone booth is – from Superman or Doctor Who maybe – but “the one across the hall”? And why would she “ring it off the wall”? A phone booth in a hall? Attached to a wall?

Wall-mounted coin phones seem to have disappeared from almost everywhere, replaced by the ubiquitous cellphone in most situations and, in Latin America at least, by street sellers, happy to lend you a phone (at a profit) if you do not have one or your battery has run down – or want anonymity.

I frankly do not know if “hanging on the telephone” would be understood today although a movie producer put the song in the soundtrack of a 2017 animated feature Batman and Harley Quinn. Maybe the producer was 22 years old in 1978.

We ‘hang up’ a call because the first mass-market phones had a ‘hook’ that when you hung the earpiece on it, the circuit was interrupted and the call terminated. Here is a link to a phone from the pre-history of telecommunications. (It is also the source of a signaling term that is also soon to be relegated to the trashcan of evolution, ‘off-hook’ which meant the network should send ‘dial tone’, a signal that the network was ready for you to start calling. ‘Dial’, we will get to later.)

Probably because of some king of weird transposition ‘hang on’ came to mean ‘keeping the conversation open’ (the natural opposite ‘hang down’ has other implications and ‘on’ implies ‘connected’ at least for electricity). Maybe terminating the call should have been called ‘hang off’ but too late for that.

If you watch the original Blondie video, Harry frequently uses the normal – for that time – gesture for calling. She is gripping a mimed ‘handset’, the kind that fixed telephones have even today with the earpiece at one end and the microphone at the other. Today, one would likely cup one’s hand against one’s ear, as if cradling a cellphone. (In the 2017 animated movie, Harley Quinn does not mime anything to do with calling while singing. WARNING: The video is not entirely ‘family’ or ‘work’ friendly.)

I guess I should not be overly surprised how much the lyrics have dated. The disc is as old now as the hit songs of 1938 would have been in 1978. The number one hit of 1938 was Whistle While You Work from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This may be a long way musically from the number one hit of 1978 (Stayin’ Alive) but I believe 22-year-old me would have understood the technological references from Whistle While You Work or any other hit song from 1938.

‘Dial’ connotes a disc with markings or indicators and we still use the term, even though our ‘dial pads’ are not round but rectangular. If you have a few minutes to spare, you might enjoy these kids trying to figure out what to do with a rotary dial phone, the kind Debbie Harry had in mind when she mimed “hanging on the telephone / Hang up and come to me”. The video also reports that 12M payphones in the US had shrunk to less than 300,000 by 2012. Who knows how many – if any – there are today.

What is my point?

I have just managed to write over 400 words on the evolution of technological nomenclature based on 40 words from four lines of a song from 40 years ago.

And I could have used more words to discuss our current tendency to communicate via text rather than speech (“Your voice across the line gives me a strange sensation”).

Technology moves swiftly – no news there – and sometimes the nomenclature moves as fast but sometimes not so fast. We still ‘hang up’ (I checked with my twenty-something nephew) and we still ‘hang on’. We still use ‘dials’ although they are ‘dial pads’ not rotary dials. But we do not go ‘off hook’ anymore, or at least we won’t when the last fixed phone disappears.

Technology is ephemeral and so writing a blog like this one is like ‘catching lightning in a bottle’ (a phrase that goes back to Benjamin Franklin, who, in addition to being a politician was also an accomplished scientist). These articles are outdated almost as soon as they are written.

Despite that, I am going to keep doing these. For one thing, writing gets this stuff out of my head where it bangs around, keeping me from other priorities like remembering dentist appointments.

Technology is fundamental to our society. Unless we tip off the edge in some grand cataclysm, we are not going back to a ‘simpler place and time[i]’ much as the Amish and certain environmental extremists might like us to.

Understanding technology, and its place in society, is what I want to do with these articles and since technology moves swiftly, I will keep writing until the muse leaves me.

Even if sometimes “I want to tell you something you’ve known all along”.

Title Reference: In some sense, this blog is one long reference to the song Hanging on the Telephone. It is the only article (so far) where I started with the song and wrote something around it. Normally, I have an idea based on the week’s industry events and I look for an appropriate song. The recording details are that this was the first cut on the band’s break-through 1978 album Parallel Lines (one of a very few number of discs I can clearly remember where I was when I first heard it). Hanging on the Telephone was released as a single and got to number 5 in the UK; good, but nowhere near as big a deal as Heart of Glass from same album. This was their third LP (as we called them back then) although the first one that I heard / bought and the first that anyone from my crowd of musically-inclined friends had heard. We were deep into Power Pop/New Wave (never understood the distinction and neither Wikipedia article clears it up). But we listened to almost entirely British bands and we were surprised to find this group from ‘America’ (as the Brits would say). Doing this research, I found it had not been written by Chris Stein / Debbie Harry but by Jack Lee, a Power Pop artist, virtually unknown but highly influential (at least according to his Wikipedia article, maybe his mother wrote it). Blondie has another phone-related hit – this time a solid #1 – Call Me, the theme song from the 1980 film American Gigolo and, hopefully, I’ll find a reason to use it some time.

Hanging On the Telephone by Jack Lee lyrics © BMG Rights Management

[i] From Midnight Train to Georgia but I will keep to only one elaborated musical reference per article.

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