Famously, upon hearing the final cut of Blondie’s AutoAmerican, the A&R man at Chrysalis Records hated it and said, “I don’t hear a single.” The band had risen from their punk roots in New York’s Bowery to conquer the world with the best-selling albums Parallel Lines and Eat to the Beat, but the label had no confidence in their fifth album and genuinely believed that it marked the end of Blondie’s runaway success. Reluctantly, they released The Tide is High from the album, a cover of a little-known reggae hit by Jamaican band The Paragons – it went straight to No.1 in both the UK and USA and was Blondie’s biggest ever hit in Europe. Shows what you know, Mr A&R man.
Listening to AutoAmerican today, you can understand why it might have given the record company the fear. Blondie’s first two albums, the self-titled Blondie and Plastic Letters, are raw New York punk. When they moved to the UK to be produced by Mike Chapman at Chrysalis, the band began to experiment, bringing in the nascent disco sound on their smash hit Heart of Glass for Parallel Lines and a dose of Synth-Pop for Atomic on Eat to the Beat, whilst still maintaining that post-punk edge. AutoAmerican, however, was a whole new level of experimentation, bringing in sounds that had never been heard before on a popular album and Chrysalis feared that their latest cash-cow might have just stopped giving milk.
AutoAmerican starts with Europa, an orchestral instrumental that barely features the band at all, let alone Debbie Harry, who only appears reading a futurist monologue during the extended fade-out. This leads into Live It Up, which you would have thought was exactly the sort of thing that the A&R man was looking for, being a disco-flavoured track with punked-up interludes, much like Heart of Glass or Atomic. As it turns out, its only single appearance was as a B-side to the 12” of Rapture. Perhaps it was a little bit too disco, because Debbie Harry and Chris Stein were always keen on picking up the latest sounds and that was what they were hearing in the clubs of New York – along with another up-and-coming musical trend, of which more later.
Here’s Looking at You was more guaranteed to annoy the record men in search of another post-punk hit, it being a jaunty 1940s jazz-swing number; once again, there’s not a lot of the band here, but it does showcase Harry’s penchant for smoky vocals, which would come to prominence much more in later years. Next up is that hit single that the A&R man couldn’t hear upon first listening to the album; The Tide is High was written by John Holt, the lead singer of the Paragons, and was a hit in its native Jamaica in 1966, but despite a UK release in 1971, never really enjoyed much success outside its country of origin. The Blondie version of The Tide is High maintains its reggae roots, supplementing the band with Caribbean sounding strings and horns.
The fact that The Tide is High was a hit in the UK should not have come as a surprise. Largely fuelled by the Windrush Generation (and to a lesser extent, Jamaica’s colonial roots), reggae music had proved popular in the British charts as far back as the 1950s, with home-grown bands like The Equals proving popular in the 60s, giving way to the more hardcore Jamaican reggae sounds of Bob Marley and the Wailers in the 70s. In the United States, reggae emerged into the mainstream charts in the dying days of the hippy movement, with acts like Three Dog Night and Eric Clapton moving on from psychedelic rock to a more ethnic sound. As the hippies embraced reggae in the 60s, so the punks embraced it in the 70s, with bands like The Clash moving increasingly towards a more Jamaican influence. Blondie will have seen a lot of reggae creeping into the New York punk scene, so it’s no surprise at all that they headed in that direction.
Angels on the Balcony and Go Through It could easily have been taken from any of the previous Blondie albums, though the latter does swerve towards a more country rock feel. It’s back to the disco again for Do the Dark, but with a bit of a Middle Eastern flava – and released 2 years before the Clash’s Rock the Casbah! The disco theme continues into Rapture, but it isn’t disco that that particular song is remembered for. As I mentioned before, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein were always keen to pick up on new sounds that they heard on the streets and the emerging trend in America was rap. It’s often said that Rapture was the first mainstream single to feature rap – it wasn’t, but it was the first to reach No.1 in the UK.
Rapture was the second single from the album that apparently didn’t have a single on it, and it was the second to reach the top of the charts in the UK (No.5 in the USA); neither of its two predecessors, so beloved of the record label, even came close to matching that record. The next song, Faces, is another smoky jazz song and leads into a couple of very good standard Blondie album tracks, T-Birds and Walk Like Me. The album ends on a peculiar note with a wistful rendition of Lerner and Lowe’s Follow Me, from the musical Camelot. It’s not the sort of thing that anyone would expect from Blondie, but it makes for a very fitting end to an unconventional album.
So, when that unnamed A&R man looked at AutoAmerican and found it lacking, he was really looking from a company perspective of wanting more of the same. He failed to see a band that were expanding their horizons and experimenting with new sounds. It’s worth noting that in between AutoAmerican and Blondie’s next (and final, for some years) album The Hunter, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein co-operated on Debbie’s first solo album KooKoo, which featured more explicitly rap, disco and reggae, alongside other experimental new sounds. Looked at with retrospect, AutoAmerican is by no means typical of Blondie’s output, but it is a great sounding, ground-breaking and very interesting album. If only they could have seen that in 1980.