I will NEVER care how much crap and teasing I have taken over the years, and will continue to take in the future, from my boys for what I am about to announce to everyone, but I am a HUGE fan of the band Blondie. There, I said it! And, it feels great! Quietly, since 1976, when I first read about them in Creem magazine, I have been intrigued by the sound and look of the band. I remember having a collage of photographs taken from magazines on the back of my bedroom door with images of rock stars, athletes, models, famous scientists, authors, artists, astronauts, etc. It was a nice piece of artwork that lasted from the Summer of 1976 until I got bored with it in 1980. Yet, it was a pop culture masterpiece of the rich and famous, with Blondie’s lead singer, Deborah Harry having the most images on the “Door of Fame.” She was my punk rock crush, someone so cool, yet so unattainable. But, man, did I dig her band’s music.
I did not get a Blondie album until my mom bought me Parallel Lines for Easter 1979. Then, I picked up Eat to the Beat and The Best of Blondie over the next couple of years. Between the releases of the two aforementioned albums, I had bought a cassette tape of Blondie’s Autoamerican album for reasons unknown to me today. That stupid tape got eaten by my mom’s car’s tape player, so I went all these years without owning a copy until right after Christmas, when I FINALLY found a copy of the album.
Critically speaking, this album was not glowingly received. But, something about the songs’ diversity appealed to me. Blondie was basically a pop band, with their roots springing from the likes of Phil Spector’s girl groups, The Shangri-La’s, the bubblegum groups of the late-Sixties, Motown’s girl groups and those great garage bands immortalized on that early-Seventies Nuggets LP, all mixed together with a bit of Deborah Harry’s NYC urban cool. That is why the band was able to transcend the CBGBs punk scene of the Seventies, when great bands like Television, the Dead Boys and Richard Hell & the Voidoids could not.
So, back to the Fall of 1980, and the release of Blondie’s fifth album, Autoamerican. In 1979, the band had hit number one with their disco parody song “Heart of Glass”, from what many consider to be the band’s classic album Parallel Lines. Blondie followed that song with two more songs that were more in line with their punk background, “One Way or Another” from Parallel Lines and “Dreaming” from Eat to the Beat. But, it was the fourth release from Eat to the Beat that may have changed the band forever. Instead of sticking to the punkish sound update of Sixties girl groups, Blondie again scored, albeit a minor hit, with the urban punk disco hit “Atomic”. Since that song made a dent on the Dance Chart, factions in the band formed. One side wanted to stick to their punk roots, while the other side wanted to try new sounds that they were hearing at Studio 54, New York City’s hottest disco club. Since Harry and lead songwriter Chris Stein were in the latter faction, they were going to win, especially since original powerhouse drummer Clem Burke and original keyboardist Jimmy Destri were sticking with the other two original members, they were going to win the tug-of-war.
Now, during the time between Eat to the Beat‘s Fall 1979 release and the late-1980 release of Autoamerican, Blondie released an experimental single that became the biggest hit of their career, which ended up being the number one song for the whole year of 1980. That song was “Call Me”. That single was originally done as an experimental one-off between the band and Donna Summer producer Giorgio Moroder, for a cut on the upcoming movie soundtrack for the Richard Gere film American Gigolo. Surprisingly to everyone involved, the song AND the movie took-off. Outside of “Call Me”, the soundtrack was a little thin on melodic music, but did include several electronic based sounds that would, when coupled with the work of Kraftwerk, go on to influence much of the music of the Eighties. “Call Me” solidified Blondie as the premiere rock/dance band of the era. So, the stakes were high for Autoamerican.
Unfortunately, at the time of its release, Autoamerican was considered a big disappointment, even though it did spawn two more number one hits, the reggae-influenced “The Tide Is High” and the first “rap” song to hit number one “Rapture.” Instead of sticking to the formula of the previous two albums, Blondie pushed their sound on Autoamerican. Their punk side, in the form of the obvious 100 miles-per-hour songs like “Hanging on the Telephone”, was downplayed. In its place were sounds that might have been found on a Talking Heads’ album, as well as other forms of music I imagine one would hear back in 1980 as he or she hopped from one night club to another. It was not appreciated at the time, but, much like their CBGB brethren Talking Heads, Blondie was going to experiment with the sounds they were hearing all over the Big Apple, most of all this relatively new sound called rap music or hip hop.
Back in the beginning of the Eighties, the rap and punk/new wave worlds would hang out together, accepting each other’s sounds, and then incorporating these “foreign” sounds into their own music. Go back and listen to The Clash’s triple-album urban masterpiece to hear another one of these famous cultural exchanges. Or listen carefully to Afrika Bambaataa’s music from this same time period to catch all the so-called “white” music he was incorporating into his hip hop sound. The cross pollination that was taking place back then was underappreciated at the time, and barely acknowledged.
But, Blondie did not stop with rap and reggae. They recorded a couple of torch songs, that put Ms. Harry’s vocals on full display with pastiches. The range of music Blondie successfully recorded on Autoamerican is both impressive and innovative. It’s no wonder the album was “pooh-poohed” at the time. No one wanted Blondie to change and develop. Blondie’s original sound had eventually won us all over, so we wanted them to stick with that route. Instead, Blondie may have actually made an album that would actually take decades to fully appreciate it.
Listening to Autoamerican today, leaves me in a state of wonderment, as if I had honestly missed the whole point of this album back in 1980. The songs on the album were too mature for my 17 to 18-year-old ears to fully appreciate. But, now, in 2018, the album sounds much more enjoyable. And, the album sound like a band that was hitting its stride as a creative force for the ages, not just a great rock band.
And isn’t that what all great art aspires to be?