At the dawn of the 80s, Blondie were one of the biggest bands on the planet. They’d hijacked the mainstream with 1978’s flawless Parallel Lines and consolidated that success with the following year’s multi-platinum Eat To The Beat. However, while these legend-enshrining titles showed that the New York sextet had outstripped both the punk and new wave scenes, the group made an even more radical departure with their fifth album, Autoamerican.
“The most modern band I’ve ever worked with”
Incorporating elements of jazz, blues, disco and the avant-garde, Autoamerican was still a sizeable commercial success (going platinum on both sides of the Atlantic), but it confounded critics. Rather like The Clash’s equally ambitious Sandinista!, Autoamerican attracted criticism simply for daring to embrace sonic diversity – something that was an element of Blondie’s DNA from the get-go.
“Blondie were probably the most modern band I’ve ever worked with in that they soaked up influences from innumerable sources,” Blondie and No Exit producer Craig Leon said in a 2019 Record Collector interview.
“As songs like [Parallel Lines’] ‘Heart Of Glass’ show, they were like human samplers when it came to incorporating ideas and concepts and genres, often in just one song. They are probably the most eclectic band I’ve ever worked with.”
“Magical things did happen”
“Eclectic” remains the watchword where Autoamerican is concerned. Marking the first time Blondie had left their native New York to make an album, the recording sessions took place at United Western Recorders (now part of the Ocean Way complex) in Hollywood, where The Beach Boys recorded parts of ‘Good Vibrations’. During their Californian sojourn, Debbie Harry’s team were joined by Parallel Lines producer Mike Chapman and studio engineer Lenise Bent. The latter recalls band and producer being meticulous in their preparation.
“They’d done a lot of pre-production”, she told The Mix in 1999. “Everybody was pretty prepared by the time they got into the studio. Magical things did happen, there was room for those spontaneous things, but the preparation helped because you didn’t have to think about the basics.”
Blondie brought a wealth of new songs to the sessions, a clutch of which – ‘T-Birds’, the cinematic ‘Angels On The Balcony’ and the aggressive, drum-heavy ‘Walk Like Me’ – could easily have graced Eat To The Beat. Elsewhere, however, the band fearlessly grappled with everything from the jazzy cabaret of ‘Here’s Looking At You’ to the shimmering disco-funk of ‘Live It Up’ and the smoochy, noir-infused blues of ‘Faces’, with the latter featuring a gloriously smoky vocal from Harry.
“I was sure it was going to be a hit”
Two radically disparate musical genres, meanwhile, provided the album’s signature hits. Blondie had already dabbled with reggae on Eat To The Beat’s ‘Die Young, Stay Pretty’, but at the instigation of guitarist Chris Stein, they delved deeper into Jamaica’s rich musical heritage for a sunny, horn-laced cover of The Paragons’ 1967 ska hit, ‘The Tide Is High’.
“I was the one who picked ‘The Tide Is High’,” Stein told The Village Voice in 2008. “That’s the only song [from Autoamerican] I was sure was going to be a hit beforehand – not least because it said ‘number one’ in the chorus!”
Stein’s assumption proved entirely correct when the infectious ‘The Tide Is High’ – released as the album’s lead single, in October 1980 – shot to the top of both the UK Top 40 and the Billboard Hot 100. Its follow-up, ‘Rapture’, also broke new ground. A hypnotic hybrid of disco, funk and New York’s emerging hip-hop scene, the song featured an extended rap from Debbie Harry, who namechecked hip-hop pioneers Fab Five Freddy and Grandmaster Flash.
“An adventurous spirit and dynamic songwriting”
‘Rapture’ also topped the Billboard Hot 100 and received numerous critical plaudits, but while Autoamerican, which was released on 14 November 1980, fared well on the charts, it was greeted with less than sparkling reviews. These days, forward-thinking music fans would welcome a record which so brazenly pushes the envelope, but, in 1980, contemporary critics struggled to get a handle on this mind-bogglingly diverse disc, which concluded with a heartfelt cover of Lerner & Loewe’s ‘Follow Me’, from the musical Camelot.
Divorced from the times, though, Autoamerican has come into its own. In an interview on Blondie’s website, drummer Clem Burke enthusiastically cited it as “my favourite… it’s a very eclectic album”, while retrospective critiques such as Ultimate Classic Rock’s (“an LP beloved for its adventurous spirit and dynamic songwriting”) have finally brought this still-futuristic-sounding gem to discerning 21st-century ears.
Autoamerican can be bought here.