In three separate interviews with American Songwriter about their 1980 album Autoamerican, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Clem Burke each volunteered one similar, specific memory:
Harry: “When we turned it in, I don’t think it was accepted right away by the label.”
Stein: “Very famously, when we gave the record to Chrysalis, they said they didn’t hear any singles on it.”
Burke: “The classic line from the record company when we delivered the record: ‘We don’t hear a hit.’ And the record resulted in two #1s.”
Any lingering ill will about that initial reaction has long since worn off, of course. Besides, platinum status and those hit singles, “The Tide Is High” and “Rapture,” probably softened that blow. 40 years after its release, Autoamerican stands as a bold high point in Blondie’s career, one ripe for reexamination and renewed appreciation. In other words, what better time to look back.
A little context: By 1980, Blondie (at that time consisting of Harry, Stein, Burke, Jimmy Destri, Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison) had already proven themselves as one of the leading lights of the New Wave scene, one that could combine punk energy with pop smarts almost effortlessly. They could have easily repeated a sound similar to their previous two smash albums, Parallel Lines and Eat To The Beat, but they pushed themselves nonetheless.
“We were always trying to be creative and do something a little different,” Harry recalls. “That was always sort of an understanding between me and Chris that we were always going to try to break boundaries and try new things.”
One of the new things that they tried on Autoamerican was their location: The quintessential New York band were going to record in Los Angeles. “That, in itself, was going to make it quite different,” Burke says. “We got to drive to work, which is something we never did before. We all had hot rods and Cadillacs. It was at the peak of the band after the success of Parallel Lines and Eat To The Beat. It was a whole different environment being out in LA. Just going to that great studio United Western, where the Beach Boys did Pet Sounds. I think I was definitely acutely aware of the history of the studio.”
The proximity to ace session men also allowed the band to broaden their sound. Burke mentions percussionists Ollie Brown, Emil Richards and Alex Acuna as particular standouts on the album, while Stein singles out the work of stand-up bassist Ray Brown on “Faces” and saxophonist Tom Scott on “Rapture.”
Even though the band featured several different writers (Harry, Stein and keyboardist Destri all earned several songwriting credits on the album, bassist Harrison chipped in one, and there were two cover songs), there was a loose concept uniting it all. “There was an overall feel to the whole thing,” Stein says of Autoamerican. “I don’t know how much of it was planned and how much of it just worked out synchronistically. The record for me was about America, hence the title. Originally, the concept that we had was to call the record Coca-Cola. Because we thought that was very American. We went to Coca-Cola and we asked them and they said no. Nowadays, somebody might do that with all the branding and bullshit that goes on. At that point, they weren’t ready for it.”
“It was a push towards a story about American life to a certain extent. The last song (“Follow Me”), the Lerner and Loewe song, is from Camelot. At the time, I was thinking about JFK, because they called his administration Camelot. The song itself is about the moment in the play when Arthur is besieged by all his enemies and Merlin is called away to the other world and can’t help him any longer. So I always felt it was analogous to JFK being taken out of the picture. But I don’t know if that’s something you would think about without hearing it first.”
Harry feels the variety of the album is, in a way, its own motif. “The bands that we grew up on and were influenced by, it was sort of like going on an arc,” she explains. “It wasn’t just a selection of material. It was something to pull you through a series of moods and ideas and take you to a destination.”
“The album didn’t have one single theme, other than most of the songs are about love or relationships. It wasn’t telling a particular story from one point of view. But it took you through different musical sensations. Those days are so long gone now that it’s hard for people to realize that you would put an album on and listen to the whole thing. You would go through this variety, a bunch of transitions.”
Burke says it was only after the fact that Autoamerican truly revealed itself to him. “I was at a club in London,” he remembers. “And the backdrop is that they were playing the Autoamerican album. As they were playing it, it fit the atmosphere in the room so well that it gave me another insight into the ambiance of the record as a full album. It sets a mood.”
Part of what made Autoamerican so special was that the band stepped out on a limb with the two singles they chose, at least in terms of what was expected of a mainstream pop/rock band. “The Tide Is High” resurrected a 60s reggae song, while “Rapture” put rap on Top 40 radio for one of the first times.
Stein knew he had something special the first time he heard “The Tide Is High.” “Vivien Goldman, the writer, sent me a compilation record and it had the original (by The Paragons) on it,” he recalls. “And I was so knocked out by it. I said, ‘We gotta do this.’ But I also knew we were in the position at that point where we had all these other successes. I knew if we recorded this that it would be a success.”
Harry laughs when asked if she was on board with the choice of “The Tide Is High” as the first single. “I was never really good at that,” she says. “I always sort of chose the wrong thing. It’s a good thing somebody else was choosing what was first.”
What came second was the six-minute hybrid of slinky R&B and rap known as “Rapture.” As iconic as her performance on the song has become, Harry says she wishes she had another crack at recording her rap part. “I didn’t feel terribly confident. I liked the idea of it but I wasn’t really sure about that performance. It was like the first take. He (producer Mike Chapman) was just so relieved to get it. And I said, ‘OK, that’s it.’ But I think it would have gotten better. I know I do it differently now with experience behind me.”
Burke explains how “Rapture” even surprised his confidantes. “I always remember that the first time I played ‘Rapture,’ I had a little listening party at my loft in New York. Playing the album through to my friends, they were like, ‘What the heck is this?’ When Debbie did the rap on ‘Rapture,’ their jaws were on the floor.”
Stein says that producer Chapman was instrumental in giving Blondie the freedom to take those chances with their singles. “We were really lucky with Chapman because he was a real heavyweight, a real gunslinger. He wouldn’t let the fuckin’ A&R guy near us. He would let him into the room, but that was it. They never got to say anything and they knew it.”
Disproving The Critics
When Autoamerican was released, Rolling Stone gave it a savage, one-star review. “I’m sure Chris loves that review,” Burks says with a laugh, noting how it seemed to single Stein out. “Especially in hindsight, it’s pretty amazing. It’s almost like Stravinsky-esque. It’s such a putdown, and now for it to become the classic record it’s become in a lot of people’s minds.” (“That just becomes one of those things that didn’t age well,” Stein says diplomatically.)
As for Harry, she says the band always kept that outside noise at arms-length. “We were rebels without a cause,” she says. “You know, ‘F’ them’ was our attitude. Nothing really surprised us. It was disappointing. But we had our helmets on.”
Burke implies that the band’s failure to tour behind the album might have hurt its reputation somewhat in the short term, even as its ambition helped its long-term legacy. “After we recorded that album, we didn’t work for basically two years. It was like the height of Blondie’s success. We never toured it. In some ways, it was like our Sgt Pepper’s. I don’t think that any of us though that we were going to be able to play this record live anyway.”
The drummer also hints that Autoamerican, in a way, serves as a microcosm of Blondie’s career-long versatility. “The interesting thing about the success of the band is that we’ve had four #1 hits in the US, and each one of them was completely different, when you think about it. You look at ‘Heart Of Glass,’ ‘Call Me,’ ‘The Tide Is High,’ and ‘Rapture,’ they’re all completely different tracks and genres. Some people superficially say, ‘What’s the Blondie sound?’ We started out as a kind of homage to Phil Spector and the girl groups and all that. And it just all evolved. The eclecticism of the band was always a strong point.”
If anything stands out about Autoamerican for Harry, it’s how, even with that intrinsic eclecticism, which on this album included not just reggae and rap but also torch songs and big band excursions, it comes out sounding like classic Blondie, which is always a wonderful thing.
“We sound like who we sound like, the way Chris played guitar and the way Clem played drums,” Harry says. “We definitely had our own sound. Which I always think was a problem for bands to really have their own sound. And to be recognizable for that. To me, that’s the goal.”