Blondie | Autoamerican (album retrospective)
When I recently read that Blondie's "Rapture" turned 40 years old, aside from feeling a bit old, I was immediately flooded with childhood memories and feelings that take me back to the cold, snowy winter of 1980-81 in rural Pennsylvania. I'd been a fan of Blondie since their commercial breakthrough with "Heart of Glass" and followed everything they released since then. At the time, I'd recently fallen in love with the sunny and carefree, reggae-inspired "The Tide Is High," the band's cover of The Paragons' 1967 original song.
When I first heard "Rapture" on a Sunday radio broadcast of American Top 40, I remember being infatuated with the song because it was so different than anything that Blondie had previously released. And like most everyone else, I was drawn to the rap segment of the song - what was she rapping about? what were the words? In the pre-internet era of the 80's, aside from your ears, the best bet to track down elusive song lyrics involved a trip to the local newspaper/magazine shop and a browse through music magazines (anyone remember Hit Parader?) that regularly included a song lyrics section. I was successful in my search, and to this day, I can still recite by heart the entire rap section of "Rapture" as accurately as I can the alphabet. I don't think I'm alone in this camp.
I rushed out to buy Autoamerican - on cassette. This was 1981, after all. I remember the visual appeal of the album artwork: The beaming bright yellow border that framed the stunning painting of the band on the rooftop of a NYC high rise. I could almost feel the warm breeze on that sunny rooftop as I heard "The Tide is High" in my head. Ironically, as I now look at this classic album cover 40 years later, it looks like a pandemic-era photo shoot, with all band members safely social-distanced from each other.
I popped Autoamerican into the cassette player. The opening track was "Europa." What was this? Did someone accidentally insert the wrong tape into the cassette case? What was this dramatic orchestral arrangement that was playing? This surely couldn't be Blondie. As old world tragedy eventually transformed into an electronic, eerie-sounding, apocalyptic message about the automobile (about being "thoughtlessly locked into phase two gridlock" and "abandoned on the expressway"), I realized this was indeed Blondie. Wow, what a commanding and unique opening track.
Moving from one song to the next on Autoamerican felt like traveling in a sort of musical time machine that traversed both time and genre. Side A of the album takes us from orchestral ("Europa") to disco/dance ("Live It Up"), to the charm of the 30's/40's ("Here's Looking at You"), sunny reggae ("The Tide is High"), new wave ("Angels on the Balcony") and the road culture of trucking and CB radios ("Go Through It"). The bridge of "Angels on the Balcony" is probably the closest we come to classic-sounding Blondie.
The psychedelic-sounding "Do the Dark" unveils Side B of the Autoamerican journey, followed by "Rapture," a track which became the first number one commercial rap single. Similar to the "Europa" and "Here's Looking at You" music genre surprises of Side A, "Faces" casts the spotlight on Debbie Harry and this outstanding foray into jazz music, a track fully-credited to Debbie, and a genre we'd years later see her delve into with her Jazz Passengers collaborations. With its automobile references and trademark Blondie sound, "T-Birds" is an outstanding track that could have easily been a single. "Walk Like Me" is a fierce, rocking number that would have sounded right at home on Eat to the Beat. Trivia bit: There's a lyric in the song ("Walking like a millionaire | Walking on imported air") that would resurface nearly 20 years later in Blondie's 1999 comeback single "Maria" ("She's like a millionaire | Walkin' on imported air"). The album ends as delicately as it started with "Follow Me," a gorgeous, atmospheric cover of the Lerner & Loewe song from the musical Camelot.
Finally, a look back at Autoamerican would not be complete without mention of "Suzy and Jeffrey," the non-album track and highly-underrated B-side of "The Tide is High." Telling the tale of a soon-to-be-wed couple who collide with tragedy on a drive to get their blood tests, this is one of my all-time favorite Blondie songs - one that would have easily fit into the musical threads of Autoamerican.
As I look back and listen to Autoamerican, it feels like this outstanding album was far ahead of its time. It sounds even better years later and has become my favorite in Blondie's original run of six studio albums. 40 years later, as I queue up Automerican on vinyl (thanks to Discogs.com!), I find myself transported back to my younger self in that musical time machine, immersing myself in a nostalgic, releasing and enjoyable listening experience.