One of my first record-buying memories is just a flash: I stood in the Musicland store in our local mall, at age eight, holding Blondie’s single, “The Tide is High,” deciding whether I was going to purchase it on that day in 1980. My mom probably bought it for me, actually, but it’s the first record I remember picking out myself. I had one of those plastic portable record players, white on the outside, blue on the inside, and many of my childhood years were spent sitting in front of it, next to my closet door, listening to my little record collection. I loved loading up a handful of 45s on the multi-stack spindle, choosing a good order, and watching that marvel of technology drop a record, play it, drop another, play it, again and maybe again.
I was pretty music-obsessed early on and with my older sister watched all the music-related shows: The Donny and Marie Show, American Bandstand, Soul Train, and Solid Gold. (Meanwhile, my dad tortured us with Hee Haw. If you’re not familiar, look it up and feel my pain). It’s not that remarkable, then, that this particular eight-year-old girl bought this single, but the fact that I remember the actual purchase tells me that I was intrigued beyond liking it as a good tune, or that it meant something to me beyond the song.
Down deep, I believe that part of my interest in the band was the cool, striking, glamorous, and tough image of Debbie Harry. The only other record I had before this featuring a female vocalist was an album by The Captain & Tennille (ahem). Plenty of female musicians came before Blondie, but for me, she was the first who exuded that tough glamour that seemed inspirational to my generation of young women. Around the time of Debbie Harry’s peak with Blondie, and just after, came Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde, Pat Benatar, Annie Lennox, Madonna, and Cyndi Lauper, to name a few, and I loved them all. Debbie Harry sang lead vocals in the band whose lineup at the time consisted of Chris Stein, Frank Infante, Nigel Harrison, Clem Burke, and Kevin Patrick.
Blondie released “The Tide Is High” in October, 1980, from their fifth studio album, Autoamerican, which hit the shelves the following month. Their third album, Parallel Lines (1978), had peaked at number one in the UK and number 6 in the US and included the successful singles “Hanging on the Telephone,” “One Way or Another,” “Sunday Girl,” and “Heart of Glass.” The band followed up with Eat to the Beat, which was somewhat less successful than its predecessor but produced notable singles “Dreaming” and “Atomic.” Autoamerican, however, followed on the heels of their smash hit “Call Me” on the American Gigolo soundtrack, which peaked at number one in the US, the UK, and Canada. The years 1978-1981 were full of Blondie, and they’ve remained a favorite of mine since then.
I didn’t know at the time that “The Tide Is High” was a rock steady song written by Jamaican musician John Holt and recorded by his band, The Paragons, with Holt on lead vocals, which means that both singles from this album appropriated Black music, as “Rapture” was the first record featuring rap to hit number one. Of course, this has occurred throughout the history of rock music, as I noted in my post on Paul Simon’s Graceland, and it still goes on. Blondie wasn’t the first and won’t be the last, and although this doesn’t mean the death of my childhood, it saddens me a little.
While critical opinion has become kinder, and the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, early on, critics weren’t necessarily so generous. In 1981, Rolling Stone writer Ken Tucker described Blondie’s music as “Sixties pop interlarded with trendy nihilism” and opined that Debbie Harry was the “possessor of a bombshell zombie’s voice that can sound dreamily seductive and woodenly Mansonite within the same song.” Additionally, British music journalist Charles Shaar Murray wrote a review of a set by The Ramones at The Performance Studio in New York while covering the city’s music scene for the New Musical Express. Blondie also played that night, and Murray describes the band as “quite the cruddiest garage-type garage band I’ve ever seen since the last band I was in.” His description of Debbie Harry would surely rank as a premier example of Rock Sexism, stating that she was a “cute little bundle of platinum hair with a voice like a squeaky bath toy” and that “her charm lies in the fact that she’s a kid who’s pretending desperately hard to be a star and who’s aware of it. Which is why it works at all (apart from on account of she’s so gosh-darned cute, gold-ding it.” Granted, I wasn’t at the gig, but –
Let me pause here to add that when Murray wrote this piece, he was 24 years old. Debbie Harry was 30 years old. Murray was calling a woman some six years his senior “cute” and “a kid.” I’ll definitely be picking up on this theme in a future post and will try to refrain from burning my copy of Murray’s Shots from the Hip, the anthology in which this article appears. Or maybe I should rip him to shreds.
Female musicians and female fans have long shared being disregarded, dismissed, infantilized, and trivialized. One of the worst insults a critic can hurl at a band or musician is that their work appeals to little girls or teenyboppers. Girls like just about any music, however, even if they don’t fully understand it, or intellectualize it, or know why they respond to it. I know musicians want to be appreciated for their art by adults who have refined tastes, but I’d hate to think that any musicians I liked when I was a kid would be ashamed to have me as a fan. I’ll leave it at that for the moment, but critics and musicians should keep in mind that young women aren’t the least common denominator of fans. I don’t think Debbie Harry would have thought so, and I’m proud as hell of my eight-year-old self for buying this single.
I don’t remember this video at all. I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered Darth Vader making an appearance.