March 28 – Debbie Did It First…And Best?

On this day 39 years back, alternative rock took another alternative music form and made it mainstream. On this day in 1981 the first ever U.S. #1 hit to have rapping on it topped the chart…”Rapture” by Blondie. I’m not sure if we should be apologizing to the hip-hop nation for this or to the rest of if the New York new wavers should be for having introduced “rap” to the wider audience.

Blondie was a part of the New York music scene since 1974 and were, along with the Ramones and Television, regulars at CBGB in the early days of the punk scene but had become a major worldwide success by the time they released their fifth album, Autoamerican. Debbie Harry and company came to international attention with “Heart of Glass” in 1979 and the following year had the #1 single of the year in the U.S. and another international smash, with “Call Me”.

The safe and perhaps “smart” thing for the band to have done was record what people had come to expect from them, a sound that was variously called at the time “punk” , “post-punk” or “new wave”. They could have put out an album of danceable, fast, slightly-edgy tunes with crunchy guitars. Instead they put out a record with a variety of sounds…but little conventional rock or songs that reminded people of “Heart of Glass” or “One Way or Another.” Autoamerican had covers of old Broadway tunes, a Caribbean-flavored slow dance number (“The Tide is High”) … and “Rapture”. The departure for new musical territory wasn’t universally-applauded.

William Ruhlman of allmusic gave the release 3 stars out of 5 noting that Blondie was trying to “expand their stylistic range” but deciding that all in all, it was “memorable only for its hits”. Rolling Stone was decidedly more critical. In a review that has sort of a cult status online, Tom Carson (who evidently really didn’t like Harry’s musical and romantic partner, Chris Stein) begrudgingly gave it one star and called it “a terrible record” in the first line!

He lamented the lack of mainstream rock, ditched in favor of “MOR ballads wrapped in highbrow trimmings, funk played as cocktail music, an imitation dub rap song …” For this he had only one culprit – Chris Stein. He theorized that Stein harbors “fantasies of himself as a deep thinker” and considered him responsible for having “dispensed with all the pop paraphernalia- e.g. hooks, rhythm, structure – that keep an audience listening” . He considered Debbie Harry the only asset to the band but , he complained , Stein had her “sunk by the leaden, schematic lyrics.”

Truth be told, Autoamerican wasn’t a terrific album, especially in comparison to its predecessors. Although it was top 10 in many countries and went triple platinum in Canada, it failed to match the success of Parallel Lines and did nothing to build on the decent success of Eat to the Beat. Maybe it was the move to L.A. to record it; maybe it was Chrysalis Records fault for not backing it fully (it’s said they were aware that Harry was working on a solo album at the time and expected Blondie to break up so they weren’t as involved in marketing as they had been for the previous album); maybe it was just a creative over-reach. But ultimately, it was an uneven album that didn’t really stand up to repeated listenings over the years. That said, the singles were catchy.“The Tide Is High” was a nice enough little evenings-on-the-patio summer song and then there was “Rapture.”

It may be difficult to remember,or even comprehend now, but rap music hasn’t always been around. Back in the early ’80s, it was really underground and unknown to the masses. Debbie Harry loved New York and always had her ear to the ground there and was obviously taken by the raw sound and rhyming so she decided to try to do it herself. It’s not obvious as to whether she or producer Mike Chapman consciously decided to make it something of a “rap lite” song or if it was just the way the band interpreted the new musical trend, but “Rapture” definitely is far from a hardcore rap song. Nonetheless, back in 1981, it was mind-blowingly different from anything most rock and new wave fans had heard before. The lyrics about the man from Mars eating cars (“You go out at night eatin’ cars/ You eat Cadillacs, Lincolns too/ Mercuries and Subarus…”) were downright silly, but undeniably catchy. Frank Morales of outlined a deep, hidden meaning whereby the Man from Mars was us and the song was a metaphor for overt consumerism, but also threw out the idea that it was just something thrown together ad lib by Stein and Harry while riding in a limo to a gig. Either way, it did nothing to take away from the “brilliance” of the song and the “best guitar solo on any Blondie song” in his opinion.

Like the song itself, the video is both cheesy and likable. A surprisingly low-budget affair for a band of its stature, it featured a very sexy Debbie Harry, in the black shorts and bustier she sports on the album cover, dancing seductively threw a disco that looks like a soap opera set and then through some apparent back alleys where graffiti artists (including “Fab 5 Freddy” whom she mentions in the song- Grandmaster Flash was supposed to appear as well but failed to show up) tag away. It debuted on Solid Gold and MTV credit it as the first rap video played on the station. While there had been a few other rap songs that had some commercial success (“Rappers Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang most notably) “Rapture” was the first one to go all the way to #1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100.

The song was a top 5 hit in Canada, Britain and Ireland too, although perhaps indicating the way tastes would develop through the end of the century, it was the first significantly successful single the band would have that did better in their native U.S. than Canada.

Music should have no color; good music should be open to and enjoyed by anyone. But the irony is obvious in that the one genre of music most completely associated with Black males, the song that opened the gates for it was made by a very white, very blonde female.


12 thoughts on “March 28 – Debbie Did It First…And Best?

  1. badfinger20

    I think they just wanted to help expose the music to a bigger audience and it would make them a little more hip or cutting edge. I dont’ think the song means anything…they just wanted it out there.
    I did like The Tide Is High. I like the reggae feel of that one.

    After this album came The Hunter…and they vanished.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. although they did come back a little with “Maria” in the ’90s, but I think their glory days were well past them. Likewise, “The Tide is High” was pretty good, I thought, “Rapture” was very different and at first I liked the novelty of it but even back then, after maybe 10 weeks on the chart it started to grate on my nerves.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Tide is High, yep Rapture, not so much. I thought the rap part was a train wreck, or a car crash.
    PS; WordPress don’t want to accept my Like. I’ve found this increasingly on other sites I follow as well. I know we’re supposed to wash our hands at the moment, but must I quarantine my keyboard as well? Is WordPress conspiring to wipe away my digital fingerprints too? What, who,me, paranoid!?!?!
    Consider your post Liked anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thank you! It shows up as a “like” here…. everyonce in a while WordPress has its quirks.
      Like I just responded to badfinger there, same – “The Tide is High” was quite good, “Rapture” got old quickly!
      Hows the Corona situation down your way? People staying safe and healthy so far?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. We’re locked down for a month. STAY AT HOME except for essentials. Supermarket open, gas stations- Pretty much all else closed for a month. We have had one death and at the moment 476 confirmed.These are draconian measures we are enduring- but I think it is the best- healthiest- option. Hope all is ok with you its a scattergun response over there! (a song for today, slightly tongue-in-cheek; Norman Greenbaum, ‘Spirit in the Sky?’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well stay safe! Similar here, though country is rather peacemeal so far in response but where I am, and good chunk of country, about same as what you’re describing. My sweetie, who works in a large corporate office for billing problems and other customer issues has been working at home now two weeks, not an entirely seamless transition but it seems to work mostly. Last time I drove by her office midday, they were down to maybe 10 cars there (typical day under normal circumstances would be over 100). The stepdaughters dept. store has been closed for two weeks, supposed to open next week but we can almost guarantee it won’t until May at best. In our county, about 30 confirmed cases but the testing isn’t as easily available as it should be.
      Sort of working on a possible post on a Corona 19 playlist…


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