What do you get when you put a Big Apple punk group in Hollywood and have them listen to some music of the Islands? Well, in 1981, the answer was a major #1 hit – “The Tide is High” by Blondie. It topped the charts this day 42 years ago. It was their third American #1 in less than two years.
Of course, calling Blondie a “punk” band is misleading even though many, if not most, music writers and radio people of the day did just that. Despite their CBGB origins in New York, they’d become a fairly talented bunch of players who’d scored major success with songs that varied from straight-out disco (“Call Me”, “Heart of Glass”) to pure pop (“Sunday Girl”) to good ol’ fashioned rock & roll (“One Way or Another”). That in mind, “The Tide is High” might not have been so surprising.
The song was a cover of a 1967 song by Jamaican reggae/rocksteady band The Paragons. It hadn’t received a lot of attention, likely even on their own island, since it was a b-side of a single. But somehow it ended up on a Jamaican music compilation cassette that Blondie’s Deborah Harry & Chris Stein found when holidaying in England. They both liked it straight away and decided to record it.
It made its way onto their fifth album (and third since becoming popular at home in North America), Autoamerican. They’d decided to make some changes for that record, including recording it in L.A., something Chris Stein didn’t like but producer Mike Chapman insisted upon. Drummer Clem Burke on the other hand said it “was fun! We got to spend two months in California.”
They also decided to expand their musical horizons, for better or worse, with an old 1920s-style crooner (“Here’s Looking At You”) , a rap-based song (“Rapture”, the follow-up single and their final #1 hit in many places) besides this tropical-sounding effort. Stein liked the band The Specials and asked them to play with Blondie on it, but they declined. So instead they brought in some extra session players including a trio of percussionists and some unfortunately uncredited horn players to add authenticity.
The album did well, but not as well as the previous pair of hits, going platinum in the U.S., UK and Canada. “The Tide is High” led the way being a #1 hit not only in the U.S. but Canada, the UK and New Zealand as well. It came close, top 5, in most other “Western” countries like Ireland and Australia. It earned them their sixth gold single in Britain and third platinum one in Canada.
However, their time in the sun was running out, figuratively and literally. After “Rapture”, they struggled to get noticed for years and Debbie Harry went solo by the end of 1982, leaving the band on a 15-year break.
One curious bit of trivia about “The Tide is High.” It knocked John Lennon out of the #1 slot which his “Starting Over” had been at for five weeks. That seemed fitting because according to Sean Lennon, it was the one modern track his dad really liked just before his death. He said John “played (it) constantly…when I hear that song, I see my father, unshaven, his hair pulled back into a ponytail, dancing to and fro in a worn out pair of denim shorts with me at his feet.”