Blondie’s records in the ‘70s proved them to be quite the chameleons – the garage punk of their first record yielded to the distinctive new wave sensibility of Plastic Letters in 1977, leading to the disco moves of 1978’s Parallel Lines and the out-and-out pop of 1979’s Eat to the Beat. Their 1980 album, Autoamerican, seemed to merge all their previous genre explorations into one record, with a couple new stylistic twists thrown in.
One of those was reggae, in the form of “The Tide is High,” the album’s first single. It was a cover of a 1967 ska/rocksteady cut by the Jamaican group the Paragons, with the song’s writer, John Holt, taking the lead vocal.
According to Stereogum, Blondie singer Debbie Harry heard the track on a compilation cassette and loved it, hatching an idea to record the song herself, backed by The Specials, one of the top British ska revivalist bands in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. After The Specials turned down Harry, she and bandmate/significant other Chris Stein decided to make it a Blondie record instead, adorning it with percussion, strings and horns that both supported and folded around Harry’s vocal. It was part of Autoamerican’s expansive jumble of genres, and one of the best songs on the record.
Recording Autoamerican was not easy. Writing about the experience in 1981 for Creem, Stein recalled the band had “grudgingly” decamped from New York City to Los Angeles for the sessions. “The main reason [was] so [producer] Mike Chapman [could] retain his sanity, thus enabling him to work for a longer period,” Stein wrote. “While musicians and singers get to wander freely in and out of the studio, Mike must sit through it all, often for 12-hour stretches. It’s exhausting work for him and we all figure it’s better for the whole project if Mike is allowed to burn out at home in his own element …”
Blondie left L.A. two months later with the finished album, heading back to New York, where, according to the New York Post, they were photographed on a roof at Broadway and 8th Avenue for Autoamerican’s cover art.
When “The Tide is High” was released, it was an immediate hit, albeit a strange one to hear on the radio, where its reggae rhythm contrasted with other hits of the day by the likes of Air Supply, Neil Diamond, REO Speedwagon, Dolly Parton and others.
READ MORE: February 1980: Blondie Releases "Call Me"
In fact, its rise to No. 1 on Jan. 31, 1981, dethroned John Lennon’s posthumous hit “(Just Like) Starting Over” from the chart peak. Not that Lennon would have minded. According to his son Sean, Lennon had loved “The Tide is High” in the months before his untimely death.
“My father had an old Wurlitzer [jukebox] in the game room of our house on Long Island,” the younger Lennon told Rolling Stone. “It was filled with 45s, mostly Elvis and The Everly Brothers. The one modern song I remember him listening to was ‘The Tide Is High,’ by Blondie, which he played 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, trying my best to coordinate tiny limbs.”