Listen to this track by New York new wave darlings and CBGB graduates Blondie. It’s “Rapture”, their 1981 hit single as taken from their sixth record, Autoamerican. This song and the album off of which it comes would continue to prove the band to be a supple and versatile musical unit.
Their achievements up to and including this song certainly rested on a few very important factors. First, they wrote great songs, reflected by their success in the charts during a time when great writing equaled lots of records sold. Second, in frontwoman Debbie Harry they had a presence defined by undeniable charisma and visual appeal. Of course, this made their ironic name based on a common catcall (“Hey! Blondie!”) even more ironic, given that the press and fans alike often referred overtly to Harry’s (admittedly considerable) sex appeal first, often making the music she helped to create to be a secondary consideration.
But, third; despite all of the attention Debbie Harry was getting as a new wave pin-up, Blondie was still a risk-taking band that had no problem reaching outside of their comfort zone even at the height of their powers when they had the most to lose. They were musically curious, and very aware of their surroundings when it came to the music being made by their contemporaries at other points along the pop music spectrum. And that’s where this song comes in as perhaps their greatest leap outside of their musical wheelhouse.
By 1981, Blondie had international recognition as a cutting edge pop band. They’d worked hard to get there, starting as a runt of the litter outfit on the CBGB scene in the early to mid ’70s, and then gaining their initial success on the UK charts. In some ways, they were the least likely band to succeed in that particular crop. But, I think the reason they did is just because of this combination of musical curiosity and awareness of their artistic surroundings, not to mention not shying away from accessible pop hooks as opposed to the more angular art rock and gritty punk of their contemporaries. Furthermore, they knew that there was life outside of the arty punk and new wave pigeonholes, especially in New York where the dance scenes were much more ubiquitous (and lucrative!) by the mid-to-late 1970s.
So, Blondie did what all great bands do; they listened, they adapted, and they still managed to sound like themselves.
One of the nascent scenes coming up in parallel with punk on the fringes in New York of course was the earliest forms of hip hop and rap. Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaattaa, Grandmaster Flash, the Sugarhill Gang, and Fab Five Freddy were making serious stylistic inroads using the rhythm of the spoken voice in conjunction with the grooves of funk, soul, and disco. So, since Blondie had tackled punk, new wave, disco, reggae, and ’60s style pop and had hits, why wouldn’t they try rap, too?
“Rapture” would not be the first rap tune to capture the imaginations of music fans. But, it would be among the first to score a number one on the mainstream pop charts. It was certainly the first rap song, inasmuch as it might be called a pure rap tune (it isn’t, really), that I’d ever heard. It fused a post-disco groove with rock guitar, and further with a lyrical form that not many had been exposed to by that point; a kind of stream of consciousness tale of an outer space being with a penchant for snacking on automobiles (and drinking establishments), with the car as a quintessentially American object being something of a common thematic thread through out the rest of the album. It was, and is, weird and sexy all at once, full of attitude while also being strangely life affirming, too. It would be their pop pinnacle, with a #1 Hot 100 Billboard showing.
Their next album The Hunter and single “Island of Lost Souls” would fare less well chartwise. Internal personal struggles, illness, and drug problems among some band members would draw Blondie’s first era to a close. They would break up in 1982. But, they would also influence a great many bands listening to the radio in the early ’80s. So, by the ’90s, bands like Garbage, The Cardigans, and No Doubt would take their template onto the charts in kind, with rock, punk, dance, and electronic textures being the order of the day.
Meanwhile, all would not be lost for Blondie. Over the years, Harry, guitarist Chris Stein, and drummer Clem Burke had collaborated here and there. And by 1997, they’d come together as Blondie once again with bassist Gary Valentine and keyboardist Jimmy Destri, delivering a returning hit single in “Maria”. They continue today as a trio (Harry-Stein-Burke), plus sessioners, with their latest record Panic Girls coming out in 2011.
You can catch up to them at Blondie.net.