In 1984, in the liner notes on the band’s first album, the members of Camper Van Beethoven wrote about their small-town roots, complaining about growing up in provincial Redlands, Calif., where people “thought Blondie was punk.” By that time, Blondie had long been part of mainstream music, and their “punk” sound had been successfully meshed with new wave, disco, reggae, rap, etc. to create some of the most popular songs of the late ’70s and early ’80s. But Blondie was pretty punk when they first started performing and recording in New York’s fertile underground scene in the mid-’70s. Their early songs were raw edged, urban and fairly daring because of the tough sensuality Debbie Harry brought to each performance. And, no matter what other sounds they incorporated, the band never abandoned that attitude; it became Blondie’s combination of pop and punk that brought them the greatest chart success of any of those CBGB bands.
Debbie Harry had been living in New York City for a while by the time Blondie formed in the mid-’70s. She’d been a singer in other groups and, yes, she’d been a Playboy Bunny. When she met guitarist/songwriter Chris Stein, she was a member of an all-female group called The Stilettos. Harry and Stein became fast friends and decided to form their own group, recruiting bassist Fred “Sonic” Smith, drummer Billy O’Connor, guitarist Ivan Kral and, later, keyboardist Jimmy Destri. The band’s first year-and-a-half saw numerous personnel changes, as did many bands on the scene at that time. Kral left to join the Patti Smith Group. O’Connor, who went off to law school, was replaced by ex-Sweet Revenge drummer Clem Burke. Gary Valentine joined Blondie when Smith went over to Television. In ’77, after the group’s eponymous first album was released on the indie label Private Stock, Valentine left and was replaced by Frank Infante, formerly of World War II. Not long after that, the band struck its major-label deal. Chrysalis bought out Blondie’s contract and all of their previously recorded material. Before long, Infante was moved to rhythm guitar, and Nigel Harrison became the new bass player. But this all came before producer Mike Chapman helped turn the group into rock stars.
In the Blondie episode of VH1’s series Behind the Music, Destri said that when the band met Chapman, he told the group in so many words that with him they would make a hit record, and they did. Blondie’s first collaboration with Chapman, Parallel Lines, is a new-wave classic (oxymoronic as that may sound). Well-crafted songs like “Dreaming,” “Hanging on the Telephone” and, of course, “One Way or Another” showed the more polished and layered guitar and vocal sounds that Chapman helped forge. This record also included the hit “Heart of Glass,” which Chapman has said actually was conceived as a slower, reggae-style song; on the VH1 show, Chapman said that it was his suggestion they switch to that faster, percolating disco beat.
Chapman also produced the band’s next effort, Eat to the Beat, which was less commercially successful than Parallel Lines but contained very strong songs, including “The Hardest Part” and “Atomic.” Which brings the band up to 1980, when they traveled with Chapman to United Western Studios in L.A. to record their fifth album, Autoamerican, the record that includes Blondie’s version of The Paragons’ song “The Tide Is High.”
Though the band had been to L.A. before, their prolonged stay for these sessions apparently made at least one band member feel like a stranger in a strange land. Chris Stein wrote about it in an article that was published in the Blondie Fan Club newsletter after the album was released: “Los Angeles, the city of lost angels, and angles. Dreamland. And, of course, Hollywood. L.A.’s not really a tough town. It has a strange feeling of fragility. Earthquakes on the brain may be part of the reason why the surface always seems about to crack with delicate tension. The fires burn the hills. The Strip still throbs dull reds and pinks, and the lights of the Valley still look beautiful in the hot, dusty nights…
Every day we get up, stagger into the blinding sun, drive past a huge Moon-mobile from some ancient sci-fi movie that lies rotting by the side of the road and into L.A. proper. The Strip. The sessions get under way…”
The engineer on the sessions was a young woman named Lenise Bent. Previously, Bent had attended Soundmasters Recording School and then had been an assistant engineer at The Village Recorder. There she had contributed to Platinum albums by Steely Dan (Aja, assisting Roger Nichols) and Supertramp (Breakfast in America, assisting Pete Henderson). She’d heard through the grapevine that Chapman was looking for an engineer and that he had a sort of Svengali-like idea that he’d like to school the industry’s first female Platinum producer. She got the position.
After rehearsals were finished, Bent began by bringing drummer Clem Burke in to start getting sounds in the large, live room at United Western, which was equipped with a Harrison 4032 console and UREI 815 monitors. That studio, now part of Ocean Way Hollywood, was well-known as the room where the Beach Boys had recorded “Good Vibrations,” among other hits. (Side note: Bent is a second cousin of the Wilsons and says she felt a warm sort of family connection working in that studio.) The rest of the tracking process was run by Chapman, a supremely organized producer.
“Mike had these charts for every song,” Bent recalls, “breaking them down into different instrumentation and the different parts that had to be done: drums, bass, rhythm guitar, lead vocal, backing vocals, overdubs. Each song had its own section, and as they were completed, he checked them off. They’d done a lot of pre-production, too, and everybody was pretty prepared by the time they got into the studio. Magical things did happen; there was room for those spontaneous-combustion kinds of things, but the preparation helped because you didn’t have to think about the basics.”
Part of the pre-production for “The Tide Is High” included listening to a cassette of the original version, for reference and for inspiration. The Paragons’ song, written by John Holt, is a straight reggae tune, with its syncopated, persistent groove and soulful harmonies. To make it their own, Blondie added a horn section, strings and more percussion, not to mention Harry’s lively singing. Basic band tracks and a working vocal were laid down before the horn, string and percussion players were brought in. Bent says that she recorded most of the tracks on Autoamerican fairly dry, using mic placement and/or changing microphones to get different sounds. On this song, Harry’s vocals were recorded with a Neumann U87, but Bent recalls using a U67 for a different effect on some of the other songs. Guitars and bass were taken direct and with AKG C-414s. On drums, Sennheiser MD-451s were used to close-mike the snare, more 451s for overheads, plus two Neumann KM84s right above the snare. “There was one overhead for that and one really high overhead,” Bent recalls, “and underneath I think we used another KM84, but we used a lot of spill, too. We didn’t use a lot of tight miking techniques. For the cymbals, I think we used 414s, because we wanted a brighter sound. It was a pretty bright kit, pretty new wave.”
The horn and string sections were handled by veteran arranger Jimmy Haskell. Bent says she recorded each of these parts as sections, using more of the 414s, rather than miking individual instruments. “The horn section was like the A team of L.A., the guys from the Johnny Carson band,” says Bent. “If I remember right, there were six of them and we doubled it. On strings, I think there were at least two violins, two violas and possibly a cello. The percussion was pretty much the last thing we did, because that was more like sweetening-fine-tuning and making it something uncommon or a little more interesting.”
In his article, Stein wrote that the percussion for “The Tide Is High” also includes “eight tracks of drum sticks tapping on a piano bench.” He also recalls, “Chapman hunches over the console into the wee hours. People are pressed flat against the back wall by his playback volume. Gallons of Jose Cuervo Gold are consumed…Finally, the basic tracks wind down, and we move a block down the Strip to Studio B [sic, the studio is really Studio 3]. The move marks the Home Stretch; the vocals, overdubs and finally the orchestral horns and what have you. Here is Mike Chapman’s little Magic Room. In days gone by, these burlap walls saw the likes of the Righteous Brothers, Jan & Dean, the Beach Boys…Now the control room is filled with a gigantic blue console that’s hooked up to computers, satellites and atomic submarines off the coast of Maine. Here the songs get the ‘chrome’ put on.”
Bent concurs about Chapman’s playback levels: “The [UREI] Time Align speakers had these little red and green fuses and we blew boxes of them. I used to wear headphones, not plugged into anything.” She also supports Stein’s sci-fi view of some of the studio equipment: “Chapman had two of these EMT 250s [the first-ever digital reverb] that we used to call R2D2s. They belonged to Mike, so we had our special settings, Mike’s signature settings that he liked to use. You could set the length of the decay and the size of the decay and the sound quality, and they had these knobs that you could slide back and forth or up and down. They were these red, shiny things that were a foot-and-a-half tall in little carts.” Bent also used the Aural Exciter on this record, as well as the preamps and EQ on the room’s new Neve 8108 console with Necam automation. The tracks were mixed to Studer A80 2-track at 30 ips, with no Dolby, and she says that for most of the album, they were able to mix one song per day. “The Tide Is High,” however, took double that time because of the layers that had to be dealt with. “We didn’t use all 48 tracks on that Neve console,” Bent says, “but I’m sure we came close.”
The album Autoamerican went Platinum, rising to Number 7 in the United States and Number 3 on the UK charts. The song “The Tide Is High” became one of two Number One hits off the album; the other was the 11-minute “Rapture.”
Bent remembers the sessions for Autoamerican as a time of great professional rewards but also of severe physical stress, because midway through the process she became very ill. She remembers that during this period, Debbie Harry was so kind as to cook her macrobiotic meals because she was having trouble digesting some foods. On the day the project was completed and handed off to Bernie Grundman to be mastered, she checked herself into a hospital to be treated for cancer.
For Bent, a period of recovery followed. She moved to the Caribbean, where she could focus on her own well-being. She didn’t return to pro audio until 1986, a time, she discovered, of shrinking budgets and diminished returns in the music business. So she shifted gears and moved into post-production for TV and film. Today Bent does a lot of Foley recording for animation-mainly working out of L.A.’s Advantage Audio-and at press time, she was completing work on a Miramax film on its way to Sundance. She says she remains extremely proud of her work with Blondie and has great memories of “those really magic moments in the studio when you’d be covered with goose bumps because the music is so great.”
A couple of albums and a good deal of touring later, Chris Stein was also diagnosed with a traumatic, long illness, during which his then-partner, Deborah Harry, set aside her career to be with him. Today, Stein is also healthy again, and 15 years after Blondie last worked together, a core lineup of Stein, Destri, Burke and Harry have just released another album called No Exit.