Here’s something Blondie has done that no other band could possibly boast: they had four #1 hits, each in a completely different style, each a complete classic, and each unmistakably Blondie. Their first, “Heart of Glass” was pretty much a straight disco number, but one that’s dated far better than any other crossover attempt from a rock band of the time. Their second, “Call Me,” was clearly cut from a more New Wave cloth, albeit one filtered through Giorgio Moroder’s production sheen. Their third, “The Tide is High,” was a rocksteady (read for us white people: reggae) cover, but one electrified with singer Debbie Harry’s unbearably suggestive sexual edge.
And then there’s the fourth–“Rapture.” I don’t even know where to begin to classify “Rapture”–it starts with a disco beat, but has salsa-y percussion, a post-punk guitar solo, a hip-hop breakdown and new wave lyrics (and a classic new wave video, like a much seedier “Puttin’ on the Ritz“). It’s not as danceable as “Heart of Glass,” not as galvanizing as “Call Me,” and definitely not as maddeningly catchy as “The Tide is High.” But it’s by far the coolest fucking song Blondie (or just about any of their peers) ever put out, and my God if it doesn’t stand as one of the all-time strangest singles to ever top the US charts.
Let’s start off with that disco intro. The beat–courtesy of drummer Clem Burke, who most likely hated to play it–is for me one of the great opening drum beats of the 80s, up there with “Billie Jean,” “True Faith” and Hall & Oates’ “Kiss on My List” (which, semi-ironically, ended up replacing the song at pole position). And with the three-bell chime that introduces the main hook of the song, mostly found in the bubbling bass of Chris Stein (I think), you can (and should) be already partying before the song even really kicks in.
Debbie Harry has never sounded even remotely like this before, and I don’t think she ever did again. Usually Harry’s highest vocal priority is her ballsy down-to-earthness, a hardened charm that shines through even in a song like “Heart of Glass,” where her glorious falsetto is offset with sing-spoken lines about love “being a pain in the ass.” But on “Rapture” she sounds otherworldly, a cross between Anita Baker and the diva from The Fifth Element, moaning orgasmically about lord knows what (probably rapture). The first two verses of the song already place this song squarely in alien territory–quite literally.
But Harry’s just getting started. “Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody’s fly / The DJ’s spinning, I said, my my / Flash is fast / Flash is cool / Francois sez fas / Flashe non due”. No idea what it means–probably nothing–but the namechecks of Fab 5 Freddy and Grandmaster Flash (who would later co-op the song / return the favor for a song that might be still to come on this list) would prove key, as well as the distinctly hip-hop cadence with which Harry delivered them. Basically, Blondie were…well, rapping. Eight years before “Epic,” four years before the first Beastie Boys single, even three years before “Rappin’ Rodney,” Blondie were learning a thing or two about what was happening outside of Manhattan, and “Rapture” stands as one of White America’s first ever introduction to the culture at large.
And the verse? Well, it’s not exactly Eminem, and Harry’s flow didn’t exactly get her any solo deals, but I maintain her storytelling–about a man from mars with an insatiable appetite for, alternately, cars, bars and guitars–is about as solid as most other party rappers of the time, and certainly makes for some decent quotables. And you’ll be consistently surprised with how much of it sticks with you–I even remember seeing the ladies of Veruca Salt on an old M2 sample hour rapping the whole thing from memory. Good enough for Nina and Louise, certainly good enough for me.
The bizarre thing is that even though “Rapture” is probably the least recognized and the least played (on radio, anyway) of Blondie’s major hits, it’s arguably proven their most enduring. KRS-One sampled Harry’s ghostly wail in the mid-90s for his only ever top 40 hit, “Step Into a World.” Mashup masterminds Go Home Productions had their first US club hit with their “Rapture Riders” blend, mixing “Rapture” with The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm”. Even Reggaetoner Omawi Bling nicked the bass line for his “Tocame en Secreto” hit. And frankly, I can’t get enough–give me those bells, that beat, that bass line in any song and I’ll groove like a villain in a zoot suit to it.
“Step into a world,” indeed. Too bad Blondie didn’t spend more time there, it’s a pretty out there place.