In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
For decades, there’s been a fascinating cultural conversation going on between mainline anglo-American pop music and Jamaican reggae. Reggae started, at least in part, as a homegrown Jamaican variation on the New Orleans R&B of the late ’50s and early ’60s. (According to legend, the distinctive beat of early ska came from the Jamaican musicians who couldn’t quite manage to replicate Fats Domino rhythms.) And from the ’60s onward, Jamaican music has answered back, exerting its own influence over our pop music. That’s an ongoing story.
The first real reggae hit in America landed in 1969, when Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” became a fluke sensation, peaking at #9 on the Hot 100. (It’s a 10.) In the years after that, you could hear echoes of reggae in a handful of the songs that hit #1 in America. The Staples Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” took its intro and bassline from the Harry J Allstars’ 1969 instrumental “The Liquidator.” The beat from the Hues Corporation’s “Rock The Boat” came from one American producer’s attempt to replicate the beats he’d heard while on vacation on the Caribbean. Elton John’s “Island Girl” is a particularly ghastly and clumsy attempt at adapting reggae dynamics, though you couldn’t really call it a reggae song.
Johnny Nash had a long relationship with Bob Marley, and he made a few reggae records. “I Can See Clearly Now,” Nash’s one #1, isn’t one of them, though sometimes people call it reggae. Eric Clapton famously covered Bob Marley with “I Shot The Sheriff,” his own sole #1, though Clapton pretty much drained all the reggae from his version of the song. Actual Jamaican reggae tracks eventually came to top the Hot 100, though that didn’t really start happening until the ’90s.
In its moment, then, Blondie’s “The Tide Is High” was the closest thing to a real reggae song that had ever hit #1 in America. Nobody would confuse Blondie’s record with an actual Jamaican reggae track, but it’s still a cool attempt to engage with the genre on its own terms. And considering the American pop records that had attempted the sound earlier, “The Tide Is High” counts as some kind of miracle.
“The Tide Is High” was not Blondie’s song. The Paragons, a Kingston vocal trio, recorded the original version of “The Tide Is High” in 1967. John Holt, the lead Paragon who eventually went on to a fairly successful solo career, wrote the song. The Paragons’ original is a lovely, incandescent example of rocksteady, the genre that essentially bridged the gap between ska and straight-up reggae in the late ’60s. It’s hard to measure the impact of Jamaican singles that didn’t chart elsewhere, but the Jamaican star Gregory Isaacs recorded his own version of “The Tide Is High” in 1978, so the song stuck around.
Thanks in part to the West Indian population of England, reggae always did better on the pop charts in the UK than it did in America. The first wave of British punks treated the genre with an almost mystical level of reverence. Blondie loved reggae, too. They’d toyed around with the genre on the 1979 album track “Die Young, Stay Pretty,” and the original demo of their hit “Heart Of Glass” had at least a little bit of reggae skank to it. During one visit to London, someone gave Debbie Harry a compilation tape with the Paragons’ “The Tide Is High” on it. She loved the song, and it sounded like a hit to her. In a 2008 Mojo interview, Blondie’s Chris Stein said that Harry wanted to record a version of “The Tide Is High” with the Specials, the British ska revivalists who were nearing the end of a massive UK run but who never had a Hot 100 single in the US. The Specials turned her down, so Blondie recorded “The Tide Is High” themselves instead.
Blondie, who almost never covered anyone else’s records, included their version of “The Tide Is High” on Autoamerican, the stylistically all-over-the-place album that they recorded with the ace new wave producer Mike Chapman in 1980. Chapman made sure Blondie’s version sounded bright and sweet. It’s an extremely produced record, with Hollywood veteran Jimmie Haskell doing the horn and string arrangement. The band beefed up the rhythm section by overdubbing in a bunch of layers of themselves banging drumsticks on a piano bench.
But Blondie didn’t really have to do anything to sweeten “The Tide Is High.” The original is already a remarkably sweet record, so Blondie just gave it a faithful reading. Even those strings just echo White Rum Raymond’s violin line on the Paragons record. If anything, Blondie’s version of “The Tide Is High” is a whole lot less tough and icy than the band’s other #1 hits, though it’s probably still tougher and icier than the Paragons’ take on the song.
Blondie’s “The Tide Is High” basically invents No Doubt. Blondie do everything possible to fill the song out, to make it sound as warm and breezy as the original. But Debbie Harry doesn’t sing it in the fake patois that so many American singers rely on when they attempt to go reggae. Few people really talked about things like cultural appropriation in the early ’80s, but one of the striking things about “The Tide Is High” is that Blondie approach reggae respectfully, doing a shimmery big-studio version of the genre without turning it into a caricature of itself. Rather than seizing on the otherness of the song, Blondie understand “The Tide Is High” as a straight-up pop song, and they play it like one.
“The Tide Is High” is a crush song, or maybe an obsession song. Harry sings, again and again, that she’s holding on, that she’s going to be your number one. But she doesn’t pine. Instead, when she sings that she’s not the kind of girl who gives up just like that, she sounds almost furious — as if she can’t believe this asshole would have the audacity to not immediately fall in love with her. She’s flirty and hard at the same time, and I don’t think any other singer has ever nailed that combination as well as Harry does.
Blondie had to know that they could never replicate the lo-fi charm of the Paragons’ original, so they go in the opposite direction. They make “The Tide Is High” into something grand and symphonic. The elaborate drum-roll intro is a lot of fun, and so is the interplay of the strings and the horns, which end up sounding a lot like one another. Trombones float through the higher end of the mix, while pizzicato string-plucks drift below. The band goes for graceful bounce, doing nothing to rock the song up. On the fade-out, somebody screams out a delighted ya-ha-ha-ha, like they know how hard they’ve just nailed it.
I get the same feeling from “The Tide Is High” that I get from the comedies that Debbie Harry’s friend Jonathan Demme made in the ’80s. The song reaches out to another culture, but it does it with an effortless and matter-of-fact ease. There’s real joy in hearing Harry’s voice over this beautifully produced, expertly realized approximation of reggae. It’s not the real deal, but nobody in Jamaica had the means to make a record that elaborate anyway. Blondie’s take is the next best thing.
Ultimately, “The Tide Is High” is a pretty minor entry in Blondie’s discography, but it’s a lovely record nonetheless. Blondie will appear in this column again. So will reggae.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the significantly different version of “The Tide Is High” that Debbie Harry recorded with the Jazz Passengers in 1996:
(As a solo artist, Debbie Harry never had a top-10 hit. Her highest-charting single, 1981’s “Backfired,” peaked at #43.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the version of “The Tide Is High” that the UK reggae singer Maxi Priest contributed to the soundtrack of the 1997 film Speed 2: Cruise Control:
(Maxi Priest will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The British girl group Atomic Kitten had a UK #1 with their teen-pop cover of “The Tide Is High” in 2002. Here’s the video:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Toronto rapper Kardinal Offishall interpolated “The Tide Is High” on his 2008 Keri Hilson collab “Numba 1 (Tide Is High).” Here’s the video:
(Kardinal Offishall’s highest-charting single in the US, the 2008 Akon team-up “Dangerous,” peaked at #5. It’s a 4. Keri Hilson’s highest-charting track, the Ne-Yo/Kanye West collaboration “Knock You Down,” peaked at #3. It’s a 5.)