Blondie’s Autoamerican is a terrible album, but it’s bad in such an arcane, high-toned way that listening to it is perversely fascinating. After Parallel Lines gave Chris Stein a carte blanche, it was only a matter of time until he started living out his fantasies of himself as a deep thinker. Since he could always be counted on to hedge his bets, however, he cannily managed to sustain the illusion that he still cared about rock & roll on Eat to the Beat. That illusion is surely dead now. And Stein is no longer depriving the world of his “genius,” because Autoamerican is his LP all the way. Indeed, it’s such an anthology of intellectual onanism that it’s almost the rock equivalent of a godawful Ken Russell movie.
A movie, in fact, is what the record transparently aspires to be. The conception, so far as I can figure it, treats American pop culture, or teenage subculture, in science-fiction terms as a kind of lost Atlantis: a legendary civilization made extinct by the disappearance of the surplus-goods society that fostered it. As an idea, this is one of those notions that feels like a cliché, even when you can’t think of anybody else who’s done it. It’s too easy, though certainly feasible, depending on how it’s worked out. Here, it hasn’t been worked out at all. The theme is just a convenient touchstone to unify a lot of fairly ephemeral material that’s patched together by a few repeated images and some graceless chunks of pretentious narration.
Autoamerican opens with an instrumental dirge called “Europa” (the Old World everybody had to leave, get it?) that’s ludicrously portentous. Scored in the pastiche style of wretched soundtrack music, it’s so promiscuously ethnic that, if it had characters, they’d all have to be played, in fortissimo, by Anthony Quinn. The album closes with nothing less than that classic anthem to solipsism, “Follow Me,” from Camelot (a reference as thuddingly clever as “Singin’ in the Rain” at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange). Oddly enough, there isn’t a single rock & roll song on the LP. Instead, we get MOR ballads wrapped in highbrow trimmings, funk played as cocktail music, an imitation-dub rap song and three (counting “Follow Me”) pieces of fake-Tin Pan Alley, swing-era crooning.
Even when camp isn’t the actual musical style, it’s still omnipresent as an attitude. As Stein expounds upon and fills his hobbies (art films, sci-fi, kitschy artifacts) with hot air, he deflates rock & roll in order to demonstrate his superiority to it. He’s so exclusively concerned with creating a modernist manifesto that he’s dispensed with all the pop paraphernalia — e.g., hooks, rhythm, structure — that keeps an audience listening. His sense of pop culture itself is rarefied and coldly elitest: everything, in short, that rock & roll joyfully meant to clear away. Why would anyone make an album about pop that’s totally devoid of humor, brashness, good times and physical energy? Who knows. (It’s as if the jaded, enervated rich of Last Year in Marienbad had passed the time by translating old Ronettes singles into French.) And while he’s expressing his contempt for pop, Chris Stein shamelessly embraces every snobbish cliché of current avant-garde thinking. The only things he seems to care about are the knowing little musical touches: the tinny, abstract-funk guitar lines borrowed from Talking. Heads, the tendentious panculturalism of it all.
You may be wondering what happened to Deborah Harry. Stein’s largest mistake — or, alternately, the clearest sign of his arrogance — is his willingness to shortchange Blondie’s biggest asset. It’s not just that Harry sounds foolish reciting Autoamerican‘s bits of narration — the way they’re written, so would Laurence Olivier. Her voice is all wrong for the tunes, too. She can’t project nonchalance, wit or verbal sophistication and is denied any chance to utilize that peculiar metallic urgency characteristically found in her finest vocals. Without opportunities, she seems lost, as if she’d wandered onto the wrong record. Even in the least stylized compositions, Harry sounds listless and dazed, barely there. And when she does try to show some sass and spunk — in the rap that (all too typically) gives “Rapture” its title — she’s sunk by the leaden, schematic lyrics.
The rest of the group is almost as absent: the star parts all go to the brand-name sessionmen brought in for the LP, and at least half the songs are carried by horns (Caribbean and bullfight) or strings (MOR and pseudoclassical). Though Blondie’s days as a sloppy but inspired trash-rock band are long gone (and more missed than ever), here the group doesn’t even get to trot out the bombastic AOR chops that producer Mike Chapman gave them as a substitute on Parallel Lines and Eat to the Beat. Only “T-Birds” reaches for the old panache, and it’s stopped cold by another bit of limp exhortation.
Organist Jimmy Destri is awarded a moment or two, and his and Laura Davis’ ballad, “Angels on the Balcony,” while somewhat slight, is the album’s nicest and least abrasive number. Unfortunately, Destri is also responsible for one of Autoamerican‘s worst-conceived cuts: “Walk like Me,” a marching tune for a rebellion that you can’t imagine the band actually believes in. Aside from its musical shortcomings — the melody is too flat for the song to be as stirring as it means to be — the idea that the way for teenagers to revolt against society is to follow the example set by blondie™ for murjani™ is truly laughable. Or not funny at all.
Still, you have to prefer Destri’s attempts to make some connection with the outside world to Stein’s bloodless manipulation of it. The best thing about “Walk like Me” is that, on Autoamerican, it sounds out of place: it’s about something. For the rest, I wonder if the reason Chris Stein is so eager to proclaim the death of pop culture is so he can beat the hyenas to its bones.