I had no idea that The Tide is High was not a Blondie original. The song was written by John Holt, but who is John Holt?
John Holt (b. 1947) is a Jamaican songwriter and former member of the band The Paragons. Here’s the Paragons’ hit from 1967, a song told from the point of view of a man pursuing a girl and featuring a great violin solo by “White Rum” Raymond, starting at 1:33.
The Paragons were a rocksteady group — rocksteady describing a pre-cursor to reggae that really only lasted from 1966 to 1968 and featuring soulful R&B type singing over a musical track that emphasized off beats. Reggae developed out of rocksteady but has more elaborate bass lines, electronic keyboard parts, and more percussive rhythm guitar. Here’s John Holt’s recording of Tide is High after he left the Paragons for a solo career (from around 1971-2).
Prominent, melodic bass, cleaner production, more electronic and less acoustic (bye bye violin) — this is reggae!
Ten years later, in 1980, Blondie, founded by singer Deborah Harry and guitarist Chris Stein (also a romantic couple) recorded the Tide is High. In 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh, Harry is quoted: “I first heard ‘The Tide Is High’ on a compilation tape that someone had given me while we were in London. Chris (Stein) and I both fell in love with the song and decided it was too good to resist.”
Blondie is a quintessential New Wave band, but what that actually means is sort of up for grabs. New Wave began with a punk-sort of subculture, but then swallowed rap, reggae and other world musics, electronic music and disco to spew out pop hits from the late 1970s through the 1980s.
The Tide is High is Blondie’s take on Jamaican music (they had a rap song with Rapture and disco with Heart of Glass and Call Me). They added horns and strings and lots of percussion (according to Stein, this included “8 tracks of drum sticks tapping on a piano bench”).
They also apparently hired a director on drugs to make the video (crazed but sane enough to remain on the right side of The Empire of Copyright that is Lucasfilm):
Okay, so you can’t keep a good song down (and we have to keep John Holt’s royalty checks flowing) so in 2002, Atomic Kitten, an oddly tanned trio of British women recorded The Tide is High (Get the Feeling). See what they did there? They added a bridge to get a little bit of that songwriting royalty money.
Pop in the early 21st century: processed guitar riff, lots of keyboards, and a passive, fun-loving version of sexuality that is in direct contrast to Deborah Harry’s aggressive growling. Someone should write a thesis about the evolution of feminine sexuality in pop music using these two tracks. Or, you could just watch The History of Wooing Men through pop music.
The Telegraph UK included Atomic Kitten’s Tide is High in a list of 5 worst cover songs ever.
Then in 2008, The Tide is High fully enters the hip-hop era as a backing track for rapper Kardinal Offishall on a track called Numba 1 (Tide is High). The music is totally reworked, emphasizing rhythm with the sung chorus being the only bit of melody left. While Keri Hilson sings the chorus vowing to be Numba 1 (perhaps even more passively than the Atomic Kittens), Kardinal Offishall raps about how he’s happy to have the girl as a “trophy piece” and she’s never going to be his wife. Canadian hip hop, represent, yo!
There are a ton more cover versions of this song, but I just wanted to highlight a few more just for giggles. Here’s Siw Inger singing in German, Die Zeit ist Reif (I can think of two decent pop songs in German and they are both about space technology. Coincidence or national character? You decide):
Rockin’ the pantsuit. If you ever imagined an alternate reality where Hilary Clinton was a Europop star, here is a window into that world.
(No space technology but a cardboard robot appears in the instrumental break.)
Okay, so by now you’ve figured that I’m not a big fan of Atomic Kitten, so I won’t post their Spanish version of the song. Instead here’s an acoustic cover by two women who call themselves Sundae Street:
This song is called Ser Tu Pasion. According to Google Translate, here are some sample lyrics:
There’s another Spanish version with different lyrics called La Numero Uno. Here’s Nydia Rojas (who looks a bit like a young Linda Ronstadt) with La Numero Uno. I like the backing track which uses a lot of the melodic elements of the Blondie version but with a Mexi-Californian instrumentation and feel. I couldn’t find a transcription of the lyrics, but if you understand Spanish, which translation do you like more? Comment!
Finally, just to totally drive this song into the ground, here’s Lilian, a multi-hued alien who sings in English and… Vietnamese?
Okay, we’ve gotten a bit far off the beaten track here. A final quote, from Sean Lennon talking to Rolling Stone in 2006 about his dad, John Lennon:
Round up of links and news
Did you ever learn a new word and suddenly found that it was ubiquitous? Was the word “ubiquitous”?
Well, a few things have popped up that reminded me of the Newton Family Singers so I thought I’d point them out for people who want to look them over.
ITEM: Zadie Smith wrote about her epiphany with Joni Mitchell in a December issue of the New Yorker (subscription required). The reflections were less about Mitchell per se, and more abou how art can sneak up on you and overwhelm you for reasons that are beyond, well, reason. Smith describes being turned off by the Joni’s angular melodies and odd singing style and demanding her husband turn off the music on a road trip. On that trip, they stopped at Tintern Abbey and Smith found that Mitchell’s music had wormed its way into her brain and suddenly she was obsessed with it, and crying over it.
ITEM: Showtime is airing a documentary, “History of the Eagles,” in two parts this Friday and Saturday (Feb 15 & 16, 2013). The two main Eagles, Glenn Frey and Don Henley discuss their history in the New York Times. Will the film include a version of Seven Bridges Road? We can only hope. The trailer for the doc:
ITEM: The Grammys happened. I was busy watching Downton Abby. But I was happy that one of my favorite records of this past year was a nominee in the Folk Album category: Leaving Eden by the Carolina Chocolate Drops (cd/mp3). If you like beautiful voices singing in harmony, accompanied by banjo, guitar and mandolin, I recommend this highly. The album consists of originals and covers of traditional songs and the production is great. I’ve listened to previous Carolina Chocolate Drops albums, but this is the one that got me hooked and stayed in the cd player for a long time.
ITEM: Okay, there’s no real news here, but I’ve been totally obsessed with Gillian Welch’s song Hard Times and just need to share it with other people.
Watch Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings Play ‘Hard Times’ on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.
(The sound is not so good on this amateur recording, but I had to include it for her introduction at 1:47 which reveals that Andy is a Gillian Welch-type banjo player.)
Okay, that’s it for a quick look backwards. Stay tuned for more news on the songs for the Spring Concert!
Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Dorchester, excavates in the Middle East, and writes in Waban, MA.