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Debbie Harry | KooKoo (1981) debut album

August 19, 2016

Before we take look back at Debbie Harry's 1981 debut solo album KooKoo, let's set the stage and context in which it materialized. Blondie had recently released their Autoamerican album in 1980, from which most people will recognize the massive hit singles "The Tide Is High" and "Rapture". That album was a departure from Blondie's previous energetic, rock/new wave sound. Each track on Autoamerican was a representation of a different style and genre of music - including orchestral instrumentals, new wave, post-disco, rap, calypso, jazz, 1930's swing, rock and even a cover of a Rodgers & Hammerstein song.

 

Following the success of Autoamerican and its singles, Blondie was taking a break. During this period, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein decided to collaborate with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of the disco/funk band CHIC and have them produce Debbie's solo album. By this point, Debbie had died her hair brown, was tiring of Blondie and wanted to do something different. 

 

KooKoo is one of those albums that I appreciate and enjoy listening to today, more than I did when it was originally released (July 27, 1981). I like to think that it was a bit ahead of its time. I remember first seeing the album in record stores as a kid and thinking "My God! What has she done with herself?" The album cover isn't exactly easy on the eyes. And the overall sound of the ten songs on KooKoo was a big departure from the Blondie sound that we were all so used to hearing.  

 

If you take a look a the songwriting credits and listen carefully to the tracks, they fall into three categories:

  • Four of the album tracks ("Jump Jump", "Chrome", "Inner City Spillover" and "Military Rap") are written by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. These are songs you could imagine on a Blondie album. "Chrome" would have fit in perfectly on Automerican, and it seems like "Military Rap" was carrying on where Blondie's "Rapture" left off.

  • Four are written by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards ("The Jam Was Moving", "Surrender", "Backfired" and "Now I Know You Know"), and you could probably imagine these songs on a CHIC album. Both "Backfired" and "The Jam Was Moving" were released as singles from the album.

  • Two are collaborations between Harry/Stein and Rodgers/Edwards - "Under Arrest" and "Oasis" (which hints at the album title with its lyrics: "Not the doorbell, not a bird call, Koo Koo").

 

Promotional videos for "Backfired" and "Now I Know You Know" were created for the album. They present a different Debbie Harry from the one we knew from Blondie - different in both a visual and musical sense.

 

BACKFIRED (music video):

 

NOW I KNOW YOU KNOW (music video):

The artwork on the album cover is a painting by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who is probably best known as the designer for the creature of the 1979 SciFi film Alien.  While visiting New York for one of his exhibitions, he met Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, who were big fans, and was asked by them to design the album cover for Debbie's upcoming solo album. At the time, Giger was taking accupuncture sessions and that inspired him to incorporate the four spikes (intended to represent the four basic elements: earth, air, fire, water) into Debbie's head in the painting. The album title "KooKoo" reportedly comes from Debbie's interpretation of the name of the Thor Heyerdahl book "Aku-Aku", which was a phrase H.R. Giger suggested.

 

The inner sleeve of the album and its back cover depict more of the photography and artwork that you don't typically see unless you've got a copy lying around.

 

In the end, KooKoo and its singles didn't chart all that well. But the album seems to have stood the test of time and represents the results of some of the first collaborations Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards embarked upon. They continued to work with and produce other artists until Bernard Edwards' passing in 1996, and Nile Rodgers continues to produce and collaborate with other artists even today. You can recognize that distinct Nile Rodgers sound in songs that range from Diana Ross' "Upside Down" to Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" to Avicii's "Lay Me Down".

 

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