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Debbie Harry’s KooKoo: Still Crazy After All These Years

In 1980s, 1981, Blondie, funk, new wave, Rich's House of Vinyl on July 2, 2014 at 3:34 am

I originally wrote this back in August 2006, around the 25th anniversary of the release of Debbie Harry’s first solo album, KooKoo. Since today, July 1, 2014, is Debbie’s birthday, I thought I’d revisit this KooKoonalysis.

There have been a fair amount of articles and journal entries out there about the 25th anniversary of MTV, which occurred this month. But another momentous pop culture moment happened during August 1981. Observances of this particular anniversary have been quiet (at best), so I thought I better pick up the slack.

I can only be speaking, of course, of the release of Debbie Harry’s first solo album, KooKoo. I do not know the exact date of the album’s original release. It may have actually been released in September, but I’m thinking late August 1981.

What I do know for sure is that I had two different dreams about going to buy the new Debbie Harry album in early August 1981. I have recorded the dreams elsewhere in this journal, but if the public clamors for me to re-run them I will.

When considering the KooKoo; album, it is important to place it within its proper context both as part of Debbie Harry’s career and that of her band, Blondie, and vis-à-vis the pop culture climate in the summer of 1981.

Although band members did not specifically know this at the time, by the summer of ’81 Blondie was already past its greatest commercial successes. Number one singles like “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me,” “The Tide Is High,” and “Rapture” had already had their chart runs and the current incarnation of the band at that point only had one more album in them, 1982’s half-hearted The Hunter.

KooKoo was not necessarily meant to be Harry’s break from Blondie, but in retrospect that could have been on her mind. Of course, had it really been on her mind, she might have made a more commercially viable solo album.

In considering the general pop culture environment into which KooKoo was sprung, it’s important to note that, while the new wave sound of bands like Blondie, Devo, the Cars and others was still pretty hot, the disco backlash had clearly set in. Madonna, who would reinvent disco by calling it “dance music,” was still just a blip on the horizon.

This information is important when you consider that Debbie Harry chose Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers to produce KooKoo. Edwards and Rodgers were the masterminds behind Chic, the premier disco-oriented band of the era. At the time the match-up of Debbie Harry and Chris Stein with Edwards and Rodgers was considered to be somewhat groundbreaking.

I don’t remember when I first heard about KooKoo, but I’m thinking it was late in July ’81, right before the dreams started. I also remember being in Cape May, New Jersey, on vacation. While there, I rode my bike to the only record store in town, hoping against desperate hope that somehow, someway, this little hole-in-the-wall store had secured an advance copy of KooKoo. Not that it would have done me any good in Cape May; my record player was, of course, back home.

Of course, those hopes were dashed. However, I think by this time, the first single from the album, “Backfired,”  (whose title predicted the reception the album would ultimately receive) had been released and was getting a little bit of airplay. If I was ever in any proximity to a radio on which the song was playing, I’d rush to catch the staccato rhythm guitar that dominated the song and to hear goofy lyrics about how “we ran down to HoJo’s for hamburgers to go.”

Oddly enough, considering how pumped I was for the release of KooKoo, I have no memory of the day I was able to triumphantly walk into a record store and purchase it. However, I think that we’re probably talking end of August/beginning of September here and my purchase point was probably Village Records at Tri State Mall, which had been the site of both of my record-buying dreams.

Much was made at the time of the cover of KooKoo, which was artist H.R. Giger’s rendering of Debbie Harry with huge acupuncture needles stuck through her face. I was certainly wild about the record, though critics at the time were not and no one, aside from me, has come along with any revisionist criticism about how KooKoo is an overlooked masterpiece.

What KooKoo; is, is an uneasy collision of the Chic guys’ sleek disco sensibilities with the new wave/punk rock ethos of Harry and Stein. The review at allmusic.com claims that this stylistic mash-up nearly never works, but I disagree. While it is never an album that I’ve tried hard to replace with a CD version (I think it was years before it was even available on CD), I think I would place at least five of the ten songs on “best of Debbie Harry’s solo stuff” mix CD, were I ever to make one (and, really, that’s not a bad idea).

I still like “Backfired” a lot and “The Jam Was Moving” is a cool tune that also features members of Devo. “Chrome” has a mysterious vibe (and Blondie actually performed it when I saw them the following year) and “Now I Know You Know” is a jazzy ballad that would probably bore a lot of people, but I like it.

“Surrender” and “Under Arrest” would probably make the cut too. I enjoyed “Military Rap” at the time, but now I’m thinking that it’s probably the first in a long line of evidence that Ms. Harry should have stopped rapping after “Rapture.” “Innercity Spillover,” an awkward reggae track and the title track, wouldn’t make my mix. That leaves us with “Jump Jump,” which I guess I don’t care about one way or another.

Back in the day, though, I thought KooKoo was all good, and even managed to a get a glowing review of it in my high school newspaper.

As I mentioned, in the 25 years since it’s original release, KooKoo has gotten precious little respect. Even emotionally unbalanced Debbie Harry fans (in whose ranks I do not belong, even if I did once walk her to her car) on Amazon.com claim that Harry solo albums like the clearly inferior Debravation are somehow better than KooKoo, which at least had the distinction of being oddly experimental and forward-thinking at the time of its release.

However, here’s the thing to remember about KooKoo: the next two production projects that Nile Rodgers had after the album (or at least among the next bunch of records he produced) were David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Madonna’s Like a Virgin, albums that were hailed at the time for savvy production that bridged the gaps between rock, dance and pop. This leads me to think that KooKoo was an important template for Rodgers, from which he went on to change the face of pop music, at least for a little while. In other words, to paraphrase WKRP’s Les Nesman, scratch a Virgin and you’ll find a KooKoo.

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  1. Thanks rich. Pleased to have discovered your site. Good case made here for me to track down this choice. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (plugged in now).

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