KooKoo

Still ‘KooKoo’ After 40 Years with Debbie Harry’s First Solo LP

Forty years later, Debbie Harry’s blend of Blondie and Chic remains a flawed but beguiling experiment that paved the way for Let’s Dance and Like a Virgin.

KooKoo
Debbie Harry
Chrysalis
27 July 1981

Serious pop music fans may occasionally experience this phenomenon: an album’s release perfectly aligns with a certain moment in that fan’s life. Regardless of the album’s ultimate commercial or critical fate, the fan carries it with them for the rest of their life. Such is the fate of Blondie vocalist Debbie Harry’s first solo album, KooKoo (now celebrating its 40th anniversary), and me. But enough about me. For now.

Going Solo

The members of Blondie were at the height of their powers at the end of 1980. Blondie had conquered the pop world with the seminal Parallel Lines album (1978) and its singles “Heart of Glass” (the first of four #1 hits) and “One Way or Another”. The band solidified their status as world-class hitmakers with Eat to the Beat at the end of 1979. The monster non-album #1 hit, “Call Me” emerged in early 1980, setting the table for Autoamerican. Released in November 1980, that album was an instant smash, spawning two more number one hits with infectious genre experiments “The Tide Is High” and “Rapture”.

Oddly, Blondie chose that moment to take a hiatus rather than hitting the road in support of Autoamerican. In a People cover story from 16 March 1981, Harry claimed that recent Blondie songs were “too complex” to play live, but in Harry’s 2019 memoir, Face It, she admits that Blondie guitarist Chris Stein simply didn’t want to tour. “Chris thought that being on the road all the time was a waste of time,” noted Harry. “He felt his best efforts were spent being creative than dogging around doing physical labor.”

Blondie went on hiatus in 1981. Keyboardist Jimmy Destri recorded a solo album, Heart on a Wall, which remains a worthy Blondie-adjacent curio for those who appreciate the pop smarts Destri brought to the band. Meanwhile, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein collaborated with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the masterminds behind Chic, of “Le Freak” and “Good Times” fame. The People article made note: “She and her boyfriend of several years, Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, 31, have already cut three tracks for a new album with R&B wizards Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic.”

What was the motivation behind KooKoo? In Face It, Harry explains that she and Stein “wanted to make an album that synthesized black and white music, not just a rock band covering a black song or writing a song that referenced black music, but a true collaboration between a black act and a white act.”

Harry and Stein were longtime Chic fans and had met Rodgers and Edwards when Blondie was recording Eat to the Beat at Power Station recording studios in New York City. Rodgers and Edwards had begun to expand their production projects outside of Chic, and Harry felt like they’d be the logical production team for KooKoo.

Nile Rodgers notes in his memoir Le Freak that he had become good friends with Harry and Stein, but he never mentions the KooKoo album. However, having achieved success by applying Chic’s production techniques to albums by Diana Ross (Diana, featuring “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out”) and Sister Sledge (We Are Family, with its legendary title track), it makes sense that Rodgers and Edwards would be interested in working with a singer who’d scored four number-one songs in just three years.

In Search of the Elusive KooKoo

As it happened, the summer of 1981 was, from my perspective, the perfect time for a Debbie Harry solo album. “Heart of Glass” and “One Way or Another” had drawn me into Parallel Lines, and the entire record soon entranced me. Eat to the Beat and Autoamerican strengthened Blondie’s hold on me and led me backward to discover their earlier self-titled debut (1976) and Plastic Letters (1978). Blondie was my new favorite band, and they were leading me in all kinds of unexpected musical directions: The B-52s, Devo, Talking Heads, and many more new bands were providing an alternative to the piano-playing pop stars – Elton John, Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Neil Sedaka – to whom I had pledged my allegiance.

Word of a Debbie Harry solo album had reached me, probably through the People article, which helpfully reassured readers that Blondie did plan to reunite. By early summer, I knew a Debbie Harry album was imminent, though a release date seemed elusive: while Wikipedia and Discogs both now state that the album was released on 27 July 1981, I do not remember it being available until sometime in August.

This album, which I learned would be called KooKoo, was a dream come true to my 16-year-old Blondie-loving brain. I mean this literally. As the nebulous release date (July? August? The 12th of Never?) for KooKoo approached, I had at least two dreams that I dutifully recorded in my journal, in which I entered record stores and searched for KooKoo. In one dream, I found a new Blondie album called Zeoloto, filled with “entirely classical music, much of it composed by members of Blondie”. In the other dream, I discovered the new Debbie Harry album packaged in a plain red cover and containing “soulful renditions of songs by Pat Benatar and other performers”.

Throughout my life I’ve had dreams about musicians. There was the one about the members of Talking Heads running a convenience store and the one in which I met Aretha Franklin in a K-Mart. Recently, I dreamed I nabbed a Neil Sedaka impersonator who was trying to pass himself off as the real deal. But as far as I know, I’ve never had other dreams about going to a record store with a specific mission to buy a soon-to-be-released album.

Such is the hold that KooKoo had on me. Once, I had the album in hand, though, oddly, I don’t remember actually buying it. There was much to contemplate about it, even before I dropped the needle on side one, track one.

Take the cover, which was conceived and painted by H.R. Giger, a Swiss artist who, among other achievements, won an Academy Award for his contributions to the visual design of the classic 1979 horror film, Alien. Giger’s KooKoo cover features a dark-haired Harry whose face is pierced by giant acupuncture needles. Menacing lightning bolts complete the scene. The inner sleeve portrait elaborates on this concept. It’s a weird album cover and, to this day, it may be the only thing that some people remember about KooKoo.

The liner notes are straightforward, listing the musicians, producers, and other technical details of the album. At the very end though of the notes, though, is this quote from “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe: “‘Doubtless,’ said I. ‘What it utters is its only stock and store.’”

Was Debbie Harry the raven? Or the KooKoo album itself? Who knows?

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