KooKoo: The Songs
To best understand the sound and feel of KooKoo, it is helpful to categorize the songs by their songwriters. Here’s the breakdown:
“Jump Jump” – This opening track is a piano-driven dance-rock tune that could have fit comfortably on the eclectic Autoamerican. The song is enlivened by backing vocals by “Pud and Spud Devo” (Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerry Casale).
“Chrome” — This is a strange rock drone, in the very general vein of Blondie’s “Fade Away and Radiate” but without the Robert Frippertronics of that song. The lyrics seem to be a meditation of Debbie Harry’s perception of herself as a shape-shifting artistic chameleon. The most mysterious track on KooKoo, “Chrome”, eventually dissolves in a sea of exotic percussion.
“Inner City Spillover” — Harry/Stein’s attempt to tap into the reggae feel of Blondie’s number one hit “The Tide is High”. However, while “The Tide Is High” is an engaging and light-hearted cover tune, “Inner City Spillover” is a turgid attempt at social commentary. The most skippable song on KooKoo. I probably thought this in 1981 as well but would not have admitted to it.
“Military Rap”. Again, reaching back to a previous Blondie ‘#1 (“Rapture”), “Military Rap” lives up to its title: it’s a satirical rap song focusing on the military-industrial complex. It’s awkward but goofily engaging and way more fun than “Inner City Spillover”.
“The Jam Was Moving” — “The order came directly from the CIA to start the following investigation” begins this funky little rock tune, which is pretty much about the jam and how it was moving, and how this movement needed to be investigated.
“Surrender” — A pop song in which Harry enumerates all the horrible things she’d rather have happen to her before she gives up her love (being getting hit by a big Mac truck, sleeping in a lion’s den, being eaten by a big, fat shark, etc.). “Surrender” is highlighted by a minute-long guitar solo (presumably by Nile Rodgers, though both he and Stein are credited guitarists on KooKoo). Rodgers’ jazzy playing anticipates some of the soloing he’d do on Chic’s Tongue in Chic album, released a few months after KooKoo.
“Backfired” — Opening with one of Nile Rodger’s classic stuttering rhythm guitar riffs, “Backfired” is lyrically the tale of a woman telling off a potential Svengali who wants to make her a star. Even though they “ran down to HoJo’s for hamburgers to go,” the singer makes it clear that the man’s plans have indeed backfired in his face. From a marketing perspective, this song is a cautionary tale: do not release a song called “Backfired” as your album’s lead-off single. Despite it being Harry’s highest-charting solo song, “Backfired” stalled at #43 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
“Now I Know You Know” — A ballad in the tradition of Chic’s “At Last I Am Free”. Lyrically, the song feels like a follow-up conversation between the characters in “Backfired”. It ends with a jazzy coda featuring a trumpet/sax duel. Though this might have been seen as a weird departure, Blondie had ventured into jazzy-laden territory on Autoamerican tracks, “Here’s Looking at You” and “Faces”. Harry would continue on this path later when she worked with the Jazz Passengers.
- “Under Arrest” — An unassuming, but catchy tune, “Under Arrest” is as close to punk rock as KooKoo gets and give a listener as idea of what a straightforward supergroup derived from the Chic and Blondie members might have sounded like.
- “Oasis” — This expansive disco tune closes that album with a lyric that seems to be a close to an explanation of KooKoo as anything else on the album: “We know it’s not so serious/We take it all in fun.”
Critics Weigh In
The initial critical response to KooKoo was mixed, with reviews ranging from scathing to mild-but-muted praise. In the 30 August 1981 Washington Post, Richard Harrington said that Giger’s cover painting was the best thing about KooKoo, before noting that it was “a dismal album that will do little to advance any of the participants’ careers or reputations.”
David Fricke, writing in the 29 October 1981 issue of Rolling Stone, was more supportive than Harrington, but felt that its producers were too cautious. “But KooKoo, despite its faults, remains a worthy experiment in altered funk states while maintaining Debbie Harry’s–and Blondie’s–commercial equilibrium. If only they’d gone to a few more extremes.”
However, at least one fledging music critic gave KooKoo high marks. “At a time when musical personalities so often take the easy way out, Debbie Harry and company should be congratulated for trying something original,” 16-year-old me wrote in the November 1981 issue of my high school newspaper, the Chi Spy. “Going KooKoo will never be the same.”
Alas, my glowing review of KooKoo wasn’t enough to move the needle: KooKoo, which had peaked at #25 on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart fell off the chart, to return nevermore, just as the Chi Spy was hitting my school lunchroom.
KooKoo and Everything After
KooKoo turned out to be no blockbuster, but in Face It, Harry proclaims that she was satisfied by it: noting that the album went gold in the US, Harry also says “it was so much fun to record.”
As for Rodgers, while he and Edwards may have also enjoyed the sessions for KooKoo, its relative commercial failure coincided with a similar decline in Chic’s commercial fortunes, following the anti-disco backlash of 1979. In Le Freak, Rodgers recounts how Bowie recruited him to produce Let’s Dance at a time when Rodgers’ confidence was low due to several commercially failed production jobs. Without listing them by name these would have included Chic’s albums from 1980 through 1982, as well as KooKoo.
While Rodgers might have rued the failure of KooKoo to become a blockbuster, the album feels like an important building block in the production work Rodgers would subsequently do. That included Let’s Dance, a commercial success, and Rodgers’ next project: producing the second album by a young female singer named Madonna. KooKoo is clearly the missing link between “Le Freak” and “Like a Virgin”.
Following KooKoo’s brief commercial run, Blondie reconvened to record 1982’s lackluster The Hunter. Almost exactly one year after KooKoo’s release, Blondie launched a tour (opening act: Duran Duran!) to support The Hunter. The tour found Blondie at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium on August 21, playing smack dab in the middle of an all-day rock festival that also included Robert Hazard and the Heroes, A Flock of Seagulls, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and Genesis.
Determined to see Blondie live, I was at this JFK show and was happily surprised when the band played the KooKoo’s “Chrome”. It would be the last time Blondie played the Harry solo track: almost immediately after the JFK show, Blondie canceled upcoming European dates, broke up, and didn’t play again as a band until the late ‘90s.
Meanwhile, Chic also ended, but Edwards and (especially) Rodgers launched successful production careers. Like Blondie, Chic reunited in the ‘90s, though Edwards tragically died the morning after a triumphant Tokyo show in 1996.
When thinking long-term about KooKoo, it is worth noting what critic Robert Christgau said in his B- review. Christgau, who was generally supportive of both Blondie and Chic, wrote, “Lots of sharp little moments are intermittently arresting, and if both artists establish themselves as classic, the strain may sound noble eventually.” Christgau concluded by saying, “Right now it sounds klutzy”, but in 2021, Blondie is in the Rock and Roll of Fame, as is Nile Rodgers (as a proxy for Chic, who have not been voted in but should be).
With such validation, it feels worthwhile to continue to give KooKoo an occasional listen, klutzy, though it may still sound to some ears. As for me, it has felt weird and yet sort of symmetrical to spend the summer of 2021 almost as obsessed with KooKoo as I spent the summer of 1981 (though I can never fully match that obsession). A tiny part of my brain is still wired for this weird little album, but it’s time to move on. I’ve got nothing else to say about KooKoo, at least until its 50th anniversary.