When Blondie’s Debbie Harry Went Solo with ‘KooKoo’
For many lead singers making their solo debut after a period of tremendous band success, it might be tempting to avoid tinkering with a hit formula. But for Blondie singer Debbie Harry, stepping away from the band was an opportunity to make a break with the past.
Harry and her Blondie bandmate/boyfriend Chris Stein were on a break from the group following the release of 1980's hit Autoamerican LP, and took the opportunity to hook up professionally with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the writing and production duo behind disco hitmakers Chic. Although the foursome had met up while sharing studio space in the late '70s, they didn't have a chance to work together until Harry stepped away from the confines of her multi-platinum band.
"We were both heading to similar places," Harry told Hit Parader. "They were heading towards rock, in their own way, and we were heading toward disco and R&B, in our own way. We met somewhere in the middle. ... People aren't even aware that Bernard and Nile play instruments. They think Chic is made up of studio musicians. These guys are the black Cream, believe me."
As Harry's comments at the time alluded, her choice of collaborators proved surprising for some. Although Blondie had always been eager to dabble in different genres, they were still basically thought of as a pop band — and although they'd scored a number of hit records with Chic, and more recently behind the boards for Diana Ross' 1980 Diana LP, neither Rodgers nor Edwards had the profile they'd command later in the decade.
In fact, as Rodgers later noted, it was his work on Harry's solo debut — titled KooKoo — that essentially laid the groundwork for the major hits he'd soon produce for a list of acts that included David Bowie (1983's Let's Dance) and Madonna (Like a Virgin the following year).
"I hadn’t done Let’s Dance. I hadn’t done Like a Virgin, so I really hadn’t worked with any of the big acts that I wound up doing those huge records with, so Debbie and Chris were the first artists in the rock genre to sort of take a chance with myself and Bernard," Rodgers told PopMatters. "They were obviously pioneers and we were actually trying to find our footing when it came to working with them."
That somewhat unsettled atmosphere presumably added an element of risk and excitement that Harry was looking for after so many years inside the Blondie machine, but it wasn't necessarily what she needed as she embarked on her solo career. Eager to demonstrate her artistic breadth and coupled with a production team that was still defining the parameters of its own creative approach, Harry released an eclectic, free-spirited record — and one that lacked the commercial edge that might have really established her as a superstar act outside the band.
As Rodgers saw it, the end product wasn't quite as powerful as it might have been had he met Harry at a different time. "As much as I love KooKoo, in my own heart I have to say, artistically, that had that same record happened a couple years later, it would have probably net a different result," he admitted. "We would have probably had a much more finely honed perspective on what to do with Debbie and how to really just make that a great record."
In Rodgers' defense, KooKoo's musical merits — however they might have been improved — were just one component of a release that saw her attempting a thorough overhaul of an image that had become integral to her success. The change in direction was obvious from the cover, a painting by surrealist H.R. Giger that depicted a dark-haired Harry with needles driven through her face. For Giger, then enjoying an expanded wave of notoriety for his creature design work on Ridley Scott's Alien, it was of a piece with a distinctive body of work — but for Harry, it was a provocative declaration of independence.
"The KooKoo album title came from [Giger]," Stein told Vice years later, "because of acupuncture. The "koo" came from the koo in acupuncture. So he was referring to that. He thought it was the ultimate punk thing even though it's kind of sci-fi. The cover contrasts with the record, which is sort of R&B. It kind of works."
"It kind of works" is as good a way as any of describing KooKoo's commercial fate. Released on July 27, 1981, the album peaked at No. 25 in the U.S. and broke the Top 10 in the U.K., ultimately achieving gold certification in the States and grazing the Top 40 with the single "Backfired." All in all, it was a respectable showing for an artist putting her name out in front for the first time, but there was no disguising the commercial expectations left unmet as the record retreated back down the charts.
Unfortunately, KooKoo would stand as the sales peak of Harry's solo career. After returning to Blondie for 1982's The Hunter, she took several years off in the early-to-mid-'80s after Stein fell ill with a life-threatening disease, and by the time she returned with 1986's Rockbird LP, her momentum had stalled and she'd been shouldered to the margins by a new generation of artists — some of whom she'd helped pave the way for with Blondie.
KooKoo has gone on to acquire a cult audience over the years as a widening circle of fans and artists have helped usher Harry into statesman status, but its failure to hit a bulls-eye on the charts still stings a little for Rodgers, who took the backlash personally at the time and continued to mull it over years later.
"When an artist is making a new statement and it’s so sweeping and complete, the backlash can be sweeping and complete too. It really was with that record," Rodgers said. "I felt like we had killed Debbie. This is a person who’s a good friend of ours. You would think that we were responsible, like we did it. It was really tough. That was a bitter pill to swallow."
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