Record Mirror - 25th July 1981
WELL HERE it is at last! DEBBIE HARRY joins forces with the Chic team of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers for her first solo album, called 'Koo Koo' (as if you didn't know already). So was it a glorious success? SUNIE gives the long-awaited venture the once over on page 4.
SUNIE pulls out the pocket calculator and tots up the Debit and Credit column for Debbie Harry's album collaboration with Chic.
DEBBIE HARRY: 'Koo Koo' (Chrysalis CHR 1347)
IF ONLY Record Mirror, or any other paper for that matter, could find someone to review this LP who had never seen or heard of Deborah Harry, the resulting review would make fascinating reading. But of course, every reviewer approaching this record will do so with some degree of bias; after five Blondie albums, the tours, the whole megahype Fleet Street bit (and now - the video!), your reaction to the lady's very name is pre-determined.
"Blondie" still evokes the 'Parallel Lines' sleeve for me; a row of identikit New York Italian boys in black suits and white shirts, with the blonde presence, all dark roots and airbrushed cleavage, at the front. As to what the picture "Debbie Harry" brings forth, that's a little trickier. Even after meeting her and finding her natural, funny and enormously likeable, the name still conjures up the Face, as postered on a million bedroom walls and known even to your aunties and grandmas - the public image.
She's been compared with Monroe, but that's absurd; as a post-punk star, she's never had the mystique manufactured for her that 1950's Hollywood bestowed upon MM - a dubious honour, indeed. Plus she has what Monroe clutched at but never held: a partner cum protector on a very permanent basis, and perhaps for that reason she doesn't share the late star's air of doomed vulnerability.
If anything, the face is closer to Bardot; cool, wide-set eyes and sulky mouth, set off by unkempt blonde hair. It's her build that places her firmly in our age; neither the comforting, ripely female hour-glass of the fifties nor the swinging sixties leggy, aggressive man-eater, she is small, tidy, compact, what Mr Fripp might term a Small Mobile Intelligent Unit.
H R Giger's extraordinary sleeve design for 'Koo Koo' shows the Harry visage pierced with four thick needles - derived from his interest in acupuncture, says he, but it's hard not to draw other conclusions... puncturing the prize asset? It certainly smacks of something a little tongue-in-cheek on Debbie's part. As a star in a world more enlightened but even more media-conscious than that inhabited by Marilyn Monroe, she is very much aware of the dilemmas with which her role presents her; witness the heartfelt exasperation (not rage, after all, her current lot sure beats waitressing) with which she sang 'I'm Not Living In The Real World' on Eat To The Beat'. "Hey, I'm living in a magazine."
'Koo Koo' is, of course, produced by the Chic team of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, with both those gentlemen and their cohorts playing. The only trace of Blondie is Chris Stein, Debbie's husband (to all intents and purposes - "boyfriend" sounds ridiculous) and co-composer of half the songs here, who also plays guitar. This album differs from Chic's previous work with Sister Sledge and particularly with Diana Ross, however, in that this is not a Chic album with Debbie Harry on vocals. Four songs are credited to Harry & Stein, four to Rodgers & Edwards, while two are co-written by all four of them. So this must be seen as more of a collaboration, as well as a departure for both pairs.
We begin with 'Jump Jump', one of the Harry/Stein songs, and I'm immediately reminded of an opinion I've long held of Blondie's material; namely, that while the loving twosome have written the group's most memorable pop songs ('In The Flesh', 'Heart Of Glass', 'Sunday Girl', 'Rapture'), it is keyboard player Jimmy Destri who's provided their more intriguing lyrics, from 'Shark In Jet's Clothing' on the first LP, through 'No Imagination' and at least three others on 'Plastic Letters' to the afore-mentioned 'Real World'. 'Jump Jump' is agreeable enough listening, but the words are banal.
Neither of the first side's Rodgers/Edwards tracks is vintage Chic, either; 'The Jam Was Moving' is immaculate but rather pedestrian, while the guitar-laden 'Surrender' simply isn't Debbie Harry. The whole notion of "surrendering my love" doesn't fit her persona, and the tough interpretation can't disguise that these are a man's words put into a woman's mouth.
That leaves us with the reggaeish 'Inner City Spillover' and the side's best number, the Blondie duo's 'Chrome'. Here, the Blondie and Chic elements effect a successful blend, helped by the fact that they're actually performing a memorable song - and it has to be said that neither team has contributed their best ever pop works to this LP. 'Chrome', however, has a darkly interesting beat, different from Chic's easily-recognised personal funk sound or Blondie's beaty pop.
Side two, pleasingly, is far stronger. In contrast to the first side, both Chic compositions here are solid, interesting songs. It must have been as demanding a task for them as for their collaborators to accomplish this project, since there's no question of their equipping Debbie Harry with a collection of disco songs a la 'I'm Coming Out'; the brassy 'Backfired', for example, has a funky but far more rock-ish sound than you might expect. Debbie delivers, for all that she's clearly trying to sing funky, an excellent performance. It may not come naturally - I still think that a purer pop is her forte, and that's not to suggest for a moment that she lacks range of ability - but she's determined to carry it off, and carry it off she does.
'Now I Know You Know', Chicly slow and seductive, provides her voice with a near-perfect vehicle. The high, falsetto-sweet tones she's previously aired on such numbers as 'Shayla' are out again, but when she drops at the end of a line, they give way to a rich, sensual depth that takes the tooth-aching sweetness out of the icing.
Both the group composition 'Under Arrest' and Harry/Stein's 'Military Rap' take us back onto shakier ground. The former, for all its clever changes of beat, simply isn't a very good song - I begin to feel that I'm repeating myself here, but really that album's greatest fault lies in the paucity of good tunes. Sure, production and playing are important, and naturally, considering those involved, both are of the highest standard on 'Koo Koo'; sure, it's nice for me to have 1500 words' worth of space to ruminate on one record's merits. But any fool (and that means me and you) can tell a good tune from a weak one. And there aren't as many songs here that you'd go away humming as there are on Chic or Blondie records: corny, but for a pop song, I firmly believe that that is still the acid test.
'Military Rap' isn't the stock morse code rhythm and spoken word number the title suggests, but a jerky, fast - paced affair largely redeemed by the brass with which it's adorned and an amusing lyric that appears to touch upon both Iran and the equally topical subject of girl soldiers.
This leads quite logically, I suppose, into 'Oasis', written by all four of our principal players. Its sinuous, Eastern feel is spiced up with congas and flute, and Debbie weaves her way skilfully around the lyric, which talks of words and their use - specific words, though, this isn't another 'Rappinghood'. How literally do you take it when someone says they're going crazy? Whilst you're pondering that, those funky horns sneak back in to wrap things up (no pun intended, I swear).
Well, there's your contents for you. Overall merits? 'Koo Koo' has variety of material but retains an identifiable overall feel, and in this it betters the last couple of Blondie albums. 'Eat To The Beat' was almost too uniform, with some songs ('Atomic' particularly) which sounded great out of the LP context but fairly anonymous within it, while 'Autoamerican' which not even the most churlish of critics could suggest lacked variety, was so diverse that it ended up with a compilation feel. It was all too evident that personalities and tastes were pulling different ways, and while individual tracks had their strengths, the end effect was that of a lack of continuity.
Another heavy score on the plus side is Debbie Harry's singing which has matured enormously from the irresistably throaty but unschooled voice of the first LP to today's richness. It seems a waste of her vocal prowess, though, to keep up this fascination with rapping, however fashionable. She's not a brilliant rapper, but she's a superb singer, and one who can continue to get better and better; it's a voice that will age well. (A thought: if the Steins had called in this summer's hero, August Darnell, to make the solo LP I'll lay you any money that he'd have had her tonsils wrapped - oops again - round some gorgeous melodies.)
To be a little more practical about it, I strongly suspect, particularly with 'Oasis' and 'AutoAmerican's 'Here's Looking At You' in mind, that Mr Stein hankers to be a writer of songs in the mode of Gershwin and his contemporaries. Go to it, say I, and give Debbie the tunes she deserves. Fashion be (Kurtis) Blowed.
Debits? I won't dwell on the shortcomings of the material any further, but another problem is that the two sides of this musical marriage don't appear quite at home with each other. Perhaps that's inevitable; it would take more than one LP together to effect a 100 per cent successful mesh, and a bold endeavour such as this is worth attempting, even if you can't expect it to come off quite perfectly. It would have been all too easy for Debbie to sing Chic, and, though less easy, quite possible for Chic to write-to-order for "Blondie", but to their credit, they opted for the harder course.
The result is an LP which, while interesting but not essential listening, marks an adventurous step in a new direction for all concerned.
The really fascinating part will be to see where they all go from here.
DEBBIE HARRY'S new album cover has already come under fire... before the album has been released!
London Transport and British Posters - who control most of the major billboards around the country - have both refused to display the cover on the grounds that it is in bad taste.
But the public should see the cover, designed by science fiction artist H R Giger in most other places.
A spokesman for her record company, Chrysalis, said that no records chains or other advertising channels have refused to display the already controversial album cover.
Singles - Reviewed by SUNIE
GIRLS AT OUR BEST
DEBBIE HARRY: 'Backfired'
(Chrysalis). The singular Ms Harry steps out in excellent 34 form; all other contenders for the top of the chart may as well give up now. The sound of Debbie trying out the discipline of singing Chic-funk is rivetting; she doesn't always quite pull off the scansion, but her voice is probably more expressive than it's ever been. Total domination of the airwaves and discos is guaranteed - there will be no escape! Not for any of you!