Smash Hits - 6th-19th August 1981
The Art Of Acufunkture
THE DEBBIE HARRY SOLO ALBUM
A little needle, a lot of Chic. Debbie and Chris find a phone-box. Mark Ellen accepts the charges
DEBBIE HARRY calling. She's somewhere on a mountain in Switzerland making a promo film for the new single "Backfired". That and a spot of skiing.
"Did you know that British Rail won't run our album cover on the subway posters?"
I must confess, I didn't.
"They say they won't because it's 'too disturbing'. Isn't that great?" I detect a note of pride in her voice.
Her long-term boyfriend and Blondie guitarist Chris Stein takes over the receiver. Pleased, Chris?
"Pleased?" He's delighted. "Nothing like this has ever happened to us before. I'm honoured!"
A timely piece of free publicity. Fitting, mind, as the LP in question, Debbie's first solo outing, "KooKoo", marks the inevitable drift away from the soft-centred - perhaps even tame - radio pop of "Autoamerican".
For a package Chris describes as "more hard-edged than Blondie, real powerful", the cover's certainly an appropriate taster, even if it does leave you feeling distinctly queasy. The vision of Debbie's face uncomfortably skewered by four foot-long needles is the work of H. R. Giger, the man responsible for devising the repulsive monster in the horror movie "Alien", the brute which made itself unpopular by devouring a crew of innocent cosmonauts, usually face-first.
"The cover's totally Giger's creation," says Debbie. "He's recently experienced acupuncture, so that's where that idea comes from."
"His conception's fairly simplified," Chris chips in. "It means 'The Queen Of Punk'. Well, that was one of his explanations. I'm sure people could read a lot more into it than that."
I'm surprised they agreed to this. It seems a bit outdated.
"Well," Chris reflects, "basically we felt that anything Giger felt strongly about we'd go along with."
Debbie's no less enthusiastic. "I guess everyone's making a big deal out of the cover but it's only a big deal because it's Giger's work. It's real Art and it's fabulous. I think it's exquisite."
"Art" is something of a key word here. After a good four years tethered to Blondie's touring and recording schedules, and now with a little more time and money on their hands, Chris and Debbie have been welcomed into New York Art circles with open arms. Quite apart from Debbie's role in "Union City", the pair ran into Michael Kaiman (who arranged the strings on Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and is producing a solo album for Blondie's keyboardsman Jimmi Destri). Kaiman steered them to film director John Waters (who made the outrageous "Pink Flamingos" starring the notorious bi-sexual, Divine) and he asked them to write music for his latest venture, "Polyester". Debbie penned the lyrics for the title song but has since decided not to sing them as she's hardly the ideal focus for a (no doubt loose-moralled) "suburban soap-opera".
Next they got involved in a soon-to-be-unveiled full-length cartoon called "Drats".
"So-called because the creatures in it are a combination of dogs and rats," explains Chris. "It looks sort-of Disneyish but on a massive scale like '2001', with giant space ships and all that stuff. The characters are roughly based on Debbie and the guys in Cheap Trick. It's a big powerplay between Good and Evil and stars Lou Reed as the villain, who's sort of foppish and wears red suits, and Iggy Pop as the voice of the Demon who's called up to destroy the world." A far cry from the days of "Sunday Girl", eh?
Through the art/music social whirl they also met a brace of renowned production wizards, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic. The perfect excuse for a break from Blondie.
They began recording in New York's Power Station studios where, Chris estimates, the Chic duo have put out "maybe 250 singles over the last three or four years."
"We'd always liked their music, ever since 'Le Freak' came out, and this is probably the first thing like this ever. A total collaboration. Am immersion of two different styles of two successful groups."
Obviously there's a sense of mutual respect. Chic usually tend to take over the production of bands whose sound needs an 'overhaul'.
Chris again: "Well Chic have been known, unfortunately, as a sort of 'revival' group, y'know, for 'helping people out'. I mean they've just finished working with Johnny Mathis!" He doesn't like to think of the album purely as a Debbie Harry solo effort, more as "a presentation of Debbie, first and foremost, but also as a way of exposing Chic to the white rock market".
"Hopefully," he adds, "Debbie's market is still alive. I think everyone will see her every which way. Y'know, 'Debbie Harry tries to be a negro and fails' is one of my expectations. But I'm sure reactions will divide into positive, negative and midway. They always do."
Debbie insists that the LP shouldn't be judged on Blondie's terms. "It can't be," she points out. "No-one from Blondie except Chris is playing on it."
(There's also, incidentally, been rumours of a touch of the brunette hair dye, but "that's a secret".)
And, apart from the unmistakable vocal topping, nor does it sound much like Blondie. There's even a couple of Devos involved, "Spud and Pud", (or Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale), who supply the immortal line "Jump little doggie, do what she say" to the opening track. The results are what you'd call 'a confection', artfully moulded disco-funk mingled with tempting strains of jazz, reggae, rapping and cabaret. It's sophisticated, mature and aimed more for the dance-floors of elegant clubland than the airwaves.
Blondie aren't dead, Chris claims. They're just resting.
"Debbie and I always talked about branching out, so we figured we had to practice what we preached. We've got plans for a lot more stuff as a band but so many people copy Blondie now it seems time for us to move on. What people? Everybody! Kim Carnes..."
Ever heard Kim Wilde?
"No, but I'm sure I will! Somebody has to fill our shoes, I suppose. Meantime we'll try and maintain our distance and stay on step ahead."
by David Hepworth
DEBBIE HARRY: Backfired
(Chrysalis). Boy, this is dull. Make that DULL. I passed the time while it was playing trying to decide who sounds the most tired. Is it Debbie - who's trying to come on all sly'n'masterful'n'cityslick? Or could it be Chic - who stump up a lumbering, graceless excuse for a riff, the kind of leaden stomp that wouldn't have been given groove-room on one of their own albums? If this is the best that "KooKoo" has to offer then Debbie Harry's solo career is going to be short if now necessarily sweet. Lord preserve us from bored pop stars!