- September 1981 - pages 23-24-25-26
DEBBIE & THE KOO KOO CLOCKED
Written by Kris Needs
"I'm just a little disturbed by the commercialism of the whole thing. Just the way that Blondie is. I think now we're so successful we can reach people. We can still reach those kids, maybe with a different message. Something else..."
Chris Stein quoth those words in January, 1980, when the Blondie roundabout was going full tilt. Touring and constant media attention was a strain they'd fielded for years, but it was obvious Chris and Debbie felt they were painting themselves into a corner musically. They could churn out the glorious wide-screen Blondie-pop for decades.
But that afternoon Debbie and Chris were obviously hankering after something new and different. A way to express their love for films and soundtracks, jazz, disco, and the newly-emerging rapping craze.
Never a couple for idle boasts, the pair were soon on the breakaway trail...
First instalment of that mysterious "something else" was "Autoamerican", a varied fruitbowl of styles and experiments, which got well-panned (surprise!), although its two 45rpm offspring, "The
Tide Is High" and "Rapture" were among their greatest chart-vaulters. It was all on the LP - film music, nightclub jazz, reggae, funk, pop stuff, even a wispy ballad from "Camelot". A good way of saying "Here We Go!"
It was "Rapture" that proved to be the milestone. An irresistable homage to the miraculous Chic, it showed Debbie could rap, Chris could pen a Disco foot-melter, and was one of the best things Blondie had done. It was beautifully obvious Debbie and Chris would sail further into this direction so it came as little surprise when I heard they were holed up in New York's Power Station Studio's; cooking up a Debbie solo album with Chic mastermen Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers.
Did I fall off my chair with glee? For some years I've marvelled at the achievements of the Chicsters. Rhythm guitar that chatters as sharp as chipmunks on a treetrunk, the bass bobbing and weaving, brilliantly imaginative strings, tunes that poured over your whole body like hot honey, scorching beats, tearful cushions of ballads... now all this heaven topped with the ultimate cream - Debbie Harry's voice.
This is what I thought. However, I wasn't prepared for the end result - a delightfully-packaged item called "Koo Koo".
It WASN'T a Diana Ross job, Deb shaped into the masters brew. It seems where Debbie and Chris were a bit bored with the Blondie identikit, Nile 'n' Bernard were also cheesed having to constantly churn out rewrites of "Good Times". Their last album "Rebels Are We", shows it, being bitter and rather dull. They needed a lift too.
The two dynamic duos, through mutual admiration, fashioned a new concoction of both styles, dipping whole legs into each other's pools ignoring the past, just using anything that sounded good. I mean, didja ever hear either group mess about with Islamic Disco before, like on "Oasis"? It was a new hybrid (Chondie? Blic?) with lots of possibilities.
Of course "Koo Koo" got slagged - Chic are quite trendy, Blondie aren't, so that must confuse 'em enough to get the anti-Debbie vitriol loaded. You know, white-girl-dilettante-has-a-dabble-with-Real-Disco-and-they-all-go-down... which, as it happens is utter bollocks. It's four people creating, with a blinder of an album as a result. (Spike Milligan raspberry noise).
The week of the album's release, Debbie 'n' Chris flew into London from Switzerland, where they'd been making videos for a couple of tracks with H.R. Giger, the man who made the monsters in "Alien" (that's a scene from the "Now I Know You Know" one on the cover. Creepy what?) You must've read about That Party, the multi-thousand pound bash at the Sanctuary Club (where Dance Centre girls cool off). To Debbie it was a necessary evil, too hot, and she only stayed an hour.
Then it was the usual rounds of radio and Press. I was at the tail-end of that last day ("The best till last?" cheers Deb!) and caught 'em knackered in their hotel suite.
First Chris gave us an exclusive preview of some of the soundtrack music to "Drats", a full-length feature-cartoon which has characters voiced by Debbie, Lou Reed and Iggy, among others. The Debbie character is called Angel, but she calls up the Demon (Iggy). Lou Reed's a villain called Mark. "Drats" are nasty little creatures halfway between rats and dogs.
"It's like a power play between Good and Evil", explains Chris, who is pretty proud of the music. Quite rightly: the title track was a tasty Disco-theme with a lovely vocal from Debbie, but her calling-up-the-demon-Ig number is a monster - a deafening hiss of a sound with menacing melody and totally over-the-top beseeching and wailing from Deb. Ig sounded suitably croaky as the Demon too!
Chris and Debbie have also done the music for "Polyester", producer John Waters' (of Pink Flamingoes notoriety) first big budget excursion.
"I really hope it comes out here, it's great", enthuses the newly-bearded Chris. "This is his first big budget movie, 35mm instead of 16m. It stars Divine (renowned bisexual), Tab Hunter, Edie the Egg-Lady (fat woman Debbie turns into at the end of "Punk" magazine's "Mutant Monster Beach Party") and Stiv Bators as the runty, red-faced punk - perfect casting. It's about suburban life in America. (And, according to Chris, includes lots of good old filth and things like "the pizza boy crawling naked through dry ice in the early hours of the morning").
Still on the subject of films, Chris says Debbie's been looking for a good one to do. The long-planned "Alphaville" project's been ditched. It was to have been a sci-fi extravaganza with Debbie starring opposite Robert Fripp, but it never got off the ground after the initial publicity. They've sold the rights, Chris says Debbie's had lots of major film offers, she's just waiting for the right one. He also reveals that she was up for "Raging Bull". "I even heard Scorsese say after, that they styled some of the girl's character on Debbie."
Today Debbie's in red and un-wigged. Now her barnet looks richer and less straw-like. I suppose the change goes with the new album's move from punk-vision to sophisto-rapper. I suspect more she's bloody relieved not to have to keep on bleachin'!
Where were we? Time to talk about "Koo Koo", I think.
Chris: We knew those guys from Chic and went round to see 'em right after they finished Diana Ross. They played us their production of the Diana Ross record and I thought it was really fantastic. I said, "This'll put Diana Ross back into the charts!" then after that they had all this hassle with Motown wanting to remix it all, which is really stupid, but it was still successful anyway.
We had all that stuff in common. Then with "Rapture" which was really a homage to Chic, we started getting more of a black audience in the States and that really crossed over a lot. It seemed like the right thing to do.
Deb: It really was fun to do. So Much. We had a lot of laughs, I'm telling you. Sometimes my face would hurt from laughter. You know how that is, right? God, they're so crazy!
KN: Well, you sounded like you were having a good time singing, anyway.
Deb: To me, each producer produces you differently every time. Mike Chapman always made me very compatible with the Blondie sound. Electronically he used to EQ my voice and do certain things to it to make it have that sound. In some ways I insisted on it too, because I always used to say "I don't wanna hear a lot of bottom on my voice". I went for a more trebly oversound. So I could cut through a lot of the instruments because it was like that wall business. I think there was a lot more space in the "Koo Koo" kind of music. Chic just have a different way of doing it. It was pretty much a straighter production, a lot rawer and a lot funkier - I don't think there's any EQ on my voice.
Chris: If it wasn't for linking up with those guys I don't think we would have done the solo album so soon.
Deb: Yeah, I don't think we would have done it if they hadn't said, "yeah, we got the time."
KN: You'd talked about doing a solo album before but you didn't know you were gonna do it with them when you were talking about it.
Chris: Actually I asked The Specials to back Debbie up on "The Tide Is High" and they didn't wanna do it! I don't know what happened with them. Linval wanted to do it!
KN: Were the songs on "Koo Koo" written specially for it by the two parties or what?
Deb: Yeah, it was all done for the record.
Chris: One song, "Chrome", is old. It was written for "Alphaville". I had that for quite a while. It's s'posed to be sort of like flying at night, that kind of imagery. It's pretty excessive. That's the one the FM stations in the States have picked up on. It'll probably be the next single.
KN: How did Chic feel about doing someone else's songs?
Chris: Well, we'd had the hits so they were all ready for us. "Military Rap" - they'd never recorded anything that fast, not since the days they were a rock band. That blew their minds. They never had people telling them what to play before. I did a lot of the bass lines.
Deb: They felt really confident about it. They were looking for a chance to break out of their format as Chic as much as Chris and I were looking for, perhaps, a chance to break out of our format with Blondie. Really we were both equally in the same position, I think, them being totally identified with that sound that they had and Blondie being identified with that sound they had. And then we got the chance to do something together, and there are pieces of both those things, and you can hear them. It's nice, I really like it. I'm nuts about this record - I always say this now, it's getting to be boring, even to myself. Each time we come out with a record I like that record better, but this one is the one I like best so far.
KN: So you'd work with them again?
Deb: I'd like to. I don't wanna push it but I definitely look forward to it. I think it would happen. Nile said just the other day, when he was over for the party and that, "now that we all understand each other...". It would've been like taking another step forward and we could really try and go for an even further synthesis of the two styles. Really go for it. This time we were just feeling each other out and trying to see how it would all work together. We'd never worked together before - it was a lot different to just sitting round talking! (laughs)
KN: They're incredible musicians.
Deb: Yeah! They're excellent! They're like the cream those guys. Nile, Tony and Bernard. They're really fucking great. I can't say enough. I'm amazed. A lot of people in the States don't even think they know how to play. I think it's just they're producers. Yeah well, that's certainly not that Chic fans. I think people that are not Disco fans think those guys are slick Disco producers, but really it's amazing, their rock history. It really is funny.
Chris: There's a big difference in reference too, because there's not really such a thing as reggae music with black kids in the States. In the States they listen to Chic and that's really street music. And there's the whole rapping movement. Over here black kids heavily identify with reggae. In America it comes out of Disco, out of funk. The rapping thing's the first real underground black movement that's come out. It's thriving. Racially, it's totally mixed, there's no segregation in the New York rock scene.
KN: How did you learn to rap, Deb?
Deb: It's just memory, it's just like lyrics (launches into a fingersnapping section from "Rapture").
Chris: It was fun. They started off telling a lot of race jokes and making us feel inferior for being white. The engineer, Chuck Martin was telling jokes about doing dog barks (to be heard on "Jump Jump"). It was worse than Chapman. That's great. I think a lot of it comes across on the record.
KN: My favourite track is "Now I Know You Know" (the ultimate kind of creamy, stately Chic ballad which Deb handles like a dream).
Deb: I think it's a sleeper. We have a really great video for that one too. Giger picked the two he wanted. I do this dance (just look at the cover. The other details are amazing, but we won't give the game away cos it ain't out yet).
Chris: There's all this weird magical shit. It doesn't go with our idea but the way he's done it, it really does.
Deb: But that's not going to be out for a while. That's one of Nile's favourites too - maybe it's cos he write it! I'm really perplexed that people haven't jumped on that more. I thought that was really the most outstandingly, strikingly different things, as far as me doing something goes.
KN: Tell me about "Oasis".
Deb: That was Chris's song. He wrote the music and Nile and Bernard worked with him on the arrangements.
Chris: It's the old Islamic Disco song that people have been talking about in New York for years - "let's have a hit in Tehran!" On "TV Party" (Blondie's regular cable TV extravaganza) we have Islamic Disco and stuff like that. "TV Party" is real crazy. You should definitely be on that!
Deb: Yeah, we have real fun!
Chris: Anyway, that's where the Islamic Disco thing came from. We did the track and were listening to it and we decided to take the snare drum out, and that was it! Now it sounded authentic.
KN: What's the reaction to the album in the States?
Chris: Everybody loved it. It's a different kind of things. The whole of the first side's a really heavy dance thing that should be played loud in clubs.
Debs: It's getting a lot of airplay. It's covering a lot of ground.
KN: It's funny what you said about the Chic blokes being so mad. The record leads you to believe that they'd be sophisticated and a bit serious.
Chris: No. The last record is funny - they were really bitter and a lot of the lyrics are real
pissed off. "Rebels Are We". They WERE angry, they WERE bitter. As
Nile says, they wanted a change. Now I hear they're getting rid of the violins and using brass... and that's a pretty big step, because violins have been on all their albums. I heard some of the basic tracks of the new Chic record things and it's pretty raunchy stuff. I wonder if it'll come out sounding like Blondie, who knows? They've done a 12" mix of "Backfired" with weird effects.
KN: What about the reggae track, "Inner City Spillover"?
Chris: That's really about seven minutes long but we had to cut it down to fit on the album. That's all about a game they play in the streets called Red Card. The black kids set up little cardboard boxes and try to get tourists. One kid's a lookout for police. The bit about a girl having a brick on her head was a true news item from a couple of years back.
KN: Now about this sleeve (Debbie impersonating a shish-kebab, Alien-style)? and banned by London Transport?
Chris: The sleeve wasn't supposed to come out so far in advance of the record.
Deb: He used an airbrush. His work is great, he's a really good painter.
Chris: We knew his stuff before "Alien". We knew he could do something which had a lot of impact and was memorable. People have that space on the record sleeve and they don't really do anything with it. It's always so difficult with Blondie because everybody has to look good! The "Autoamerican" cover was successful because everybody finally conceded to going on the painting, whatever the painting came out as. A lot of the covers we've done, there've been a lot of hassles with everybody, like "Eat To The Beat".
KN: What are the other Blondies doing?
Deb: Jimmy's doing a solo album. Clem and Nigel have been playing with Michael Des Barres. Frank was last heard of in Hawaii.
KN: Last interview you were talking about branching out. It certainly seems to have happened.
Deb: Ha! Ha! See!
Chris: Yeah... I like the idea of us doing a pretty little song from "Camelot" ("Follow Me" on "Autoamerican") can give a critic an ulcer! Good! I don't have to have raging guitars behind a nice ballad like it. Music is music. Does that mean that all those great songs from the 40s and 50s are bad because they don't have raging guitars behind them?
KN: So do you feel better about it all now?
Chris: I feel much better about certain aspects of the music, getting too pigeon-holed and mechanical. "Autoamerican" was breaking out of that. Now we can actually do all this stuff we were talking out.
KN: What other plans have you got?
Chris: I'm going to work with a lot of people in New York. I met this guy called Snooky Tate, a wild guy who does this combination of jazz and rap. He did this song about the Pope that nobody would play in America. I still do a lot of stuff with Walter Steding. Debbie produced a demo with the B Girls. We're
doing the book, which should have a lot of photographs. There's "TV Party" which did its first live colour broadcast.
Another good band is J Walter Negro and the Loose Joints. He's sort of a black David
Bowie. A major group is the Bratles, who are eight to twelve years old.
Deb: They're really cute, really funny. Same logo as the Beatles. The bass player's nine, the drummer's ten. The guitar player's the oldest - he's twelve.
Chris: And they're excellent. As good as 90% of the bands on the scene now. Sort of Velvet Underground heavy rock. They opened for The Clash at Bond's, the matinee dates. They're so honest, the way they are onstage. They wear military outfits, gold pants, the works. It looks great.
Deb: I hope Chris will get to work with the Bratles. I can't imagine what they'd be like in the studio!
Chris: I'd like to get a label started. 2-Tone except the opposite. I would really be involved in the production. There's so many good people in New York, a lot of people who don't want a contract, just want to put out one thing. I've had that in mind for a while but haven't told anybody.
The record company want to put out the Greatest Hits package. We've been holding back, but we can't stop them after a certain point. That's bound to fan the rumours of a Blondie breakup even more! It'll just be all the singles. Chapman may remix the stuff from the first two albums. He may remix everything to make it sound more together.
It's odd that Blondie is such a commercial thing. When we started out we weren't commercial, and we made our own market. Standards of commerciality change, but I'd like to see the standards getting looser. See the weirder stuff get to number one.
KN: Now what about this party?
Chris: It was something for the journalists. We okayed a guest of 100, then about 500 showed up. What the hell... I don't know if we would do that again. I guess everybody goes nuts about the expense and Debbie with a bodyguard and all that crap, and it was just too hot. I had a good time. I don't know if Debbie had a good time, I was prepared to be uncomfortable.
KN: Do you still get a lot of hassle?
Chris: Debbie with the brown hair helps. We've been walking round the streets. Now we're just subject to the regular hassles of life and death that go on.
It's tapering off here a little. If we come back, it's here if we want it, but touring gets a pain in the end. It's not easy to do. Nile said he's spent years trying to get the violins the right volume and that's the problem we had with the vocals.
KN: Lastly, what Chris thinks about the good old music press this time...
Chris: It's most unfortunate in this day and age that most writers are not interested in communication and progress, just bitching. It blows my mind that if you're not gonna do an interview with someone they give you a bad review. What kind of progress is that? The fans are smart enough to go around that nonsense. It's so much shit. I think the point we learned is that they can dish it out but they can't take it.
And there we must leave them, getting ready to visit Bowie on the set of a BBC play, a visit to The Venue to see Jim Chance and wondering if they'll get a flight back that week.
I had no such problem: I flew home to my "KooKoo" nest Now I Know I Know.