Review of KooKoo in Rolling Stone magazine, issue 355, october 29th 1981, p. 55-57
Now more than ever, Blondie may well be the glittery gauge by which we measure our hipness. Not content with mastering the art of modern pop music on Parallel Lines and Eat To The Beat, singer Debbie Harry, guitarist Chris Stein and the boys in the band have always aspired to translate the avant-fashion whims and experimental fancies of their New York underground aficionados into tangible Top Forty form. Because of their consistent platinum success, Harry & Company can have their cool and sell it, too. More than the Clash, the B-52's or the Pretenders (and certainly more than those DOR Chipmunks, Devo), Blondie represent -for better or worse- everything that's "new" about New Wave for America's millions of weekend punks: a vicarious crash course in the latest R&B bop, conceptual trends and pop camp.
"Heart Of Glass," for example, was no idle AM copout but an object lesson for the bamalama brigade that not all disco sucked. As far back as their first two albums, Blondie and Plastic Letters (which the hard-core punk cognoscenti dismissed as leftover Sixties party favors), Blondie had already touched a commercial nerve by beefing up the familiar powder-room angst of vintage girl-group sounds with Bowery brawn and abstract romanticism. And if Autoamerican was basically a monument to Harry's and Stein's artistic egos (the ersatz film overture, Harry's lounge act in "Faces," the corny Road to Rio-like reggae of "The Tide Is High," the funky-punky wordplay in "Rapture"), it also proved that, while certain cult bands may have been truer to their aesthetic visions, Blondie had the bottom-line acumen to get the word out.
KooKoo, Debbie Harry's first solo LP, is a logical extension of Autoamerican thinking, a post-"Rapture" exercise in crossover art-funk.Harry's timing, of course, is perfect. Not since the heyday of white electric blues in the late Sixties has the white rock populace been so bewitched by a black beat. Witness the rise of the Factory-Rough Trade school of Public Image Ltd.-meets-Bitches Brew primal boogie, the New Romantics' silicon-chip soul, the recent triumph of Foreigner's heavy-metal thumper "Urgent," and the perverse, Steely Dan-style acid trips of Was (Not Was).
So who better to funk up Harry, a white pop siren, than the R&B Glimmer Twins, writer-producers Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic? Just as Blondie package New Wave for housewives' consumption with minimal bland-out, Rodgers and Edwards cross-pollinate disco glitz and rock chops with a Sly Stone-like kick and an uncanny intuition for air-play. Unfortunately for Debbie Harry and KooKoo, what looked good on paper doesn't always work on vinyl. Too often, Rodgers and Edwards simply seem souled out, leaving both the singer and the songs to fend - sometimes precariously - for themselves.
"Jump Jump" is surely an encouraging gambit, opening with a dreamy piano vamp that breaks into a feisty Chic bottom punctuated by brief bursts of guitar. The unorthodox contrast of Rodgers and Edwards' neodub arrangement, Harry's streetwise yelp and an organ solo that sounds like Keith Emerson wringing the instrument's neck may defy funk convention, but the number's unassuming novelty and subtle rock & roll urgency suck you right in.
Ditto "Chrome," which, like "Jump Jump," was written by Debbie Harry with Chris Stein (who collaborates on six of KooKoo's ten tracks and plays occasional guitar) sic! [CHIC Tribute comment: 4 tracks written by Stein/Harry, 4 by Rodgers/Edwards and 2 Stein/Harry/Rodgers/Edwards together!!]. Similar to Parallel Lines' "Fade Away And Radiate" in its meditative drone, "Chrome" isn't so much a ballad as a hyperrhythmic mantra. Harry treats it as if it were an appealing alien lullaby that's been spiced with a dash of Robert Fripp-style guitar flash (Stein's? Rodgers'?) and some overactive Latin percussion. In comparison, the Rodgers-Edwards serenade "Now I Know You Know" is, for all its romantic grace and the star's lusty cooing, disappointingly predictable.
Indeed, a lackluster predictability is the problem with much of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards' songwriting and arranging input here. "The Jam Was Moving" and "Surrender" suffer from melodic undernourishment, lacking even a substantial hook to hang from their bare rhythmic bones. A half realized Chic borrowing, "Backfired," (video) is at least fortified with a blast of brass and a spirited lead vocal. And while "Inner City Spillover" may be an awkward attempt by Harry and Stein to write roots reggae, Rodgers and Edwards are certainly no Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare either. In trying to play it straight, the musicians play it stiff, and the drummer falls all over himself in search of that elusive half-beat.
What's most puzzling about KooKoo is that the producers hesitate to really indulge themselves, to take a chance or two with the settings for Harry's voice. Like disco vamp Grace Jones, Debbie Harry is less a trained singer than a moody presence, someone who can breathe atmosphere into a tune without benefit of a wide vocal range. In the context of Blondie, she's got the full thrust of a rock & roll band-particularly the robust Clem Burke-Nigel Harrison rhythm section - to support her. On KooKoo, the stripped-down sound of Chic (mostly just guitar, bass and drums, with sparse keyboard and vocal backing) is apparently Rodgers and Edwards' idea of pop minimalism. But the results frequently force Harry to shoulder the whole weight of the record.
She rises to the occasion in "Under Arrest" and "Military Rap." a peculiar segue of gamy Plastic Letters-like rock and double-time motor-mouth jive. Singing in a catty snarl throughout most of "Under Arrest," Harry finally unleashes a hearty, Grace Slick-style, octave-defying yell as the players plod along behind her. "Military Rap" isn't much, yet the star's breathless string of non sequiturs spun over an accelerating robot riff (Kraftwerk meet a white, suburban, female Kurtis Blow), is entertaining mutant R&B compared to the Grade-B desert-movie disco of "Oasis," which closes the album.
I'm not exactly wild about this Harry, though the fault lies mainly with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards' reluctance to break some rules. It would have been more interesting to hear the artist grapple with such avant-garde young bloods as the New York band Material (who recently recorded with Nona Hendryx) or mess around in August Darnell's kitschy sink. 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.