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Debbie Harry, KooKoo (1981)
Debbie Harry, KooKoo (1981)

KooKoo: How Debbie Harry’s extraterrestrial debut broke all the rules

With assistance from macabre Alien visual artist HR Giger, Chic’s Nile Rodgers, and members of Devo, the Blondie frontwoman’s first solo LP is as gripping as you’d expect – here’s why the fascinating puzzle deserves a deeper listen 40 years on

It was the summer of 1981 and Blondie were coming off five albums in five years hitting number one on the UK Singles Chart five times. They were a pop music monarch ruling elements of punk, new wave, reggae, dance, disco, and pop – and with 1981’s “Rapture”, are even credited with the first number one single in the United States to feature rap. And across that vast spectrum, the unifying factor was Debbie Harry, the epitome of New York cool – a relentless chill, and enchanting presence.

Rather than take a year off before returning for the band’s sixth record in 1982, Harry pulled Blondie guitarist and her then-boyfriend Chris Stein into the studio to record KooKoo. From opener “Jump Jump”, it’s clear that the two were interested in threading experimental loops, grabbing onto shout-along hooks, steely barbs of guitar, and icy space flutter. 

Throughout, KooKoo takes on some of the best of Blondie’s multifaceted songwriting and emotive genre-hopping, and lobs it into the future. No simple harbinger of punk or new wave signpost, KooKoo further extends Blondie’s already bold and multifaceted approach and refuses to play by the rules of the pop charts or the indie underground. On the record’s 40th anniversary, its mystic strangeness and approachable funk both retain their resonance and require deep listening.


One look at the album cover for KooKoo and it’s clear that Harry never envisioned her solo debut as a pure pop crossover. On the sleeve, the vocalist stares straight ahead, regal and expectant, an icy diadem perched on her head – and four medieval-looking skewers pierced throughout the left side of her head and sticking out the other end. Based on a photo taken by Brian Aris, the final image was painted by none other than HR Giger, the visual artist best known for his biomechanical sculptures, set design, and creature design for Alien

The idea for the KooKoo cover, as Giger explains it on his website, came from an acupuncture session: “The idea of the four needles came to me, in which I saw symbols of the four elements, to be combined with her face.” While that medical background may be a little less grotesque than may be expected from the macabre Giger, the final product is still subversively evocative, disturbing and beguiling at the same time. When it came time to promote the record, Stein reports that decision-makers wouldn’t allow the image to be posted in ads on the London Underground: “As I always say, the businessman shark succeeds in the arts and the artists cut off their ears”.


The multitalented production team for Harry’s audacious experiment turned out to be Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic. While Rodgers would go on to build a resume that solidifies him as an all-time legend, KooKoo came before his work with the likes of Bowie, Madonna, The B-52’s, and Duran Duran, a sort of testing group for infusing R&B and dance into rock music. The connection appears to have been made when Blondie recorded 1979’s Eat to the Beat at the Power Station, a hotbed studio from which unexpected collaborations sprung – such as the Power Station supergroup, featuring “Addicted to Love” and “Simply Irresistible” singer-songwriter Robert Palmer alongside members of Duran Duran and Chic.

Rodgers and Edwards not only produced KooKoo, but penned tracks for Harry as well. Harry slyly saunters over their thumping, bass-driven “Surrender”, while “The Jam Was Moving” gives the vocalist space to growl and exhort. Where Blondie previously dabbled in rap, the production for “Rapture” (all disco clap-along rhythm and church bells) never reached the rippling grooves that Rodgers and Edwards channel here.


As if two beloved and well-respected musical duos in the studio (Harry-Stein and Rodgers-Edwards) wasn’t enough, backing vocals on the album are credited to Spud and Pud Devo, not-so-subtle pseudonyms for Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale of fellow punk/new wave experimentalists Devo. 

As punk shattered in many different directions in the 1970s, Blondie and Devo stood on very different but equally influential shards, steering punk away from the machismo and leather jackets and drawing in everything from electronic music and dance to synthpop. Both bands share an astute eye for pop structures as well, as seen in their ability to top charts even with the unconventional rough edges of the CBGB scene. Here, the squared off, nasal harmonies and barking sound effects on “Jump Jump” similarly show that KooKoo isn’t all sheen, Harry and her collaborators building a new language rather than attempting to assimilate into another.


In the years leading up to KooKoo, Blondie had plenty of fun, engaging music videos, most of which featured Harry looking fiercely glam, front and centre. Clips for tracks like “Hanging on the Telephone”,  “Heart of Glass”, and “The Tide Is High” all featured performance footage intercut with close-ups of Harry’s takes to camera, her trademark platinum hair becoming the perfect frame. 

But when it came time to put together videos for the two KooKoo singles, she and Giger cooked up something decidedly different. The video for “Backfired” opens with Giger himself piercing an Egyptian-esque sarcophagus with a series of swords, only for it to crack open, revealing a brunette Harry within--like a magician and his assistant from some eerie intergalactic circus. The clip continues as the song rides a funk rhythm and horn stabs, semi-opaque footage of Harry dancing and occasionally singing along to the lyrics, swirls of Alien-esque pipes and mesh spinning in the background.

For “Now I Know You Know”,  Harry becomes a Giger creature, donning a long black wig, facepaint, and surreal bodysuit to dance in front of more techno-organic eeriness. As the five-minute track ends, she emerges Elvira-like in a black dress and cape before fading away completely. These aren’t clips likely intended to sell a million records, but they certainly set a complete aesthetic, and one that positions Harry’s new solo artistic life far from the expectations of her “Heart of Glass” past.

Read our interview with Debbie Harry about growing up at the height of rock ‘n’ roll, female sexuality in the age of “WAP”, and writing new material over lockdown