August 19, 2006
XO Music Lesson: Debbie Harry's KooKoo
While listening to the new Kelis album - Kelis Was Here - this week, I also had need to get out my old turntable. It occurred to me there's an album that's really a template for what Kelis is now doing in the 21st century. It's also a record that most kids today will have never heard: Debbie Harry's KooKoo.
Released 25 years ago this fall, this album was way ahead of its time. Produced by Nile Rodgers between his productions of Diana Ross's Diana (the one with Upside Down ) and David Bowie's Let's Dance, it featured a scary HR Giger cover image (above): Debbie skewered by huge nails/needles through her face. No one really knew what to think of the image or what lay inside the sleeve: a fusion of rap, pop, rock and slinky Chic disco that somehow pushed ahead of Blondie's own version of that musical mash-up.
Debbie recorded the album with Chic as her backing band, along with partner Chris Stein. On the bouncey album opener Jump Jump, with typically weird lyrics, Debbie's vocal sounds so young you could almost mistake her for the not-yet-discovered Madonna. Only 2 tracks are easily available today* (via iTunes): “Backfired” and “The Jam Was Moving.” The former is straightforward rock-pop and the latter, about the "hidden power in the groove," has a wicked clicky rhythm on the chorus and slightly processed guitar.
Now I Know You Know is a lazy, gorgeous ballad that reminds me how amazing Debbie's range was. Just when you think the song is going to languish into a dull groove, it has a twist: in the 4th minute she delivers a brief spoken manifesto before the song becomes a jazzy sort of fern bar samba.
The album also includes "Whip It"-inspired rap music (Military Rap) that predates Timbaland and Missy by 15 years and Under Arrest, a pop-punk track. Surrender is what might happen if Chrissie Hynde had recorded Like A Virgin. Remember, Debbie was Madonna before Madonna was Madonna. She did it with seemingly no effort - in fact she was frequently almost louche and non-committal in her performances. She was - and is - cool, while others (including M) seek to acquire coolness.
*2012 update: A remaster of KooKoo is now available via Gold Legion. It is also more widely available on iTunes.