Magazines + Newspapers

Black Echoes

29th August 1981

Pages 10 & 11

The Koo Koo’s nest

Chris Gill broods over a quartet in Raptures

NOT SO long ago, you’d have been hard put to explain to the average Joe Cocker fan just who the Crusaders are. Now, when you buy the latest Crusaders single, you get Joe Cocker thrown in.
When you buy the latest Joe Jackson album, you get what amounts to a homage to Louis Jordan, and though the name might have had many a Joe Jackson fan scurrying around to try and borrow a jazz encyclopaedia, it’s that sort of cross-collateralisation of talent and unselfconscious freedom of movement that keeps music on the move. Puritanism is for audiences, not musicians. Why shouldn’t Beggar & Co. link up with Spandau Ballet? Why, to take it to its ludicrous extreme, shouldn’t Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards open up their own frontier to work for the first time on somebody else’s material, and produce Debbie “Blondie” Harry’s first solo album? Let alone play on it and write half of it?
The Chic organisation has always worked out of a New York studio called The Power Station, so when Blondie went there to record their ‘Eat To The Beat’ album, (the one containing ‘Union’ and ‘Atomic’) who should they bump into…
“We started to socialise a little and it just seemed like a natural idea,” recalled Chris Stein. Stein is the proud custodian of the most photographed pin-up in the history of pop. He also plays guitar for Blondie and writes, or co-writes with Debbie, much of the group’s material. In a less calculable way, he appears to function as general artistic mentor and image-maker, doing for Ms Harry what Roger Vadim did for Bardot.
The duo had just been in Switzerland – Zurich, to be precise – working with wacky surrealist H.R. Giger, on what, by all accounts is a stunning video to promote selections from the album ‘Koo Koo’. Stein’s first inclination was to liken it to Rod Stewart teaming up with Salvador Dali, but on reconsideration, opts for the less pretentious analogy of Mick Jagger and the Temptations doing it together ten years ago.
Giger’s cover painting for the album garnered some useful, advance notoriety in this country. It features a stark, monochrome portrait of Debbie, skewered through head face and neck with acupuncture needles. Giger recalled the awesome image of the needles from having had acupuncture treatment himself, and he reasoned that since Debbie is the queen of punk and punk means sticking things in yourself, well, it’s obvious isn’t it? (Has anyone made the pun “acupunkture” yet?).
In some quarters – British Rail, I think was one – the portrait was considered too disturbing for public display, to the gleeful bemusement of Chris and Debbie, not to mention Nile and Bernard. This was the foursome’s first reunion since completion of the album and Chris and Debbie’s departure for Switzerland, and to mark the occasion, Chrysalis Records had lined up a recession-flaunting beano of a party at a London dance centre, even flying Curtis Blow over from the States to make a special appearance. Since the album cover already made up the entire window display of several London record shops which Debbie had seen since her arrival, she considered that maybe too much had been made of the attempted ban:
(DH) “I think it’s been exaggerated.”
(BE) “Yeah, as soon as we saw it, we pinned it up on the wall of the studio.”
(NR) “Then someone came in and stole it the next day.”
(DH) “Did they?”
(NR) “Yeah, we put it up on the wall at the Power Station, because Jerry Wexler sent us a clipping that he got in Greece, which was from one of the English papers, and it was the funniest thing. It ran something like ‘The album cover they don’t want the fans to see… so-and-so won’t let it be seen on Kensington High Street’.”
(CS) “When we were in Switzerland, we did an interview on the phone. This girl called from one of the dailies and said ‘What do you think of the album being banned by British Rail?’ I said ‘Oh, that’s terrific. We’re really honoured. We never had this happen before. But I think she made it up, because that was it. I don’t know where it came from.”
(NR) “But it still disappeared off the bulletin board at The Power Station. ‘The album cover they didn’t want the clients at the Power Station to see!'”
Chris Stein hold R&B in a special regard, contending that pop music really evolved from black music:
(CS) “As for Blondie, all our biggest hits have been with black-oriented music.”

To reinforce Blondie’s, or rather his and Debbie’s natural affinity to the music of Chic, Chris cites one of those hits, ‘Rapture’ as a direct homage to the sound of Chic:
(CS) “I mean we almost put that on the record.”
which raises the question, how close were the respective musical ideals of each side, when they first got together?
(NR) “Well now that the record is finished, I’d say they were very close. I don’t know, I was looking at different peoples’ interpretations of how it was going down… it just seemed to work out.
“When we were talking about the subject matter, you know, before anybody had really written anything, everything really seemed to happen from those early talk sessions.”
If there were any reservations about the project, they tended to come from outside:
(BE) “It was a real natural flow… no problems from working together at all. Everybody kinda predicted that it would be a major hassle…”
(DH – horrified) “They did!?”
(NR) – imitating Debbie) “But who?!”
(BE) “Another thing was that people kept worrying about other peoples’ ability. I don’t understand that. After all, we’re all professionals.”
But there’s so often a difficulty in controlling all the ideas when two separate, successful entities join forces.
(NR) “Well, that’s not being professional. If you have a group of people where everybody’s fighting for control, that’s not being professional.
“Sometimes you just lay back and say ‘Well, let the guy do that because he can do it better than me’. It’s no use your ego saying ‘I can do it better, I can do it better’ when you know, logically, that you can’t. Professionalism’s the keyword to me.”
Each of them appears anxious to emphasise the collaborative nature of the album:
(CS) “Debbie is always being confronted by people saying ‘Oh, so this is your first solo album’ and she always points out that it was a collaboration.”
(DH) “It’s the first one that hasn’t been under the Blondie name, but nor is it under the Chic title. It’s under my name, so in that sense, it’s a solo album, but otherwise…”
Not only that, but the four of them are of the opinion that, for the purpose of this album at least, they were on such a common creative wavelength, that the writer credits are needed, just to distinguish who wrote what:
(CS) “I think that if there were no album credits, you’d never be able to pick out who did what.” To which Bernard Edwards adds a solemn “True.”
They came together from a standpoint of mutual respect. Either that or this, semi-public reunion involved rather more backslapping that was strictly necessary. I suspect both. But nevertheless, they obviously have a healthy respect for each other, and on their respective track records, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t:
(NR) “We were really performing the songs together. It was a total collaboration. The songwriting credits don’t really mean anything because the fact is, we all worked really hard putting it together.
“And I do think maybe if we worked together again, we’d be hipper. In other words, the way Bernard and I work together, it’s like a whole communication. We don’t even have to talk about it.
“Normally when we do Chic productions… well, it’s not like doing Debbie at all. This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill Chic production.”
A substantial difference from working on say Sister Sledge or Diana Ross?
(NR) “Exactly. It was a major difference. Or, as I said, it was more like a total collaboration. When we were working with Diana, I mean she didn’t write any of the songs or anything. She would give us her opinion, but, in effect, that’s all it was, just an opinion; ‘I don’t like it, but I’ll do it’.”
(BE) “But when we met Debbie and Chris, they had already written number one hits, so it wasn’t that either side had a lack of confidence.
“In fact it was the first time that Nile and I had the chance to work on somebody else’s songs – the first time. Which was fun for us, because with everybody else, we were responsible for all the tunes. It was a whole new experience. I mean actually to ask someone what I could play! Usually I just come in and play whatever I feel like. I did get a chance to do that too, but it was always after talking to them. We respected each other’s abilities.”

It’s important to remember, but easy, it seems to overlook, that this isn’t Blondie and Chic getting it together. It’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein making an album with well-known producers Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers:
(BE) “The good thing about it was that it was Debbie’s solo album. So that Nile and I didn’t have to go in and deal with the bass player from Blondie, or the drummer. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to do the thing with Debbie, and Chris was participating, which was no problem, because Nile and Chris were really close anyway.
“But if we actually had to go in and deal with the whole band, there might have been problems… I don’t know. I don’t know the guys that well. But the fun of it was that that pressure wasn’t there. They didn’t have to deal with Chic, and we didn’t have to deal with Blondie.”
(NR) “Plus, Debbie was secure. I mean you could go to her an say ‘Well I like that’ or ‘I don’t like that’ and you didn’t have to deal with someone saying ‘Oh, nobody’s ever talked to me like that before.”
(BE) “With Sister Sledge and Diana Ross, Nile and I were tip-toeing around the studio.”
Didn’t Diana find some of your lyrics a bit too raunchy?
(NR) “Yes she did. As a matter of fact, she found most of the lyrics too raunchy.
“But also, she was used to being produced by Motown and it was a whole different scene. And she could only think of us as Chic, not as producers. So we had these constant battles between Diana Ross and Chic, whereas these guys came in and respected us as producers.”
(DH) “Well, when I heard Nile playing Devo, that turned me right around, because I really wasn’t sure until then.
“But then we started talking about new wave rock and… well, to me, Bernard and Nile are the cream. They play so tight together and they can play anything. They play really great rock.”
(BE) “But they wouldn’t give us a chance to play it. Our record company really didn’t want to hear it.
“Most people don’t realise that we had a rock’n’roll band before we had an R&B band. In fact they don’t believe it.
“So this was our chance to get into something like that. I was happier for Nile because I knew he really wanted to do it.”
(NR) “But I knew that Bernard was supporting me, because when I told him about it, he didn’t say ‘Oh, gee, do you think I can handle it? He was saying ‘Yeah, we can do it, we can do it!'”
Had Nile and Bernard been affected by the comparative failure of single releases from their last album ‘Real People’?
(NR) “As a matter of fact, if that album had got over, it would have told us something about ourselves that just wasn’t right, because it was a bitter album. We weren’t the way we normally are. We weren’t writing about the things we really like to hear. The whole subject matter was about how depressed we were… how totally pissed off…”
(DH) “That was your ‘ripped off’ album, right?”
(NR) “Exactly. Even something that sounded beautiful was violent. I mean that thing with the bossa nova. I laughed so much, because it was such a beautiful song, then you’d listen to the words. Bernard is writing with his teeth gritted ‘the mean decade has just begun…’ and all that. You know, it sounds like a speech from Adolph Hitler with a nice backbeat. It just wasn’t where we were coming from. In fact the most popular tune on the album was an instrumental.”
(BE) “Even our friends were saying ‘What’s the matter with you guys?'”
So you weren’t too upset about it?
(BE) “No, the record company wasn’t too pleased but…”
(NR) “But although there were no singles, the album did sell a fair bit…”
(BE) “And it did a lot for us as musicians too. Instead of doing the straight 120 and the handclaps, people noticed that we were actually taking a chance and showing that we can play that stuff. We got the first good review we’ve ever had from Rolling Stone. You have to be angry for them:
‘Now you guys are talking business’.”
Does Rolling Stone like Blondie?
(DH) “No, they hate us.”
Mention of the press sparks off a practised resentment in Chris Stein, and the rest of them eagerly join in, as I begin to feel more and more self-conscious:
(CS) “I tell you, man, it’s such a goddam game with the press, it’s beyond me. You’re reviewed for somebody else’s stupid conception of what you are as a person, not for your work.”
(NR) “The first thing I found was that they’d send somebody to interview you who loved classical music, or folk. So he didn’t know anything about you, or what you’d recorded, and he hate the music anyway. So the whole interview would be like, negative. You’d be defending yourself all the time.”
(CS) “I wouldn’t mind that so much. We’ve often been the victims of some guy coming in and being pleasant, and then writing that you’re shit. I’d much rather someone came and just put you on the defensive straight away.”

I had seen a review of the album which criticised it from the viewpoint that it was neither a Chic album, nor a Blondie album.
(NR) “But why should people assume that your scope of musicality is so limited? I mean, I’m sure that before Blondie got started, these guys were doing all kinds of stuff, and I know that before Chic happened, we were doing all kinds of other things. I mean, my life certainly doesn’t revolve around Chic. That’s my band and I love it, but…
(BE) “Then there’s this Gucci, Fiorucci routine. We put it into one song – and even that was for Sister Sledge – and it’s followed us around for the last three years.”
I could only ever pick up the names Gucci and Fiorucci, who was the other one?
(BE) “It was Halston. Halston sent us a present, Gucci was insulted that we should even mention his name with Fiorucci.”
(DH) “I think they hate each other.”
(BE) “But it just fitted the song, that’s all. Who cares?
(CS) “None of us analyse the fucking music the way it gets analysed in the press.”
(NR) “Right, you read some of that stuff and you think ‘Oh, so that’s what I meant. That’s what I was trying to say?’.”
Nile had already mentioned the possibility of the four working together again, and he later confirmed that they would “definitely do another album”, but what of live work? If Debbie intended to do some live dates to promote the album, how would she duplicate Nile and Bernard’s contribution?
(NR) “Well Deborah, what do you plan on doing about that? I’d be interested to hear that myself.”
(BE) “Hey should I go home and practice these tunes?”
(DH) “Well I think that Chic are going out on the road anyway (Bernard confirms: “We have to, we have 14 people sitting at home waiting to do something”) so it’s possible that I may join them sometime, which would be really nice, but I mean anything could happen. As you can see, we’re all pretty loose about it.”
The axe-hero in Nile Rodgers comes to the fore, as he makes reference to one of the wilder tracks on the ‘Koo Koo’ set (and incidentally, a Stein/Harry composition):
(NR) “I could really get into playing ‘Chrome’ live.”
When Rodgers and Edwards do go out on the road, it will be to promote Chic’s own, upcoming album. It’s on the verge of completion, and represents a move towards a tougher sound. Gone are the amplified fiddles which have been the group’s stock in trade. In comes the more aggressive brass sound which Bernard explains is designed to return the group to “the R&B of the old days.”
(NR) “Now our sound is all power. I like to turn around on stage and get a blast in my face. That’s great. It just feels good.”
The trio of foxy violinists left with Diana Ross and are now on tour with her.

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