INTERNATIONAL MUSICIAN AND RECORDING WORLD - September 1981
Pages 6 & 7
The Complete Music Magazine
Any real working musician knows that music is a universal language. The more an instrumentalist or composer matures, the more aware they become of music's essential unity. People try to dichotomize things and pit white music against black music, rock against funk, jazz against classical, western against eastern - everyone has their own personal preferences, of course, but the differences between styles and forms are more imagined than real.
Here at International Musician & Recording World we take our logo "The Complete Music Magazine" very seriously. Whether it's recording work or live performances, from the moment a sound is picked up by a microphone, run through a mixing board, put down on tape (or pumped through a PA), channeled through signal processors and mastered - until it ends up on somebody's home stereo - IM&RW presents the total picture so that our readers are fully prepared to do it themselves or simply to enjoy hearing it. We let you know how to make it happen on stage, what equipment to use, and why. Whether you're an aspiring amateur or a seasoned professional, IM&RE will broaden your perspective and help you get closer, even closer, to that elusive personal sound.
Speaking of elusive, it took some doing, but writer Roy Trakin was finally able to get Debbie Harry, Chris Stein (Blondie), Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers (Chic) to take time out from their hectic recording work to discuss their collaboration, and we think you'll be surprised by their perspective on the black/white cultural-musical crossover (not to mention Chris Stein's blunt assesment that Edwards, Rodgers and their drummer Tony Thompson are 'the black Cream').
Pages 30, 31, 32, 35, 37
The Chic Demon Meets the Blondie Monster, in which two black cats from Brooklyn (one an r&b smoothie, the other a stone rock and jazz improviser) hook up with a hamesha Jewish juy and a once-bleach blonde-now-dirty-brown-haired milk-fed goyeshe, goil from Joisey to conquer the pop world. Nile & Bernie & Chris & Debbie or the thirst for new musical frontiers makes for strange bedfellows, ne c'est pas, mom amie? The story of Deborah Harry's first solo album, Koo Koo, is truly the stuff of movies. Disco producers formerly renowned for their ability to fuel comebacks with "dreaded" dance productions (see Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, Johnny Mathis) make a record with the first lady and man of post-punk-pop, who are known to dabble in precisely those areas of black music where said producers have their strengths (see #1 reggae and rap pop hits, "The Tide Is High" and "Rapture").
The album itself, of course, completely overturns expectations. Instead of an LP strong on funk and R&B influences, Koo-Koo shows that both sides profited equally. While Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers (along with Chic drummer Tony
Thompson) provide a welcome instrumental precision to Deborah Harry's music, Chris Stein and Debbie encourage the Chic-sters to hone their normally repetitive songwriting down to structured pop gems. In short, the perfect collaboration, creating a hybrid that is neither black nor white, rock not R&B, disco nor punk, modern nor traditional.
According to Chic's bassist Edwards, "A rock'n'roll guitarist would not play the way Nile plays. Nile can play rock'n'roll, but he still has a unique approach to it."
Songs like Harry/Stein's "Chrome", from the new album, illustrate his point perfectly. In the midst of a psychedelic meditation on the malleability of appearances by Debbie, Nile's snaking, fluent guitar makes an ostensibly rock'n'roll solo suddenly sound unfamiliar by the ease with which it's played.
"When we first started out," recalls Nile, "We would play covers note-for-note, just like on the record. That's how we got so good. Hey, if you want to do a Thom Bell piece that includes fifty instruments with just four, the bass-player's gonna have to cover some melody. He's gotta play some shit."
"That's how I learned to arrange for a small band," adds Bernard.
It was in those cover bands that Bernard and Nile were forced to play in front of all kinds of audiences, performing all kinds of music.
"The reason why we get along so well with Debbie and Chris is because what we do is something that they've been doing and something they like to do," enthuses the boyish guitarist.
"Play with different kinds of musicians."
"We used to get a lot of flack because people didn't know whether we were white or black," remembers Bernard. "We've always thought that's why we've been successful. We must go against the grain. If we didn't, we'd turn into just another R&B band, or black guys trying to be a rock'n'roll group."
By now, you will have seen KooKoo's controversial Hans R. Giger cover with four acupuncture spikes realistically piercing Deborah Harry's closely-cropped visage. Could this be some conscious attempt to de-glamorize Ms. Harry's image? Or is it just meant to poke holes in her face, the symbol of her appeal?
"Debbie is so balanced, it's unbelievable," marvels Edwards. "I was shocked. The image she projects is that of the original flaky blonde, but she's a real business woman. We saw that right away."
Probably the track that will most surprise listeners is the knockout Edwards/Rodgers torch song, "Now I Know You Know," solidly in the tradition of Chic ballads like "At Last I Am Free." Debbie's voice, bereft of the compression, EQ'ing and phasing used in Blondie, soars to totally unexpected peaks, with an awesome display of high range. Not quite all the way there, but heart makes up for any technical defects.
"Vocally, we really brought her out front," agrees Bernard. "It's not a band production; it's a female vocalist's first album."
"She paid us a heavy compliment when she heard this ballad we wrote for Teddy Pendergrass, who happens to share the same manager with Debbie," says Nile. "She came to us and asked if we could write her a song like that. That's how we got involved."
"And we thought to ourselves, 'Debbie, sing a ballad?'" Bernard rolls his eyes skyward. "But, most of the people we told about it thought it was a really great idea. For Nile and I, it was the exposure. For Debbie, it was something new, something different. She told us she loved our work and wanted to sing on some of our music. And she sounded real sincere. She just didn't want to keep doing what was expected of her. She's real aware of what's going on.
"People just can't believe that we can play rock'n'roll. Someone was listening to the record the other day and admiring the guitar solos. 'Is that Chris Stein?' They refuse to accept the fact that Nile can play guitar like that. 'But that's rock'n'roll solo'. Hey, when I first met Nile, that was all he was playing...
"Earth, Wind & Fire did it. Sly did it. A lot of groups that could attract a cross-over following are making mistakes. Lakeside appeals to a black audience because they do a black show and they think black. A lot of white people think all black people do is dance, slap five and jive, y'know."
Throughout the conversation, Nile is a bundle of nervous energy, often strumming his guitar to make a point. Suddenly, he stops practicing the break in-between "Mean Mr. Mustard" and "Polythene Pam." "Deborah Harry is the first artist we've ever produced who was on top when we did her," he says. "Everyone else was on a comeback. Hell, Sister Sledge owed the company a million dollars when they came to us."
"We said, 'You own them a million dollars, they won't even give us seven grand!!'. We couldn't believe it." Bernard's lusty chortle reverberates through the studio. The proverbial last laugh is his.
"The Man from Mars" stopped eating cars and eating bars, And now he only eats guitars" Deborah Harry, "Rapture".
"If a bunch of spacemen or aliens landed down here - and they were green and slimy - believe me, blacks and whites who hated each other are all of a sudden gonna look real good to one another. That's where it's at."
Deborah Harry, 7/4/81
Debbie's let her trademark peroxide-blonde hair grow out to its natural mousey brown. She and Chris are propped up on their bed answering questions about Debbie's new solo album. The record seems a conscious attempt to get out from under the Blondie image, freeing its members to pursue their own individual projects.
"We did want to cut down a little on the exploitation end of it," admits the bespectacled Stein, ever the gentleman/scholar. "I don't like the merchandising and all that crap, like t-shirts. We don't want it to get out of hand."
I wondered if "Chrome's" reference to "changing colors like chameleons had anything to do with Debbie feeling she was more than just the sum of her images. Or whether it was literally about changing the shade of her hair...
"Maybe so. I hadn't thought of it like that," Deborah looked puzzled. "To me, it's a fantasy based on the book, Music For Chameleons."
Was she bothered at being tied to the media figure "Blondie," always written about by the press?
"I don't think what's in the papers has anything to do with Blondie," insists Debbie. "What I dislike in the analyses is that people analyse me the way they see me, not from being objective, and saying, this is what's there. Blondie is a part of me, just like it's a part of everybody that's in it and it's like a cartoon, kitsch thing on pop. I'm not trying to get rid of Blondie.
"True criticism should be a reportage on what the event is, a definition and then a critique from a personal point-of-view. Today, it's all opinion and you don't get the true picture of what it is a person's talking about. You only get the view through the critic's eyes."
Certainly much of Deborah Harry's intrigue, though, arose out of her elusiveness and fill-in-the-blanks mystery. She couldn't blame people for filling that area of intrigue with their own subjective feelings and fantasies.
"I'm an actress," states Debbie. "It's part of my job, to entertain people. That's what it's all about, I guess. To let people have an area where they can express that. Even if it is through another person. That's why people interpret lyrics so differently."
"I think everybody has the potential to be Debbie or like Debbie, but they just aren't aware of it," philosophizes Stein.
Indeed, the first track on the album, "Jump, Jump," instantaneously invents a new dance with its invitation to "walk like me." Fellow Devos Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerry Casale, along with a barking dog, man the b.g. vocals in this pogo'er, which is closer to Akron than the New York of Chic. "The Jam Is Moving" is more to the point, one of the LP's unabashedly political tomes about the CIA investigating "rock hip-hopping in the basement." Nile begins to tip his solid guitar hand while Debbie screeches and squeals adorably. "Surrender" was penned by Nile and Berbard, but its chunky backbeat and pop melodies would make it not out-of-place on a Blondie album. The unexpected thing about Koo-Koo is that Harry & Stein ended up influencing Chic just as much as Chic affected Debbie and Chris.
"Well, I think that's probably why we were able to get together in the first place," says Debbie. "We were both heading to similar places. They were heading toward rock, in their own way, and we were heading toward disco - r'n'b in our own way. And we met somewhere in the middle. I think it's the general trend right now. To cross-over, I mean."
Still, with songs like the reggae dub tune, "Innercity Spillover" or the call-and-response "Military Rap," where Debbie plays Sgt. Carter to Fonzi Thornton's Comer Pyle ("I can't heeeeear you"), aren't Harry and Stein opening themselves up to charges of dilettantism?
"What white person knows what 'red card' is?," responds Stein, citing "Innercity Spillover's" reference to the three-card-monte game popularized by New York City hustlers. "We're speaking the genuine language of the street rather than commenting on it. The story about the brick falling on the girl's head (from "Innercity Spillover") is true. It was in the news and Debbie picked up on it. I see it as a 'Tokyo Rose' type thing - it's both a statement on it and an incitement. I think it's good coming from us. People should wake up."
Did they think that white rock audiences would ever fully accept black music?
"Personally, I don't think it has anything to do with music," argues Debbie. "It's racial."
"When black people are accepted, their music will be more accepted" says Chris. "In fact, the music is more accepted than the people right now. 'It wasn't Debbie and Chris' collaboration with Chic just a modern case of the "white man's burden?"
"I hope not," answers Stein. "If anything, I think they'll be accused of being too white. I think the music will speak for itself, though. I found that, after a while, I began to feel black people were superior, especially when Nile and Bernard got into their riffs about whites. All they do is tell race jokes and carry on when we tried to get into serious conversations. I grew up in Brooklyn with a lot of black kids. To me, there's no distinction at all."
Bernard and Nile said producing Debbie was their gateway to pop acceptance.
"By the same token, these guys are some of the best pure players in the business on any level, yet they remain undiscovered in the white rock market," says Stein. "Now, they'll have a record out that'll freak all the people out. And I've known it since I first heard 'Le Freak.'"
"People don't even know Bernard and Nile play instruments," adds Deborah. "They think Chic is made up of studio musicians. These guys are the black Cream."
What unique quality did they capture in Debbie Harry's voice that other producers were unable to get?
"It's a combination of things. Each producer goes for different values," says Debbie. "Nile and Bernard did not treat my voice like it is on Blondie records. This is very simple, straight-forward - what I sound like in concert."
Going along with that unadorned quality in the vocals, aren't the new albums' lyrical concerns similarly direct?
"Yeah, I'm not in character," she finally admits.
We walk out the door onto the steaming mid-summer New York City pavement, cruising down a bustling Eighth Avenue through the crowded theater district. With her newly-brown hair insistently falling over her face, Debbie is just another traipsing New Yorker, gratefully melting into the masses, going unrecognized by everyone. In a sense, Deborah Harry is just an ordinary girl, with her own good days and bad days, strengths and vulnerabilities, dreams and disappointments, likes and dislikes.
"Debbie has a universal identification," is the way Chris puts it.
Debbie sees it another way. "A lot of people used to tell me they thought I was European. Until I opened my mouth. Then they knew I was an American."
Independence Day, 1981. Will American pop be similarly freed from its limited boundaries? Can whites and blacks co-exist peacefully. In "Oasis," Deborah Harry insists she knows the answer:
"We know it's an expression/
A silly little phrase/
Not the doorbell/
Not a bird call/