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Debbie in Gigerland

An oral history of the improbable entente among biomechanics, acupuncture and funk-pop 
Toni L. Querol
It seemed like an infallible formula. Debbie Harry, the brilliant and photogenic new wave icon, taking a break from Blondie to embark on her first solo project (under the artistic direction of her boyfriend and guitarist for Blondie, Chris Stein). At the controls, the producers of the successful disco band Chic, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. The entire visual concept by H.R. Giger, fresh from a win at the Oscars for the special effects in Alien. And a futuristic vision of the megalopolis of New York city served not only an impressive backdrop, but also as a dance partner. “Too bad everyone forgot to bring the songs”, says David Jeffries on Allmusic.
Our intention is not to reevaluate the musical qualities (or lack thereof) of the album Koo Koo (1981), but rather to recount a brief oral history of the strange and fetishistic encounter between the Swiss artist’s universe of biomechanical nightmares and New York punk-pop’s own blonde ambition attempting to reinvent herself. We’ll give the floor to H.R. Giver and Chris Stein.
'Koo Koo' album cover. A portrait by Brian Aris, painted over by H.R. Giger.
H.R. GIGER: My second trip to America, which I made in the company of Mia, my wife at the time, gallery owner Bijan Aalam, and my manager, had in its purpose the Academy Award nomination of Ridley Scott's film Alien. On the return trip from California we made a stop in New York City and stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. Due to the lack of a safe, the freshly conquered Oscar had to spend the night in a refrigerator. The next morning we visited the Hansen Gallery on 57th Street, which was showing an exhibit of my Alien paintings. There I was introduced to a very beautiful woman, Debbie Harry, the singer of the group Blondie, and her boyfriend, Chris Stein. They were apparently excited about my work and asked me whether I would be prepared to design the cover of the new Debbie Harry album. I found both of them immediately likeable; so I readily agreed and was greatly pleased to be allowed to create something for such an attractive woman, although I had never heard anything from the group. This was due to the fact that I was more interested in jazz...
CHRIS STEIN: We were really lucky to hook up with him. We were living on 58th Street and one of the galleries on 57th street had a show of the stuff from Alien. We happened to be there as he was coming back from LA with his Oscar. He knew who we were and we brought him back to our apartment. And that was it. From then on we were buddies.
H.R. GIGER: Their apartment made upon me the impression of a furniture warehouse, that was only passable through narrow, dark walkways, but held much promise. They both felt very at home in their nest but were planning to move to a single, four story house. During this visit Debbie explained that she had had enough of Blondie, had colored her hair brown, and wanted to pursue a solo career, using the name Debbie Harry, singing with the black group The Sheeks. [Editor’s note: Giger is no doubt referring to the band Chic]
CHRIS STEIN: I don’t know [what we talked about], just stuff. Giger is like a magician. Giger was like Alan Moore. There’s a whole long line of magician artists like Jodorowsky, Alan Moore, Austin Spare... You know Austin Spare? Great British artist. Aleister Crowley, Vali Myers, Rosaleen Norton and Freda Harris. They’re all people who were really into magic and were also artists. It’s all about the transcendence of the art and the art as a tool that one deals with their inner workings. It’s more than just creating an object. There’s a certain connectivity. I don’t know if Pollock or people like him were definitely not magicians, but it didn't seem like a conscious effort on his part. In music, when we’re doing shows, it always feels like there's a tribal, primitive aspect to the whole thing.
H.R. GIGER:  I asked exclusively for a few black and white front portrait photos. When I was back in Switzerland, I picked up some excellent shots (from Brian Aris) in which Debbie wore her hair combed sharply back. Since I had just had acupuncture treatment from my friend and doctor, Paul Tobler, the idea of the four needles came to me, in which I saw symbols of the four elements, to be combined with her face.
A sample of the airbrush acrylics collected under the title “HR Giger’s New York City”. Giger took his inspiration from circuit boards he was given by his collaborator, Cornelius de Fries, after a foray into the electronics industry.
CHRIS STEIN: About the needles going through Debbie’s face… I think he was thinking about punk. He may have done some sketches with safety pins. He has used safety pins in his drawings. The KooKoo album title came from him because of acupuncture. The “koo” came from the koo in acupuncture. So he was referring to that. He thought it was the ultimate punk thing even though it’s kind of sci-fi. The cover contrasts with the record, which is sort of R&B. It kind of works. The cover is so different from all the Blondie stuff. They banned it from the British public transport. They made a safe-for-work version with a triangle so you couldn’t see the needles, which seems crazy to me in retrospect.
H.R. GIGER: Debbie and Chris liked the idea and, in addition, they commissioned me to make two videoclips (music videos) of the best songs. For the title of the album I had thought of something like “Akku Akku” calling to mind Thor Heyerdahl. From that Debbie made Koo Koo. Conny de Fries, who had already finished the models of the needles, took over the work on the set décor and special effects of the clips. Then, on the day of the filming, the director did not show up, so with the help of the cameraman/editor, Urs Thoenen, I took over the directing and production. Thus the cover and clips came into being while Debbie and Chris took a vacation in Switzerland.
CHRIS STEIN: We stayed with him for like two weeks in his house in Zurich. It was what you’d expect. It was two townhouses that he’d knocked together on this little street. It was a very normal, bucolic neighborhood. He had a life-size Alien standing up in one of his spaces and he told us how he would wake up in the middle of the night and he would forget it was there and it would scare the shit out of him.
DEBBIE HARRY: For some things he painted on photographs, but for the video I wore a painted body suit, and he used different stencils and an airbrush and he painted my face... Yes, I was airbrushed by Giger!
Scenes from the shooting of the videos for “Backfired” and “Now I Know You Know”. Photographs by Chris Stein.
CHRIS STEIN: Giger made a bunch of props that surrounded the videos and he had some preexisting pieces in it. He had these murals that were photographic prints of his smaller pieces but blown up, which we used for backdrops. He did a casting of Debbie’s face. She gets claustrophobic and she couldn’t stand the casting so they had to do one half of her face at a time. We made a mummy case with Debbie’s face on it. You can see it in the videos. His videos are out in the world. I wish they’d been shot a little more hi-def. I don’t know if they’re 16mm or Super8. I don’t know how much they could be tweaked.
ROMY ASHBY (author): Chris Stein’s house is itself a museum of horror and curiosities, with the Gigerchair right in the middle of a sort of wonderful chaos. When I called him to talk about Giger, he had just come from the Forbidden Planet shop, where he bought a bunch of knockoff biomechanoids made in China. None of those would have ever happened, he said, if not for Giger.
CHRIS STEIN: [After working with Giger] We stayed friends. I have a throne he designed. It’s one of a very few in the country. The seat cushion rotted completely at one point and he gave me a second seat cushion, which is starting to rot. It was made from foam rubber. The last time we saw him it was at his house, a few years before he died. He was still active and vigorous. But then I started hearing from Les [Leslie Barany], his manager, that he was declining. It’s a shame. My big problem is that he doesn’t have a piece in the Museum of Modern Art. It seems crazy. All the art that’s popular now will connect to Giger at some point. They’re derisive of his Hollywood connection. He’s so intellectual and he’s influenced a couple generations of artists. I don’t know why he’s neglected in the arts world.
Here you have the two videos that Giger directed and a feature from the BBC2 program “Newsnight”, which includes a tour of his house in Zurich, an interview with Debbie Harry and Chris Stein and a “making of” from the shoot.