In between 1980's Autoamerican and 1982's The Hunter, Chris Stein and Debbie Harry took time off from Blondie to create Debbie Harry's first solo album. Although a record made by Blondie's singer and main songwriter might seem like just another Blondie record, they managed to differentiate it in a couple of ways. First off, the music is more jazzy and no wave-y than most of Blondie's output. Debbie Harry dyed her trademark blonde hair black. And the cover art, which for Blondie always featured a photo of the male band members flanking Harry, is replaced with a shocking black-and-white painted portrait of Debbie Harry's head with giant needles piercing through it.
Many is the time I've come across the nearly life-sized head of Debbie Harry pierced with those metal prongs while flipping through old albums at a record store and been shocked. H. R. Giger, the Swiss artist best known for designing the creatures in Alien, was the artist responsible for the image, and he collaborated with Harry and Stein on a couple of music videos as well.
Tonight, the MAD museum in Manhattan has put together an H. R. Giger film screening curated by Zev Deans and Leslie Barany. The screening will serve as the New York installment of the H. R. Giger Documentary Film Festival, in partnership with the H. R. Giger Museum.
'The Unseen Cinema of H. R. Giger' at Museum of Arts and Design trailer
The two-day festival kicks off at 7:00 PM with a screening of four short films, including A New Face of Debbie Harry, with a personal introduction by Harry and Stein.
I got together with Stein in the West Village to discuss his time with Giger.
VICE: How did you meet Giger?
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.
Had you seen Alien before meeting him?
Yes, it was a big deal. It's amazing, still.
What did you talk about when you first met?
I don't know, 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. 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.
Are you big into comics?
I just grew up with that stuff when I was a kid. It was always there. Also, Famous Monsters [of Filmland] was a big influence on everyone in my generation. The fan thing is so broad now, but at the time it was this little niche community. You know Famous Monsters of Filmland?
Yes, my friend Matt visited Forrest J. Ackerman's apartment before he died. Did you know you immediately wanted to work with Giger upon meeting him?
No, it took a year or two and then, when we did that solo project with Debbie, we asked him to do the cover. We knew he'd done a lot of covers prior to that. It was great. We stayed with him for like two weeks in his house in Zurich.
What was his home like?
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.
Did you work all day long while you were there?
Yeah, he 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 video. His videos are out in the world.
'All the art that's popular now will connect to Giger at some point. 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.'
How do you feel about the videos he made?
They're OK. 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.
Debbie Harry in 1981. Photo by Chris Stein
Did you discuss the stories behind the videos?
I guess? 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.
What's the significance of the needles going through Debbie's face? Just shock imagery?
I think he was thinking about punk. He may have done some sketches with safety pins. He has used safety pins in his drawings.
How do you feel about how the art relates to the music?
It's a little incongruous, but I think it's fallen into place. People accept it. The imagery is sorta sci-fi, while the music was urban. It's up to everyone to interpret it as they will.
Have you worked with many artists before or since?
Yeah, we just worked with J. H. Willams III who does Batwoman. He just did the last cover. I'd love to do more stuff with him.
Did you art-direct the previous Blondie records?
To a small extent. With the Autoamerican cover, I saw an image of a model on that same roof and I asked him to do the same painting, but with us on the roof. Jimmy Destri, our keyboard player, did the logo for Eat to the Beat. He has good graphic skills. The Hunter record cover really fucked over the record. These guys came to us when we were working on The Hunter and they had this really cool image of a girl from the waist down in high heels and a tight skirt holding a cheetah on a leash. It was this gritty black-and-white image and they asked us if we wanted to use it for the cover and we should have fucking used it! I had forgotten about it and then I was reading my old archived blogs and I had written about it. The cover really fucked that record. The idea of the cover was supposed to be that we'd get Rick Baker or somebody and get half-human, half-animal makeup. This was long before Cats: The Musical, or any of that crap.
I always wondered what was up with that cover...
Yeah, it's just shitty. I'm sure the record company talked us out of using the girl with the cheetah on the leash.
[At this point Chris's wife started reciting dialogue from Spinal Tap. "What's wrong with being sexy? You've got a woman on all fours with a glove being shoved in her face!"]
[Laughs] So they wanted a picture of Debbie on the cover, of course, so that's where that went.
After working with Giger on the album art, did you continue a relationship with him?
Yeah, 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, his manager, that he was declining. It's a shame. My big problem is that he doesn't have a piece in the Modern. 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.
Is there anything else you'd like to say about Giger?
He's a really sweet guy.
Films from the The Unseen Cinema of H. R. Giger will be screened on Friday and Saturday, May 22 and 23, at the Museum of Art and Design.
You can look at Chris Stein's archive blog here.
Also, get Chris Stein's photo book, Negative, and look for his upcoming book of photos about H. R. Giger.
Follow Nick on Twitter.