The man behind the Kid
Compilation shows there's more to August Darnell than Kid Creole and the Coconuts
The first is August Darnell, the underrated studio whiz who was responsible for some of the weirdest, funkiest tracks to come out of New York City in the late 1970s and early '80s, when no-wave mavericks emerged from the fringes of the city’s music scene to create grooves that in some alternate dimension would pass for disco. The other is Kid Creole, the zoot-suited alter ego who earned a large measure of fame in the 1980s for Stool Pigeon, Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy, Endicott and other exuberant hits from the '80s heyday of Darnell’s band, Kid Creole and the Coconuts.
"The Kid Creole character is just what he was created to be: a flamboyant, devil-may-care bon vivant who represented a lot of things to a lot of people. It was pure escapism."
Both of his selves are enjoying a resurgence of interest. Prompted by the success of songs by M.I.A. and Ghostface Killah containing samples of Darnell’s music, the Strut label recently released a superb compilation titled Going Places: The August Darnell Years. Ranging from the witty early singles by Kid Creole and the Coconuts to Darnell’s productions for other acts on the left-field label Ze Records, the disc is turning contemporary hipsters onto a musician and producer who was much more than a real-life cartoon. As to the main differences between Darnell and the Kid, it’s best to let the man himself explain.
"This August Darnell character was this very practical guy who applied all the skills that he learned from watching others to his own vision," he says over the phone from his home in the U.K. "Whereas the Kid Creole character is just what he was created to be: a flamboyant, devil-may-care bon vivant who represented a lot of things to a lot of people. It was pure escapism. It was what every red-blooded man wishes he could get away with but can’t because they have to restrain themselves! Kid Creole became my escape clause, basically… and it was a great escape clause."
In this guise, Darnell became one of the most colourful figures as the disco era faded and brash new styles came to the fore. No sound was as unique as the one Darnell created for Kid Creole and the Coconuts, a tropical-themed and unabashedly old-school confection that introduced contemporary listeners to the (largely forgotten) thrills of hot jazz, salsa, calypso and Tin Pan Alley pop.
He cites sibling rivalry as his reason for leaving Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band when it was still on the rise, but he credits his late brother (who died in 2002) for teaching him how the old and the new could be blended with such startling results. "Stony’s the one who taught me how to combine the big band sound of Basie and Cab Calloway and Tommy Dorsey with a contemporary dance element," says Darnell. "It was breathtaking for me to see how he could lift a Cole Porter riff and integrate it into a new song. It was a learning experience. We loved that stuff so much, and our influences were so wide and varied — one minute we would be listening to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and the next we’re listening to James Brown’s Give It Up or Turn It Loose, and loving both equally."
Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band’s panache worked for listeners, too – the effervescent single Cherchez La Femme/C’est Si Bon, off the band’s self-titled debut, became a major hit in 1976; 24 years later, it was remodeled as Ghostface Killah’s Cherchez La Ghost. Sunshower, off the same album, would later be sampled by A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and, most recently, M.I.A.
But in Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Darnell would take this musical cross-fertilization into heady new territory. The band’s first LPs were concept albums about the Kid’s adventures in travel and romance, with the Coconuts – a trio of singers and dancers including Darnell’s then-wife, Adriana Kaegi – serving as a kind of sassy Greek chorus. And though critics raved about the wit and originality of this early trilogy — Off the Coast of Me (1980), Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (1981) and Tropical Gangsters (1982) — "they didn’t sell anything," says Darnell.
Going Places contains such oddball masterstrokes as Machine’s There But For the Grace of God Go I (surely one of disco’s only musical satires of bigotry), Ron Rogers’ thunderous electro-funk hit Don’t Play With My Emotions and an unauthorized update of the Peggy Lee hit Is That All There Is? sung by Cristina, an impossibly chic journalist turned Brechtian disco diva. She was also the girlfriend of Ze Records boss Michael Zilkha, who Darnell praises for giving a home to the city’s freakiest musicians of the era, including no-wave funkster James White and pioneering synth primitivists Suicide.
The impact of the genre-bending Ze catalog – much of which has been reissued in recent years, along with several volumes of the compilation series Mutant Disco – is easy to hear in the music of such contemporary acts as LCD Soundsystem and Crystal Castles. Indeed, listeners in the early years of the 21st century have experienced no shortage of revamped no-wave post-punk funkiness. Hopefully, the new compilation will turn more musicians onto Darnell. Signs are promising. Filmmaker Michel Gondry paid him a suitably offbeat kind of homage by casting him as a video store manager in Be Kind Rewind. Darnell is also at work on a new album with longtime co-writer Peter Schott, which he describes as a "semi-autobiographical musical that tells the story of a guy who’s accused of murder."
While Darnell is sad that his brother Stony didn’t live to hear M.I.A.’s take on Sunshower, he says he gets "a pleasant feeling" knowing a younger generation has taken to these songs. "And this new compilation is a blessing because it reminds me of where I started and how I started," he says. "The one thing I feel that’s different in those records than the later records is the sense of humour —somewhere along the line, I lost some of the sense of humour by becoming a bit too serious. But some of that early humour, I miss today. I would love to return to that." Perhaps someday, August Darnell and Kid Creole will reach that same state of equilibrium once again.
Going Places: The August Darnell Years is in stores now.
Jason Anderson is a writer based in Toronto.