Former English teacher August Darnell began his career in Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, writing lyrics imbued with a sharp wit for the group and helping their debut album and its hit single “Cherchez La Femme” climb the charts and go gold in 1976. On leaving the band after three albums, August Darnell formed his own version of his big brother Stoney Browder’s disco/tropical/big band fusion, but unless you come to this music familiar with Dr. Buzzard, Kid Creole & the Coconuts will sound like nothing else in the world. The music is less disco, less retro, more imbued with New Wave flash, Downtown NYC cool, and showtune razzle-dazzle, but still cut from the same multifarious cloth. Darnell adopted the larger-than-life personality of Kid Creole, a humorously self-deprecating yet egotistical tropical dandy who takes Cab Calloway and classic Hollywood glamor as his role models, gathered a group of Coconuts (lead by Darnell’s then-wife Adriana Kaegi) as backup singers (and in a sense, a Greek chorus commenting on the Kid’s exploits), and set off on his funk-Latin-showtune-Caribbean-New Wave adventure for many albums, starting with 1980’s Off the Coast of Me.
The album kicks off with “Mr. Softee,” which opens with the Kid exclaiming “I got a funny feeling baby/that tonight you wanna sleep with me/but I got appointment in the morning/need at least eleven hours of sleep.” It’s part and parcel of the Kid Creole character that Darnell inhabits – he’s surrounded by a trio of beautiful backing singers and yet he’d rather be asleep than making whoopee, despite pleas by the Coconuts: “I know you can’t satisfy/but at least you can try.” It’s this kind of wit that Darnell displays throughout the album, and throughout all of his Kid Creole records. The rest of the first side finds Kaegi taking a lead vocal on the lovestruck “Maladie D’Amour,” the warm Caribbean breeziness of “Yolanda,” in which he tries to convince the title character to leave her “Danny Boy,” and the faraway island reverie of the title cut. The second half of the record again kicks off strong with the fast, light dance music of “Darrio,” in which the title character can’t get his Coconut admirers into Studio 54, working his hardest to convince them that “the place is just about through/it ain’t even safe to get high” (absolutely true in early 1980 when they recorded the song) and that they “should go check out Mr. James White,” then a labelmate of Kid Creole’s on the eclectic ZE Records label. Kaegi again takes the lead on a German-language version of the WWII Marlene Dietrich hit “Lili Marlene,” followed by the Latin lilt of the bilingual (English and Spanish) “Bogota Affair,” and the Caribbean styled “Calypso Pan American.” It’s a tropical tour that’s never less than entertaining, whether in dance mode or balladic lament. The CD adds five bonus tracks – three extended mixes that are fine enough, plus two excellent single-only cuts, “He’s Not Such A Bad Guy After All,” where a Coconut doesn’t fully make her case for the title statement, and “There But For the Grace of God Go I,” a minor chart hit Darnell wrote for the group Machine which appears here in a slightly altered but no less catchy version performed by Kid Creole & the Coconuts.
Though he’s made progress on some charts, Darnell’s group has never hit the top 40, the closest they’ve come being a #90 hit performing with, of all people, Barry Manilow on a number called “Hey Mambo!” But, especially from his debut through his run at Sire Records, ending in 1987 with I, Too, Have Seen the Woods, he never stepped wrong, releasing album after album charming, literate, catchy music. Mostly these are out of print, but often findable used (especially on vinyl), but their debut is available and remains the best intro to the group. Just don’t stop here.
- Patrick Brown