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Kid Creole & the Coconuts: To the Life Boats

by Carol Cooper

"Strange, how potent cheap music is."
-- Noel Coward, Private Lives

AUGUST DARNELL, master of glib sophistry, is back again. Look over last year's notices: amid the wisecracks, the nonsense and the slander there are glimmers of truth . . . but nothing that even vaguely resembles a straight answer. The Kid Creole world is rich in innuendo and intelligence, but few writers have come close to describing the Real Deal. It is neither tea party nor revolution, so neither the party crowd nor the revolutionaries have properly assessed its triumphs and its failures.

Noel Coward would have understood. All the little quotes, thefts and historical homage in the music would have amused him no end. For example, last year's 'Annie' is a direct, inverted descendant of Harry Belafonte's 'Mama Look A Boo Boo.' The liner notes on Belafonte's 1978 album can bear this out:

'Mama Look A Boo Boo' may be regarded by some listeners as a lightstuff novelty. But . . . any child who has lived a moment when he or she was considered ugly, or even just plain, has to be touched. Again, Belafonte established that sad songs and sad feelings can be exorcised by the sheer delight of singing away all sinister forces.

'A Girl Like Mimi' contains yerses that derive from an old Tin Pan Alley swing tune, and 'Seven Year Itch' (there's a version on the new Kid Creole LP) inverts Calloway and Primrose's 'St James Infirmary.' Contrary to popular opinion, there is no particular originality to this method of composition. A background in music theory, a perverse sense of humour and a love for the trash and flash of Hollywood could make August Darnells out of half of Harlem. Or, as Count Basie is reputed to have told Lena Horne before she left to make movies: "There are thousands like you...but the white folk don't want to know that."

IN 1980 I WAS sitting in on an interview Darnell gave to a small college publication. He was discussing the zany eclecticism of Off The Coast Of Me. "I intend," Darnell pronounced, "to develop all of my band members to their ultimate potential," intimating what was obvious from the album credits -- that the stage band could not, at that point, deliver everything the Creole concept demanded. But, like Duke Ellington, Darnell was willing to (slightly) alter parts to fit the predilections of his players. He was also a brilliant teacher, able to articulate the theories of arrangement, presentation and calculated displacement that had been developed by his brother and mentor Stony Browder Jr.

Now, much of what was promised in that characteristically brash statement has come to pass. Keyboardist Peter Schott has risen from sideman to a trusted co-composer. Several other band members have been promised songwriting and co-production credits on future albums. Bassist Carol Coleman is swiftly absorbing the role of right-hand man that once belonged to Coati Mundi. Michael Zilkha of Ze has been bought out of his interest in the group.

"He was bought out for a tidy sum," confides Darnell. "It was comparable to the amount Savannah Band had to pay Tommy Mottola (now owner of Champion Entertainment, the firm that 'manages' Kid Creole) to buy him out. But since that was several years earlier and in a different economy, I consider the price fair. I don't want to sound ungrateful, but it had to happen. I just couldn't deal with it anymore." When you consider that the feuding between Tommy Mottola and Zilkha over Darnell was long and legendary, you can understand why. Darnell still maintains that these squabbles were the reason the Fresh Fruit tour never happened, among a number of other lost opportunities, causing him several times in the past two years to drop out of circulation, incommunicado even to his band, during fits of terminal frustration. To fill the gap that the Ze amputation has left, Brindisi Reef Productions has been incorporated to contain a series of Darnell's spin-off projects, the first of which is The Coconuts' "solo" debut, Don't Take My Coconuts.

Of course the personal and professional shit these people had to wade through to get this far was prodigious. Of those who survived the various feuds and firings, how many stayed out of loyalty and how many from lack of imagination? In any urban area August Darnell could recruit enough people with the proper visual and practical qualities to reconstitute the Kid Creole idea. After all, music can be notated and attitude studied. But August Darnell does generate a certain gestalt that has more substance than mere charisma, that enlivens and refines the mediocre. He does not bring out the best in people, but he enlarges traits that were latent or repressed, much like Coward's beloved cheap music. If Creole albums are so swiftly composed and produced that they sound like demos for impossibly expensive film scores, they still contain the seeds of a thousand dreams, and a thousand evocative nightmares.

"Oh my God! This was the real thing. Here was a fusion of three distinct worlds; here was yesterday, today and tomorrow. These boys had lassoed the elusive ingredients of atomic stardust music." -- excerpt from "Upon First Looking Into Browder's Savannah", August Darnell, 1976

OF COURSE YOU all know the story by now. Stony Browder and little brother Tom grew up as part of a vanishing black middle-class in the Bronx. Tom (aka August Darnell) contracted the musician's disease and basic skills from Stony at an early age. Stony was always the more serious musician, as Darnell is quick to admit, but they collaborated well together on a series of neo-rock bands. Their work always included elaborate ideas for films and plays, visual concepts, and a surreal, wholly self-referential cosmology. By the time Dr Buzzard's Original Savannah Band was truly launched, their many ideas and ever-shifting band roster had gelled into the perfect quintet.

Their debut LP for RCA made enough money to send them all to Los Angeles and finance their second, more ambitious effort. But suddenly record company and radio support disappeared. The band got seriously in debt, and began to suffer constant internal dissension.

Acrimony and accusations are still rife. It might therefore seem surprising that Stony has two songs besides his classic 'Seven Year Itch' on Kid Creole's new Doppelganger album, and is also producing two early Browder/Darnell compositions for a forthcoming big band LP called Elbow Bones And The Racketeers.

However, rumours that Darnell and Stony Browder Jr are "working together again" would be greatly exaggerated. What would be more accurate is that they are working separately but equal, for they will not, or cannot, inhabit the same studio space.

"What happened was Darnell asked me if I'd like to make some money," laughs Browder. "We got out some songs we hadn't worked with since the late Sixties, exchanged bank receipts and polished them up. The political lines of our separation are still very clear, but nations that are enemies still do business sometimes."

When you hear the Doppelganger, Elbow Bones and new Savannah albums sometime this autumn it may strike you, as it did me, how often certain combinations of ideas recur in this Kid Creole/Savannah multiverse. Although Darnell has moved away from doing more obvious inversions on Stony's music, there are specific formulae they co-originated that have to do with the very exact and personal musical theories they share.

Discussing this recurrence of melody and rhythmic atmosphere, Darnell observes: "There are only twelve basic fabrics that you can lay down to create any decade: a certain series of chord changes. Through time they have become classical, or stereotypical, of a certain era.

"If you sit down to watch a bunch of movies from any one period, the background music is all the same. As the decades change you can hear the chords change, and different instruments come in. There's a science to it, and there are ways you can arrange chords to evoke any period of time, any feeling, instantly."

August Darnell extends this musicological science into the realm of literature when he decides on titles, lyrics and the occasional cover tune. His and wife Adriana's inspired choice of 'Kriminal Tango' for the Coconuts' LP does triple duty for the erudite in the audience. It recalls the theories of Spengler and Jahnheinz Jahn on parallels between German and African culture, as well as alluding to a Nazi witch hunt in Argentina.

One night, while watching Peter Schott cut marimba and steel drum synthesizer parts into Doppelganger's polkalypso version of 'If You Want To Be Happy' Darnell remarked: "This is perfect for the Creole concept. Making fun of making fun." The song, a tongue-in-cheek satire on the practical value of an ugly wife was a mild hit for Belafonte in the Sixties. Now, Kid Creole's exaggeration of an already mordant calypso repeats the excess of 'Annie' in proving how far Darnell is willing to go to prove his point.

"Baudelaire said that there were always two kinds of women: the blonde, sensual sinner and the dark, pure, inaccessible one. They represent the two poles of our interior vision of things." -- Jean-Jacques Beineix, Film Comment, August 1983

TO PARAPHRASE what Katie Hepburn once perceived about the Astaire-Rogers partnership in the Thirties: Kid Creole gives the Coconuts class; they give him sex. But, like everything else in the Kid Creole world, these values can be inverted. For many, doubtless, the equation is the other way round. And several other variables enter the Creole-Coconuts partnership that were only suggested by Fred and Ginger.

The social stereotypes teased and tested by Mae West (the blackest white girl to ever rise to prominence on the American stage and screen) and the Boswell Sisters (the blackest "white" girls to ever sing swing) were never endangered by these women aping black culture. What is threatening about Kid Creole and the Coconuts is the image of the non-white male participating in, and profiting from, these cultural reversals.

But quite apart from what August Darnell has put the Coconuts on stage for (which in certain cases is just as grimly sordid as people imagine -- and intentionally), Adriana has created an autonomous space for her girls up there, to make a few pithy paraverbal comments of her own.

Conscious of the historical aura clinging to those blonde haloes, the Coconuts in their early incarnations could revel in the heights and depths of feminine power. Adriana's choreography, isolated and strenuously apart from most of the band, contained both the desperate fervour of the Ikettes and the serene incongruity of a minstrel show.

But as each album's story changes, the girls' roles expand. They are still dancers not singers, in the accepted definition of those terms. But as has been observed before, the sum of Kid Creole and the Coconuts is greater than its parts. Now, they are coming to a point in their choreography and self-conception (best symbolized by Kid Creole's fictional voyage in search of the "dark lady" Mimi) where none of the dumb-bitch givens of "femininity" apply. This new world of functional womanhood I call Sojourner Truth Land, and the Coconuts seem on the verge of emigration.

AUGUST DARNELL stands during a break in a long rehearsal to declaim like an Old Testament greybeard "Nation against nation! Nation against nation!" before whipping his inattentive flock back onstage to review the set. Two new songs, 'Lifeboat Party' and 'Broadway Rhythm,' kick off the show, and from there you get improbably smooth segues between a most eclectic bunch of old, new and unreleased material.

'Animal Crackers' into 'Naughty Boy' gives the girls the spot. 'Oh That Love Decision' into 'Wonderful Thing' into 'Que Pasa Part 2' gives a neat little preview of Coati Mundi's contribution to Doppelganger. 'Survivors' is another instalment in Mundi's admirable attempts to lift Latin music off the cuchifrito circuit and into general appreciation. It is a smoother adaptation of Latin forms than either 'Me No Pop I' or 'Que Pasa.' His second entry, 'Fireside Chat', ought to be enough to silence those critics of last year who accused Mundi-tunes of lacking texture, polish and substance.

'It's A Wonderful Life' is a real departure. It takes off from where the Ohio Player's 'Funky Worm' began, then takes a sharp left with funky horns on top and maracas underneath. With a chattering cast of dozens making wisecracks in the tracks, it could qualify (yes!) as the weirdest thing Andy Hernandez has ever done. Overall, the theme of the Lifeboat Party Tour is one that reflects the new freedom and affluence of KC's crew. The idea of necessary change, of a spiritual or physical double like Jekyll & Hyde, is all part of the Doppelganger concept. If August Darnell is a less overbearing presence in 1983 than in the past, it is partially because he is rethinking his image and partially because he has been spreading his talents very thin in developing all his debts, dependents and co-workers to the point where they can do as well without him.

A remix of Gichy Dan's 'Beechwood No 9' -- Darnell's first real independent production circa 1978 -- should be reaching Britain shortly, and the record's personality reveals a very different aspect of The Kid through the voice of Frank Passalaqua. Darnell seems to want to give the public a break from the ruthless self-interest of The Kid, so we get the compassionate optimism of Gichy Dan. William L. Gresham, the student of human nature who wrote Nightmare Alley, would distrust the skilful calculations of August Darnell, if only because he understood how easy it is for the strong, smart and singleminded to dominate the weak. The key to the human soul is fear: find out and control what another individual fears and you can control that man. These dynamics are the gospel of street life, and Darnell has nothing if not street credibility.

If Kid Creole is going to generate a mild-mannered alter-ego to deflect the barbs and arrows of legitimate complaint, should we let him? If he continues to play devil's advocate, should we censure him? Siding with neither good nor evil, he plays both sides against the middle -- and wins.

Published in: The Face, September 1983

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