Movements in music are always interesting – you didn’t need to have been a hippy or a punk to see the musical legacy their originators left. Without flower power, I doubt we would have reached psychedelia and that would probably not have got us to rock music. Punk spawned New Wave (both types). The list goes on.
The joy of musical movements is that they were inevitably a force for good – a cauldron of creative purpose; it may not have always worked but the vision was well-intentioned whether it was innovative or just a pastiche. It was always about moving forward.
There is one exception.
Step forward Steve Dahl – the instigator of the Disco Demolition Night in 1979 that started the “Disco Sucks” movement. A deliberate attempt to destroy a musical genre, that bordered on some kind of nasty phobic reaction. It was tinged with a kind of unstated puritanical anger that it is small wonder that it left the United States with nearly a decade of uninterrupted REO Speedwagon.
Chic meanwhile, couldn’t get arrested.
Yes – that’s right Chic, the band, everyone swears they now always loved.
So America be careful what you wish for…
In Britain and the rest of Europe we never really thought that Disco Sucked and it happily co-existed with its new wave, punk and metal counterparts in the charts for the next few years. And so it should come as no surprise that recently we should see two of the veritable legends of Disco – Nile Rogers and Giorgio Moroder brought back so encouragingly by French impressionists Daft Punk.
And to be feted so deservedly.
However, for me there is one more Disco Denizen who deserves a place in the Disco Pantheon, whose influence is far more reaching then you might actually realise.
I give you, Thomas August Darnell Browder.
Originally, while playing in his half-brother, Stony Browder’s band Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, they had had some success in the mid 70s with a particular glamorous kind of disco that mixed in jazz orchestration and forties styling that preceded later hits like Donna Summer’s “I Remember Yesterday” and Linda Clifford’s “If My Friends Could See Me Now”. It was intended to not just be a treat for the ears but the eyes as well. The height of glamour and hence, were regular fixtures at the legendary Studio 54 – famous of course, for refusing Chic admission and so inspiring the composition of “Le Freak”.
Despite the incredible vocals of Cory Daye, the band only lasted a couple of albums and August Darnell went off to become an in-house writer and producer at the influential Ze Records, home of Was (Not Was), Gichy Dan and the fantastic Mutant Disco compilations. Whilst these were interesting underground hits in New York, this body of “No-Wave” work was huge in London clubland and became very influential in style for many of what we would think of as New Romantic groups such as Spandau Ballet, Haircut 100 and even Duran Duran, as well as the burgeoning Brit-Funk scene.
In the midst of this, August established his own group which introduced elements of Dr Buzzard but also brought in more Carribbean, Funk, Soul into the already heady mix of the big band jazz sound with the disco beat. It was a quite an entourage of characters who came on board; the percussionist, Bongo Eddie (who sadly died recently while still being part of the band), the xylophone playing and comic foil Coati Mundi, a world class rhythm and horn section and of course the glamorous European ice queen backing vocalists, the Coconuts.
Darnell took on his own alter-ego – Kid Creole.
The sharpest wise guy and smoothest of operators – and from 1980-83 just about the hottest ticket in town. You might now think of them as something of a novelty but the Kid was one of the key influencers of all that was the scene in London and New York.
But this was not just a band based on image, this was a definitive and ownable sound developed over two previous albums – the second of which “Fresh Fruit From Foreign Places” was the first of his more theatrical complete pieces and gained rave reviews, if not sales, everywhere. Meanwhile, live, their energetic performances had become the envy of the more staid competition and were greatly mimicked – check out UK Zoot revivalists and equally loveable Blue Rondo A La Turk.
And so came the second of “the search for Mimi” trilogy – Tropical Gangsters (known as Wise Guy in the US). Do not be fooled by the familiarity of the hits on this record, the Kid (a former English teacher) produced some of the sharpest and often satirical writing that puts so called more significant writers to shame. The fact that the beats and rhythms are hugely infectious – they are meant to be – does not diminish subject matter that covers illegitimacy, the rich/poor divide and a disdain for “Imitation”.
There are some surprisingly powerful themes here set to a wonderfully produced and performed concept of a group of characters washed up on a seeming tropical paradise of B’Dilli Bay – according to the sleeve ‘an island of sinners, ruled by outcasts where crime is the only passport and RACE MUSIC the only way out!’.
Kid Creole is as successful and engaging an alter-ego as Ziggy Stardust. The follow-ups may not have been as successful but this was a wonderfully astute and considered package that was jam-packed with characters and attitude, designed to take an underground sound into the stratosphere.
“I’m A Wonderful Thing, Baby” is almost the signature of the Kid – it has swagger, arrogance and jokes aplenty underpinned with a thumping bass line. And yet, though largely instrumental, “I’m Corrupt” presents the reverse view of the main character showing that Kid Creole had his tongue firmly in his cheek.
The fantastic duet with his then-wife and lead Coconut Adriana of “Loving You Has Made a Fool Out Of Me” has all the crackling interplay of an old Brook Benton & Dinah Washington recording from the early sixties. Each song builds the character of the entourage’s members with obviously “Stool Pigeon” the most famous – a song knocked out in six and a half minutes apparently.
However, it is the three standouts of “Annie I’m Not Your Daddy” (to date the only hit single to feature the word onomatopoeia in it’s lyrics) “Imitation” and “No Fish Today” that really have the sharpest and most acerbic writing – not something you normally think of in Disco and yet you’d be surprised…
This was truly the hottest album of the time – do not be misled. Pop fans loved it; club cognoscenti loved it; the reviewers loved it. This album had extraordinary attention to detail in its presentation, its writing, its look, its arrangement and its production which left a performance that is truly electrifying still.
Obviously, I have stuck with Kid Creole throughout his career, both as writer and producer, and have loved much of his later unheralded work – including a collaboration with Prince and the exceptional “My Male Curiosity” from the otherwise abysmal “Against All Odds” soundtrack.
I still believe, if I could be a popstar, I would want to be Kid Creole.
However, never did August Darnell’s star burn more brightly than it did with this scene-setter and so nothing ever caught the imagination the way this did in Spring and Summer of 1982. And it is its timely effervescence that made the success so bright and therefore so unfairly ephemeral – it caught the mood and its influences in a perfect storm and so the band could never quite do it again.
“Tropical Gangsters” was joyful, clever and never lost its Disco sensibilities.
C’mon Daft Punk… bring back the Kid.