by Eric Henderson
Posted: April 15, 2008
It's old news now and completely personal, but the aspect of Slant Magazine's list of 100 greatest dance songs I'm most proud of—well, aside from slipping in a P&P Records chestnut on the cusp of a surging Patrick Adams/Peter Brown revival—is that we managed to push a song as cultish in its appeal as Machine's "There But for the Grace of God Go I" into the top 10 with the predictable likes of Thelma Houston, Donna Summer, and Madonna. As I wrote at the time:
"Half-hit wonder Machine's 'There But for the Grace of God Go I' [is] a dark and pessimistic parable that spits social criticism along with its bitter rhythm guitar riffs and maddening "doo-doo-doo" refrains to the delight of closet dance freak rockists everywhere. So the song goes, a pair of overbearing Latino parents try to protect their bouncing baby girl from the real world, moving away from the Bronx to a place where they can raise their daughter, an environment with 'no blacks, no Jews, and no gays.' And no heritage. By denying their daughter her rightful knowledge of her own roots (denying her of even rock n' roll records), Carlos and Carmen Vidal eventually find themselves the parents of a dissolute, neurotic, fat little teenage runaway. Almost too fast and chaotic to actually dance to, and practically dripping with ugly synthesizer lines that sound more like abortions, 'Grace of God' is dance culture's Scared Straight. And as far as hopelessly nihilistic conclusions go, few songs can match the grim wit of Machine's isolationist punchline: 'Too much love is worse than none at all.'"
Words I still stand by, but for the fact that I grievously neglected to make any mention whatsoever of the insane, uncompromising, flamboyant genius behind not only Machine's one-of-a-kind disco gem, but also the respective pre- and post-no wave stalwarts Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band and Kid Creole & the Coconuts. Singer/songwriter/producer/alchemist August Darnell (a.k.a. Tommy Browder) might be to disco what Orson Welles was to cinema: a total jack-of-all-trades with a pugnacious "I'll do it myself" precociousness, a thespian's endless capacity for self-mockery, and an almost distracting inventive spirit. The only thing that destroys the comparison is that Darnell never had the benefit of a Citizen Kane under his belt to ensure a steady stream of future generations stumbling onto his other works and realizing, with an almost immediate satisfaction, the variety and breadth of his canon. The Kid Creole & the Coconuts incarnation certainly retained a devoted fan base of the order of Oingo Boingo throughout much of the 1980s, but the closest Darnell ever came to orchestrating a major crossover hit was probably Dr. Buzzard's "Cherchez La Femme/Se Si Bon," an irresistible, vibraphone-laden 1940s throwback that handily summarized the band's pre-Xanadu swing-disco act—Studio 54 re-envisioned as the Hollywood Bowl, only without the sort of cheap utopianism such a confluence of self-regard and self-medication would imply.
In lieu of Charles Foster Kane, Darnell does have pop culture scholar Peter Shapiro, who devoted a breathless section of his seminal disco study Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco entirely to Darnell, ascribing to him nearly as much importance in the understanding the role of racial and class statuses in late-'70s dance music as Lamont Dozier's "Going Back to My Roots," the best 12-inch singles from Philadelphia International Records, and anything by Chic. First declaring Dr. Buzzard's eponymous LP as "one of the most fully realized, dazzling artifacts from the black bohemian intelligentsia" and citing Darnell's own multiracial background, Shapiro then goes on to dissect the "Sweet and Sour" wordsmith's uniquely acerbic sensibility: "By using these archetypes, dance music, comic scenarios, and the language of Broadway and Hollywood, Darnell attempted to universalize the plight of the mulatto misfit. Darnell's two great themes—being out of place and everyday human cruelty—essentially made all of his characters into half-castes, all of them wrestling with the cost of selling out, all of them resigned to the fact they're doomed to be fish out of water no matter what path they choose."
If deceptively simple lyrics are peppered throughout the entire back catalogue of disco classics, Darnell's couplets are indeed more articulate and cutting than that incessant tss-tss-tss-tss high hat. Shapiro's description applies not only to the Vidal's "natural freak" daughter, who is tricked by her parents (with their "too much love") into believing it possible to adapt to her surroundings (and put in a position where it is she who is the one her peers' parents are the ones trying to shield their kids from), but also the sardonic promises of the burgeoning lovers of Dr. Buzzard's "I'll Play the Fool." Both condescend to each other with terms meant to be endearing but which, upon further reflection, indicate contemptuously low opinions of the other party: Talk of going back to school to get an "equivalency diploma" eventually corrode until she's cooing that she'll "grow a tail or two, spend the rest of my days locked up in a zoo."
The recrudescent Strut Records have already released a Disco Not Disco compilation redux, which included Darnell's remix of James White & the Blacks' "Contort Yourself." Now they're releasing an entire collection of Darnell's prodigious efforts. It's a heady mix, and it's disorienting to consider just how solid a playlist Strut has assembled here even though it almost feels as though some of the tracks were simply chosen at random (it's a bit frontloaded, like most "best of" releases). The resulting impression is that you could dip your cup, scrape the bottom of the barrel, and still come up with canon-worthy tunes. Among them: Coati Mundi's "Pharoah (Can't Take It to the Grave)," which sounds deceptively lax until one takes note of the oddball production hooks like the ramped-up synthesizer hits, and Aural Exciters' "Paradise," which grows from a shrill ballad into a punkish swan song.
By definition, it's an essential release, though it has to be said that it's not exactly pitched at the newbie. Not only is "I'll Play the Fool" not among the tracks included, but virtually none of the songs that would be considered his "hits" show up here. Instead of "Fool" or "Cherchez La Femme," Dr. Buzzard is represented by the coolly tropical "Sunshower." There are four Kid Creole tunes included, but none of them are "Animal Crackers," "Endicott" (which admittedly falls outside the decade indicated in the comp title), or the riotous "Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy." The one-shot offshoot Don Armando's 2nd Avenue Rhumba Band don't get "Deputy of Love" but rather the two most high-profile songs thereafter: "I'm an Indian Too" and "Goin' to a Showdown," immortalized in the photo shoot from Maniac.
The inclusion of "I'm an Indian Too" seems, in the context of all the other absences, the ultimate example of hit-avoidance, since it's not actually even written by Darnell (just produced), but the presence of the track (a remake of an Annie Get Your Gun showstopper that doesn't quite play these days) goes a lot further toward validating Shapiro's portrait of Darnell. It's the same racial hyper-consciousness that turns a simple melodic snatch of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" in Gichy Dan's Beachwood No. 9's "On a Day Like Today" into a chewable, Flintstones vitamin-style lesson in political representation. But it's also the same unsentimental humanity that turns what should be a test case for irredeemable insouciance, Cristina's "Is That All There Is?," into an anthem of sorts for the vague generation. Here's a girl who watches her house burn down, goes to a disco, picks up a guy that beats her, and still comes out of the experience with an emphatic shrug. And yet you feel sorry for the girl even when she declares that she wouldn't even be impressed by her own suicide. Though he puts his characters through the wringer, Darnell's best work as represented in this compilation resonates with the sort of truthful empathy one has to earn. He's not such a bad guy after all.