By Kurt Reighley
August Darnell has often seemed like a man from a different era. Even when his musical brainchild, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, was at its peak in the early ’80s, the group’s rhythmic blend of swing, Latin, calypso and show tunes seemed more in sync with the golden age of big bands and Busby Berkley than the money-grubbing Reagan era. The guys wore zoot suits and fedoras, and the Coconuts took fashion cues from the exotic costumes of Dorothy Lamour. The band’s aesthetic owed just as much to Anything Goes, the 1934 Cole Porter Broadway extravaganza, as the “anything goes” mindset promoted by their original record label, mutant disco purveyors Ze Records.
Although the new Kid Creole and the Coconuts full-length, I Wake Up Screaming (on Strut), retains the lavish arrangements and sophisticated grooves that launched “I’m A Wonderful Thing, Baby,” “Stool Pigeon,” and “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy” into the UK Top Ten back in 1983, Darnell would like fans to know he used modern technology while recording his comeback.
“This album was done in a cyberspace moment, collaboratively,” Darnell begins, speaking via Skype from his home in Sweden. “And I don’t care where technology goes… it will never happen like that again,” he concludes, laughing. Having cut his teeth in Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, who scored with the jazzy 1976 disco single “Cherchez la Femme/Se Si Bon,” Darnell still prefers working face-to-face with live musicians, rather than swapping digital files. It’s just easier to show a bassist how you want a particular note played on the third beat of the fourth bar in real time, rather than over the Internet. “When something that simple turns into forty-five e-mails, technology has gone haywire!”
Not that the Internet isn’t useful. I Wake Up Screaming features several tracks co-written and co-produced with Andy Butler of Hercules and Love Affair, but when Strut Records head honcho Quinton Scott first proposed the teaming, Darnell had no idea who he was climbing in bed with. “But thanks to the world wide web, all I had to do was Google him, and suddenly I knew all about Andy Butler’s music,” reveals the 60 year-old. The pairing is only the latest in a string of daring collaborations for Darnell, who previously worked with artists as diverse as no wave saxophonist James Chance and schmaltz maestro Barry Manilow.
The fat, rubbery basslines of lead single “I Do Believe” and “We’re Rockin’ Out Tonight” do recall the grooves of Hercules and Love Affair’s eponymous 2008 debut, but I Wake Up Screaming sounds like nothing so much as classic Kid Creole, full of vibrant international rhythms, cheeky lyrics, and sweet-and-sassy vocal harmonies by the latest incarnation of female trio The Coconuts. The album reinforces its ties between past and present by opening with a pair of songs that hark back to Darnell’s early career.
“Stony and Cory” is an homage to Darnell’s older brother, Stony Browder, who first convinced him to quit his teaching job and join the Savannah Band, and Browder’s girlfriend, singer Cory Daye. “That song should have been written a long time ago, and I finally got around to it,” says Darnell. “I owe a lot to those two, and this is my way of paying my respects. Without them, I wouldn’t actually be in music.” Darnell defected from the Savannah Band circa the making of 1978′s Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Meets King Pennett, taking percussionist “Sugar Coated” Andy Hernandez (aka Coati Mundi) with him to start Kid Creole and the Coconuts, but the DNA of the two groups remained intertwined; Daye joined a latter day line-up of the Coconuts for 1990′s Private Waters in the Great Divide.
The new album’s title tune is the latest incarnation of a song the glory days of Ze, when Darnell wrote and produced tracks for like-minded acts including Aural Exciters, Don Armando’s 2nd Avenue Rhumba Band, and deadpan chanteuse Cristina. (For a stellar overview of this work, check out the Strut collection Going Places: The August Darnell Years 1974—1983). Cristina’s second album, the Don Was-produced Sleep It Off, featured a caustic original called “Ticket To The Tropics.” Darnell dug that ditty so much that he overhauled it for the Coconuts’ 1983 “solo” set Please Don’t Take My Coconuts, and has now re-recorded it with a fresh lyric and new title: “I Wake Up Screaming (In The Tropics).”
This return to the “Tropics” was also triggered by Darnell’s predilection for doing things the old-fashioned way. While digging through cartons of old cassettes in his home, he found one labeled “Ticket to the Tropics.” “I said, ‘Oh, I need to hear this again.’ I put it into my tape player and up pops this instrumental version. But because the cassette player was playing too fast, the track was jumping!” Duly inspired, he worked up a new version, and submitted it to Strut as a last-minute addition. “We already had all the songs for the album, but I said we had to take something off to make room for it, and Quinton agreed.”
Despite occasional brushes with the mainstream—including an appearance in the 1990 Lambada cash-in The Forbidden Dance, a single penned by Prince (“The Sex of It”), and being musical guests on the 1980 season premiere of Saturday Night Live—Kid Creole and the Coconuts was always much bigger in Europe than the US. Now Darnell has his fingers crossed that modern audiences at home will be more receptive to his multi-cultural sound, and hopes to bring the band’s live extravaganza Stateside soon. “I pray America is ready now for the rhythms of I Wake Up Screaming, because it would be fantastic for us to come back,” he concludes. “We’ve been away for far too long.”