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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

August Darnell's Mutant Disco

Thomas August Darnell Browder
New York in the late Seventies and early Eighties was a place the likes of which the post-internet world may never see again. It was the convergence of every cultural and artistic current in one geographic locality; the cultural melting-pot out of which emerged disco, punk/new wave and hip-hop and the style that later congealed into house. It continues to be a source of interest bordering on obsession to many, the present writer included.

I was familiar with August Darnell, having bought “I’m A Wonderful Thing” when it came out in 1983, as well as “Contort Yourself”, the 1978 no-wave hit by James White & The Blacks which Darnell remixed into a dance hit. And I had acquired the classic debut album by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, based on its’ reputation, but the record sat in a little-used section of my vinyl collection reserved for ‘bastards’.

My late interest in disco led me to a re-appraisal of Darnell and his prodigious output. In retrospect, the producer/singer/song writer is one of the most important figures to emerge from the original late Seventies disco explosion; a talent on par with Arthur Russell or Brian Eno, an auteur who left his imprint on everything he touched, and who figures greatly in the mixture of music Larry Levan played at the Paradise Garage. He was the house producer for the avant-garde Manhattan record label ZE Records. He released music under a bewildering variety of names, and in numerous collaborations with other artists. And there is not even a Wikipedia page on him, excepting the one on Kid Creole, nor could I locate a comprehensive discography for his extensive production work. That task will remain for someone else, but this article will hopefully serve as an introduction for the uninitiated.

Darnell’s records do not fit comfortably into any genre. ‘Disco’ is perhaps the best fit, but the scope and ambition of his work far exceeds the narrow limits of that genre, and parallels developments toward a new world music that was being pursued by other important contemporary artists, such as The Clash on Sandinista, Talking Heads and Eno, on Remain in Light, or Trevor Horn and Malcolm McLaren on Duck Rock. Hence, "mutant disco".

“…you won’t ever find any [of my music] pure. Nothing pure about it. I call it ‘mongrel music’. That’s what makes it exciting to me. Our strength is in the combination of borrowing a little from the calypso world, borrowing from the Four Tops and the Temptations and borrowing heavily from James Brown and putting it all together into this concoction. The use of horns is all based on Tito Puente and my love of the salsa arts – but it’s also based on those close harmonies from the Forties, on Duke Ellington’s arrangements…”

Combining elements of big band, disco, reggae, rumba into a polyglot synthesis that is utterly impossible to classify made marketing the music difficult. In spite of having had commercial success with both Dr. Buzzard and Kid Creole, and great acclaim in the UK music press, the music was too new wave for Latin music purists, too Latin for new wavers, the universal acclaim and recognition accorded an artist like Prince has been elusive to the far-more-important and under-appreciated August Darnell.

         Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band--from left, Mickey Seville, Andy Hernandez, Stoney Browder, Cory Daye, August Darnell
Darnell and his older brother Stoney Browder had formed Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band with Andy Hernandez and the truly gifted singer Cory Daye, and had an international #1 disco hit with "Cherchez La Femme". The group was managed by future Sony Music boss Tommy Mottola. They released three albums between 1976 and 1979. Calypso and rumba rhythms were mixed and produced with a disco sensibility. Darnell, who earned a master’s degree in English and was formerly a school teacher, wrote often narrative songs that are witty, sarcastic, and ambiguous, and exhibit a flair for vocal arrangement, incorporating chants and scat vocals. The music reflected the fusion of diverse cultures in The Bronx, where the brothers grew up; 

“It was a great place to grow up because it was full of every ethnic group known to mankind, and as a result you hear every kind of music. You heard salsa for sure, because there was a large Puerto Rican contingent, you heard European music – there were Italian families, Irish, the Jewish communities. But you also heard a whole lot of R&B, a whole lot of funk – you heard James Brown, you heard Wilson Pickett – but you also had the Caribbean families, so you heard calypso and reggae. Without ever travelling I was a traveler.”

Kid Creole & the Coconuts

Ambition and sibling rivalry led Darnell to part ways with Dr. Buzzard, which was primarily Stoney’s band, and form Kid Creole and the Coconuts, taking Andy Hernandez aka Coati Mundi along with him. They added reggae and dub to the already extensive combination of musical elements. The Kid Creole concept has a certain campy artifice that, for me, was an obstacle to overcome. Darnell, who has referred to himself as a frustrated actor, created Kid Creole as a stage persona. The zoot suits and Cab Calloway affectations were dangerously close to the Sammy Davis Jr. minstrel stereotype, and his show-tune story-telling was far removed from any kind of personal expression.

Perhaps Kid Creole and the Coconuts can be seen as an American analog to the British New Romantics (Adam & the Ants, Visage), with their costumes and makeup, albeit with greater legitimacy; Darnell, in his native New York is at least less removed from the Cotton Club and Broadway, than Adam and the Ants were from pirates. The big band concept, elaborate on-stage routines with theatric and comedic elements made both Dr. Buzzard and Kid Creole and the Coconuts quite a spectacle, and a very convincing live act, as attested by the numerous performance videos on Youtube. But ultimately, it is the quality of his songwriting and the production and innovative mixing that make Darnell’s records essential.

It is a very substantial body of work. There is the first Dr. Buzzard album (1976), a five star masterpiece that belongs in every collection, and the two follow-ups that while less consistent, are filled with great songs and amazing beats that will delight anyone with an interest in disco. That genre was not productive of many great albums, and these surely number among the very best.

There are at least four really solid Kid Creole albums, including at least one classic and best seller; Tropical Gangsters (1982, American title Wise Guy), which incorporated electronic percussion for the first time, a concession to Sire execs and the then-hot electro sound, and contains tracks that are clear house music precursors. Every song is delight, with excellent sound and mixing, and the album qualifies as one of the best of its’ era. The sublime "The Love We Have" starts with a quirky, totally New York guitar riff that would not be out of place on a Talking Heads song, with a perfect 114 bpm, four-to-the-bar electro-clash track, featuring a string-filled instrumental break that is the definition of ecstasy. The album generated two bona-fide dance hits that have become classics; “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy” and the irresistible “I’m a Wonderful Thing”.

There are other albums. Elbow Bones & The Racketeers, two albums by disco band Machine, Don Armando's 2nd Avenue Rhumba Band,  collaborations with Ron Rogers; Gichy Dan's Beechwood # 9 and Aural Exciters, no-wave rock with James White and the Blacks. And it is all great stuff. The material on this mixtape is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

It's a pleasure to admit that I never fully appreciated August Darnell until recently, and to know that the past still holds hidden treasure, vital music waiting to be discovered and appreciated by fresh ears. August Darnell's music is an absolutely unique pop hybrid, unlike any other contemporary artist, with integrity and sophistication and lasting appeal, and it is a lot brighter and more lively than most of the bullshit making the rounds in today’s popular music.

Download the August Darnell Mixtape HERE

[The quotes are from this interview, the best of several I read in preparation for this article.]  


  1. Great article - I loved the Coconuts and even came close to being managed by their manager in those crazy eighties. I would only say that Prince was and will always be a truly amazing artist and there was no need to denigrate his authentic talents in order to show that August, too, was amazing. There is room for both these great artists in the history of modern music...

  2. Let's just say, the mighty Prince was prolific, but Darnell was crazy eclectic.