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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: August Darnell from Dr. Savannah to Kid Creole

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To mark the 60th birthday of Britain's New Musical Express, here's a classic piece from the paper's vaults: Ian Penman's 1980 homage to August "Kid Creole" Darnell——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

A man stands alone in a baggy white suit, a black masquerade visor over his eyes. He is concealing a broken heart and a loudhailer...

Just imagine: you have the opportunity to write one of those all-time sexiest and most heartbroken of songs. First step: you get involved with someone who drives you crazy with desire — ensnares you, mesmerises you, has you at arm's length and in the palm of their hand. Then something happens: that inevitable separation. You're classically awry — but where's the gain (or the end) in being uselessly melancholy?

Write that song about it, summing up both your despair and the wonder of the love and sex that caused it in the first place.

You have to choose your words carefully, carnally; you have to find a crucial metaphor. It has to be just so — to sound like you're completely drunk on love and near suicidal through the absence of your loved one. You recline on a couch and clutch your heart. The evening seems impossible: so many hours to go and no chance of the loved one appearing...

The song has to read like a love letter, from miles away. You map it out, the scenario is precarious. You get dressed up to kill, take enough numbing drugs and stand alone at the peak of your metaphorical island. You whisper — the loudhailer turns it to a plea for all the world to hear...

"Off the coast of me lies you;
In a waterfall of solitude.
I must find a one-way passage through.
To the very heart and private part of you."

Just imagine: the song of my dreams.
The August Darnell world — as manifested in a lot of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band and all of Kid Creole and the Coconuts — is a looking glass world, a somewhere far away peopled by metaphors. But you don't need a map to find this island, because its mythology is built around that very real, most easily found (and lost) of places — love. Sexual love, romantic love, high life love, hedonistic love, hardship love whatever, wherever or whoever...

There's a whole new lyrical country here just waiting to be discovered. It is cavalier, cinemascope and carnal. It's a subliminal carnival, a bit of a circus, a sip of a cocktail: amorous, clandestine, physical, light-headed and heavy-lidded. The dance of love — do you know the opening steps? You awful flirt!

"High heels / Straplessly red / Seedless grapes / Cozied in the bed/ Peg leg pants / Tossed aside / Scarlet smears across the bathroom tile / No, you needn't explain: / First comes the thunder, then the rain."

Just look: there's the author. An infinitely cool and not unshifty looking character. A character somewhere between Alice's mysterious little late White Rabbit and a black market spiv, between Cab Calloway and Graham Greene, between Glenn Miller and the De Niro of New York, New York. Observe the cool. Study the deportment: the stall, the sly romantic glance up from his drink. Takes out a pocket watch from his waistcoat, on a too-long golden chain. His second hand's playing for time...

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For a contemporary popular music scene — "rock's rich tapestry," call it what you will — all too often devoid of true troubadours and the conveyed bliss of sexual love, Mr August Darnell is a person we scarcely seem to deserve, an unusually conscientious and industrious writer, composer, arranger, producer, player, singer, stage manager, character, bon vivant. As his sartorial projection might lead you to believe, he belongs to a different age. An age when songwriting was a craft — your profession, your pride, and often a crafty progression from the very heart and poison pen parts of your day-to-day life.

August Darnell makes use of words. He savours them, seduces their meanings, makes them his own. The pimp! (Just my little metaphorical joke.) In the course of both Dr Buzzards Original Savannah Band and Kid Creole, Darnell has slyly, slowly been redesigning the content and tenor of the subject matter (the one that matters) of which so many songs are fashioned. Saying it, crooning, orienting it, jiving it, driving it, steering it like a captain in his ship.

He has been most recently renowned for a widespread association with a number of acts resident in the New York Ze/Antilles label: James White and the Blacks, Cristina, The Aural Exciters, Don Armando's Second Avenue Rhumba Band and of course Kid Creole and the Coconuts. If you're a keen modern soul fan you may also have happened upon his involvement with an outfit named Machine (more on them later) and maybe even a project known as Gichy Dan's Beechwood No. 9 (too obscure even for me).

But our maestro's story goes back a few years to the group (or legend) known as Dr Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, which he co-ran and all too seldom co-runs with a man named Stony Browder Jr, an even more elusive gentleman than August. The Savannah Band are best known or remembered for a mini-hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1976 — 'Cherchez La Femme', taken off the group's first RCA album (same name as the name). Two more albums have since appeared — 1978's D.B.O.S.B. Meets King Penett (RCA) and the recent James Monroe H.S. Presents D.B.O.S.B. Goes To Washington (Elektra) — the latter being their classiest and craziest yet.

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The Doc and his Original Savannahs

It would always have been easy to peg the Savannah Band as mere ritzy revivalists — a frivolous private joke, albeit a painstakingly self-referential one — a la Pointer Sisters or Manhattan Transfer. The beat goes a lot further and deeper. Just listen: the lush text of their performance is deceptively, danceably lighter on the ear. If you dip and dig around you'll find a clearer complexity — those scores sound very learned!

The hook to each song is usually deep in a choppy rhythmic current — a shuffling samba. Very insistent, very dreamy. Less speed and more taste than that more popping popular amyl (night rate) disco beat. Lined and fleeced with a multiplicity of signs from a predominantly 40s Swing Era code book: seedy jazz, seething calypso, reedy rhumba, rude rhythm'n'blues. The horn section and vocal harmony arrangements are many sided and exquisitely twisted, counter-counter-pointed. What poise! What a slinky noise.

Dr Buzzard's Savannah Band always have been about arrangement (so difficult to get hold of good arrangers these days, my dear) but it still all sounds informally natural.

Music and lyrics travel all over the place. Benny Goodman horns highlight a Scott Fitzgerald scenario of tiffs, Tia Maria and tension...Brass band surrounds a fairground tryst...Itchy crickets chorus of percussion brings a come-down hell to life.

"You did the mambo, the cha-cha, bolero, the rhumba.../You did the tango, the conga, the disco, the samba..."

The music is full of jokes, references, interruptions, homage: recreation recycled into contemporaneity. It isn't just waxwork. Stony Browder is usually credited for musical arrangements, Darnell for lyrics, but like everything else in Savannah land the accepted borderlines are smudged. While we're here, the rest of the Band besides Browder (guitar, piano) and Darnell (bass) are Ms. Cory Daye (main vocalist), Micky Sevilla (drums/ percussion) and "Sugar Coated" Andy Hernandez (vibes, marimba) — also a mainstay of the Coconut enterprise.

Dr Buzzard's Savannah Band is a perfect marriage of music and words — it wouldn't be the same if either partner wasn't just so compatible, as sophisticated as the other. Both Browder and Darnell translate into various languages, idioms, styles. They really are good — I think Darnell is perhaps without par amongst contemporary lyricists. Early Ferry gets somewhere near to the territory (but he lost his sense of humour).

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Darnell knows it's not simply a question of saying what was or wasn't done to one party or the other (at one party or another) in the name of love — and how it was done; but of constructing, in and around the particular sexual mise en scene, all the bitty thoughts that recapitulated it, the obsessions that accompanied it, the decorations that surrounded it, the images, desires, modulations, and quality of the pleasure that animated it.

His lyrics really begin to get sharp on the second Savannah Band album. Going beyond the fixed range of expressions we expect from our songs and singers, Darnell's lovers and losers go off into dreams, into rages, into hospital, into too many clubs and even off their heads. The stories echo Damon Runyon one moment, the Brothers Grimm the next...

"Of all the dames I fancied / She's the only one I loved. / And when she left the pavement turned to mud. / I sought refuge in a dim saloon, / But I would have drowned in booze, / If it weren't for the troubadour."

Chorus: "Restless lovers everywhere / Dry your eyes, pull up a chair / Spill the cup and cup the ear / For the organ grinder's tale..."

The pictures switch from an exaggerated ball — "When Crosby starts to croon / The jitterbuggies cruise the room / Their fingers poke the air / Man-o-man-o-man-o-man, they look just like that Fred Astaire! / "Swing it with me, my Mattie Mario" / No, no, no, no, no, no, I'm saving this fling for Mister Love." — to obscure outbreaks of gang hatred — "Soraya, bring big gun / And let's have some bloody fun / Nignats do the Rats in — / Kunta and grimel don't mix / Like creme et cocoa."

Various characters and symbols — some figurative, some actual — make a recurrent entrance into the play of Savannah Band language, as the mad covers to all their albums testify. Wouldn't you just love to visit The New Syringe Club? Mambo Eddie's Beatnix School? And finish off at The New York At Dawn Show? During the course of the evening you might learn that both Stony Browder and August Darnell attended the James Monroe High School, that the Tommy Mottola of 'Cherchez La Femme' really was their manager, and couldn't fail to be convinced that the Savannah Band really are Champions of the Romantic.

Darnell is also a champion of the untold story, the surreptitious and strictly confidential. But unlike so many "songwriters" who are respected for their "honesty" about "relationships" — who write songs which convey nothing but venom and connivance — Darnell never loses his humour or humanity. He can fall from ecstasy to squalor in one coded coda. No one is producing better mnemonics for nightlife — even Chic got left behind a while back.

"Tired smiles / Censored romance / Premature sighs — / Now it all makes sense. / Trolley car /Take me along / To some distant shore far from Babylon. / For their air here reeks of lies; / And even the robins sound warlike. / Nocturnal interludes / Like so many tsetse flies / Nocturnal interludes / Damaging merchandise / Make-me-believe-it solitude."

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ZE Records' New York Office is housed on one floor of a big building which also contains the Carnegie Hall Recital rooms. You can get stuck in the same lift as Harvey Keitel did in a movie called Fingers. Except that now they've got a lift-man.

I sat down opposite August Darnell in the traditional false comfort of a record company "hospitality" room. I should have specified a bar in advance.

Also in the room are a couple of Coconuts (Andy Hernandez — who asks me more questions that I ask anyone — and "Mister Piano" Peter Scott, the youngest member of the ensemble, who says virtually nothing-throughout) and a varying number of people from both the band entourage and ZE.

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The Kid and his 'nuts

Darnell is wearing a moderately baggy, immaculately tailored creamy white suit, and everything else seems to match, natch. He twirls a tiny pink parasol (decoration pinched off a birthday cake) between thumb and forefinger, and answers all queries in a very businesslike but charming manner.

To read Penman's Q&A with Darnell, go to Rock's Backpages

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