It’s like this. A casual acquaintance invites you to a party. You go. The house is big and crowded. You don’t see your friend. All the people are incredibly friendly and include you in their speedy, hilarious conversations, but you can’t quite figure out who they are. They don’t introduce themselves, or else someone introduces herself as Juanita and two minutes later someone else comes up and calls her Cindy. Laughter, music, a babble of Spanish, English, and French, every race, color, decade, fashion season, and Manhattan neighborhood seems to be represented. A kind of social dance or parlor game is going on, but you can’t figure out who’s playing or what the rules ae. So you wander into another room, and there’s a whole other trip going on there. You’ve got two choices – stagger outside, reeling with confusion, and go home (It’s all too much!); or relax, stop trying to “figure it out,” have a drink and step into a dream….
The dream is about Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, those mad mulattos whose Hollywood-hip bebop disco swing has earned them almost mythical status since they first dazzled eardrums with “Cherchez la Femme” – how long ago was that – in 1976. The various members have gotten involved with so many different spinoffs, independent projects, and semi-fictional personalities (Cory Daye solo, Gichy Dan’s Beechwood No. 9, James White and the Blacks, Machine, Cristina, Don Armand’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band) that the band is less like a group or family or team than a huge party scene. And what’s most fun, besides the music (which swings from punk to pop to calypso to discodrama), is keeping track of who’s who. The most frustrating thing about the Savannah Band, though, is that it has remained – mostly for economic reasons – a studio event. Which has made lyricist-bassist August Darnell exceedingly itchy. Last year Darnell started taking on assignments producing other acts for RCA and then for Ze Records, and more recently he’s solved the problem of live performing by cooking up Kid Creole and the Coconuts.
This configuration features Darnell (as Kid Creole, lead singer), Savannah Band’s vibes player “Sugar-Coated” Andy Hernandez, and a motley, multi-ethnic, sexually integrated crew devoted primarily to island music. They started playing in January at an odd assortment of clubs ranging from Squat to S.N.A.F.U. to Tramps to Hurrah, and although early performances by “The Kid Creole and the Coconuts featuring Cristina Revue” were reportedly spotty, by the time the show got to Hurrah for the Ze Revue in mid-March it was seriously hot. Imagine Bob Marley teamed up with Ricky Ricardo for their own Clams on the Half Shell – a real show with girl singers in leopard skins, chorus boys in dancers’ tights, palm trees, bush jackets, and tough, steamy roots-rock-reggae. Hey!
But the culmination of Kid Creole’s progress so far was a show alternately called “Off the Coast of Me” and “The August Darnell Revue, with guest stars Gichy Dan and Cory Daye,” which took place last week at the 80s – the Upper East Side’s answer to Irving Plaza. Musically, this show wasn’t as tight as the one at Hurrah. But for sheer spectacle, social significance, and further contribution to the Savannah Band’s mystique, it was undeniably one of the highlights of the musical season.
The MC was Stony Browder, the Savannah Band member who’s kept the lowest profile but whom they now acknowledge as the leader. (Browder and Darnell, who are Savannah’s brains and brawn, heart and soul, tell people they’re brothers, though they actually met as kids growing up on the same street in the South Bronx.) Obviously conscripted into service at the last minute, Browder was nonetheless dapper and cool and managed offhandedly to grind a few axes of his own. He announced that “Savannah Band couldn’t play because the price wasn’t right,” but that their new record was out on “a kind of makeshift label – Elektra.” (It’s no secret that Elektra has managed to botch the release and promotion of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Goes to Washington, their typically offbeat but nonetheless wonderful third album.) Browder also mentioned that the record wasn’t getting much airplay because “Communists control the radio.” (!) And throughout the evening his references to Darnell as “the man we’re all here to honor” made the occasion seem like a wake. All this was presumably evidence of a friendly rivalry, a running joke not without its cutting edges.
Anyway, there was Kid Creole, mustachioed and marcelled like Chuck Berry, launching into his theme song, “Don’t Take My Coconuts” – a slow start. But things picked up with “Deputy of Love,” a reggae version of Don Armando’s 2nd Avenue Band’s disco smash that revealed the tune’s inherent parody of “I Shot the Sheriff” and established early on that Darnell models himself (perhaps half-mockingly) on Bob Marley – the difference is that Darnell’s Jah is jive, his religion romance. And he is fervently devoted. The lovely ballad (and title song of Kid Creole’s forthcoming LP) “Off the Coast of Me” revolves around a purely innocent and perfectly sexual metaphor: “Off the coast of me likes you/In a waterfall of solitude/I must find a one-way passage through/To the very heart and private part of you.” And the Coconuts join in for the coda. “I’m taking a trip off the coast of me…” What a great expression – sex as safari, your lover as another country, romance as an adventure both scary and exotic.
The Coconuts are two (formerly three) white girls in leopard tunics who do backup vocals and quasi-Hullabaloo frugging; the band comprises three white guys, a black man (ace West Indian drummer Winston Grennan), and a woman. Then there’s a creature dressed in black body stocking and hood – part executioner, part pony girl – who goes by the name Lori Eastside; she’s sort of head Coconut and exquisitely blasé, but also a good singer. She took a lead on the new, bratty Darnell tune, “He’s Not Such a Bad Guy After All.” The set ended with Darnell’s island rearrangement of “There But For the Grace of God Go I” – the reggaefied chorus appropriately reads “…go I and I” – which was almost superb. “Sugar-Coated” Andy should just learn that if he’s going to rap in the middle of the song, he should have something to say.
Next came the procession of special guests. After taking a moment to badmouth Michael Zilkha (head of Ze Records), Stony Browder brought on Gichy Dan’s Beechwood No. 9. Short, suave Gichy Dan (aka Pago Pago and Frank Passalacqua) was joined by a tall, beautiful woman in a black, off-the-shoulder gown and pearls (she looked like young Sophia Loren) and a dumpy, older man in a copper, square-cut polyester jacket (he looked like the bride’s father at a ‘rican wedding); in fact, the pair are husband and wife, Lourdes Cotto and Juan “Fabian” Cotto. The trio looked weird but sang like angels. They did “Yolanda” (which is on Kid Creole’s LP) and “Laissez Faire” (the cut from their neglected RCA album which WBLS has recently brought back to life as a turntable hit), and they effortlessly reproduced what sounds like impossible complicated arrangements, breezing through sophisticated rhythm changes with contrapuntal lyrics and exhilarating harmonies like a pop Celia & Johnny or a Latin Manhattan Transfer. Their too-brief act was the evening’s peak.
Darnell sprang a surprise on the audience with Pillow, a group of four lovely young women in leatherette miniskirts (“looks like a model agency,” quipped RFC Records’ Vince Aletti) who sang two cheesy rock songs, “I Don’t Subscribe to Pie in the Sky” and “I Need a New Boyfriend.” Pillow is apparently the creation of Greek fashion designer John Stavros, who wants to make them the female Kiss; Darnell has produced a single of their two songs, and a label is being sought. They’re a sort of Hugh Hefner version of the Runaways – cute and silly, but not as interestingly silly as Cristina, the former model whose record Darnell produced and whose dubious achievement is a punk-disco travesty of “Is That All There Is?” Cristina was sick and didn’t appear at the 80s, but Darnell and his band performed a dub version of her song while her chorus boys, the Capezio Brothers, ran through their mechanical mime-dance routine.
Cory Daye was supposed to provide the show’s climax. After Stony Browder took time out to deliver a citation to Tommy Mottola as “the Con Manager of the Year” for “absconding with more than six figures in the last fiscal year,” he introduced Cory Daye as “my personal Frankensteena.” She made her entrance in a black velvet gown and black-and-white polka-dotted gloves, and that’s about as good as she got. Cory has one of the most distinctive voices in pop music today, and her singing with the Savannah Band and on her own Cory and Me album is total joy; after seeing her disorderly conduct live, I’m amazed those records came out so well. She was loud, undisciplined, probably drunk. She forgot words to “A Wiggle and a Giggle All Night,” shouted “Give me more reverb or I’ll kill you!” to the sound man during “Our Day Will Come” (theoretically an inspired choice for her to sing), and then said, “Let’s change the motif, because I’m really sick of this shit,” dragging the Coconuts out to sing Kid Creole’s “Maladie D’Amour” with her. She cut that short, saying, “My trainer wants me to go back in my cage. If you want more, you have to give me some more money to pay my rent!” Between shrieking and camping like bargain-basement Bette Midler, Cory Daye lost a lot of sympathy from her fans. However, Darnell – who’d kept cool and determined despite Stony’s snipes and Cory’s antics – capped the show with an encore of “Mister Softee,” Kid Creole’s rousing, fast cha-cha about a flaccid workaholic who has to endure the taunts of his randy paramour. (A number of women were overheard discussing that song in knowing snickers as they left the club.)
Whatever the flaws of this particular show, they had little to do with the talent and excitement wrapped up in the Kid Creole Revue, and there are big plans afoot: depending on who you talk to, a movie (an updated Casablanca), a Broadway show, or a cross-country tour. Maybe all three. This doesn’t necessarily affect the Savannah Band, although Darnell told me, “The Savannah Band has been in the eternal plane crash, and the pieces have been scattered far and wide.” And he admitted his impatience to perform live. “The leader of the Savannah Band,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “must learn that when you spend $300,000 making an album, the record company is not going to give you tour support.” Meanwhile, Darnell has signed a partnership agreement with the cheerfully notorious Tommy Mottola to break Kid Creole. The album Off the Coast of Me, which was to be released imminently on Ze, may come out on a major label though still with the Ze logo; a single featuring “Grace of God” and “He’s Not Such a Bad Guy After All” may be out in two weeks. In short, everything is up in the air.
But the whole scene is fascinating, and the music is marvelous. The parallels are obvious. The group orientation with all its spinoffs and multilabel deals sounds like George Clinton and P-Funk, though the Savannah Band is really the “mothership” and Darnell more energetic and ambitious than paternalistic (though his female creations may be as trivial and exploitative as Clinton’s). And the Caribbean motif connects with Bob Marley’s brood. Yet Darnell’s music is more accessible to Americans than Marley’s and less threatening to the mainstream than Clinton’s; it’s a little rock, a lot of pop, a little disco and a lot of Latin – an unusual, invigorating mixture. Besides that, the spectacle, the charisma, the fun and the self-mythologizing allure of Darnell’s vision remind me of Frank Zappa and the Mothers, the Tubes, the late great Orchestra Luna, and the Grateful Dead – all those crazy pop parties that have replaced the circus as the life dreamy kids (of all ages) want to run away and join.
Soho News, April 2, 1980