“Growing up in New York, I heard calypso, Motown, James Brown, rock, Latin music, and so on,” August Darnell told The New York Times in 1981. “I didn’t have to travel.” Darnell had just released his second album as the frontman of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, a fruity polyglot of disco, island music, show tunes, and funk. As a bandleader and house producer for ZE Records, he specialized in aids for the urban daydreamer: music about the escape to softer sand than Far Rockaway’s.
Going Places, Strut’s tidy Creole-and-friends compilation, revels in a quintessential tension: Only the true city dweller knows how deeply the city dweller wants to get out. Darnell, a former schoolteacher raised in the Bronx, represented his time and place through an art that wanted to transcend it. And while his execution wasn’t arch, it was always self-aware—not just island music, but choreographed cannibals; not just Harlem glitz and black Hollywood, but drag queens channeling Lena Horne.
At a time when hip-hop was emerging if not completely coalescing, Darnell’s aspirations to money and glitz, however arty, can be a little off-putting. But rich people—who, in art, tend to get bored faster than poor people—make good theater. When Harvard dropout (and former Voice theater critic) Cristina rolls her eyes through the entirety of Leiber and Stoller’s “Is That All There Is”—adding a line about how much she misses her boyfriend beating the shit out of her—the ladder-climbing of poor, young artists turns into nihilism, a parody of excess.
But usually, Darnell’s vision is more genial, druggier. And while neither drugs nor money humble, the former are more reliably disorienting. Kid Creole sings about traveling “off the coast of me,” the Aural Exciters dedicate a song to “Emil (Night Rate)”—slow, obvious winks. Even when not semi-blitzed, the music is fundamentally bemused: “Yesterday, I’m at the foot of the stairs,” runs the refrain to “On a Day Like Today” by Gichy Dan’s Beachwood No. 9. “But today, I’ve got my heels in the air.” Up till the Kid Creole days, Darnell was the principal in Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band (whose members appear here in different combinations). This collection shows he wasn’t just mining a novelty, but imagining a whole private, miscegenated world with vim, zing, and whatever other gaudy prewar slang you can exhume—an approach whose forward thinking came from its dedication to looking backward, and its sense of place from the music’s weird, beautiful sense of remove.