On Kid Creole and the Coconuts’ 1981 album Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (No. 12 on that year’s Pazz & Jop), frontman Thomas August Darnell Browder croons, “Believe me I know, when you leave New York, you go nowhere.” Some two decades after he left New York, August Darnell—now somewhere in the forests of southern Sweden—still misses it. “I love it for what it gave me, but I cracked one day when I had to go to my dentist 10 blocks away and it took two hours to get crosstown,” he recalls via Skype. He sings that line and admits, “It was my favorite line from my favorite song.”
Darnell, who charted the glorious polyglot pop music of New York City in the 1970s and ’80s as well as any one individual could, has a lot of contenders for that title in his catalog. His body of work has kept him relevant well into the 21st century; his songs have been sampled by Ghostface Killah, M.I.A., Cee Lo Green, and the Avalanches (to name a few), and the growing interest in New York’s disco history via acts such as LCD Soundsystem, !!!, and Hercules and Love Affair has further prolonged interest.
I Wake Up Screaming, his first album to be released stateside since the grunge era, was produced with Hercules’s main man Andrew Butler and mixed by underground house producer Brennan Green. “The juxtaposition between my forest here in Sweden and Brennan’s urban jungle in Brooklyn was poetry in motion,” Darnell says.
A former schoolteacher in the Bronx, Darnell and his older brother Stony Browder conceived Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, tasting fame, success, and a No. 1 dance hit in 1976. But “our sibling rivalry destroyed it,” Darnell recalls. That fallout—chronicled in Screaming‘s elegant opener “Stony and Cory”—freed Darnell to pursue his muse, and his productions for Ze Records remain some of the headiest: Who else could put Broadway lights around the nihilist void of Cristina’s deadpan take on “Is That All There Is?” or make hedonistic disco clubs grind as Fonda Rae squeaked out Irving Berlin’s “I’m An Indian Too”?
“There’s no town that could give me the power that New York City gave me,” Darnell recalls. “I used to just go to Times Square for kicks, because 42nd Street was dangerous. On every corner was a prostitute, a bordello, a porn cinema, and somebody hustling. I thought the greatness of Times Square was that it was the Theater District and its rich patrons pouring out to the street, and they’d mingle with the lowest dregs of society known to mankind.” That expert mix of glitz and grit, of uptown and downtown, got refracted through Darnell’s music.
With Savannah Band vibraphonist/arranger “Sugar Coated” Andy Hernandez serving as architect and comedic foil, Darnell’s band Kid Creole and the Coconuts was the finest iteration of his musical razzmatazz. The band was an amalgam of bygone outsized personas like Jimmy Durante, Carmen Miranda, and of course, Cab Calloway, its music navigating the waters between disco, calypso, show tunes, soul, big band, pop, funk, and new wave.
But they were ultimately overshadowed by the decade’s most dominant pop personas. In 1980, while Darnell undercut his swaggering urbane figure with “Mister Softee,” a similarly mustachioed diminutive genius thrust his lascivious self to the fore of pop consciousness with an album called Dirty Mind. Darnell was similarly foiled again in 1982, when the paternity-pop of “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy” from Wise Guy struggled for custody with “Billie Jean.” Not to diminish the MJ monolith, but the plain plea of “the kid is not my son” pales against the wickedly witty retort of “see, if I was in your blood/then you wouldn’t be so ugly.” Later, dilutions of Darnell’s zoot-suited style yielded ubiquitous hits for others (“Hot Hot Hot” and “Just A Gigolo”).
What was it like to return to the fold and work with Butler, a longtime fan? Darnell wouldn’t know: “I’ve never met the guy! I only saw him on Skype chats. We were never in the same room, which is uncivilized and ridiculous. And that’s modern society for you.” Forced to collaborate over e-mail, the process took years instead of weeks. “To be honest with you, I got frustrated with it,” he says. “But I’m sure glad we saw it through. I love the results.”
That I Wake Up Screaming remains such an endearing listen speaks to Darnell’s songwriting prowess. The giddy dance numbers like “I Believe” and “We’re Rockin’ Out Tonight” are a given, but it’s the slower numbers that charm. Darnell admires his Mama Coconut of 14 years, Eva, on “Tudor-Jones,” a slinky ode to a strong woman and domestic bliss. “Now I like just where I am,” he coos on the percolating closer “Just Because I Love You,” sounding quite at peace with being out of New York and being in the middle of nowhere.