Review: Gavin Martin, NME May 1982

SUMMER 1981 and everywhere you turn people are talking…about 12 failing men in Long Kesh, mass unemployment, the threat of nuclear war, unheard-of nationwide riots and in the dizzy idealistic world of pop…Kid Creole and The Coconuts!!?? It must be the circles I move in, because to the great bulk of the British public the name sounds like some sort of music hall farce and the punchline goes ‘Ay Ay Ay Moosey’.

In his time, Kid Creole – aka August Darnell – has mapped out an intriguing body of work – from the runyonesque imagery matched to a Broadway music score and new-fashioned dance music of Doctor Buzzard’s Savannah Band to the more starlight-ahead, deftly arranged and occasionally pulverising delight of The Coconuts – ‘Que Pasa’ being the obvious example.

But he has always been erratic, sometimes stretching himself too far and ending up with a sprawling, heavy-handed mess – the bulk of ‘Fresh Fruit’ hardly stood up to its conception as a musical voyage when actually transmitted to vinyl.

What has hurt more than any in-house critical jibes has been the consistent failure of The Coconuts to make a notable impression on the charts. A long time coming, originally planned as a Darnell solo album, commercial considerations hang heavy on ‘Tropical Gangsters’. And really there can be no excuse this time – the record company has pulled all the stops out, the press brouhaha can easily be whipped up again, a TV special is in the offing and a major tour of Britain gets underway towards the end of the month. The world is ready and waiting for August and fellow travellers and all they have to do is lay some steaming hot product on us. I’ve listened to the LP about five or six times now and I’m still waiting.

The title is partly self-evident and partly inspired, methinks, by a Black Music cover story last year which was headlined ‘Is This Man A Terrorist!’ and which featured Darnell firing off about the ineptitude of the American record industry when it came to packaging a group of black musicians who fall outside a crass disco stereotype.

However, there is more than a faint hint of irony behind the vitriolic and strong-willed verbal given in that article, because in many ways ‘Tropical Gangsters’ shows the Coconuts’ forte becoming as hackneyed and predictable as the outfits that were the object of Darnell’s derision.

There’s a feeling of going through the motions on many of the songs, playing out scenes and sending up manners and mores in an almost identikit fashion. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this LP is the lack of vision and imagination in Darnell’s song writing. When you compare a genuinely lovely love song like ‘Off The Coast Of Me’ (the title track of what remains the finest LP Darnell has been involved in, though I’ve yet to hear the funkapolitan disc) with blatant rubbish like ‘Annie (I’m Not Your Daddy)’ the question must be – so this is the cost of commercial acceptance? Or has Darnell simply written all his best tunes when only a few were listening?

“Oh Annie I’m not your daddy/ Y’see if I was in your blood then you wouldn’t be so ugly…” goes the opening track and it’s not even funny, a spurious deflated attempt to build up the Kid Creole alter-ego with an excuse for a song which is little short of pitiful. The side closes with Andy Hernandez’ @corrupt’, another piece of aural birdcage lining, a Coconut (presumably Cory Daye) repeating endlessly her lack of virtue over a garbled backing track (most of the music on this LP could have been played with the musicians on remote control). It’s something akin to a Studio 54 equivalent of PiL’s ‘Cowboy Song.’ Yup, that worthwhile.

It has been suggested, not without foundation either, that an updated highlife version of James Brown is Darnell’s role model for his latest venture. There is the same penchant for self-aggrandisement (I’m A Wonderful Thing’) and the ambiguous relationship between the person and the character created on the record; the form of musical attack with its knuckle-tight percussive bias also has similarities, but the crucial difference, given the sheer overall atmosphere and tension generated by the Famous Flames, is in the understanding of dynamics. JB knew when to break out, dive back and flex out at just the right time – every departure, every connection and every movement was crucial, indispensable, but so much of what’s on here is commonplace and lacklustre.

That’s not to say the LP is without its moments. ‘Loving You Made A Fool Of Me’, for instance, is a bevy of formidable rhythms layered into chunky slices of movement – frantic percuss – cuss – cuss – cussion and an elephant wailing brass arrangement. But the nagging gold digger and frail hapless male scenario is not a new one, being a virtual re-run of ‘Darrio’. So it’s refreshing to see new areas being broached with songs like ‘Stool Pigeon’ (about CIA grass), ‘Imitation’ (a shot at musical scavengers, Talking Heads tribal predilections being the reported specific target) and ‘No Fish all passable songs, but passable pop songs don’t match the reputation or the potential.

Ever been to one of those parties where it’s about four o’clock in the morning and all the whooping, gabbling and babbling has finished a long time ago and everyone’s trying to get some sleep except two guys who are still regurgitating all the whoop, gabble and babble of the evening and you just feel like Shouting, For Godsake give over? Well, Kid Creole and The Coconuts on this LP remind me of those two guys – no longer fired by the zest or life of earlier exploits, moving in ever-increasing circles to no particular goals, resolutions or conclusions.

The only worthwhile thing that might out of it is that it may make Darnell famous and with the big load off his mind maybe he can get back down to serious business and produce something really worthwhile. Meanwhile I’ll go back to JB’s ‘Live At The Apollo Volume 2’(Polydor Records – still available) to find all the frazzle, punch and excitement this LP lacks. ‘Tropical Gangsters’ doesn’t exactly stink, but there is a mighty stale whiff about it. Oh yeah and ‘Beautiful Vision’ is still LP of the year, absolutely no competition dears!!!