Music Features

Overlooked Albums #43: Kid Creole And The Coconuts - Fresh Fruit In Foreign Places

Every new era of pop music buries what comes before. Valuable or not, styles and production sounds of a recent past are quickly forgotten like a box in the attic. The obligatory twenty-years-after nostalgia moment is vapid, not meant for music lovers but for the display of embarrassing videos. Granted, you have musicians constantly raiding grandpa's basement for some Byrdsian jangle or Stax-style horns, so the 60s never quite left us, though much music derived from it is less than vital. Rarely you see musicians looking further back or exploring other musical forms for inspiration, let alone trying to figure out what made them so popular in the first place. The likes of Cole Porter, Cab Calloway, and Tito Puente are still revered in certain circles, but most musicians are stuck with the Beatles, and even so you'd think they actually had been listening to the Banana Splits. Few bands have the creative gumption to mix styles and genres and come up with something new to get you grooving. Kid Creole And The Coconuts did that on a regular basis, assaulting the stage with style, cool moves, and fiery timbales.

The band's main players were August Darnell, larger than life in the zoot-suited persona of Kid Creole, percussionist and arranger Andy Hernandez (aka Coati Mundi), and The Coconuts, led by singer Adriana Kaegi, a dynamic unit who served as Greek chorus and comic foils. Darnell and Hernandez had been members of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, whose leader was Stoney Browder, Darnell's half brother. In 1976, Dr. Buzzard's reached the top of the dance charts with Cherchez La Femme, whose clever lyrics and big band sounds stood alone in an era of shallow disco tracks. Its success boosted Darnell's confidence, yet he felt constrained in his role as lyricist for his brother's music. He had his own musical ideas. Darnell was raised in The Bronx, a place of rich cultural diversity, where Latin polyrhythms, reggae, soul, and Italian folk music wafted at all times from neighborhood windows. He set out to collect these loose strains of musical notes in his music, all free of restrains since the band's members were also the product of this cultural melting pot.

Off The Coast Of Me was an impressive debut yet Fresh Fruit In Foreign Places, with its amalgam of exotic rhythms and cinematic vistas, is where fantasies actually take flight. "Going Places", the opening track, punches our ticket for an international journey that skips the stress of flight delays and TSA inspections. Cultural clashes and misunderstandings will be in store, though with the promise of enlightenment and romance along the way. Mind you, this a fantasy journey, a cruise on an old-style liner where we may find Clark Gable roaming the decks as a cynic adventurer or Jean Harlow as a wisecracking stowaway. "I Stand Accused", a big production number with strings, wouldn't be out of place in a Fred Astaire musical, but Darnell's keen ear can also pick up the unrest below deck.

"In The Jungle" makes a mockery of racial stereotypes, delivering its punch with a wicked Brazilian rhythm. "Animal Crackers" mixes Jamaican ska with Italian folk music for a song about the uneasy trade-offs of a tourism economy. "Latin Music" deals with cultural clashes, the singer a fish out of water on a rhumba dance floor ("the accent's worse than cockney"). He gets his riposte right away in "Musica Americana", sung in Spanish by Andy Hernandez and Conjunto Libre, both joining forces to douse flavorless American music with hot Caribbean salsa. The spotlight stays with Hernandez on "I Am", an existential affirmation that hovers between Descartes and Popeye. Before you think Hernandez has hijacked the album, Darnell returns with "Schweinerei", which pairs reggae with German lyrics about a sentimental mess.

Darnell had once been an English teacher, and his love for the language is evident in every line, his lyrics a treasure trove of sharp observations and tart ironies. Though "Table Manners" stirs the hips with a tight funk beat, the wordplay has the easy-flowing wit of Lorenz Hart. Take for instance "Gina, Gina", where family and friends vent their concerns about a speedy elopement ("He's just a ski instructor/ What can he do for you that we couldn't do?/ He'll spend his whole life through snowballing you"). There are many sides to the Kid Creole persona, but at the end of the album the center stage is taken over by the hopeless romantic. "Dear Addy" has a winning melody, a stirring arrangement, and lovelorn lyrics about a long-distance love gone wrong ("At least I get to keep the memories").

Great reviews, word-of-mouth, and a great deal of touring kept album sales steady, but the band's actual breakthrough would come months later with the release of Tropical Gangsters. In the UK, the band's sartorial splendor fit perfectly with the New Romantics movement, though the music had more in common with Jerry Dammers's world-music approach around the time of More Specials. Nevertheless, they garnered a string of hits there; in America, however, the reaping was less rewarding. American radio programmers would pigeonhole the band as a dance or R&B act, a niche that was too narrow for them. Moreover, though they could be at ease in the melting-pot climate of big cities, out in the stiff-necked Midwest they couldn't shake the novelty-act tag in spite of their amazing concerts. This was a band that drew in rock and R&B crowds, certainly a feat in those days, but in the end the grand slam was won by Prince. Eventually, the UK hits dried up and some propulsion was lost when Kaegi and Hernandez left the group. Darnell kept the costumes and the vision.

After these many years, Darnell's still at it. The latest incarnation of the band is still a draw at concert circuits, but lately his attention is focused on the production of a Broadway musical. You never know how these things turn out, but what's certain is that the lush Technicolor world Darnell has created could enliven any stage. He remains an unsung artist, a one-of-a-kind talent whose dues are yet to come in the land of ready-made pop idols. Accept no substitutes and look for the real thing.