Tropical Gangsters – Kid Creole And The Coconuts (1982)

Tropical Gangsters album cover
Tropical Gangsters album cover

The 1980s was a great time for novelty acts, many with themes that made them living history, or at least re-imagined glamorized history. The American band Kid Creole And The Coconuts was one such act. Let me start off by saying that calling them a novelty act would be selling them way too short.

By the time of their fourth album Tropical Gangsters, they had created a strong visual and sonic identity built around elements of Latin and other exotic cultures along with the Hollywood films of the ’30s and ’40s. All of this was set against a back drop of intrigue and mystery before the Miami Vice craze made all things Southern Florida cool.

Juggling all that with R&B and more than a passing touch of Cab Calloway and rolling them up into infectious disco/pop was what Kid Creole And The Coconuts was all about.

August Darnell, the suave leader of the band had a similar charisma of Morris Day of the Time. The two even shared a penchant for zoot suits. Where Appolonia might have been the visual candy for Morris Day’s exploits, the Coconuts – a rotating group of glamourious backup singers, provided a contrast to the macho exploits of Darnell. Forged from years of touring with exciting concerts, like Prince and The Revolution, Kid Creole and The Coconuts were ripe for the new music video promotion medium.  It’s a wonder Prince and The Kid the two never crossed paths. The ‘Kid’ would become Prince’s moniker in the film Purple Rain.

There was no mystery as to why Kid Creole  and the Coconuts were so big in Europe and Australia. They managed to tap the ska craze in England and combined it with a distinctly American R&B sound. They were becoming such a phenomena that their record company ZE/Sire decided that the band’s charismatic leader should make a solo record. Somewhere during the four week recording process in NY, it was decided that it would be a Kid Creole And The Coconuts project instead.

The abrupt change in direction did little to change the heavy R&B influence on Tropical Gangsters. The damage as it were was done. Could it have been that Darnell’s aborted solo project would have been a R&B album in the vane of Morris Day’s solo music?  The novel sounds and themes were still there, but on Tropical Gangsters they were relegated more to the background than on previous albums.

The cost may have been some personnel and artistic conflicts, but the band would finally crack the top 100 in America and enjoy some exposure on MTV. Already popular in Europe, Tropical Gangsters was a huge hit outside of America. In many ways Kid Creole and the Coconuts were making a very atypical (for an American band) blend of exotic influences that placed them in the same musical bracket as The English Beat and Banamorama.

The lighthearted fun and dancibility of Tropical Gangsters made various songs from it a hit on dance charts. Songs like ‘Stool Pigeon’,’I’m a Wonderful Thing’ and ‘Loving You Made a Fool Out of Me’ all could have come from just about any other major R&B artist of the first half of the ’80s.

The albums biggest hit ‘Annie (I’m Not Your Daddy)’ best recalled the band’s signature sound and remains perhaps their most popular song. Tropical Gangsters might be a rare instance where the record company knows best actually worked if  the goal is more sales.

August Darnell never got that solo album until 1996 with The Kid And I, but his work continues with the Coconuts (presumable a fresh new trio of beauties by now). For all its longevity, Kid Creole and The Coconuts will best be known for a few tracks from this memorable album.

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