Rewind: Luke Howard on “Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band”

Posted: October 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

In discussion with Luke Howard on “Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band” by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band (1976).

I first fell in love with Kid Creole & The Coconuts in the 80s and then discovered “Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band” a few years later because August Darnell was involved with it. How was your first time with the band and album?

I came quite late to the album. It was 1991. I was talking with two older friends about our favourite disco artists and they mentioned Dr. Buzzard’s and I hadn’t heard of them, so I quickly found myself a copy. I had known of Kid Creole and Coati Mundi (August Darnell and Andy Hernandez) much earlier, as my sister had been to New York in 1981 and brought back copies of the ZE Records compilation Seize The Beat and the second Kid Creole & The Coconuts album. Also, Kid Creole and the Coconuts went on to be really commercially successful in the UK and they did loads of touring here in the 1980’s. But I’d never heard of Doctor Buzzard until much later.

“Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band” had a few songs that became notable single successes, but somehow I always thought they worked best being listened to in the context of the whole album. Can you separate the songs from one another? Are there ups and downs?

I think you can separate the songs from each other, yes. They’re all standout songs in my opinion – there’s no fillers on the album. “Sunshower” was big on the Balearic scene in the 90’s, “I’ll Play The Fool” and “We Got It Made” were big on the two-step soul scene in the mid 80’s and “Lemon In The Honey” and “Cherchez La Femme” are disco classics. However, I think it works wonderfully well as a whole album. It’s only seven songs and I think it’s perfect as an album. It’s in my top three favourite albums of all time (I’m not quite sure what the other two are).

I was very surprised by the sound of the album when I first heard it. Kid Creole already struck me as a completely different take on disco, but then I realized that Dr. Buzzard were even more advanced in their approach, both in terms of music and concept. It almost felt like tapping into another, carefully constructed world, obviously made up, but incredibly detailed at that. How would you describe their ideas and its execution? What constitutes the uniqueness of Dr. Buzzard?

It’s a very intelligent album, both musically and lyrically. It could almost be the soundtrack to a musical, which is what they were trying to achieve when you look at the album cover – it looks and reads like a show. There are references in the sound and the packaging to the jazz age of the 1920’s and 1930’s but it’s not derivative in any way. The percussion patterns influenced all the tribal house of the 1990’s, although they’re much less tough than house many of the rhythm patterns of that tribal sound are exactly the same.

It was also striking that Dr. Buzzard used a variety of references, in artwork and lyrics for example, that were not to be found in other records. Despite a prominent camp and glamour angle, they also touched social issues, multi-ethnic race and gender politics and conflicts, elements from different cultures, from post-war Germany to urban Latin neighbourhoods, and lots more. And although their take was very smart, they seemed to be more interested in deconstructing these contexts, playing with it more than just analyzing it. How important were the lyrics and appearance to the appeal of Dr. Buzzard? Was it an integral part or more the icing on the cake?

Like I said it’s like a soundtrack to a musical but we just have to guess at the story and imagine the way it would be staged. That’s why it’s such a clever album. It allows you to use your imagination to bring the whole thing to life. It’s evocative of something that you have to invent yourself.

Disco was always a good template to incorporate a whole plethora of influences. Especially in terms of arrangements, there was a lot to choose from. There were other efforts in disco history to deal with broadway and swing influences, but why do you think did Dr. Buzzard decide to do it so thoroughly? Do you think it was led by the desire to inject disco with something different or would they have done it this way anyway? Was it even just an image?

Some of those other disco records that were disco takes on jazz and swing were just cover versions of old jazz songs done in a disco style – stuff like Rinder & Lewis productions like El Coco and Tuxedo Junction and I don’t think they’ve stood the test of time as well as the first Dr. Buzzard album precisely because Dr Buzzard isn’t a pure disco album so it doesn’t sound so dated.

As they sounded so far apart from the disco mainstream in 1976, when the album came out, do you think they even tried to be part of disco, or did they just fall into place with the proceedings?

I imagine that they fell into the arms of disco as back in 1976 there was a far wider range of styles that was being played in discos and DJs were more creative. DJs were more interested in whether a record was to dance to rather than if it sounded like disco or not. You had African music, Latin music, electronic music, soul, funk and much more besides all a part of the disco melting pot back then so Dr. Buzzard would just have been included in that big mix. It wasn’t until 1978 or 1979 that disco records all started sounding pretty similar. Also there is an interesting use of synthesisers on the album which gave the sound a very modern edge and I’m sure that helped with the dance floor appeal.

I thought that their influences were in any case not the traditional background of the typical 70’s disco production. It seemed to me that broadway tradition and performers like Cab Calloway were more influential for their show than the funk and soul roots of most other records of that era and they were really very sophisticated. Nevertheless they became a disco phenomenon. Why do you think they worked in terms of commercial success?

They were very right for the time. 1970’s fashions referenced the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s so Dr. Buzzard really fitted in with that futuristic take on the past. I call what Dr. Buzzard created Biba Disco. Biba was a London-based fashion brand that was greatly inspired by jazz and Hollywood of the inter-war years and was the height of chic in the early to mid 1970’s and what Biba was doing with fashion Dr. Buzzard did with music – glamour, jazz and modernism.

Reading about Dr. Buzzard on paper, one could have easily written off their concept as novelty approach. But then arguably few other productions at that time displayed a similar amount of production detail and opulent arrangements, let alone their very special take on harmonies. How would you describe the specific sound of Dr. Buzzard?

Well I think I just nailed it! Biba Disco. Glamourous, modern, jazzy, definitely new world or, if you like, Creole – a blending of African and European that could only have happened in New York.

Do you think that this sound helped the songs to be catchy and complex at the same time? Would their songs have worked as well with a different sound?

Probably not. I can’t really imagine the lyrics in another type of sound – it’s all too perfect as it is. The music needs the lyrics as much as the lyrics need the music.

Apart from all these very efficient ingredients, we should not forget about the vocal arrangements, which are really wonderful. Is Cory Daye and the way she interacts with the background singers the perfect match for the songs?

The vocal arrangements are a triumph of artistry. I love how Cory Daye’s vocals are slightly off sometimes and the backing vocals and leads are so dreamy and light even when Cory Daye is singing things like “They’re all the same, all the sluts and the saints”. There’s a gentleness and a great deal of humour in the arrangement of the vocals.

What do you think of the albums successors, “Meets King Pennett” and “Goes To Washington“? Did Dr. Buzzard manage to hold up the debut’s credentials?

I actually don’t own either of those follow ups. I know most of the “King Pennett” album and I think it’s great although I believe it was almost too difficult to dance to to be successful in the disco era of 1978 which was much faster and Saturday Night Fever influenced and wasn’t commercially successful. I don’t know the “Goes To Washington” album at all I’m ashamed to say. I guess I hold the first album in such high esteem I didn’t believe it could be bettered so I didn’t want to be disappointed. I will never ever tire of the first album no matter how many times I listen to it.

After that August Darnell and his brother Stony Browder Jr. went separate ways. Darnell formed Kid Creole & The Coconuts and became in-house producer of the seminal New York label ZE Records, and Browder Jr. went on to record the final Dr. Buzzard album “Calling All Beatniks!”, which is generally regarded as an artistic failure. If this is true and looking at Darnell’s success after leaving the band, do you think he was the main creative force behind Dr. Buzzard, or is this unfair?

As I don’t know the “Calling All Beatniks” album it’s hard for me to judge who was the creative force. Really I don’t know. I guess August wrote all the lyrics and he certainly knows how to tell a story in a song – that’s why Kid Creole and the Coconuts were so great because of his unique songwriting. So perhaps it was all down to August…

Apart from Darnell, a few other band members followed to ZE, like Andy Hernandez, who later became Coati Mundi, Don Armando or Mickey Sevilla. Were they trying to finish what they started in a different context?

No, I think they were just continuing their need to produce music and tell stories through music. They broadened the sound taking on different styles of music and I think that a band like the Aural Exciters were just as exciting as Kid Creole.

It is often said that Kid Creole & The Coconuts and other Darnell productions were a lighter version of Dr. Buzzard. Do you think this is true, or were they not really comparable? Is there a consistency?

I wouldn’t say they were lighter. The songwriting for the most part is still solid and there is a wider influence of music – perhaps being a bit more Caribbean sounding.

It speaks for the openmindedness of the New York scene of those years that people like Darnell and Hernandez could share a label with post-punkers like James White or Lydia Lunch. And they even collaborated with each other, in projects like The Aural Exciters. Do you think the former members of Dr. Buzzard welcomed a scene that was not as limited as the one they left behind? How could people with such different backgrounds work so well together?

I think New York was just a creative hot spot and there was an openness and much less musical snobbery that you’d find in the UK at that time so it would be totally natural for those worlds to collide and collaborate with each other.

It is highly unlikely that nowadays, where it is more or less unaffordable to invest so much budget studio time and manpower into the production of an album, something like “Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band” could happen again. Did the recent resurgence of interest in anything disco also mean that there artists that follow their spirit?

If only there were people making music in today’s climate of new disco that had a tenth of the talent that’s on display on this record!

What has Dr. Buzzard taught you? Are they inspiring what you do with Horse Meat Disco for example?

Dr. Buzzard has taught me how to truly love music, how to be in awe of such great musicianship and lyricism and feel wonderful from knowing that it exists in one beautiful, perfectly formed seven track album!

Sounds like me 10/10

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