Keith Totley is a decent man. My line manager at the National Coal Board offices on Queen Street, he’s a couple of years older than me, a Wednesday-ite from Wombwell. Plain-speaking and stolid, he’s proper Yorkshire.
“Of all those ships Roger” he says to me, uncomprehending, on Wednesday morning “why did they have to hit the Sheffield?”
The mood at work is sombre. The phones, normally ringing out with unemployed shipbuilders from the North East wondering when their redundancy monies will be paid, have gone quiet. Sheffield folk are proud of their city and, by extension, the warship that carries the name. I’ve had pints at the ‘Shiny Sheff’ pub up at Lodgemoor. This is the second vessel to be christened HMS Sheffield; both had fittings and components made here in the city. The first ‘Sheffield’ served with distinction in the second world war. Her namesake is the first Royal Navy ship to be lost since 1945.
20 sailors killed. Just a couple of days after the sinking of the General Belgrano, with the loss of over 300 lives. Until now, this remote conflict, 8,000 miles from Sheffield, had felt like a long-distance board game - ‘Risk’ or ‘Battleship’, take your pick. Suddenly it feels very real and close to home. The mood at work and, it seems, the country, is changing. Rally round the flag. Now would not be a good time for me to say, at work, that I believe in the gospel according to Edwin Starr. I’m a pacifist. Say patriot to me and I’ll think of a missile defence system. The only Jingo I can relate to is a song by Santana.
Music. It always comes back to music for me. Walking around Southey Green, listening to Grandmaster Flash on my Walkman, a steel city Walter Mitty with a New York soundtrack.
The same tape includes another NYC group - Kid Creole and The Coconuts. Under the influence of the NME and local taste-makers Disco John and Martin Fry, I’ve invested heavily in the whole ultra-hip, ZE Records’ ‘Mutant Disco’ sound. I bought the compilation album of the same name last year, plus albums from Was (Not Was), Lydia Lunch and the second Kid Creole album. I picked up Coati Mundi’s ‘Me No Pop I’ on 12” import from Rough Trade in 1980. Cut me and I bleed Checker Cab yellow.
Kid Creole and The Coconuts arrive in Sheffield on the second night of an eleven-date UK tour - Leeds last night, London tomorrow. They have a brand new album in the shops, the cover of the NME and a weight of expectation from the record companies and music media that would buckle the Williamsburg Bridge. They need a hit. Originally slated as a Kid Creole solo album, ‘Tropical Gangsters’ is more pop than the sophisticated Latino/Caribbean hustle of their first two vinyl outings. A little less Tito Puente, a lot more Top Of The Pops.
It’s almost a year since I was last at the Poly for a gig. A flat evening attending Richard Strange’s ‘Cabaret Futura’ multi-media happening, supported by the cloying Eddie and Sunshine. It’s much busier this evening, but there are some of the same themes: escapism, playing dress-up and aspirations to decadent sophistication, presented tonight on a Cecil B. DeMille budget. Get your gladrags on Gertrude, this is a soirée.
There are thirteen people on stage tonight. The last time I saw anywhere near this many musicians playing together live was the Hallé Orchestra at the City Hall in 1979. I’ve never seen a big band like this in full flight. I might’ve seen old footage of Count Basie or Cab Calloway on a jazz documentary on telly, but this is altogether more exciting. There’s a lot to take in.
They have an emcee, Bongo Eddie Magiz, in a white sailor suit, who does what I imagine Bobby Byrd did for James Brown, he gets the crowd hyped up. Bongo Eddie introduces Coati Mundi, a Spanish Harlem Peter Lorre to The Kid’s Bronx Bogey; then the sexy, all-singing, all-dancing, Coconut girls; and finally the main man himself Kid Creole. Or Thomas August Darnell Browder at the New York DMV. Formerly of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and then Machine (they of the immortal ‘There But For The Grace Of God Go I’), The Kid/August is 31-years-old. If this is his Last Chance Saloon, we’re all invited to what turns out to be a heck of a party.
“Good evening, Sheffield. New York City calling long distance.”
These are astounding players. A three-man horn section (Who knew that a trombone could sound so fruity?) plus a relentless rhythm guitarist, a Rocket 88 piano player, a tear-the-roof-off-the-sucker drummer and, in Carol Colman, a funky fulcrum on bass guitar. Coati Mundi shows he is more than The Kid’s comedy foil when he deftly doubles up on vibes and flute. American musicians are generally considered to be better technically than their UK counterparts. I have this baseball-battered into me over the course of the next two hours. The musicians, seated behind Cotton Club-style bandstands, are all dressed as jungle explorers in pith helmets. The dress code is appropriate, because this is going to be an adventure.
The three Coconuts, led and humorously choreographed by Darnell’s wife Andrea, are dressed like they just stepped off the Pan Am Clipper from Rio. The trio provide a chic chorus to The Kid’s brags and Coati Mundi’s grifting. I’m out with my girlfriend Ava tonight. She, in common with many other young, club-going women in Sheffield, is still coming to terms with the fact that two of her contemporaries, plucked from the dance floor at the Crazy Daisy by Phil Oakey, have just had the UK Christmas number one with “Don’t You Want Me”. If she can’t be in The Human League, Ava has enough in common with the girls on-stage - blonde, leggy zygonauts all - to fancy her chances as a Coconut.
The set list draws heavily on the second album, which explored Latin Music’s many streams and tributaries: Salsa, Bachata, Merengue. Much of the subtlety of the recordings is sacrificed tonight for an Amazonian deluge of four-on-the-floor big beat. This suits the Sheffield crowd - out to strike a pose at the Poly or for a bit of a bop on a Sunday night - most of whom think that merengue is something you put on lemon pie. They play new single “I’m A Wonderful Thing, Baby”, currently hanging by a could-go-either-way thread at 75 in the singles chart and another catchy new tune called “Stool Pigeon”.
The show has everything: solo spots, costume changes, theatrical set pieces, audience call and response. There’s talk in the music press about American impresario Joseph Papp producing a musical based on these characters and songs, and I can imagine it working. However, all the theatrics would be empty if every gesture, from the cat-walk shimmy shimmy of the Coconuts to the Marx Brothers-inspired capering of The Kid and Coati Mundi, wasn’t underpinned by the magnificent, abundantly talented, turn-on-a-dime team of musicians laying down the groove behind them.
Good timing is such a crucial part in the success of any band. Dressing up is back in style in the spring of 1982, thanks to the New Romantics. Their colourful, escapist allure is a gilded contrast to the grim news of conflict in faraway places and strikes at home. Kid Creole and The Coconuts, with their immaculate American pedigree, are in the right place to lead the glamorous, exotic Latin adjunct to this scene, which also includes Funkapolitan, Blue Rondo à la Turk and Weekend. Building on the success of this first UK tour, the record company promo team and sales force do their thing; “I’m A Wonderful Thing, Baby” climbs into the UK Top 10 by the middle of June.
Coincidentally, around the same time, and at the other end of the world, the British task force do their thing and the Argentine forces on the Falklands surrender. 255 British servicemen and 746 of their Argentine adversaries were killed in action. Back at work, the phones are ringing again, more men from the Clyde, Solent, Tyne and Wear seeking reassurance about their redundancy payments. By the end of the year, British Shipbuilders will have closed half of its merchant shipbuilding capacity.
Sheffield, and indeed the rest of the UK, fell heavily for Kid Creole and The Coconuts. Follow up singles “Stool Pigeon” and “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy” followed “I’m A Wonderful Thing, Baby” into the Top 10 of the singles chart. The “Tropical Gangsters” album peaked at number 3 on the UK chart in August 1982. Quick to make Margaritas while the sun was shining, the band returned to Sheffield three more times in 1982, once in October plus back-to-back Christmas shows, all at the Lyceum Theatre.
At one of the Lyceum gigs, August Darnell met, and eventually married Worksop lass Karen Smallwood. They lived in the Sheffield suburb of Dinnington in the Nineties. As cultural dislocation goes, that’s up there with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry living in a Swiss ski-resort for me.
Thank you to some helpful folk in the Sheffield History Facebook community for useful input on HMS Sheffield.
Thank you also to Nigel Floyd.
A Spotify playlist compiled from the official UK charts, the NME Independent charts and other new releases from May 1982.