The party line on the year 1978 is that it was merely the Year After the Year Punk Broke, and plenty of fantastic records released that year back up that story. The Clash and Buzzcocks set a solid base line with their first US releases, and the Ramones churned out their 4th album within the space of two years. Meanwhile X-Ray Spex, Wire, Pere Ubu, and countless others tweaked the punk formula toward more bombastic and/or artistic ends. Even the artists who couldn’t be considered punk fell under punk’s influence—so indelible records like Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model and Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! are forever intertwined with the movement. Yet, even with all of the fantastic music in and around punk rock in 1978, the year is much richer than it seems on paper. Disco and funk thrived in the late 70’s—with Parliament/Funkadelic putting out some of their last great records and Chic beginning to hit their stride. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Culture all kept reggae’s fires burning, while Lee Perry and King Tubby pushed dub to some of its highest peaks. Metal began to evolve into glam rock—but in a totally credible way—in the hands of Van Halen and Japan. The Cars, The Police and Cheap Trick released near-perfect pop rock albums. Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra laid the early foundation for house music, Brian Eno pretty much invented ambient music, and Steve Reich took minimalism in classical music to its most beautiful extreme. On top of all that, tucked away in the corners of 1978’s archives, unassociated with any of the various styles flourishing around them, are astonishing records like Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Meets King Pennet.
Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band formed in the Bronx during the same time that hip-hop’s forefathers were figuring out how to chop up the breaks, but where Kool Herc and his disciples utilized the era’s funk and disco to push music deliberately into the future, Dr. Buzzard’s August Darnell looked for inspiration squarely in the past—namely in the big band sound and in extroverted, multicultural band leaders like Cab Callaway. Known these days mostly as the inspiration behind Ghostface Killah’s “Cherchez la Ghost” and M.I.A.’s “Sunshowers,” their 1976 self-titled debut found an audience among disco fans—though hardly any of the music has the driving, four-on-the-floor beat to it that makes disco tick—and they even walked away with a gold record. Whereas most retro-obsessed outfits tend to over-dramatize the most easily identifiable aspects of the sound (in this case, think Squirrel Nut Zippers) and rest on catchy choruses, Dr. Buzzard’s opted instead for complex melodies and playing it straight. By the release of King Pennet, they’d become even more inscrutable. “I’ll Always Have a Smile For You” and album opener “Mister Love” rank among their best work, but there’s no obvious single on the album, and it sold poorly. A complete anachronism at the time of its release, as well as in retrospect, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Meets King Pennet always seemed destined to be a historical footnote, but—with its complex and rewarding tunes, the gently enthusiastic vocals by Cory Daye, and Darnell’s knack for exquisite, horn-laden composition—it’s ripe for reconsideration.
-Martin Brown, 2009