(#228: 17 May 1980, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Rivers of Babylon/Daddy Cool/Sunny/Belfast/El Lute/No Woman No Cry/Rasputin/Painter Man/Ma Baker/Gotta Go Home/My Friend Jack/I See A Boat On The River/Brown Girl In The Ring/Mary’s Boy Child/Bahama Mama/I’m Born Again/Oceans Of Fantasy/Ribbons Of Blue/Still I’m Sad/Hooray Hooray, It’s a Holi-Holiday
“Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” – David A. Johnston, May 18, 1980
There comes a time; there most certainly comes a time. Observers knew something was going to happen, how big it was going to be was up to speculation. When it happened, it was the biggest explosion ever.
All spring the tension has been building here, in the album charts of 1980 and it is at this moment that tension is at its highest. The faces on the cover are full of a kind of defiant knowing, a sort of blasé sense of having done everything they’ve been asked to do. They peer through the large cut-out M within a shiny gold cover as if to defy anything or anyone to stop them. They seem oblivious to the tension that has been building; or perhaps they sense it and don’t care, either way. We entertain, they seem to say, and here in these 20 songs we are going to entertain you and you’ll like it. The man seems to have a look of vague fear about him though; as if he can sense what the others can’t, that their days of huge singles and hit albums is about to end, in the UK at least.
Part of their defiance can be traced back to the fact they aren’t actually the band, as such. Boney M is Frank Farian’s creation and his enterprise; they are singing with him, in the majority of these songs, not vice versa. Performance shy, he retreated to the studio and gathered musicians and performers together to make Boney M something of a weird monstrous thing far more than an actual band*. Under the cover of disco – a genre where performers and producers sometimes collaborated and sometimes didn’t – they had their second hit, “Sunny” – yes, that Bobby Hebb standard of thankfulness and redemption – and turned it into a European après-ski lounge party song, something harking back to 1969 and the thick veneer of sophistication and placelessness that makes the lyrics of the song seem so…incongruous. Farian, though, clearly loves incongruity as that is what he, and hence Boney M, return to time and again.
I have seen various words being used to describe Boney M – camp, kitsch, empty. Those are fine words as far as they go, but as apt as they are, they somehow don’t seem right. In the face of what is to come, Boney M are more antiquated than anything else; “My Friend Jack” and “Painter Man” hark again back to the 60s and Freakbeat, to action and vivacity and a throwing away of niceness and conceits. The Creation’s “How Does It Feel To Feel” is loud and questioning and sensational; Boney M answer, we are here to make you happy, our feelings do not matter. And so in listening I feel nothing but a kind of puzzlement – who could like any of this? Even if it’s pure showbiz, especially since the man (Bobby Farrell) doesn’t even sing on any of the recordings, well, are feelings required or necessary?
I don’t mean to make a special case here; but from what I can tell Boney M’s lack of success in the US was due to that very emptiness and odd kind-of-but-not-really sophistication that in the hypermodern new-singles-every-week New York-to-LA may have seemed novel for the moment but then had to make way for everyone from the elegant and transporting Chic to the wonderfully over-the-top Village People to the awe-inspiring work of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer, not to mention fellow Germans Kraftwerk. Boney M hit the disco market just as it was about to produce some of the best music of the decade, and once Saturday Night Fever hit, Boney M were all but forgotten in the US; their fame lay elsewhere, and so I never heard them at the time. (“Rivers of Babylon” was something of a hit in the summer of ’78, but I don’t really remember it as Grease was the new craze of the moment.)
Thus I have no nostalgia for this music or band whatsoever, which I think tends to soften any opinions of them now; if a bunch of West Indians led by a German wanted to do songs about criminals (“Ma Baker” “Rasputin” – both of which I’ll get to at Music Sounds Better With Two - well then why not? Especially when the lyrics are…well…strained: Rasputin was loved by the “Moscow chicks” and he was “a cat who was really gone” and was “Russia’s greatest love machine”; Ma Baker “knew how to die.” (“It was their last foray” when she died, of course.) Both of these songs look backwards to another time, just as the Freakbeat songs harken back to Farian’s youth; there is a kind of gloopy quality here that I can’t define, but it makes me squirmy, even if I think of these songs as celebrations of anti-heroes.
“Rivers of Babylon” and “Brown Girl In The Ring” strike me as songs from the Club Med for Newly Unindentured Employees, with all that implies. There is a joy here – particularly in the latter song, but I can’t help but think that it’s a measured, rationed, limited happiness, even if lead singer Liz Mitchell seems to be actually engaged in the song, and not merely singing it. The very neatness and tidiness of these songs makes them far more suitable for kids than adults but everyone bought them. The first is an anti-slavery song, still done best I feel by The Melodians, and the latter is a traditional playground song about courting that Farian bought the rights to (it’s credited to him but he certainly didn’t write it – arranged it, more likely). “Rivers of Babylon” has a kind of pathos of the exile to it, a kind of we’re-West-Indians-in-Germany-homesickness that makes me wonder if the band themselves suggested they do these songs, as opposed to Frank Farian telling them what to sing; I would get a bit itchy if I was told that I had to sing “When the wicked carried us away in captivity/Required from us a song/Now how shall we sing the lord’s song in a strange land” in a way that is hard to place but is nevertheless there. With The Melodians, you know they know what they are singing about; but in disco (not that this is a very danceable song) it becomes a nice sing-a-long that just happens to be about slavery, and about being asked to sing, and worrying about whether the words will “be acceptable” to more than one master. It is a complex song to say the least, with all kinds of implications, and that it was such a huge hit in the UK probably says a lot, including how even slavery could be looked back upon as something from the past that could be put through the Boney M system and be…a hit.
For those of you who think I may be taking all this a bit too seriously, well, I can’t back away from such an important song and say it’s just music to dance and get drunk to; that is done by Boney M far better in “Gotta Go Home” or “Daddy Cool” – both actual disco songs, neither of which has much meaning and are actually the better for that. (“Gotta Go Home” is the basis for Duck Sauce’s immortal “Barbra Streisand” sans steel drums.) “Daddy Cool” has Farian’s vaguely creepy voice interjecting as the band sing of their subject, and it’s barely a song, more a jam, something to exercise to in the morning – a blast of energy while your attentions are elsewhere, or maybe nowhere.
When it comes to actual reggae, their version of “No Woman No Cry” is…uh, well as my father would say, it doesn’t swing. In fact, that pretty much hits the head of why Boney M didn’t make it in the US – Americans like songs that swing, and Boney M don’t. Putting in House-anticipating piano tinkles modernizes it somewhat, but again it comes off as something less than the original, not even that amusing or puzzling. It’s just there, as are “Mary’s Boy Child” (also a huge hit in the UK, though I have noticed that it has fallen in popularity and in this past Christmas season I didn’t hear it anywhere, nor did it re-enter the chart as so many Christmas standards do) and “El Lute.” Both are about heroes this time, not villains, but there is a dispassion here that reaches ABBA-making –Voulez-Vous levels of iciness. “El Lute” is supposed to be a song about a Robin Hood-style escaped criminal but there’s no drama and it may as well be about a wandering minstrel who got lost; “Mary’s Boy Child” is done in a way that flattens the arrival of Jesus and makes it about as exciting as remembering to set the alarm or wind the clock. “I See A Boat On The River” sets a new bar on a song not making any sense (“this song is shit” as Marcello said succinctly) and “I’m Born Again” is a “Mull of Kintyre” for those who wanted Boney M to branch into country music, complete with a guitar solo and fervent Moral Majority lyrics. "Belfast" seems to think that city is a country and I honestly can't figure out what the point here is - surely not to make light of The Troubles, but to, um, make them danceable somehow? (I will eventually get to an album with a much better song about Belfast at the end of this decade; for now let us ponder what, if anything, the citizens of Belfast thought of this song.)
Which is to say, there really isn’t a lot of joy on this album; “Bahama Mama” is about a woman who mysteriously “has the biggest house in town” and lots of “honeycake” but can’t get no satisfaction; “Still I’m Sad” (originally written and performed by The Yardbirds) is about a bottomless sorrow that sounds like an imminent psychotic breakdown and Boney M play it about as straight as possible**, but you wonder, where is the fun? “Ribbons of Blue” is a country ballad complete with steel pedal guitar, but it’s not fun either – what, “Oceans of Fantasy”? That is not fun, that is truly disturbing, especially once you realize it’s Frank Farian doing all the singing, including the falsetto – there in his underwater world of otherness, he is alone, in this fantastical place that perhaps only he really inhabits. It is as inward-looking a song as any sensitive singer-songwriter could do, once you know it is him, that he is in his own ocean. After all this, “Hooray Hooray It’s a Holi-holiday” is something of a relief, if only because Boney M are back at the playground, back to mischief and a sense, even if it is a little laboured, of fun.
The overall effect of this album was that it went on for too long (I wonder how many who bought it listened to it obediently and how many skipped the slow songs for the fast ones) and that Farian’s voice – always there in the background, if not the foreground – grated on my nerves and started to creep me out. (Dieter Mier of Yello – who gained popularity in the UK just as Boney M’s disappeared – doesn’t bother me half as much, but that because the music is better and funnier.) It got to be like looking at someone else’s interminable slide show of their vacation; meaningful for them (the UK public) but distant for me, me back in the US anticipating the explosion, the eruption. It is manufactured nostalgia, a kind of production that maybe only could have happened at this time, when the best of disco could connect you to the past meaningfully (I Remember Yesterday by Donna Summer did this, as did Chic’s invocation of dance contests of the 30s) and look confidently to the future (“I Feel Love”; “Trans-Europe Express” and “Good Times”). But Frank Farian wanted the sounds of today to apply to the world of yesterday that had no bearing on anything, or too much bearing to be held, or no point or plot. I wasn’t moved by any of these songs for the most part; Joe Strummer looked in vain for his “roots rock rebel” at Hammersmith Palais, but I don’t even need that here – just a good record of songs that don’t sound so dictated, so alienated in a way from their roots. Disco at its best was/is elevating, a force for breaking down barriers and uniting people on the dance floor. But I don’t feel elevated by Boney M, or even very amused, as I guess people feel these days; I note these songs, but I can’t do much else with them.
At this time the tension is too great to be relieved by a look back at what was already passé (as Boney M were about to become in the UK – in Europe they continued to have hit singles and albums).
At this time, known to almost no one at first, one man dies – not in the supersonic din of the Mount St. Helen’s eruption, but at home, quietly, in England. The reverberations of his death are felt throughout the rest of this blog, though not immediately. Days after the eruption, scientists were allowed to go to the site and see what had happened, but had to be evacuated as their compasses spun this way and that; and so music in the UK will spin this way and that in the confusion of what has happened before settling back to normal.
It is customary in a time of confusion to go back to what you know; and the UK public –whether they knew about Ian Curtis or not – went back to what they knew, or so they thought. And for the next album, they turned to someone who was on his own, for the first time in quite a while.
*Vince Aletti called them “bizarre.” But he also found them reminiscent (in November 1976) of Silver Convention, not to mention Donna Summer. They are only mentioned once in his fine anthology The Disco Files 1973-1978.
**I should note here that one of the crew of musicians Farian employed was one Michael Cretu, who went on later to form Enigma – “Still I’m Sad” sounds as much like Enigma as Boney M, really.