Tuesday 9 October 2012

BONEY M: Nightflight To Venus

(#200: 9 September 1978, 4 weeks)

Track listing: Nightflight To Venus/Rasputin/Painter Man/He Was A Steppenwolf/King Of The Road/Rivers Of Babylon/Voodoonight/Brown Girl In The Ring/Never Change Lovers In The Middle Of The Night/Heart Of Gold

Although it is a great tradition for European imitators of American music to get it slightly but crucially wrong, such that they accidentally invent something new in the process, I have always felt with German dance music that there is no such thing as an accident, particularly in the seventies; the iciness and detachment seem deliberate, the spaces in arrangement and rhythm as precisely ordered as any mosaic. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how German artists could fashion their own approximations of America; not just Kraftwerk with the Beach Boys or the Stooges, but think of Wim Wenders’ notions as expressed in films such as The American Friend and Hammett, where there are tangible dreams of America but the art itself is distinctly un-American.

When it comes to German dance music of the second half of the seventies, however, there is already The Man-Machine - and Kraftwerk flew Norman Whitfield’s chief engineer from Detroit to Dusseldorf to mix the record – as well as Silver Convention’s Greatest Hits (on, surreally, Warwick Records) and the works passim of the non-German but German-based Giorgio Moroder. So Frank Farian had to pull something really miraculous out of his hat to compete or surpass.

I very much approve of the theory, perhaps partly rooted in na├»ve silliness or ruthlessness, that you could aim a Hoover at the entirety of pop history, suck it up and recycle it after your society’s own fashion. I do admire the idea of the Creation, Roger Miller, Neil Young, Civil War nursery rhymes and The Harder They Come all being separate but linked pieces in the same mammoth jigsaw, even if in practice that means they are all filtered through the same compactor to sound exactly the same.

I just wish Farian had had the nerve to follow this idea through fully, since the first four tracks of the third Boney M album are enough, momentarily, to make us wonder whether something new really is happening. The title track rips off Cozy Powell’s “Dance With The Devil” pretty unashamedly, but what Farian does with the separate elements thereafter is perhaps not paralleled; phased, near-mechanical drums – is it a kit or a machine? – continue pounding out their beat remorselessly, while distant, ghostly vocals peer out of some far-off (or far-out) ether while a Vocoder robot offers bland announcements in the foreground. At one point the keyboards play what might be a slice of Rachmaninov. A fuzzy, doomy rock guitar drops in and out of the mix. We are actually not very far away from the world of Public Image Ltd.; play “Under The House” from Flowers Of Romance and the similarities are catastrophically striking.

The track eventually segues into “Rasputin” with great gusto, and the music’s decisive solemnity – it’s part Santa Esmeralda’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” part Jonathan Richman’s “Egyptian Reggae” – nicely offsets the song’s extreme lyrical silliness, as does the solemn Sam the Eagle narration halfway through (Bill Swisher, the voice of the robot on the title track). On “Painter Man” the beat is so pronounced and the nerve in doing the song so phenomenal one imagines this proto-KLF work of piracy and reinvention is going to pull it off; the voices of Boney M, as such they be, sound confused but determined, clearly not understanding a word of the song, but look, Farian seems to pronounce, see what can be done and what we are daring to do (the woozy guitar coda, cleverly quoting “Mona Lisa”). Perhaps most striking of all is “He Was A Steppenwolf” which, despite further lyrical laxity (“Not very bright at all”), is a thrilling fusion of “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” and “Under The Boardwalk,” in terms of the (possibly synthesised) trumpet and strings running through the song like a reluctant Rhine, and the song’s continued pulling back towards reiteration. The rhythm is chain gang-like, the bass wandering like Peter Hook’s lost uncle, the drums masochistically falling back on the same ritual beat (if nothing else, this track clarifies the musical link between the Stooges’ “We Will Fall” and Joy Division’s “The Eternal”); I note that one of the arrangers is Michael Cretu, from whom we will certainly be hearing again in this tale. Listening to this revelatory music, one can actually understand why Robin Scott was in part inspired by the group to call his own project “M.”

But then, Farian’s nerve fails him; rather like Walker three-quarters of the way into ’Til The Band Comes In, he seems to get tired and opts for the easy route out. With “King Of The Road,” he and Boney M lose me; suddenly we are back in the world of Woolworth’s idea of “disco” and the idea is infinitely superior to the execution (with a lot more ingenuity, it could have served as a parallel to Wenders' movie Kings Of The Road, with its two protagonists driving along the East German border, stopping off at disused or spent old cinemas). Likewise, while I am still tickled by the fact that the fifth best-selling single in Britain is an accidental concept double-A side about slavery, this does not make their “Babylon” or “Brown Girl” anything more than plodding and dull. You begin to wonder what it was people saw in them, a feeling not helped by the sleevenote to the 2007 CD edition of this album, mercifully anonymous but seemingly translated from German into English via BabelFish and clearly the worst sleevenote to a number one album this side of 101 Strings (another German-based concept with which there are certain parallels here): “Even today Boney M. still stands as THE hit formation of the disco era,” “…the group’s fresh pop sound, dazzling costumes and sexy shows,” “The bubbly quartet,” “Boney M. stomped their way through the charts,” “Most Successful Pop Group 1978 in England,” “[Farian’s] mix of Caribbean sounds, hot disco beats and black music elements…” – I could go on, but won’t. Here, after all, is a band made up of Abba’s marionettes, one of whom had the job of miming Farian’s vocals.

Of the other originals, “Voodoonight” is boring and unmemorable, and “Never Change Lovers In The Middle Of The Night,” co-authored by the younger Keith Forsey, disastrously deposits us in the land of bad and interminable jazz-funk (complete with slap bass). Probably the most disappointing factor of this album’s second half is that, for “THE hit formation of the disco era,” the music really has next to nothing to do with disco. Those expecting an opulent, blasphemous discofication of “Heart Of Gold” are in for a major disappointment; perhaps as tired as the listener now is (you can feel the group’s acappella signoff of “And I’m gettin’ old”), they decide to play it straight (like the Seekers might once have done it) and by doing so sound like any old bierkeller band into which you might bump into on a rainy November night in Munich. The Brotherhood of Man’s idea of a “disco bar,” maybe. Silver Convention had better beats and their writers and producers were smart enough to keep words to a minimum. One listen to side three of Donna Summer’s Once Upon A Time or side one of Moroder’s From Here To Eternity is enough to wipe out this record’s second half altogether. “The Model” and “Neon Lights” remain untouched, and untouchable. If only Nightflight To Venus had seen out its original promise, it might have come within touching distance. But because these were such times, I have two more opportunities to make sense of Boney M, and none of Kraftwerk. Perhaps it was a shame that they carried on.