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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Across The Pond and Beyond - Boney M.

Sometimes your first experience with a band doesn't exactly start on a pleasant note.

Some of these experiences can include the following.

Supposing that your first experience with a band is at some sort of rock festival or concert and the band that is set to perform is a no-show. Or worse, they show up, perform a sub-par set, get into a fight with the crowd on stage, and end up cutting their set short about half an hour after they began. That wouldn't be such a great first impression, would it? I'm sure we've all seen some instances of this in our lives at some point.

Or maybe your first experience with a band came on the radio. Suppose you hear a song for the first time that initially you loved, and wanted to hear over and over again. And then by the time month number four on the charts rolls around, you'd do anything to escape the song because you've heard it way too much. Even worse, that song becomes a one-hit-wonder, so until the end of time, that group will become synonymous with that song that you never want to hear again. I imagine that would paint a rather dismal picture of that band for you.

Or suppose you've been interested in following a band or an artist by watching an interview on a talk show that they were guests on, and when you tune in, you find that the band members are so full of themselves and are quite rude in answering the interviewers questions that it totally turns you off to them forever. That was my experience with a certain female singer a few years back.  Who that singer is...I'll never tell. At least on this blog publicly.

And then there's my first experience with a group that I will be talking about in this blog today. There is a pleasant twist to this whole tale that before I'm finished with this entry will hopefully make you rethink your first impressions of the group the same way that I had.

Before I continue this story, keep in mind two things. One, I completely missed the whole disco phase in music that lasted between 1975 and 1980. I wasn't born until 1981, a year in which the heartbeat of disco had since flatlined. And two, although our subject had made their debut in the mid-70s, their material wasn't played a whole lot here in Canada, so that will explain why my first experience with this band happened a little over two decades since their first hit.

Our story begins in the year 2000. At that time, I was in my final year of high school, and one of the second semester classes I took was a course on world history. One of the main reasons why I took that class was mostly for the same reasons why I took almost every single history course my school had to offer. I was very good in those classes. I would often get high grades in those classes as opposed to math and science, in which I nearly failed.

I deal better with language than I do with numbers, which is probably why I'm blogging instead of developing computer programs.

Anyway, one of the units in my World History class was on Russian history. It was neat to learn about all the figures that were a part of that history, and I admit, I learned quite a bit.

One of the figures that we learned about was the Russian Orthodox Monk, Grigori Rasputin. And Rasputin's legacy on the world is very much hotly debated, with some feeling that he was a saintly visionary, and others feeling that he was nothing more than a controversial religious charlatan. But this blog entry isn't about THIS Rasputin, just because I think I would probably bore all of you to tears by making this a historical biography piece.

Here's where things got interesting. When we got into discussion about the figure of Rasputin, our teacher casually remarked that the Russian figure was the subject of a song that was released in the late 1970s. Naturally, most of us were in disbelief, as all of us who were in the room (with exception to our teacher) had missed the 1970s entirely, and didn't think it possible.

That is until the next day when our teacher (or maybe it was a student who had brought it memory is a bit fuzzy in that regard) brought in a copy of the song in question, and played it on the tape player that we had in our classroom.

The name of the group singing 'Rasputin'? A group known as Boney M.

And boy oh boy did the kids in my class laugh at the song. I mean, forget the fact that it was a disco sensation that all of us had missed...the fact that a pop group chose to record a hit based on a historical figure that may or may not have been loved by the people? Talk about cheese!

Even I admit to laughing along with the rest of the kids in my class as the song played. It was by far one of the most bizarre songs that I had heard. Of course the reason behind why our teacher played it in the first place was because if you really did listen to the song's lyrics, it did seem to jive with some of the stories associated with Rasputin during his life and times. It included references to his alleged healing of a hemophiliac, alleged that he was the paramour of Alexandra Fyodorovna, and how the song suggests that Rasputin's political power overshadowed the Tsar's. I've included a copy of the lyrics to the song in THIS LINK so you can check it out and compare it for yourselves.

So, there you have it. My first experience with Boney M. And the impression that they left me with at first was that they were a goofy disco band, and that they recorded some rather cheesy and cringe-worthy songs.

The end.

Or, is it?

Turns out that there's a lot more to the band than that.

The band started off as the brainstorm idea of German record producer Frank Farian. During December of 1974, he had dabbled as a singer-songwriter, and recorded a song entitled 'Baby Do You Wanna Bump?'

Not exactly the best title for a song, but it was 70s dance music, so it sort of fit.

Problem was that at the time, Farian didn't exactly have the right look to become a recording artist. Instead what he did was launch a search to form a quartet named Boney M. (the name was actually a pseudonym that Farian himself had used), and this quartet would perform in his place. So, basically what you have is a band lip-synching to someone else's voice.

I guess this is also a good time to admit that Frank Farian later worked with groups such as Black Box and Milli Vanilli...both groups having had lip-synching scandals themselves (especially with Milli Vanilli in particular).

After several instances of instability in regards to finding the perfect faces that would form the group Boney M, the group's final roster included Jamaicans Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett, Bobby Farrell from Aruba, and Maizie Williams from Montserrat.

But it's been widely reported that of these four, only Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett actually sang on the recordings. The others just lip-synched to Farian's pre-recordings. Though in this interview that Mitchell did with the BBC, she claimed that while she, Barrett, and Farian were responsible for the vast majority of the recorded vocals, Bobby Farrell and Maizie Williams had sang live in concert performances in the band's later reincarnations.

Boney M. managed to get their first big break in September 1976 when they appeared on the German television show Musikladen (think a German version of American Bandstand), and debuted their single 'Daddy Cool'...a single which immediately topped the German music charts. The song would also top the charts in Switzerland, Austria, Sweden, and Norway. It also managed to hit the top 10 in the UK, which is where most of the band's success would come from. Between 1976 and 1981, Boney M. had several top 40 hits in Europe, and despite the fact that it was public knowledge that only half the band sang on the recordings, still managed to have a huge following. But then when Farrell left the band in 1981 and was replaced by Reggie Tsiboe, their commercial success took a huge hit. By early 1986, Farian had lost interest in promoting the Boney M brand (evidenced by the fact that he would start grooming his new pet project Milli Vanilli just two years later).

The original line-up would reunite in late 1988 to record one final album together before tensions between band members would lead to another break-up.

Over the next few years, the individual members continued to perform as solo artists (which strangely enough, all four members used the Boney M. name, as a court ruling in 1990 stated that all four members had the right to use it).

Today, the three surviving members of Boney M. are still performing today. Barrett, Mitchell, and Williams are alive and well, and still sing under the Boney M. name. Sadly, Bobby Farrell passed away at the age of 61 on December 30, 2010.

So, now that you know what the band is all about (and coincidentally, you can also visit the band's official website at for more information (which is where the bulk of the research for this blog topic came from), now we'll get to my change of opinion.

Initially, I thought that the band was nothing more than disco fluff and largely forgettable, and I didn't think that they were capable of releasing a decent song, especially given the fact that their founder was involved in the Milli Vanilli scandal of 1990.

But then I changed my mind.

It was during the Christmas season, and while I make a habit of making fun of Christmas songs, and openly being a fan of bastardizing the lyrics of said songs, there's a few songs that I really enjoy.

One of these songs was a song called Mary Boy Child. I'm far from being a religious man, but something about that song really seems to make me get into the Christmas spirit. As you may know, the original version of the song was recorded in the mid-1950s by calypso singer Harry Belafonte. But there was another version recorded by a group that had a mild disco beat and was predominately sung by women. I knew that I had liked it, but for whatever reason didn't know who had sang it.

Until a couple of years ago when I looked it up online after hearing it during Christmas 2009 at work. Imagine my surprise when I found out who sang it!

ARTIST: Boney M.
SONG: Mary Boy Child/Oh My Lord
ALBUM: Christmas Album
DATE RELEASED: November 27, 1978

I know. Shocker, wasn't it?

Had I known that Boney M. was responsible for this cover version, maybe I wouldn't have been so hard on them for Rasputin.

I suppose if anyone had said to you that they were going to record a disco version of a Christmas carol, they might have looked at you funny. And I would have been one of those people. There was no way that disco and Christmas could blend together in perfect harmony.

That is until Boney M proved me wrong.

I mean, yeah, the video's kind of corny to look at, but that was hardly the band's fault. It was 1978. All performers had a distinct look to them back then. But if you get the images of the video out of your mind, it really was a great renditions of what is now a Christmas classic. And while it didn't even hit the Top 40 here in North America, it's widely considered to be one of Boney M's most famous recordings.

And yeah, I'm not afraid or ashamed to admit that I love it.

I guess the point I'm trying to make here is that as important as first impressions can be to someone, sometimes the follow-up can be just as important...and had I continued to dismiss Boney M. as some novelty band that didn't even sing their own stuff, I may not have come across Mary Boy Child, which is what I would consider to be one of their best songs.

But my opinion of that female singer who I mentioned above in the opening of the blog still stands. I may reveal to you who she is...for a price. ;)

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