Jul 08

BONEY M – “Rivers Of Babylon”

FT + Popular114 comments • 4,397 views

#423, 13th May 1978

I didn’t know about genre in 1978 but that didn’t mean I couldn’t recognise it, and this fitted into a very particular and not wholly liked one: music you might sing in school assembly. I didn’t need to have read a single Psalm to know that somehow this fitted next to “When I Needed A Neighbour” and “Kum-By-Ya” and “The Ink Is Black” – i.e. “earnest singalong” not “fun singalong” like the soon-to-be-A-side “Brown Girl In The Ring” (which I did like).

And for all that I find this pretty enjoyable I’d still make that distinction, putting “Rivers” into the less fun side of Boney M, certainly compared to almost anything else on Nightflight To Venus – the space disco title track, the gonzo history of “Rasputin”, their finger-poppin’ covers of Roger Miller and Neil Young. “Rivers Of Babylon” slides down easily but lacks the immense entertainment value of the group at their best. From the intro in, though, there’s a sense of comfort and dignity to it carried over from its religious and reggae roots – it’s proof, at least, of Frank Farian’s apparent conviction that everything could be usefully discofied. Why be like Tony Manero and turn dancing into your religion, when actual religion could be as danceable as anything else?

(And this, incidentally, is why I was wrong about “Rivers” at the time and never did sing it that I can recall – its trace lyrical religiosity would have scared off my primary school pop pickers. Animals going in two by two – yeah, no problem, but all this Babylon and Zion stuff was best left well alone.)



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  1. 101
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 31 Dec 2010 #

    And both in St Petersburg, more or less.

  2. 102
    Jimmy the Swede on 31 Dec 2010 #

    …although the manner of Greg’s and Bobby’s passing did differ somewhat.

  3. 103
    lonepilgrim on 31 Dec 2010 #

    You mean they didn’t poison, shoot, stab and drown BF?

    ‘It’s what he would have wanted’

  4. 104
    Erithian on 31 Dec 2010 #

    and as I’ve just mentioned to Waldo, the time between Rasputin’s death and Boney M’s hit of the same name was 61 years – Bobby Farrell’s age when he died. What does it all mean?

  5. 105
    Waldo on 1 Jan 2011 #

    Oh, dear God, it get’s even more terrifying…

    If you match each letter for “Rasputin” and “Bobby Farrell” with its numerical place in the alphabet, they both total 118!!!!

    There’s definitely some strange shit going on here..

  6. 106
    Mark M on 20 Feb 2011 #

    There’s a rather good version of this done at some rasta street gathering in that rather patchy Rocksteady documentary shown on BBC4 recently…

  7. 107
    richard thompson on 13 Aug 2011 #

    Didn’t know this was a psalm back then, truth is stranger than fiction with reference to his death, Boney M still played places like Pontins when I worked there, but Bobby wasn’t with them, he was Boney M in a way

  8. 108
    swanstep on 14 Aug 2011 #

    While Rivers of Babylon is based on a Psalm, the idea that that Psalm is especially comforting is false. Psalm 137 concludes with enslaved-in-Babylon jewish women doing their babylonian masters’ laundry at riverside singing songs of Zion but concluding by warning babylonian women as follows:

    Daughter [of] Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us./Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

    The horror/intensity-of-anger image is actually two-fold:
    1. The enslaved women who are doing your laundry by beating it against rocks, are thinking of beating your infants’ brains out as they do so
    2. The women who are doing your laundry will (eventually and probably sooner rather than later) be providing your child-care (so look out).

    Anyhow, the Rivers of Babylon song in all its forms only uses the first 4 lines of the Psalm 137, avoiding the horror punchline by interpolating a couple of lines from another Psalm.

    I wrote a blogpost a few months ago about the general phenomenon of Nasty Surprises in the Old Testament if anyone’s interested.

  9. 109
    Brendan on 24 Sep 2012 #

    Boney M were the UB40 of their day, reggae for people who hate reggae. This one wasn’t so bad in that respect, but its ubiquity was quite sickening. 5 for me too.

  10. 110
    punctum on 9 Oct 2012 #

    TPL makes it to 200 albums, and this, you lucky people, is the 200th.

  11. 111
    Lena on 8 Jan 2013 #

    TPL makes it to 228 albums and the last on Boney M: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/boney-m-magic-of-boney-m-20-golden-hits.html

    Those of you awaiting excitement at TPL don’t have to wait too much longer…

  12. 112
    punctum on 10 Jan 2013 #

    Subsequent to that comment, however, this is why TPL can’t really continue:


  13. 113
    Tom on 10 Jan 2013 #

    Sorry to hear that Marcello – I’ve thought similar stuff about the singles chart recently and it probably contributed to last year’s slump. (I’ve been tempted by the streaming chart, though.)

  14. 114

    My aim over the early months of 2013 at hashtag tashlan is actually (among other things) to draw attention to various overlooked writing projects, very much including Marcello and Lena’s* — and perhaps get some energised debate and discussion going? I certainly have an interesting cross-ply of readers there, if I can get the crackle of their varied perspectives to spark at one another. I won’t say hope is not lost — I’m not sure if I’m “of note” any longer, and of course there’s no such thing as influence! — but maybe watch this space.

    *I’m also writing about Boney M at the moment, but unfortunately (in this particular regard) it’s for a dead-tree publication which won’t generate links, and may take an age to surface in the readable world.

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