Jul 08

BONEY M – “Rivers Of Babylon”

FT + Popular114 comments • 5,185 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. 1
    Tom on 31 Jul 2008 #

    BTW, I’m off up North tomorrow briefly, so it’s not likely there’ll be anything up before Monday or Tuesday. Make the Boney M material last :)

  2. 2
    SteveM on 31 Jul 2008 #

    #1 when I was born – could’ve been worse I suppose. Some of their songs actually sound pretty decent in production terms, enriching the general carnival mood tho I find pretty much all of them in their relatively less successful hits ‘Rasputin’, ‘Sunny’, ‘Ma Baker’ and maybe one or two others – but not here. I’d give it a 4. Funny that they seemed to do better when their titles had more direct religious connotations (unless ‘Daddy Cool’ was their nickname for God).

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    Waldo on 31 Jul 2008 #

    These two tracks were released separately. First ROB, a cover of the Melodians’ classic Rasta anthem, which I remember being played everywhere in my area of South London back in the day, went effortlessly to the top and then was flipped and BGITR got up a head of steam in its own right and went to number two. There is no question that many people bought the same disc twice. Both sides were of worth but I get the impression that you either get it or you don’t and that only my own upbringing in an immigrant stronghold enabled me not to be troubled by the perceived slavery aspect of both songs and ROB in particular, which I gather provided an element of discomfort in some quarters.

    One thing about Bonny M, a peculiar bunch indeed. I have no hesitation in sponsoring “Rasputin” as their finest hour. The arrangement was, as Zara Philips would say, “amaaazzzing!” and the end line was just great. This involved the guy growling out: “Oh, those Russssiannns!”. I can recall DLT playing this soon after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. He waited for that end line and then growled back “You can say that again!”, which I think was probably right.

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    rosie on 31 Jul 2008 #

    Wasn’t it a double A-side then? Regardless of what Guinness says, because we know that Guinness has been wrong before.

    Of course, in my ignorance of these matters I may be hallucinating, but it seems to me that both sides got about equal radio play, or at least Brown Girl in the Ring got somewhat more. And if the record company later switched sides, at they are wont to do. then BGITR is at least a de facto number one. This is speculation because it can’t be proven, but I have a strong hunch that Rivers of Babylon sold on the strength of BGITR.

    Anyway, for me Rivers is pleasant but unexceptional. Brown Girl is great fun – a song that goes with children’s playground so it should be – and uplifting. I’d give the complete package a 7.

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    scott on 31 Jul 2008 #

    I’m apparently out of step here: this is easily my favourite BM track (also their only American Top 40 hit, I think) just as “Night Fever” is easily my fave BG track. I love the (apparent) effortlessness of both (you used the word “glide” in your “Night Fever” review which seems just right). There’s a wide open exuberance in “Rivers,” mostly in the chorus vocals, the slight stiffness of which is softened up considerably by the underpin of… marimbas? For some reason, I play this (in my head, on my iPod) alongside the Dixie Cups’s “Chapel of Love.” (Granted, I will argue with no one about how it still somewhat pales alongside the original but only because that’s one of the most gorgeous male vocal records ever made.)

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    Tom on 31 Jul 2008 #

    My understanding is that this was never a double A side, but as Waldo says a flipped single whose sides counted as separate hits. If it IS a double A Side then I’d have given it a 6 I think.

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    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 31 Jul 2008 #

    waldo’s right, it was definitely released A/B then flipped and re-released B/A — there was mocking discussion of this fact at the time (did anyone else ever pull this move off? it is awesome cheeky!)

    i utterly love both sides: also — as i’ve posted before in various places — i loved loved loved penny reel’s nme piece on BM, titled “By the Rivers of Babbacombe” (penny is one of the reasons i became a rockwriter)

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    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 31 Jul 2008 #

    (contrarian pop historian chuck eddy argues that boney’s auteur LP masterpiece is boonoonoonoos, rather than nightflight to venus: i only have it on weedy mp3s, which may not do it justice)

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    DJ Punctum on 31 Jul 2008 #

    Someone here previously noticed that there was something of the church, and even of the slaves’ chorus from Nabucco, about “Israelites”; yet nearly a decade down the line, firmly into the era of Marley, here we find spiritual suffering reconverted into a Victorian hymn stranded amidst the debris of an inadequate package holiday. “Rivers Of Babylon” was orignally sung by the Melodians (and produced by the late, great Leslie Kong) and appears on the soundtrack to The Harder They Come. The song laments slavery and wonders how worship and real selves can be reclaimed (“Now, how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”). So they sing and they chant, but the subtexts and encrypted codes are clear for all who know them, or wish to know them (“Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts/Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight” – and remember “Grapevine”).

    Boney M continue to provide a salutary reminder of the fact that, although there is such a thing as camp, it often coexists with another thing called crap. Put together by German producer Frank Farian – also the man behind Milli Vanilli, whom I am very pleased that we won’t have to tackle – doubtless with an envious eye on Moroder and Summer, Boney M’s five-year run of hits does bear a residual strangeness of Americanism transported, re-implanted in Europe and incompletely translated back into the original language, not a million miles away conceptually from Leone’s Westerns. But where Once Upon A Time In The West is a work of art (albeit one bearing an enormous wink), the same cannot be said of Boney M. Though their catalogue encompassed a wide range of topics, from Prohibition gangsters (“Ma Baker”) to the Russian Revolution (“Rasputin”) via, if you will, the Troubles (“Belfast”) and even taking in a questionable sideline in ’60s avant-Mod/psych covers (“Painter Man,” “My Friend Jack”), all their records sounded like spatulas extracted from the same bland broth, and their unquestioned success was a depressing drag on the general musical progress being made elsewhere at that time. Unfortunately for blinkered “poptimists,” a lyric such as “Ra-Ra-Rasput-een/Russia’s greatest love mach-een/It was a shame how he carried on” demonstrates nothing more than the narrow line which separates ironic pre-postmodern commentary from a clumsy and idiotic lyric.

    Their two number ones, in contrast, showed them playing it straight. The low-key humming and river/seagull sound effects which open “Babylon” give an odd premonition of the later Clash, but very quickly the performance turns into spirituals as Demis Roussos might have warbled them, and there is something rather offensive about this particular attempt to make a theme park out of pain, humiliation and repression, with every rough edge or hint to actual emotion being ironed out with ruthless and efficient steam pouts.

    The record’s B-side “Brown Girl In The Ring” was a similar attempt to make light of serious issues, adapting as it did an old post-Civil War plantation nursery rhyme about poverty and oppression. Yet it went down just as well, if not better, with consumers; following “Babylon”‘s run at number one, DJs began to flip the record over and play the B-side, with the result that the record eventually began to climb the chart again as a double A-side (with “Brown Girl In The Ring” eventually listed first) and went all the way back up to number two. A sizeable number of purchasers did not notice that they had bought the same record twice, with the result that it stayed on the chart for 40 weeks and became, by default, the biggest-selling single of 1978 as a direct result of public stupidity. Such an “achievement” perhaps saddens me more than the imminent appearance of, well we all know what of.

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    scott on 31 Jul 2008 #

    re: a theme park out of pain, humiliation and repression…”

    That’s a good definition of an awful lot of pop music!

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    Tom on 31 Jul 2008 #

    re #8: I’ve made goggle eyes at the cover of Love For Sale, but the only BM albs I own are Nightflight and The Magic Of…

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    Lena on 31 Jul 2008 #

    I can’t remember when/if I first heard this before I heard the original on the fine Groove Yard compilation; sometimes I like cover versions more than the originals, but not in this case. The original, just for the record (so to speak – what a nice label!):


    (I’ve never heard “Brown Girl In The Ring” in any form, btw.)

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    Erithian on 31 Jul 2008 #

    Re the chart run: I’d always seen it as a double-A where, to begin with, “ROB” got the lion’s share of the airplay as “Mull of Kintyre” had; but as it slipped down the chart “BGITR” started to get some as well. The twist came when one week the single slipped down only two places from 18 to 20, went back up to 18 the next week and within a month was going (IIRC) 6-5-4-3-2. It could have been the oddest chart run in history, especially if they’d gone one further. Six years later there was a similar reverse when a single went out as far as 31 before climbing again and making number 2, purely on revived public interest due to the advance publicity for the follow-up, which was ironically the one that stopped the first single going back all the way – the act had the top 2 to themselves. And the bunny-baiting stops here.

    On the song itself – I admired it for the atmospheric buildup and the clarity of the vocal performance, but eventually it did outstay its welcome a little. One of the ‘M’s most credible records though.

    And DJP, as for making a “theme park out of pain, humiliation and repression”, wouldn’t you say in another context that that’s their history and they’re entitled to do what they want with it? (Speaking of the band themselves rather than Frank Farian, of course – but they didn’t stand in his way exactly.)

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    DJ Punctum on 31 Jul 2008 #

    Yes. I wouldn’t say it.

    I doubt call centre workers stand in the way of their supervisors either.

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    vinylscot on 31 Jul 2008 #

    By this time, I was DJ’ing with a small mobile disco, doing scout halls, wedding receptions and 21st birthday parties throughout the south of Glasgow.

    As the a-side of this (ROB) was such a dirge, many mobile DJs flipped it, almost as soon as it was released, and well before the radio DJs started doing so. We had expected something more dancefloor friendly from Boney M, and BGITR definitely went down better with the party crowd.

    The Melodians “original” was obviously far better, but was not itelf a particularly good example of the “reggae gospel” genre. However Boney M’s version was sickeningly saccharine sweet, almost a caricature, and I could imagine people being offended by it, if they had a mind to do so.

    It didn’t even stand out on the “Nightflight to Venus” album, where it sounded rather insipid beside some of the bigger productions on that album.

    ROB was also probably helped by once-in-a-blue-moon record buyers, aunties and grannies who “approved” of it because it was based on a psalm, and enjoyed its simple unthreatening charms.

    I wonder if the record company paired the songs together, ready to flip it if ROB didn’t catch on. Otherwise, it could have been a waste of a damn good track, had BGITR remained in b-side obscurity.

    However, it’s not the worst Boney M song ever – that must surely be “Hooray Hooray It’s A Holi- Holiday” with its terrible hi-de-hi-de-hos and cringeworthy kazoo-like noises.

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    DJ Punctum on 31 Jul 2008 #

    In the end there’s not much difference between this and Motherhood of Bran. Insipid, offensively inoffensive shit made for and bought by retards.

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    DJ Punctum on 31 Jul 2008 #

    Number Two Watch: curiously, “Night Fever” continued to sit at #2 for three weeks, followed by “The Boy From New York City” by Darts for one week.

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    lockedintheattic on 31 Jul 2008 #

    I still find it hard to believe that this is the only other 2-million selling non-charity single in the UK (the other of course being Mull of Kintyre).

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    DJ Punctum on 31 Jul 2008 #

    Especially since there’s a borderline third one.

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    Dan R on 31 Jul 2008 #

    “Insipid, offensively inoffensive shit made for and bought by retards”

    Well, it sure seems to have offended somebody. And people buy records for all sorts of reasons. It doesn’t add to the store of human understanding to generalise so casually about people’s musical experiences, particularly not to refer to them as retards.

    I’m not greatly fussed about either side/disc of this two-song set, though I agree with most of the other posters in favouring Brown Girl over Rivers of Babylon. The latter is soured by the memory of headmistress Miss Barbier playing this in school assembly in a misguided attempt to show that either she or christianity was very cool and worth taking seriously. I quite like the middle-eight though I am haunted by another parasitical intertext, the Barron Knights version (‘there’s a dentist in Birmingham / where we sat down’ etc.).

    I think ‘Painter Man’ is Boney M’s finest moment, a rather exciting, spacious record, whose cryptic and elliptical lyric chimes well with the frictionless, meaningless session-musician feel of the music.

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    DJ Punctum on 31 Jul 2008 #

    (sausage duly swallows the bait)

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    DJ Punctum on 31 Jul 2008 #

    Damn I’d forgotten about that gl1b3ral default button!

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    Dan R on 31 Jul 2008 #

    How dare you call me a sausage. As a practising Muslim I take great offence at the … bla bla …

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    DJ Punctum on 31 Jul 2008 #

    I know, it’s reprehensible. I nearly ate my British Gas shares in penance.

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    Dan R on 31 Jul 2008 #

    must … not … rise to it …. it’s irony… it’s just … irony …

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    Matthew H on 31 Jul 2008 #

    After ‘Take A Chance On Me’, the second – and as far as I’m aware, the last – single bought by big sis. I nabbed them both to add to my own shortly-to-launch (well in about four years) singles collection and she immersed herself in the performing arts instead.

    I concur with Tom and others that ‘Brown Girl In The Ring’ is the sugar in the plum.

    Anyone who scoffs at Boney M, just remember – without them we wouldn’t have had, hmmm, Amazulu?

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    DJ Punctum on 31 Jul 2008 #

    You’re struggling, aren’t you?

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    Billy Smart on 31 Jul 2008 #

    Following on from Desmond Dekker at the Lewisham People’s Festival of 1994, Boney M are (I think) only the second act on Popular that I’ve seen live. It was only 25% of Boney M (the woman on the left of the sleeve) but they were still legally trading under their name. The venue was the Students’ Union of Royal Holloway in about February 1997.

    The irritating man (the one who dressed up as Rasputin) had been replaced by an irritating rapper, to make the songs more accessible to us kids.

    “You know the words!” he instructed us.

    Apart from Brown Girl, Rasputin, and Holi-Holiday, most of us didn’t.

    I was with my favourite Drama Department girls. They were trying to work out how many highlights were left to go. They turned to me, as authority on silly old pop songs. “Ma Baker, that’s quite good. Painter Man? Daddy Cool?”. These all drew blanks. Nicky remembered the Christmas one, but they didn’t play that. “Belfast! That goes ‘Bel-fast, Bel-fast. How much longer must the fighting last?'”. This made Nicky laugh. Nicky was also made happy by Brown Girl in the Ring, because she was wearing a brown dress. The girls danced in a ring. The song’s tale of slavery passed us all by.

    Claire was in what couldn’t quite be called a moshpit for such a gig, but had still felt a bit claustrophobic during “That tra-la-la one”. She’d held her nerve by looking at the stage and making eye contact with the older one (the original member), who’s mastery of a crowd was such that Claire was grateful for her for having noticed her.

    The only artistic impression that I took from the show was that the rapper made the songs worse, and that the original member managed to come out of the performance with a surprising amount of dignity, 25 years of doing this sort of thing (including in much better times) clearly having left her with an impressive sense of showmanship, and a shrewd sense of her own value.

    Boney M’s songs have acted as an aide-memoir for this night out with my friends ever since.

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    Kat but logged out innit on 31 Jul 2008 #

    And here we get up to the next entry in Learn To Play Keyboard Book 1! I liked learning to play this one as I knew the tune and was fairly into the whole Jesus business when I was seven, but now I much prefer Rasputin for having a dozen different hooks, each one catchier than the next. In fact I think Rasputin would be in my top 50 songs ever (if not the top 10!).

    I never liked Brown Girl In The Ring though. It made me feel very uneasy, even as a little kid – I imagined a bunch of people pointing and laughing at a poor lass forcibly dressed in a ballet costume (a fate worse than death in my book). Shudder.

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    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 31 Jul 2008 #

    (no.10 billion in a set of projects i will never get round to: rewriting the entire history of music as a function of nothing but the contents of “learn-to-play” books)

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