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. 31
    Pete on 31 Jul 2008 #

    Anyone who has ever seen Touching The Void will be well aware of the levels of hell Brown Girl In The Ring can conjure up.

    Rivers Of Babylon I remember being a very insipid number one for me, flat compared to other Boney M tracks and I understand Tom “serious” tag. And I have never liked “swayalongs”.

  2. 32
    rosie on 31 Jul 2008 #

    Actually what RoB reminds me of most of all is spending long tedious hours scraping wallpaper from the walls and ghastly (chocolate brown in the dining room, shocking pink in the sitting room) paintwork from the skirtings and radiators. The house in Hull really did need a going over and as a pair of teachers we couldn’t afford to have anybody do it for us, so evenings and weekends it was roll up the sleeves and scrape away. It took forever.

    Something else of cultural significance was going on at the same time. Doing jobs like that has a habit (for me anyway) of etching into the permanent memory things on the radio in the background. And my abiding memory of that time is of being up a stepladder, scraper in hand, while the second episode of the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I knew nothing about it and I’d not heard the first episode. I’d been listening vaguely, mildly amused, when they were about to pass through hyperspace and the immortal lines were heard for the first time:

    FP: It’s unpleasantly like being drunk
    AD: What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?
    FP: Ask a glass of water

    Ah, it was a vintage year, was 1978…

  3. 33
    LondonLee on 31 Jul 2008 #

    Did Tom go to some modern progressive school or something where they didn’t sing proper, good old-fashioned English Christian hymns like “All Things Bright and Beautiful” – “When I Needed A Neighbour” and “Kum-By-Ya” all sounds a bit hippy and trendy vicar to me.

    Or had they knocked all that religious stuff on the head in state schools by the late 70s? No wonder the country went to the dogs. Harumph.

  4. 34
    Tom on 31 Jul 2008 #

    #33 Yes!! Well in the case of Eastwick First School anyway. I have a strong memory of a “nativity play” in which I played A PANDA because the animals were multicultural. This was obviously 100000x better than playing a donkey or shepherd so hurrah for trendy teaching.

    A couple of hymns survived – “All Things Bright And Beautiful” was one. “Lord Of The Dance” was big too, which was modern but definitely overtly religious.

  5. 35
    koganbot on 31 Jul 2008 #

    I love Boney M; once described them as the world’s greatest wedding band; also, the aural equivalent of motel art. So their thing wasn’t necessarily delivering the deep meaning of song lyrics. (Did an excellent job conveying the anguish and optimism of “Calendar Song,” however, whose lyrics went, “January February March April May June July August September October November December.”) However, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” is there for anyone who wants it. Think this song is a 7 whereas some of the others would be 9 or 10, and Melodians’ original would be a 9 or 10 as well.

    But strange thing about any version is that none comes close to the virulence of the King James Version on the printed page, given that the song leaves out the most pointed lines. Bible at its most Old Testament, if you ask me, and its most Punk Rock:

    For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song
    And they that wasted us required of us mirth
    Saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
    How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

    and later

    Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem
    Who said, “Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.”
    O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed
    Happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
    Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

    (Whenever I think of “they that wasted us required of us mirth,” I want to break into my gleeful mashup of the Ramones’ “We’re A Happy Family” and DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem.”)

  6. 36
    vinylscot on 31 Jul 2008 #

    “The Calendar Song” – aaargh. A hit over here for the Trinidad Oil Company. Despite its simplicity (it’s apparently a traditional song), it required three people to perfect the arrangement, including someone named Bolan (I presume not Marc)!

  7. 37
    koganbot on 31 Jul 2008 #

    Nightflight To Venus isn’t nearly my favorite Boney M. They – or he, since this really was Farian’s baby, but I don’t think he could have done nearly as well without Liz Mitchell’s gorgeously clear and empty vocals on most of the leads – got even stranger and more varied as they went along. For you record collectors out there, my favorite is the Singapore cassette version of Best Of Boney M Vol. 2, which has a great combination of Christmas carols and Spanish desperados and kids’ tunes and Bahama Mamas. But my favorite nonhits album would be Black Stars And Endless Seas Blows Against The Empire Their Satanic Majesties Request, er… 10,000 Lightyears, at least the first half, which constitutes a concept (half) album, wherein they leave Babylon and ascend to the intergalactic diaspora to the accompaniment of eerily beautiful synthesizer scrapings. Then on Side Two they cover Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy.”

  8. 38
    jeff w on 31 Jul 2008 #

    #20 – “he fits my crown” is the second line. Even I can’t remember how the rest of it goes though.

    I love Boney M in general, and both sides of this single are good. But since it’s getting late and we have a long weekend to chew on this thread, I’ll come back tomorrow with more considered thoughts.

  9. 39
    koganbot on 31 Jul 2008 #

    Fact* that I don’t know what to make of: Boney M tended to record in a higher pitch as they went along, owing to their largest fanbase being in India and Southeast Asia.

    USA was possibly the only country in the world where Boney M were not highly successful. I’d bought the “Rivers of Babylon”/”Brown Girl In The Ring” single back in the day (prefer the A side, myself), but didn’t get into them in a big way until Xmas 1990, when my friend Patty got me their Big Hits Vol. 2 (High Tide and Holi-Holiday) on a three-for-a-dollar cassette in Chinatown. She’d just returned from Harare, where she’d worked in a Mexican restaurant and hung around rastas, and everyone listened to Boney M. So she and I were walking along upper Market talking about Boney M when we ran into her friend Jessica, 19-years-old, of Indian descent but who was actually raised in Nairobi by her immigrant parents. “Oh yes,” said Jessica, “My parents were always listening to Boney M when I was growing up.”

    *By “fact” I mean this is what someone told me once.

  10. 40
    o sobek! on 31 Jul 2008 #

    like boney m, liked milli vanilli alot more. they’re never as good as i remember them being but never nearly as bad as the rep (i’ve probably said the same thing twice there). the only ppl i know who know boney m are either older gay men or eastern european – none of these ppl care for the ‘gospel’ one. i like it, it’s not as ridiculous as the more famous boney m but its failure is more modest. 5 seems right. the best place it’s ever sounded to my ears is the snatch in the intro to osymyso’s ‘intro inspection’.

  11. 41
    Jonathan Bogart on 1 Aug 2008 #

    Being an unwashed American, all the Boney M I know is their turn on “Mary’s Boy Child,” which gets some play round Christmastime on in-store PA systems.

    I do know the original of this song, however, and when listening to/watching BBC sitcoms was several times surprised to learn that “Rivers Of Babylon” was the kind of cultural touchstone where all you had to do was say the name to get a laugh. My relief was great upon learning that the sceptered isle’s comedy writers weren’t taking the piss out of the Melodians this whole time.

  12. 42
    Waldo on 1 Aug 2008 #

    Bad Bunny Rising, Jonathan!

  13. 43
    Jonathan Bogart on 2 Aug 2008 #

    Mm. Suppose I should take a look at the list some time.

  14. 44
    mike on 4 Aug 2008 #

    I had a conflicted reaction towards Boney M. On the one hand: gormless, witless lowest-common-denominator trash for the ZOMBIEFIED BRAINDEAD MASSES, blah blah blah. (And my, what QED smirks there were to be had when said Braindead Masses accidentally bought the single twice over.) But on the other hand, there was something so fundamentally weird about the Boney M canon that I couldn’t help suspecting some hidden conceptualist masterplan lurking behind it all. Theirs was such a surreal sort of dumbness; not a million miles removed from early Ramones (or indeed from Scooter).

    As for Rivers/Brown Girl: I vastly preferred “Brown Girl” then, and I vastly prefer “Rivers” now (even when played back to back against the Melodians version). As ever, there’s something appealingly blank about the vocal delivery, but there’s also a certain winning sweetness – and even a certain dignity and sincerity? – in Liz Mitchell’s vocals.

    (And as for Penny Reel’s NME feature, which seemed to portray Mitchell as some kind of conscious sister on a righteous mission, MAN did that ever confuse me. I might have to finally yield to the inevitable and crack open a subscription to Rock’s Back Pages, just so that I can re-evaluate it.)

    I also rather liked their juddering 1980s electro-pop re-working of “Dizzy”. (“DEE! EYE! ZED-ZED WHY!”)

  15. 45
    DJ Punctum on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Stop this Ramones/Scooter blaspheming madness!

    To me their dumbness was strictly in the Norman Wisdom pratfall sense but then in 1978 I was more interested in the “stoopid” faux-commoditisation of Boney M’s seldom acknowledged mirror image Devo.

  16. 46
    Billy Smart on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Oh, I forgot… When I saw them in 1997, their set included a cover version of ‘No Woman No Cry’, performed ‘Rivers Of Babylon’-style – with added rapping.

  17. 47
    DJ Punctum on 4 Aug 2008 #

    In the style of recent chart toppers…ouch, Spoiler Bunny, get off me Millett’s shoes!

  18. 48
    mike on 4 Aug 2008 #

    OK, I’ll bite – how were Devo the mirror image of Boney M? (Spring 1978 was all about Devo & Pere Ubu for me; I was obsessed with both.)

  19. 49
    DJ Punctum on 4 Aug 2008 #

    Mainly I think because they seemed to welcome slavery and automation as a means of forgetting about themselves (see also Drabble’s The Ice Age which was out the year before) plus they had the irony get-out clause inbuilt as opposed to being appended GP-style decades later. Whereas things like “Rasputin” were apt for Boney M since no matter what they sung about they sounded like a broken Kremlin machine.

  20. 50
    mike on 11 Aug 2008 #

    Our man with the newly purchased Rock’s Back Pages subscription reports: “Rivers Of Babylon” also got to Number One in Jamaica, staying at the top for six weeks.

    Yes, the Boney M version. Yes, I was quite surprised too.

    Penny Reel’s NME feature on the band (as archived on Rock’s Back Pages) is well worth a re-read, as is Vivien Goldman’s subsequent feature for Sounds. “Rivers” was already one of Liz Mitchell’s favourite songs, and Liz really emerges very well from both pieces. As for Frank Farian, it turns out that he was quite the studio obsessive, spending many days working on the choral intro for “Rivers”…

    I am now plucking up the courage to return to Sinead O’Connor’s 2007 cover version, the memory of which is not a pleasant one.

  21. 51
    Erithian on 11 Aug 2008 #

    Thinking back to the all-time top 100 show they did on Channel 4 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the UK singles chart (as mentioned by Tom in the “Mississippi” thread). Of the top 100 best-selling singles of all time in the UK, the years with the most entries on the list are 1984 and 1997 with seven each – i.e the two biggest charity singles ever plus six others. 1984’s entries are placed at 2, 7, 13, 22, 26, 34 and 92 while 1997’s are at number 1, 15, 17, 28, 42, 60 and 85.

    However, the 12-month period beginning with the arrival of “Rivers of Babylon” at number one eclipses them both. 8 of the next 14 number ones, indeed 7 of the next 11, made the all-time top 100 sellers. No bunny-baiting names, but they are placed 5, 6, 10, 21, 33, 50, 53 and 87. In other words, we’re entering one of the big three sales spikes in the history of the UK chart. And it’s the period of unrest and the Winter of Discontent as well. Wonder what the connection was, besides two major cultural phenomena (Boney M and Grease mania)?

  22. 52
    mike on 11 Aug 2008 #

    One possible contributory factor: the twin forces of new wave and disco had revitalised the concept of the single, and so a lot of creative energy was being focussed on the singles market. From where I was sitting, the singles chart certainly started to feel more important again during 1978, in a way that it hadn’t since the death of glam in 1974. Radio One was also riding the crest of a wave, its confidence possibly boosted by its move to a stronger frequency (from 247 to 275/285).

  23. 53
    Waldo on 11 Aug 2008 #

    The downside to the Radio One frequency change was the jingle that the jocks made to advertise it:

    “Two seven five and two eight five,
    Two seven five and two eight five,
    We’re on a new…wave…band,
    (We’re still the best in the land)
    We’re on a new…wave…band…”

    This was crap in the first place. Made worse, I feel, by DLT’s low-pitched growls. They should have hired Neil Sedaka again, a true Waldo hate figure.

  24. 54
    DJ Punctum on 11 Aug 2008 #

    OK, let’s rise to the bait: what has poor innocent Neil Sedaka – whose seventies comeback owed much to his 1973 backing band being, essentially, 10cc – ever done to you Waldo?

    I don’t remember those R1 jingles at all and it’s probably a good thing; the hazard of getting them all off the peg from whatever company in Texas (?) did them is still evident from time to time, particularly the recent Radio 2 one for two chaps named “Mork Redd-Klaff” and “Stoo-irt Micownay” which was quickly withdrawn after fervent protests from the two broadcasters in question.

  25. 55
    mike on 11 Aug 2008 #

    Oh, but the “New Wave Band” (geddit?!) jingle was a special home-grown affair. I have a hunch that Peter Powell was its creative mastermind. It was even released as a single…

  26. 56
    DJ Punctum on 11 Aug 2008 #

    I remember the “punk” jingle for top Tory poptimist Mike Read, viz. “Mike Read, Mike Read, 275 an’ 285” which he was still playing in 1985…

  27. 57
    Mark G on 11 Aug 2008 #


    I have the complete long version of that!

    “Hi, this is Chris Sievey of the Freshies, and you’re listening to Mike Read…”
    (music continues, the instrumental version of “Megastore”, with the new lyric)
    (Which then cuts to the acapella coda)

    Needless to say, the last bit was looped and played twice only…

  28. 58
    mike on 11 Aug 2008 #

    And who could forget Charlie Dore’s personalised “Pilot of the Airwaves” jingles? (“DJ Andy Peebles, here is my request…”)

  29. 59
    DJ Punctum on 11 Aug 2008 #

    Radio 1 certainly couldn’t forget it, despite its lowly chart position.

    Ah yes, DJ Me Andy Peebles, as in “hello, it’s me Andy Peebles, I often wonder how hard the unemployed really try to find work…”

  30. 60
    Waldo on 11 Aug 2008 #

    #54 – NS is a syruppy, smug, girly, tosser and “Laughter In The Rain” is the product of the fucking Devil.

    Are we clear?

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