15
Aug 08

BONEY M – “Mary’s Boy Child/Oh My Lord”

FT + Popular69 comments • 7,056 views

#430, 9th December 1978

Christmas is a time for the kiddies, but I can’t say Boney M made much impression on this five-year-old: “Mary’s Boy Child” was never quite a first-division carol for me, and as for Frank Farian’s unique contribution to the mythology of Christmas, “Oh My Lord” just didn’t register.

Much though I’d love to be writing a hearty defence of Boney M here, this second No.1 shows them at their worst: self-editing doesn’t seem to be a Farian skill and at almost six minutes this is cripplingly long. It’s a frothy bubblebath at first – the girls’ creamy vocals and the rippling steel drums ushering you into a grotto festooned with Christmas tack – but by the end the water’s getting cold and your toes are looking horribly crinkly. The problem is that the group do the entire of “Mary’s Boy Child” – not in itself a short song – and then go into the “oh my lord” routine. Everyone seems to be on autopilot, and the vim which makes their good songs good is mostly absent (Poor old Bobby Farrell looks unimaginably bored in the video). Go back and listen to “Rasputin” instead.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Mark G on 15 Aug 2008 #

    Hmm, this one is so long, because it’s for playing in shops, at home during christmas opening presents, in the background.

    So, could this be the first ambient number one?

  2. 2
    Billy Smart on 15 Aug 2008 #

    This song does work a lot better when shown in extract form on Top Of The Pops 2 on Christmas Eve.

  3. 3
    Tom on 15 Aug 2008 #

    Re #2 – yes, I think it would pick up a couple more points if I wasn’t reviewing it in mid-August!

  4. 4
    Billy Smart on 15 Aug 2008 #

    It’s use in a deleted scene on the first series of ‘Extras (as recited by Ricky Gervais as Andy Millman when asked to recite his favourite psalm at a Catholic prayer meeting that he has attended under false pretenses to impress a woman) is very funny, though.

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 15 Aug 2008 #

    Their wholly unChristmassy Roman look on that sleeve is endearing, too!

  6. 6
    Dan R on 15 Aug 2008 #

    In my primary school, in the summer term of 1978, our head teacher Miss Barbier read Psalm 137 and then played its then-latest derivative, ‘Rivers of Babylon’. We were as amazed as if she’d produced an egg from her ear. She tried to pull the same trick at Christmas, with ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ but we were wise to it then and furthermore we resented this single – somewhat irrationally – for holding Blondie’s ‘Hanging on the Telephone’ off the #1 spot (which it did, along with three other singles, something we didn’t seem to notice).

    Did contemporary pop songs make it into anyone else’s primary school curriculum? We actually SANG what I now know to be Crosby, Stills & Nash’s ‘Our House’ and Harry Belafonte’s ‘Kingston Town’* in an assembly, for all the world as if they were hymns. In another class we were encouraged to make up additional lyrics to ‘Lily the Pink’. One teacher brought in a guitar to my junior school and sung ‘Morning has Broken’ in the Cat Stevens version and I remember one occasion where we did music & movement to the strains of ‘Eye Level’ by the Simon Park Orchestra.

    Looking back, I guess the 1970s was an era when they were trying to move away from using sheer liturgy in school assemblies and trying various new things: either using more secular folk hymns (‘Kumbaya’), spirituals that spoke to the racial mix of the school community (‘Standing in the Need of Prayer’), or indeed simply making diversions into morally upstanding but secular songs – I distinctly remember singing many many times the strange song ‘When a Knight Won His Spurs in the Stories of Old…’, a song of chivalric heroism which I can’t say truly spoke to our group of multicultural ten-year-olds.

    When I got to my secondary school, there was no such infilitration, except for the soi-disant groovy English teacher playing … oh… a song I can’t yet mention… but when a significant figure in pop history died…

    * Who would have thought that Harry Belafonte would have such an impact in a late-70s inner London primary school?

  7. 7
    Erithian on 15 Aug 2008 #

    Another Christmas song where I make all kinds of allowances. I love the harmonies on the acapella intro, the vibe is lovely and it does meld well with a totally different song which sounds like a bridge that was written specially for it (I’m guessing that wasn’t a Bobby Farrell vocal, is tat right?). Overall it’s commercial tack, but it’s quality commercial tack and there’s always room for that at Christmas. But bloody hell, is it really almost six minutes long?

    In my end-of-year points chart Boney M were chart champions of ’78 ahead of Travolta and Newton-John, with Darts in third.

    C4 Top 100 Watch – “Mary’s Boy Child-Oh My Lord” is the tenth biggest-selling single of all time in the UK. “Rivers of Babylon” is number 5, “You’re The One That I Want” number 6 and “Summer Nights” number 21. So four of the last eight number ones are in the all-time top 25 sellers. All those people buying Grease and Boney M instead of, ooh, cleaning the streets, burying the dead etc. (Marcello, that’s a gag not a political statement, so calm down!)

  8. 8
    Tom on 15 Aug 2008 #

    #6 – yes my Rivers of Babylon review touched on this – there was a definite trend in the 70s towards less hymn-y and more secular songs. Kum By Yah, When I Needed A Neighbour, The Ink Is Black The Page Is White. We had the Lily The Pink thing too. We had “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” too, which is surely very off-message given its origins.

  9. 9
    DJ Punctum on 15 Aug 2008 #

    With advance orders of half a million, it was a shoo-in for the 1978 Christmas number one slot; the second time this song had become the Christmas number one, and the second instance of the same song reaching number one in two different versions at two completely different times. On the evidence of this and “Rivers Of Babylon,” dispassionate observers might be led to believe that Boney M were a kind of disco Seekers; morals plus electricity. But they were always even drearier than normal when playing it straight, and it was rather offputting viewing token male member and sometime DJ Bobby Farrell (who played no part in the actual records) camping it up in a Santa Claus outfit amidst tinsel snow while solemnly miming “There is hope for all to find peace.”

    There isn’t much to add except that “Mary’s Boy Child” and its unnecessary tacked-on sequel (though nowhere near as tacky as another comparable mangling in the noughties) is sung and produced in the precise manner “Rivers Of Babylon” was sung and produced – glutinous, bland, bloodless and ultimately meaningless. “They realised what they had (until the sun falls from the sky).” Their chart positions began to tail off markedly over the following year – as actual, undiluted disco really made its mark on the charts – but still the camp quotient has preserved selective amnesia on the part of their followers, such that a musical based on their catalogue, Daddy Cool, played briefly in the West End, because hey, they were a laugh when we were at school, except they weren’t, and I’m making no allowances here because this is pop music and not the sodding DHSS. But more urgent observations on camp (in) pop to follow imminently.

  10. 10
    Erithian on 15 Aug 2008 #

    We had a pretty cool music teacher, Mr Fisher, who looked like he’d rather be in a prog band, judging by the Floyd poster in the music room. (He told the choir once that he’d cue them in with a nod of his head “like Sammy McIlroy scoring United’s fifth goal against Arsenal tomorrow”.) Consequently we got some contemporary musical items as well as a jazzed-up version of “O Jesus I Have Promised”. Occasionally we got to bring in our own selections, which had to be vetted by the Head. I got them to play “Jesus” from Queen’s first album at one assembly, an account of a miracle which you can (and some of the sixth form did) headbang to.

    But “Within You Without You” from Sgt Pepper was vetoed…

  11. 11
    Dan R on 15 Aug 2008 #

    The ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ thing – which is actually a kind of prophylaxis against getting called on your taste – is surely about kitsch rather than camp?

  12. 12
    Billy Smart on 15 Aug 2008 #

    Wasn’t the Boney M package musical a hybrid of their back catalogue being interpreted in an ‘urban’ style? (It starred someone who used to be in So Solid Crew)

    Which sounds unlikely to either satisfy hen parties or lure the kids to the West End to me.

  13. 13
    Billy Smart on 15 Aug 2008 #

    The Brooklands Primary School songbook 1977/78 included; Lily The Pink, Yellow Submarine, Puff The Magic Dragon… and – more surprisingly – Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and New York Mining Disaster.

  14. 14
    DJ Punctum on 15 Aug 2008 #

    That probably explains why it didn’t last long.

  15. 15

    Tom is there a way of translating young sir 3w!ng’s response to each and every Popular entry into a mark? We’re passing over the speed-bumps of a (specific historical) generational shift in perspective anyway, but there’s also always the issue of generational perspective in the sense of the Seven Ages of Pop Man — tho i only know it in respect of the Seven GUILTS of Pop Man; when yr a bolshy teen you will always hate (ie fear) the music you like aged 8-12; when raising kids yrself — or this age — yr attitude to teen music is VERY complex; everything you liked yr first-year at college is RUBBISH; you WILL reach an age when new music is just not consequential, and you can pretend this is to do with the MUSIC if you like!

    anyway i vote yr offspring be a subject of important scientific experiment

  16. 16
    Dan R on 15 Aug 2008 #

    Yes! Yes! Experiment on your children!

    One of the recipients of my compilation CDs regularly reports back what his two girls, aged 11 and 13, think of the contents. It’s oddly mortifying when they turn their nose up at things I love.

  17. 17
    The Lurker on 15 Aug 2008 #

    I’m dimly aware of singing Mary’s Boy Child at school at some point. I certainly remember singing Blowing in the Wind in assembly at my CofE First school, which seems quite radical in retrospect; Sloop John B at prep school; and also singing When a Child Is Born in a school concert (in which it was my role to do the spoken bit!). In all cases it was only years after that I heard the originals – probably a decade or more in the case of Boney M.

  18. 18
    DJ Punctum on 15 Aug 2008 #

    a) as a bolshy teen I didn’t stop loving Carla Bley or Robert Wyatt or Tim Buckley or other top tunesmiths I dug between ’72-6;

    b) n/a.

    c) everything I liked in my first year at college – i.e. GOLDEN AGE OF NEW POP BEST YEAR FOR MUSIC EVER (viz. Sep ’81-June ’82) – is still and will always be CLASSIQUE.

    d) if I reach an age when new music is just not consequential then it will be my final age.

  19. 19
    DJ Punctum on 15 Aug 2008 #

    also re. experiments on offspring:
    a) alec guinness last ten days etc.
    b) spoiler bunny

  20. 20
    Dan R on 15 Aug 2008 #

    #13

    Oh yes, we sung ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ too. And, now that I think of it, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, in the Weavers version (the younger kids just sang ‘a-wim-a-way’).

    A friend of mine once told me his school sung ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ by Bachman Turner Overdrive in morning assembly, which seems most improbable.

  21. 21
    DJ Punctum on 15 Aug 2008 #

    Perhaps they sung it very quietly so the headmaster wouldn’t hear.

  22. 22
    Dan R on 15 Aug 2008 #

    Like when we all hummed the Star Wars theme in church and the vicar didn’t know where it was coming from. Good days.

  23. 23
    rosie on 15 Aug 2008 #

    Dan R @ no 6: When a knight won his spurs was a staple of my primary school assemblies in the early 60s, so not a totally 1970s phenomenon then. It was written by “Jan Struther” (aka Joyce Anstruther), better-known as the author of wartime melodrama Mrs Miniver.

    But yes, as a teacher I can confirm that by the late 70s even the token enthusiasm for hymn-singing in assembly had evaporated – even for those hymns that we always sang with gusto because they were damned good tunes. Swerving towards the topic, I also think that Mary’s Boy Child is a nice song to sing in the bath, or to keep me distracted while running, in the winter when the seasonal bug bites me. So I have no real axe to grind either with this or with Harry Belafonte’s 1950s version.

    Yes, quite possibly the first number number one designed for playing in the background in supermarkets and department stores. Heavens, it’s mid-August already, they’ll be starting all over again in about three weeks. In 1978 the season was mercifully a lot shorter.

    Nothing much more to say about this really. It did its job and it doesn’t make me wince. Beyond that I couldn’t care less. Bring on Debbie I say!

  24. 24
    DJ Punctum on 15 Aug 2008 #

    Can’t do that – “Tammy” only made #2 in 1957.

  25. 25
    Conrad on 15 Aug 2008 #

    I really don’t like this song. It’s slick, functional and not remotely interesting or engaging. I can listen to Rasputin or Sunny, but this is a step too far.

    18 c – this time period (Hand Held to Videotheque) is almost exactly the period I would chose as the GREATEST IN THE HISTORY OF POP MUSIC EVER. I adored what was happening at the time, and I appreciate it even better now. There was never a time when I didn’t see this as Pop’s Golden Age, regardless of the music I was listening to (or playing).
    But I’m getting ahead of myself. We have a very exciting year to come right now.

  26. 26
    DJ Punctum on 15 Aug 2008 #

    My favourite Popular year as well! :-))))

  27. 27
    CarsmileSteve on 15 Aug 2008 #

    I can confirm that “When a Knight…” (oh, what a knight!) was still being sung in primary schools until the mid 80s at least. i always kind of liked it…

    another early memory for me this one, singing along to MBC with my cousins into a tape recorder my grandparents had just bought…

  28. 28
    DJ Punctum on 15 Aug 2008 #

    I never did any singing at school. Due to my non-denominational status I was excused from hymns and I managed to avoid all musicals, house shows etc.

  29. 29
    Tom on 15 Aug 2008 #

    Re #15 – calibrating it into a mark may prove difficult, but from the next #1 I will at least play them to him.

  30. 30
    Tom on 15 Aug 2008 #

    Oh, unless you meant translating MY OWN reaction as a young’un into a mark! Which I could also do (this one wd have got 4 back then I guess).

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