31
Jul 08

BONEY M – “Rivers Of Babylon”

FT + Popular114 comments • 4,887 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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Comments

  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).

  3. 3
    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.

  4. 4
    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.

  5. 5
    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.)

  6. 6
    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.

  7. 7
    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)

  8. 8
    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)

  9. 9
    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.

  10. 10
    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!

  11. 11
    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…

  12. 12
    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!):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVEKKJOLRww

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

  13. 13
    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.)

  14. 14
    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.

  15. 15
    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.

  16. 16
    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.

  17. 17
    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.

  18. 18
    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).

  19. 19
    DJ Punctum on 31 Jul 2008 #

    Especially since there’s a borderline third one.

  20. 20
    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.

  21. 21
    DJ Punctum on 31 Jul 2008 #

    (sausage duly swallows the bait)

  22. 22
    DJ Punctum on 31 Jul 2008 #

    Damn I’d forgotten about that gl1b3ral default button!

  23. 23
    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 …

  24. 24
    DJ Punctum on 31 Jul 2008 #

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

  25. 25
    Dan R on 31 Jul 2008 #

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

  26. 26
    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?

  27. 27
    DJ Punctum on 31 Jul 2008 #

    You’re struggling, aren’t you?

  28. 28
    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.

  29. 29
    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.

  30. 30
    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)

  31. 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”.

  32. 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…

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.”)

  36. 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)!

  37. 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.”

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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’.

  41. 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.

  42. 42
    Waldo on 1 Aug 2008 #

    Bad Bunny Rising, Jonathan!

  43. 43
    Jonathan Bogart on 2 Aug 2008 #

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

  44. 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!”)

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

  47. 47
    DJ Punctum on 4 Aug 2008 #

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

  48. 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.)

  49. 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.

  50. 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.

  51. 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)?

  52. 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).

  53. 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.

  54. 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.

  55. 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…

  56. 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…

  57. 57
    Mark G on 11 Aug 2008 #

    Ha!

    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…

  58. 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…”)

  59. 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…”

  60. 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?

  61. 61
    Mark G on 11 Aug 2008 #

    Is Neil Sedaka the most gay hetero married bloke?

  62. 62
    DJ Punctum on 11 Aug 2008 #

    No we’re not clear and that level of rudeness is inappropriate for this board.

  63. 63
    Waldo on 12 Aug 2008 #

    # 62 – “No we’re not clear and that level of rudeness is inappropriate for this board”.

    You ARE an odd fellow, Marcello. Full of surprises.

  64. 64
    DJ Punctum on 12 Aug 2008 #

    “I’ll BREAK you, DJ Punctum!”

    “Yeeeeeessss…” (in proto-Paxman voice)

  65. 65
    Waldo on 12 Aug 2008 #

    Waldo (cowering): “Don’t…(snot-filled sob)… REPORT me…!”

    DJP (too smug by half but obviously an idiot because he misses a great chance to escape): “I don’t intend to… You are going to report… YOURSELF!”

  66. 66
    DJ Punctum on 12 Aug 2008 #

    Not the only chance he got to skedaddle either: why doesn’t he just go off in the helicopter with Andre van Wotsit at the end of “It’s Your Funeral” or quietly charter one while the mob’s chasing John Sharp at the end of “Change Of Mind”?

  67. 67
    Waldo on 12 Aug 2008 #

    Absolutely right. Number Six was a fuckwit. He could indeed have scuttled off with Andre but perhaps a bitter and beaten Derren Nesbit would have blown the copter up. “A Change Of Mind”, though, could have had a most pleasant ending for our hero, simply making a bolt for it as the villagers steamed after “unmutual” John Sharpe and grabbing luscious dream-girl Angela on the way, hypnotised, we remember, to obey his every command. Instead he just hides in a bush. This boy’s a fool!

  68. 68
    Mark G on 12 Aug 2008 #

    Bear in mind, number two is ‘only’ the ‘captain’. He is not actually in control. Security would stop him/them.

  69. 69
    rosie on 12 Aug 2008 #

    #63: Oh, well bowled Waldo!

  70. 70
    Waldo on 12 Aug 2008 #

    # 68 – Actually He WAS in control. True, there was a “supervisor” but as was demonstrated in “Hammer Into Anvil”, he and his staff were entirely answerable to Number Two and indeed fearful of him. The supervisor was actually relieved of his duties in this episode. It is unlikely that any of these underlings would have done anything without going through their boss first. Naturally this is just my own interpretation. With such a loopy (though brilliant) series there are more questions than answers. And the more I find out, the less I know. Yeah, the more I find out, the less I know.

  71. 71
    Waldo on 12 Aug 2008 #

    # 69 – Steady, Rosie!

  72. 72
    DJ Punctum on 12 Aug 2008 #

    Did you know about the Patrick Cargill Sings Father Dear Father album?

  73. 73
    Waldo on 12 Aug 2008 #

    No.

    “Did you know about it, Thorpe?”

  74. 74
    DJ Punctum on 12 Aug 2008 #

    “Tell me more, tell me more.”

  75. 75
    wichita lineman on 12 Aug 2008 #

    Re 60-61: When Sounds Of The Sixties was presented by former pop stars in the mid 80s, between the Keith Fordyce and Brian Matthew eras, the dj had to play two of their own hits. Neil Sedaka played four of his own hits because he liked them so very much. He introduced one with something along the lines of “When I wrote this, I knew at once it was an all-time classic, a standard to match the best works of Rodgers and Hart…”

    The song was Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen, which doesn’t even match the worst works of Martin and Coulter.

    Dave Berry, on the other hand, opened his Sounds Of The Sixties with White Light White Heat.

  76. 76
    Waldo on 12 Aug 2008 #

    Marcello, Bun thinks that’s disharmonious. Go to the podium and confess. HE’LL tell you whay to say…

    DJP: “He’s right of course…Quite right…I’m inadequate…INADEQUATE!…”

    Continued in 1967.

  77. 77
    Waldo on 12 Aug 2008 #

    # 75 – Indeed, yes, Lino. “Self-absorbed” could safely be added to my list of why I detest Sedaka:

    “You’ve turned into the cheesiest twat I’ve ever see-en,
    So far up yourself, you queen!”

  78. 78
    DJ Punctum on 12 Aug 2008 #

    He turned you down, right?

  79. 79
    Waldo on 12 Aug 2008 #

    Rumbled.

  80. 80
    wichita lineman on 12 Aug 2008 #

    DJP, please remind us of Neil Sedaka’s TOTP appearance in the nineties. If I remember correctly – in the midst of the breakbeat-techno-pop era – wasn’t he introduced as a “very special guest”? In a horrid jumper, too? Or was I “on drugs”?

  81. 81
    Billy Smart on 12 Aug 2008 #

    Neil Sedaka performed ‘Miracle Song’ on the Top Of The Pops transmitted on the 7th of November 1991. Also in the studio that week were; The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, Crowded House, K Klass, Belinda Carlisle and Control. The hosts were Mark Franklin and Elayne Smith (Who? This was the heyday of anonymous presenters)

    I can remember thinking that The JAMMS were one of the greatest things I’d ever seen on television that night. But more of them anon…

  82. 82
    DJ Punctum on 12 Aug 2008 #

    Yeah, the TOTP performance of “It’s Grim Up North” was extraordinary. That and “Rhythm Is A Mystery” are two of my favourite singles of their decade, if not of all time.

  83. 83
    SteveM on 12 Aug 2008 #

    Trying to remember if I ever saw IGUN performed in the studio or not. All I’m getting is the Jerusalem moment during the 40-11 rundown or whatever they filled a video clip with at that point. No memory of Franklin and Smith either.

  84. 84
    Mark G on 12 Aug 2008 #

    Yeah, Bill Drummond doing the ‘recitation’ live!

    The demo version had Pete Wylie doing it, and is worth tracking down.

  85. 85
    mike on 12 Aug 2008 #

    I remember both the JAMMS and the Sedaka performances, but also have no memory of Mark Franklin and Elayne Smith!

    Boney M’s TOTP performances were normally a campy old hoot, but they were comparatively sedate and dignified for “Rivers”. Or at least as dignified as you can reasonably be with half an ostrich stuck on top of your head…

  86. 86
    Mark G on 12 Aug 2008 #

    On one of those “TV’s most thingy moments” shows, they spoke about TOTP’s “Daddy Cool” moment, as they used live vocals without realising Bobby Farrel was not actually a singer, and indeed did his part bellowing like a wounded buffalo. Aparently it was a “playground moment” as us kids all talked about it.

    Actually, we were all laffing about his ‘orang-utang’ mad dancing, and didn’t notice his singing at the time.

  87. 87
    Pete Baran on 12 Aug 2008 #

    The JAMMS doing its Grim Up North on TOTP (lowish quality but you get the idea).
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvDQxdv-wuE

    Boney M Daddy Cool: where Bobby’s vocals are indeed a bit odd!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJ7m5vmrx10&feature=related

  88. 88
    Billy Smart on 12 Aug 2008 #

    That performance of Daddy Cool comes from the TOTP transmitted on the 6th of January 1977. Also in the studio that week were; Sheer Elegance, Tina Charles, Smokie, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Clodagh Rogers (!) and Johnny Mathis. The host was David Jensen.

    I’ve no idea what Clodagh was doing there, as she hadn’t had a hit since 1971. Still, I’m sure that her surprise appearance – performing ‘Save Me’- must have been welcomed by certain teenage Popular commentators.

  89. 89
    Mark G on 12 Aug 2008 #

    Well, she was there because “Save Me” was indeed a hit by then.

    Although Everyhit doesn’t seem to have it! Which seems wrong.

  90. 90
    DJ Punctum on 13 Aug 2008 #

    No, it definitely wasn’t a hit.

  91. 91
    mike on 13 Aug 2008 #

    It seems that Boney M were last spotted helping the president of Georgia adopt “a disco approach to conflict resolution”…

  92. 92
    wichita lineman on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Clodagh’s Save Me sounds brilliant in my head, husky Anglo disco. The chorus has been embedded in my brain, every word, for 30 years and I never owned it – does that mean it’s ripe for a makeover? Kylie, maybe?

    I’d have guessed it landed between 40 and 50 but don’t have a Guinness book to hand, so I bow to DJP’s finality.

  93. 93
    Mark G on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Well, I just hauled up my Guinness book, and you’d be right to! Truly amazed, no chart position at all.

  94. 94
    mike on 13 Aug 2008 #

    Mark G just beat me to it! Wikipedia says it got loads of airplay despite flopping, but I have no memory of it (and am now quite curious).

  95. 95
    DJ Punctum on 14 Aug 2008 #

    I remember the record very well indeed. Much played on R2 and 208 (and Radio Clyde 261) but it didn’t chart.

  96. 96
    DV on 24 Aug 2008 #

    this was popular at folk Mass back when I were small.

  97. 97
    intothefireuk on 5 Sep 2008 #

    There was something not quite right about poor old Bobby. Dancing like a maniac (very badly) and so often missing his singing (miming) cues on totp. I couldn’t take Boney M seriously – Daddy Cool was ok, as was Rasputin and Nightflight To Venus (the title track) – but the rest were pretty dire – neither of these sides warranted the sale of the single so those that bought it twice ? The stupidity of the GBP beggars belief sometimes.

  98. 98
    Erithian on 30 Dec 2010 #

    RIP Bobby Farrell. Blimey, didn’t see that coming. Nobody would describe him as one of the greats, but a 70s icon nonetheless.

  99. 99
    lonepilgrim on 30 Dec 2010 #

    Bobby Farrell R.I.P.

    Sleazy, Beefheart and now this…

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/dec/30/bobby-farrell-boney-m-singer-dies

  100. 100
    wichita lineman on 31 Dec 2010 #

    Riddle me this. Bobby died the same day as Rasputin.

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

    And both in St Petersburg, more or less.

  102. 102
    Jimmy the Swede on 31 Dec 2010 #

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

  103. 103
    lonepilgrim on 31 Dec 2010 #

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

    ‘It’s what he would have wanted’

  104. 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?

  105. 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..

  106. 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…

  107. 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

  108. 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.

  109. 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.

  110. 110
    punctum on 9 Oct 2012 #

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

  111. 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…

  112. 112
    punctum on 10 Jan 2013 #

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

    http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/we-cant-go-on-like-this.html

  113. 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.)

  114. 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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