Two of the top selling singles in UK chart history are by a sly excessively produced disco vocal group called Boney M. They’re huge double a side single for the songs Rivers Of Babylon / Brown Girl In The Ring, hit the top spot, not once but twice in 1978 selling 500 copies short of 2 million singles in the UK. It’s currently the #5 all-time selling single in UK history. They’re Christmas single of that same year, Mary’s Boy Child, is the #10 selling single in UK chart history. (Paul McCartney is the only other artist to appear twice. Once with The Beatles, and once with Wings.) Their greatest hits CD released in 1993 stayed in the top 20 in album sales for nearly a whole year.
But Boney M, and their impresario, Frank Farian, remains virtually unknown in the United States.
Created out of a mix of singers and dancers from the West Indies in 1975 to be a sexy front band for Frank Farian, original member Claudja Barry (yes the disco diva) left on short notice because she didn’t like, lip-synching and miming to Farian’s music and vocals. This would be a pattern that would return to haunt Farian in the future.
Nonetheless, with their second album, Boney M started to take off in popularity, first in Europe, then eventually reaching the UK. With their third album, Nightflight To Venus, Farian and Boney M struck gold. As far as Farian and his production techniques are concerned the album is amazing. Most of the songs on the album are rhythmically propelled by hard drums and wicked bass lines, that give the album a very modern sound, and at times, even a balalaika joins in. (Have you ever heard that in a disco song?) The result is an intense and amazingly infectious ride. Nearly every song on the album is what we would now call an earworm, especially the track Brown Girl In The Ring, based on an old Jamaican children’s game. (In the 2004 documentary, Touching The Void, climber Joe Simpson recalls, being in a delirium and thinking he was going to die with that song, which he hated, stuck in his head.)
Starting with Nightflight, Boney M would have three consecutive number one albums in the UK, and a total of seven Top 20 singles in a row (11 total for their career). Just last year a musical opened in London’s famed West End based on the music of Boney M called Daddy Cool.
The pattern of fakery had been started with the group however, and it was hard to shake. Bobby Farrell, the male in the group, would contribute vocals to tracks, only to find them missing in final mixes, replaced by Farian’s own vocals. While the band did have a great reputation for it’s live performing, the rumors of lip-synching started to hurt their sales in the UK.
Flash-forward to 1990 and the amazing meteoric rise of pretty boy group Milli Vanilli. Can you guess where this is going? Farian was the producer of the group, whose first three singles, Girl You know It’s True, Baby, Don’t Forget My Number and Blame It On The Rain each reached the #1 spot on the US singles chart. They went on to win the Best New Artist Grammy in 1990.
In mid 1990, the boys in Milli Vanilli (Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus), supposedly targeted Farian with a blackmail plot. They would tell the public they were not the real singers, if Farian didn’t start paying them more for their lip-synching duties. Farian, seeing no other way out, and not wanting to pay his front band any more money, called their bluff and announced to the world that Milli Vanilli was a fraud.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Even though Farian’s actions are pretty nefarious, it’s genuinely hard to not give him respect and credit for creating some of the most memorable dance music of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s (He’s also the producer of gay nightclub anthem singer’s La Bouche).
Go to my blog here for downloads of Rivers of Babylon, Brown Girl In The Ring and the rhythmic balalaika sound of their disco/story song hit Rasputin.
Be warned however, that all three are very catchy and you’re likely to be singing “Rah! Rah! Rasputin / Lover of the Russian Queen!” to yourself for weeks.