5 January 2011

Boney M: brilliantly mental

The recent passing of Bobby Farrell brought to mind the Boney M albums that my mum used to have. While the foursome’s music might have been temporarily reassessed when sampled by Mark Ronson on ‘Ooh Wee’ or when propelling Duck Sauce’s ‘Barbra Streisand’ and The Avalanches’ ‘Live At Dominoes’, the act was generally considered to be pretty throwaway. Not that I’m now saying that Boney M was much more than a glittery disco group, but I am still amazed that there hasn't been more discussion of the quite preposterous themes that they touched on.

Just over twenty years ago, for example, their ‘Belfast’ was firmly lodged in the Top 40. It peaked at a very respectable number eight: all the more impressive given that this was performed by a black Germany-based outfit incredulously attempting to give their voice to the troubles in Northern Ireland.

Back then a year had passed since the bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company in Dunmurry, County Antrim and Bobby Sands had begun his prison sentence for the possession of firearms. Via the radio and the world's dance-floors, however, a West Indian vocal harmony group designed by future Milli Vanilli instigator Frank Farian were insisting that, in Belfast, "the people were leavin". For this purpose, the name 'Belfast' had adopted a condemned tone that probably had something to do with the news reports of the time. "When the country rings the leaving bell you're lost" the quartet observed in a baffling display of lyricism that seems solely hewn from a mistranslation of that particular city.

But this was their ‘Waterloo’. Abba had found earlier success through a jolly depiction of conflict and Boney M was hot on their platform heels. Just a mere four and a half years later. But this was even better because it was topical. (And maybe just a little bit tropical?) It was a sensitive subject. Political. A modern equivalent might be Jedward being auto-tuned for a whole three minutes whilst uttering nonsense supposedly about Iraq.

Bobby Farrell, Liz Mitchell, Marcia Barrett and Maisie Williams also brought notorious 1930's criminals (‘Ma Baker’) and Russian mystics/mad monks (‘Rasputin’) to Top of the Pops. It was educational. Just as long as you didn't pay too much attention to the words. Otherwise lines like "but the kasachok he danced really wunderbar" [which was brilliantly rhymed with 'czar'] would cause confusion when eventually encountering more clearly researched teachings in history, geography, German, Russian, English and – quite possibly – P.E.

In a number of bedraggled forms, Boney M still toured. A colleague once had to review 'The Real' Liz Mitchell as part of what he described as "One of those 'No, I'm not dead' Disco Tours". Apparently she resembled "a superannuated Cheeky Girl dancing like a helicopter spiralling to its doom". I'm almost certain that this, too, was somehow creative expression meets social commentary.

Then there are the album sleeves. Ridiculous, ropey and just a tad overblown: perhaps a true indication of what was in store for the listener.

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