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Thursday 19 October 2017

Boney M - bright lights, dark days

Boney M's disco-pop helped define the late 1970s but it was far from rosy behind the scenes

Radio Bait: Marcia Barrett, Maizie Williams, Liz Mitchell, Bobby Farrell as Boney M in 1978. Photo: Richard Young/Rex/Shutterstock
Radio Bait: Marcia Barrett, Maizie Williams, Liz Mitchell, Bobby Farrell as Boney M in 1978. Photo: Richard Young/Rex/Shutterstock
John Meagher

John Meagher

On the second-last day of 2010, the body of a musician was found in a St Petersburg Hotel. It was Bobby Farrell, a singer from the Dutch colony of Aruba. Farrell had been a member of Boney M during their massive-selling heyday at the end of the 1970s, but few would have recognised the 61-year-old discovered by hotel staff in the old Russian capital.

Several of the obituaries noted that Farrell died in the very city where Grigori Rasputin also met his end. Even those with the most cursory knowledge of Boney M's legacy are likely to know that 'Rasputin' - "Russia's greatest love machine" - was one of their global-conquering smash hits.

'Rasputin' was released in 1978 - an insanely successful year for the Euro-Caribbean band who appeared to come from nowhere. It was the third single on the Nightflight to Venus album and during the summer of 1978 it was impossible to escape their radio-baiting hits. In fact, the double A-sided 'Rivers of Babylon'/'Brown Girl in the Ring' and 'Mary's Boy Child' - both released in 1978 - would go on to be the second and fourth bestselling singles in the UK that decade.

On the face of it, Farrell had it all. Handsome and charismatic, and the joint-leader of a group that featured several glamorous female singers, it would have been easy to assume that everything was going swimmingly in his gilded world. But it was all a facade.

Farrell never sung on those original Boney M recordings. The male voice was not his. He was chiefly there as a focal point of the band.

The vocals that most assumed were Farrell's were, in fact, those of a white German DJ called Frank Farian. It was Farian who had put together Boney M in Frankfurt in 1976 in an attempt to jump on the disco inferno that was sweeping everything in its path. And he could hardly have imagined that his carefully cultivated group - whose members included the Jamaican-born Englishwomen Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett (both of whom were strong singers, especially Mitchell) - would go on to enjoy such global success.

His initial objective was pedestrian. He wanted to assemble a photogenic group to lip-synch on TV to his charmlessly titled 1976 German hit, 'Baby Do You Wanna Bump?' But they proved to be so popular that he set about writing songs for them.

And what a strange collection those songs were. As well as penning a pop tune about the aforementioned Russian mystic with a special connection to the doomed Tzar, Farian also wrote a Boney M song about the Troubles, 'Belfast', which boasted the head-scratching lyric "Belfast, Belfast, when the country rings the leaving bell, you're last" and an album track, 'Steppenwolf', which was inspired by the celebrated Herman Hesse novel of the same name.

There were also some eclectically chosen covers, including Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Have You Ever Seen the Rain?, the Yardbirds' 'Still I'm Sad', Neil Young's 'Heart of Gold' and the Beatles' 'Two of Us'. It's not too unkind to suggest none of these covers did much to challenge the pre-eminence of the originals.

But that sensationally popular double A-side 'Rivers of Babylon'/'Brown Girl in the Ring' did work on the covers front. It helped that both songs were derived from much more obscure source material. The band's success faded almost as dramatically as it arrived. Farian tried everything to refresh their sound, including a prog-rock-influenced concept album, Ten Thousand Lightyears. "I was tired of songs like 'Rasputin'," he told a British newspaper some years ago, "so I thought, let's go a little bit closer to Pink Floyd. That was the beginning of the end."

Although Boney M officially disbanded in 1986, a vast array of line-ups have kept the name alive as a touring entity. Liz Mitchell has been back in the fold for the past couple of years and she will take centre stage in Co Kildare today when Boney M play the nostalgia-soaked Punchestown Music Festival.

If Boney M were dismissed by the purists as little more than manufactured pop, it was nothing like the opprobrium that would greet Farian's next big project, a decade later. Milli Vanilli, the duo he created in the late 1980s, took the pop world by storm and were awarded a Grammy in 1990 for their debut album, Girl You Know It's True.

But there was consternation when it emerged that neither performer - German residents Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus - had sung a word on the album. The cat emerged from the bag in the most embarrassing way possible. The pair were on a TV show lip-synching to the album's title track, when the tape malfunctioned and the vocals were repeated over and over again. It's up there on YouTube for those keen to witness two grown men wishing the ground could swallow them up.

The Grammy had to be returned, the pair were dropped by their record company and both members' careers nosedived, never to recover. Pilatus died in 1998 after a drug overdose, which was deemed by the coroner to have been accidental. He had attempted suicide on a number of occasions. Morvan is still on the go, but like Bobby Farrell before him, there's been a very small market for his brand of pop.

Farian - now 76 - cuts an eccentric figure in interviews and one suspects he is irked that his bands haven't been reappraised in the way that others from the disco and pure-pop eras have. His CV groans under the weight of manufactured bands, many of whom only made an impact in Germany.

But Boney M, for all their faults, remain his greatest achievement and it's impossible to deny that in their mega-selling pomp, their feel-good party albums gave pleasure to a great many people.

The success of Farian's Daddy Cool musical on the West End demonstrated that there was a sizeable audience of people who wanted to roll back the clock to a simpler era but, popular as it was, it could only hold a candle to Mamma Mia! the eternally popular musical inspired by the songs of Boney M's 1970s counterparts, Abba. (Intriguingly, Daddy Cool also featured a batch of Milli Vanilli songs, but the less said about that the better.)

Meanwhile, Farrell struggled to be taken seriously as a musician for most of his life and his daughter has spoken candidly about growing up in poverty. He certainly didn't benefit from Daddy Cool's box-office achievements.

Farrell's sad fate offers a reminder that few industries can be as cruel as the music one, and behind all the bright lights, there's often anguish.

It's easy to sneer at people like Justin Bieber cancelling the remainder of his world tour, but ask yourself this: would you truly want to be in their position?

Boney M play the Punchestown Music Festival tomorrow

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