It was the time to disco. If you were a child of the eighties, like I was, you may not have known what disco was, but you knew that Boney M did it best. Before I learnt about the Russian Revolution, or the trouble in Ireland, I knew about Rasputin and Belfast, thanks to Boney M songs.
And of all the cool Boney M cats, Bobby Farrell, who died on December 29, was the coolest. To the teens of today, his frizzy afro, skin-tight jumpsuits, throaty voice and weird dancing may seem dated. Back then, he was the Man. We went around growling his catchphrases, “Ma Baker, she knew how to die” or “Oh, those Russians!”
Spookily, he died in St Petersburg, where Rasputin died in 1916. Spookier still, it was on the anniversary of the day that the mad monk was killed.
For many Indians, Boney M was the first group to cross the divide between Western and Indian music. For some, their songs were the first Western music they heard. The Scandinavian Abba were intimidating, the Bee Gees were often whiny and annoying, and the Carpenters were just too wholesome. But Boney M was pure, glittery happiness. They looked like they were having fun. And the often bare-chested Farrell, with his unabashed hamming and ridiculous dancing, looked like he was having the most fun of all.
Their lyrics were sometimes naughty, but not naughty enough for parents to ban. “Russia’s greatest love machine” passed as risqué before “sexy” became a part of every toddler’s vocabulary.
Why were they so popular in India? It’s hard to say, any more than you can say why John Denver’s Country Roads is hummed by uncles who don’t know where Virginia is, or the Eagles’ Hotel California played in pubs across India. My theory is that their danceable, keyboard-heavy songs were the closest Western music came to Hindi film music. It didn’t matter if you didn’t know who Ma Baker was, or if you had never heard of Zion. The songs lodged themselves in your head, and you found yourself singing them at odd times. Or perhaps we Indians were particularly accepting of Farrell’s joyful posturing and gaudy costumes, used as we are to loudness in every way.
Their album covers — the three women writhing in scanty costumes with Farrell standing aloofly aside — were unapologetic so-bad-it’s-good-kitsch. Their songs were easily learnt and trotted out at school competitions. Brown Girl in the Ring got me through many an assembly. Mary’s Boy Child, one of their few covers, was sung at every Christmas party. You could hear their songs sung by grandpas at straight-laced family get-togethers, converted into muzak for elevators and holding music on phone lines.
But they weren’t all fluff. Several of their songs, such as By the Rivers of Babylon and Plantation Boy, had thoughtful lyrics, rare in the world of pop. And when I got tired of the disco, Liz Mitchell’s honeyed voice singing “How shall we sing the Lord’s song / in a strange land” could always move me.
They never made it big in America, perhaps because their brand of cheesy camp was just a little too cheesy. But they were a hit everywhere else — selling 150 million records — and were popular in the U.K., Eastern Europe and Asia. Leonid Brezhnev invited them to perform in Moscow in 1978.
By 1986, the era of disco was over. The band broke up, but the members continued to tour with different line-ups. It was much later when I learnt that Farrell was only a front. That growly voice we loved belonged to Frank Farian, a German music producer who created the group and sang on the recordings. Farrell, along with at least one other woman singer, lip-synched on the recordings and only sang during live performances. Nobody cared back in the ’70s, but when Farian tried the same thing with Milli Vanilli later, there was uproar.
It didn’t matter to me. Did I care that the sequined illusion wasn’t real? By then, I had realised most illusions aren’t, and had learned to take my pleasure where I found it. Today, admitting to liking Boney M is to admit to being hopelessly uncool. One might as well admit to enjoying musicals or listening to Celine Dion. But Boney M continues to pop up in unusual places. South Korean president Roh Myoo Hun used the Bahama Mama soundtrack in his presidential campaign. Lady Gaga thought them cool enough to use the “Mmm Ma Ma Ma” hook in Ma Baker in her hit Poker Face. Farrell himself had just finished touring Finland, Colombia, Turkey, the US and Russia when he died.
Boney M also continues to live in the hearts of Indian baby boomers. In 2006, they performed at the India International Film Festival in Goa. In 2008, they performed in Delhi for Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi, among others. Marcia Barrett, one of the original members, performed with her line-up at IIPM, Bangalore, and launched a five-star hotel in Indore, of all places. Apparently Boney M’s golden hits CD continues to sell out in Shillong every Christmas. And, in the ultimate sign of acceptance, Channel V’s Lola Kutty did a Malayali lungi-fied version of Boney M. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvQ_4gpPhGw .
Now, when I am tired of moaning pop singers whining about unrequited love, I put on a Boney M record. There is no better cure for the blues than singing along to the frankly ridiculous lyrics of Daddy Cool. I dare anyone to be miserable when singing “She’s crazy like a fool, what about it Daddy Cool?”
Rest in peace Bobby Farrell. The original Daddy Cool.