Independent on Sunday, 2 January 2010
It was the era of glitter balls, Saturday Night Fever, girls dancing round handbags – and Boney M. When I heard about the sudden death last week of the band’s frontman, Bobby Farrell, it took me back to 1978 and one of their biggest hits; it’s hard to believe now, but Boney M really did perform in mini cossack costumes and sing hypnotically about the murder of Rasputin, the last tsarina’s notorious confidant.
Farrell died in a hotel in St Petersburg, still touring at the age of 61. Boney M weren’t allowed to perform ‘Rasputin’ when they visited the USSR in 1978, presumably because the divinely camp lyrics – ‘Ra-Ra-Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine/It was a shame how he carried on’ – were considered too sensitive. (Eerily, the last two syllables of Rasputin form the name of Russia’s current prime minister, judo expert and all-round love machine, Vladimir Putin. How prescient is that?)
I’ve danced to Boney M many times and I know most of their lyrics by heart, along with all the words to Saturday Night Fever and every single one of Abba’s hits. Pop songs took the place of poetry for my generation, and the words of hundreds of Seventies disco tracks are firmly lodged in my head. I’m not the only one, judging by the popularity of sing-along screenings of Mamma Mia!
Disco, and Boney M, were in their heyday in the late Seventies. It was cooler to admire the Sex Pistols, but I love dancing and I retained my passion for Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, Sister Sledge and even Gloria Gaynor. I was going through a difficult time with men and I liked ‘I Will Survive’ the first thousand or so times I heard it, although I’d gone right off it by the time it came to be weepily associated with Princess Diana.
Boney M were as much performance art as a pop group, and that’s something they have in common with contemporary stars such as Lady GaGa. Farrell didn’t actually sing on their records but he had been a DJ before fronting the band, and he threw himself into stage performances with utter conviction. Boney M were the creation of a German record producer, Frank Farian, who chose Farrell and three other performers from Caribbean backgrounds to front songs he recorded himself in the studio. Farian dressed them in fabulous outfits, provided them with songs based on everything from Biblical psalms to Russian history, and a string of top ten hits followed. Boney M’s version of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, originally sung by Harry Belafonte, was number one in the UK at Christmas in 1978.
Disco was always a theatrical medium, cramming intense feeling into short lyrics, and in the Seventies it perfectly expressed the yearning of women and gay men for sexual freedom; one critic described the 1975 disco hit ‘Love to Love You Baby’ as ‘little more than Donna Summer simulating an orgasm or twenty’. Summer performed on stage with a troupe of male and female dancers in skin-tight glittery costumes, while all four members of Boney M camped it up on video like divas in extravagant (and pre-animal-rights) furs.
Curiously, given how overtly sexual Seventies disco was, those videos now seem to belong to a more innocent age. Disco broke taboos all over the place, mixing up culture, race and sexuality, and Boney M’s fusion of European, Caribbean and Eastern influences still has the power to amaze.
Indeed the only thing wrong with Seventies disco, in my view, is that it’s tricky to dance to in the five-inch heels I’ve just bought in the sales. But just let me kick them off and I’ll be on the dance floor in no time. All together now, arms above our heads: ‘Ra-Ra-Rasputin, lover of the Russian queen…’