In addition to being a hell of a lot of fun, the 1970s Euro-disco sensations known as Boney M. are an academic paper on gender and ethnicity in popular music—or three—waiting to happen. Boney M.‘s best years were from 1974 to the early 1980s, a pretty healthy run for a genre that often favored one-hit wonders.
Operating out of Germany, Boney M. were an outfit consisting of one man and three women, all four of whom were from the Caribbean and read as “exotic” in the lily-white Vaterland. (Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett were from Jamaica; Maizie Williams was from Montserrat; and Bobby Farrell was from Aruba.) As their producer, Frank Farian, later attested, Farrell made almost no vocal contributions to the group’s studio output, while Farian himself performed the male parts for the recordings. Farrell’s primary functions were to look awesome and (just as with the three women) to dance his ass off, often in that synchronized Spinners sort of way. The vocal hooks were often quite infectious, and the busy beat gave people something to dance to. When Boney M. were good, they were very, very good.
They never did much damage in the U.S., but Boney M. were a force in Europe. Farian had a sense for how to get the most out of “unlikely” combinations of talents. His most notorious act (by far) was Milli Vanilli, who if you notice, followed a very similar template to Boney M., attractive black people pretending to sing vocal tracks they had not sung in the studio (to be fair, Boney M. generally did sing their own vocals in live settings). We encountered Farian a few months ago when we wrote about “Wow,” the Milli Vanilli opera. As Wikipedia blandly says of Farian, “His tendency to create bands with a visual image distinct from the recorded musical performances led to controversy in the case of Milli Vanilli.”
In any case, 1975 wasn’t 1990, so the media police were quite willing to let Boney M. persevere with their quasi-lip-synched presentation—of course, Boney M. never won any Grammys. Their first hit, “Baby Do You Wanna Bump?” was inventive disco to be sure (ripping off the horn riff from Prince Buster’s 1964 ska hit “Al Capone”—a song also “homaged” in The Specials’ “Gangsters”) but generic in terms of subject matter. With “Ma Baker” and “Rasputin,” Boney M. cashed in on the exoticism implied in their group’s concept.
The story of “Ma Baker” is likely the most interesting in Boney M.‘s catalog. The birth name of Ma Barker (not “Baker”) was Arizona Donnie Clark, and in the early 20th century her four sons committed enough violent crimes to be called “the Barker gang”—Ma Barker traveled with them as they terrorized the midwest. She was killed in a shootout with the FBI in 1935, and of all possible people J. Edgar Hoover called her “the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade.” Now that’s a resume! For whatever reason Farian felt that “Baker” sounded better than “Barker” (not that it matters, but I think he was wrong about this). So this track about a legendary American female crime lord was recorded by four black people from the Caribbean and overseen by a German—calling the music ethnologists, there are monographs to be written here…. (Probably worth pointing out right here that the b-side was a discofied take on the Yardbirds’ “Still I’m Sad” which was practically a Gregorian chant in the gloomy original!)
The exotic concept continued with “Rasputin,” which likely has the most hilarious lyrics in the Boney M. catalog—for instance, get this: “Rasputin! Lover of the Russian queen, there was a cat that really was gone. Rasputin! Russia’s greatest love machine, it was a shame how he carried on!” Alas, the Soviet Union banned the song, which probably didn’t bother Boney M. too much.
More delirious Boney M. videos after the jump….