Boney M – Songs of Ghost Singers!

Some time back my wife mentioned to me about the music bit of an advertisement film. Whenever my two year old daughter heard that music bit on television, she used to wave her hands with palm open, get her head nodding and jump up in delight. She had such a fascination for that music bit! It was a jewellery shop advertisement in which the evergreen dream girl Hema Malini modeled. When I watched the advertisement later, I found that they had made a straight lift from Boney M’s famous 1977 number ‘Still I am sad....’

Recently, on my flight to Kochi, I heard the new instrumental version of Boney M and ABBA songs. CDs in white covers, proclaiming ‘Best of Boney M’, filled the front rows of the World Music section in Music World, Kochi’s popular music sales super market. “Boney M is still the best selling western music band in Kerala. We sell lot of CDs everyday” said the Manager. ‘Ra Ra Rasputin’, ‘Rivers of Babylon’, ‘One Way Ticket’, ‘Daddy Cool’, ‘Sunny Sunny’, ‘Ma Baker’, ‘Belfast’ and ‘Bahamama Mama’ are some of the Boney M numbers all of us would have heard. It was the heady potion of seventies Disco wave all over India. People still look back nostalgically to those days of Boney M magic.

With the advent of cassette tape recorders, Kerala, with a good percentage of its population in Gulf, used to have cassette recorders in every middle class home. And at least one of the few cassettes every home boasted of was a Boney M cassette. People used to play them loudly, proudly labeling it as ‘English Music’. They were mostly ignorant of what the lyrics meant and equally unaware of the features of that music. But they were attracted by the simple to hum tunes, the strong beats of drums, its lively orchestrations and above all, their clear stereophonic recording – a feature unheard of in Indian music in those days.

I remember a person called Gopi. He used to take his big red cassette player to all events where people gather. There he used to play again and again the cassettes of Boney M songs that he had. As far as he was concerned Boney M was a type of music! He used to offer by way of choice: “I have both Boney M and Disco. Which would you prefer?” I used to follow him to some of these places. I found Boney M music particularly attractive. I used to request that it be played again and again. Gopi soon found in me a harmless music lover who will neither touch nor spoil his priceless ‘Deck’ and his cassettes his brother had brought from ‘Gelf’.

Once, he left to join the mandatory wedding liquor party at my maternal uncle’s wedding, leaving his ‘Deck’ in my care in the manner of one leaving one’s child in someone else’s care with a long list of conditions like how to protect his ‘Deck’ from curious and prying hands. Under my loving watch, the cassette player went on playing the Boney M songs. It is difficult to describe in words the ecstasy imparted by songs like ‘Malaika’, ‘Painter Man’, ‘No Woman No Cry’, ‘Hurray, Hurray’, ‘Boats on the River’, ‘El Lute’ and ‘Plantations Boy’. I just sat close to the ‘Deck’ drenching in the shower of that music. Tape had run its course on side one. I was not in the mood to await the arrival of Gopi to play the other side. I tried my hand at turning the cassette to play the other side. And I succeeded! I listened with the pride of a newly graduated technician to ‘Ribbons of Blue’, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, ‘Felicidad’, ‘Fever’, ‘Take The Heats Off Me’, ‘Love For Sale’, ‘Oceans of Fantasy’.....

Gopi came back drunk. He could see that I had changed the cassette to play the reverse side. He complained in anger to one of my uncle who had controlled the event. My uncle had a cruel streak. He started shouting at me. How can a boy without the means of three proper meals a day, touch such costly contraption? Who will pay for it if something had gone wrong? Boiling in anger my uncle adopted his usual disciplinary procedure. He started beating me up in the wedding pavilion itself in the presence of all guests. My mind carries those scars even today. But I have not come out of the ‘Oceans of Fantasy’ created by the music of that big red cassette player. I still stay captivated by music in its most forms.

It took me a long time to come out of my infatuation with Boney M that took hold of me at a juvenile age. As I got acquainted with more and more classy Western music, I gradually realized that Boney M’s basic tunes were less creative and had the goal of addressing the lowest common denominator of the mass of music lovers. Some times they took the overtones of flat devotional Christian songs and some times they sounded like the nursery rhymes. In fact, the number ‘Brown Girl In The Ring’ is a Jamaican nursery rhyme. But attractive background score and sound recording sophistications made Boney M a totally unforgettable experience.

In those days, Boney M’s instrumental back up and production techniques amazed everyone. Most of the songs were strengthened by their strong drum beats and base patterns. We were overwhelmed by the manner in which the lead singer Liz Mitchell’s tenor voice blended with the beat. The violin group with its fine notes providing the reed to the entire length of the songs. The electronic sounds and brilliant use of electric guitar tones, a novelty of those days, proved a great combination. The background chorus voices were brilliantly blended in. The clear and thumping sound of bass guitar was not loud. The accuracy of the drum play matched those of the present day electronic drum wizardry. The whole Boney M music was given a dream-like ambience by such intricately orchestrated background music and the depth and clarity of a top-order sound recording.

The sound and format of disco culture was taken to all parts of the world by Boney M, the most famous International Disco Music Band. The Electronic Revolution that happened in the late Seventies and early Eighties was the reason for Disco Music becoming the international craze of that dreamy period. Listening to music achieved the new heights as the old LP records became history and latest cassette players with stereophonic sound combined with low-priced music cassettes. Boney M successfully rode this new wave to wild popularity.

Boney M has sold 200 million authorized audio cassettes and it is guesstimated that they must have sold 400 million unauthorized pirated cassettes. Even this piracy was the effect of electronic era’s low-cost technology. Most of the music cassettes of Boney M sold in India were pirated versions. Boney M was the only music troupe that was at once popular in the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. They were the most popular of troupes in India, Pakistan, Iran and even Soviet Union. It was the most well known western music troupe in India and in Vietnam, even today they are the highest selling English language music group.

It is true that world over the critics of music have not taken Boney M seriously; but they have not made any negative comments about them either. But in India there is nowadays a trend of holier-than-thou criticism of Boney M. For example, listen to Pritam Chakraborthy, among the new crop of music ‘arrangers’ rather flamboyantly called music directors: “I hate disco music. I cannot bear to hear numbers like Boney M’s ‘Rivers of Babylon’. But he was not particularly shy in copying the song ‘Somewhere In The World’ from Boney M’s 1984 collection called ‘1000 Light Years’ as the title song of his 2006 Hindi film ‘Ankahee’.

Boney M had a rather long run in Indian film music as the most copied band. One reason was that in Seventies and Eighties disco had overwhelmed Indian film music and our film dances. From actors Rishi Kapoor and Mithun Chakravorty right upto Govinda in Hindi and from Kamal Hasan to Anand Babu in Tamil appeared on our screens as intrepid disco dancers. Lakshmikant Pyarelal won the race to be the first with the Indian version of ‘Still I am Sad’ with the song ‘Zindagi Imtihan Lethi Hai’ in film Naseeb in 1981. They also proudly presented their ‘Judhayi’ number ‘Tere Naam Ki Hum Deewane’ xeroxing ‘Brown Girl In The Ring’. Indian Film Music’s copycat King Anu Mallick drew his total inspiration for the song ‘Jawani Diwani’ of the film Chamatkar from ‘Bahama Mama’ number of Boney M’s 1979 collection ‘Oceans of Fantasy’.

Boney M’s ‘Malaika’ number was imitated by Nadeem Shravan for the ‘Gawah Hain’ song in the film Damini. But before that, in 1983, Bappi Lahiri had lifted the same tune for the song ‘Pukaro’ for Runa Laila’s album ‘Super-Runa’. He also honoured Boney M’s ‘One Way Ticket’ score with a straight lift for the number ‘Hari Om Hari’ in the film Pyaara Dushman. Ilayaraja’s title song for the film Priya ‘Darling, Darling’ follows Boney M’s number ‘Sunny Sunny’. Recently I heard the title music of a highly popular television show which was a copy and paste of Boney M’s ‘Kalimba De Luna’.

In 1976, three tall and attractive black girls and a slim and short black young man with a weird look in their satin bellbottoms and fur-lined shirts made more flashy by a heavy and bright make-up and tribal hair-dos attracted the attention of the world with their strange dance movements. The hair-do of the black young man was more or less along the lines of that of the Indian human god Satya Saibaba. They became instantly famous in the western world through television. As television did not have the same kind of spread in India, here they became popular through posters and blurbs on the audio cassettes. The black young man had a deep baritone that was wildly popular. The girls were very good singers as well. The first girl had a sexy voice sounding like a whisper. As the fame of their Boney M band spread, they traveled the world and sang in many of the great auditoriums of the world. And they were telecast to the viewers all over the world. The songs and dance scenes attracted millions of viewers. Even today those videos stand imprinted in the memory of Boney M fans.

Boney M did not achieve in America the kind of fame they achieved all over the other parts of world. Many in India thought Boney M was a Black Band from America. But they had nothing to do with America. Once in 60s, they achieved 30th place in the American Sale List of records for their famous number ‘Rivers of Babylon’. Then they faded into oblivion there. In contrast, in 1978 alone they sold tens of millions of audiocassettes in Europe, setting a record. Their songs like ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’ and ‘Rivers of Babylon’ topped the charts in Britain for 40 weeks running. They figure as number 2 among singles of all time in Britain. They continuously ranked as number one in Belgium, Netherlands and Germany.

Frank Farian was a reasonably successful German Lyricist, Singer and Composer. He had a deep bass voice. He was a cook before he entered the world of music. He could sing a duet on his own, alternating between his own deep masculine voice and a high-pitched female falsetto. In 1974, in Offenbach town of Germany, he had released a single song ‘Baby Do You Wanna Bump’. All the voices in the song, including three different female voices, were his own. The song was released in the name of a troupe called Boney M. He had taken the name from an Australian Detective Tele-serial. The Detective in the serial was called ‘Boney Maroni’.

This song which was a heady mix of Rap and Disco music set to the fast beat of a dance number was an immediate success in Germany and became the craze of disco parlours. It was a time when Television was coming into form as the big entertainment medium. Television channels wanted to telecast more and more music and dance related programmes to woo their audience. Singers who also performed as dancers started becoming popular through those shows.

Frank Farian did not like the idea of him going on stage. Basically he was a stage-shy person. He was a white man but he wanted to create the kind of music which expressed the aspirations of the black race. Importantly, he did not have anything like a troupe those days. Therefore, he sought the services of an agent of performing artistes, to find three girls and a boy of African race who could dance. That was how Boney M came into being. Maizie Williams, Sheila Bonnick, Nathalie and Mike became the dancing faces of the troupe. This ‘Acting Troupe’ danced on live stages and for Television shows, lipping the songs pre-recorded for the show. They even addressed the press meets as the music band!

Boney M became an instant hit in Germany. But as business grew in demand more ‘attractive singers’ were needed. That led to Marcia Barrette and Bobby Farrell joining the troupe. Only Maizie Williams remained of old ‘singers’. Claudia Barry, a fairly famous singer was recruited later. But she left refusing to lip-synch and dance to Frank Farian’s ‘female’ voice. This happened two days before an important Television show. Therefore, in a fluster, they searched and found Liz Mitchell, a singer. Frank Farian had recruited her for a two-day stop-gap performance. But she performed so well that she continued to perform and later went on to become the only artiste of Boney M troupe who sang in her own voice.

All persons Farian chose for his troupe were black immigrants from Jamaica, settled in Holland and Germany. They eked out a living by occasional chances of singing in a chorus and dancing in beer bars. Both Bobby Farrell and Maizie Williams had never sung a note of their own. By lending his lips to the deep masculine voice of Frank Farian, Bobby Farrell became Boney M’s symbol of masculinity and sexual attraction. Frank Farian introduced him to everyone as a dancer and Disc Jockey before he joined the Boney M troupe. But in a recent interview to a television channel, Bobby Farrell admitted that before he came to ‘sing’ for Boney M, he was in fact a cleaner boy and a male prostitute or a ‘gay for pay’.

Finally in 2003, Frank Farian, in a television interview admitted that it was a charade from day one. He said that Bobby was selected both for his weird looks and novel form of dance. Maizie Williams was a dancer who made a poor living as she could not sing. In the Boney M troupe she just acted out the singer dancer’s role. Marcia Barrette was an average singer who sang in Boney M’s chorus during recording. But she graduated well enough to be the main female singer in songs like ‘Belfast’.

In 1976, Frank Farian sang and recorded most of the songs with Liz Mitchell for the maiden Boney M album ‘Take the Heats off Me’. Other voices were recorded by good professional singers. This included ‘Gilla and Eruption’, a two-member German music troupe. Boney M’s second album ‘Daddy Cool’ initially could not make it to the Hit List. But gradually it became the theme album of every Disco Hall in Germany.

As soon as it was released in the rest of Europe and England, ‘Daddy Cool’ made it to the 6th spot in British Hit List. The next album ‘Sunny’ topped the charts in Germany and was third in the British chart. In the album cover of ‘Love for Sale’ the female ‘singers’ appeared in the semi-nude while Bobby Farrell was wearing only his under-garments. This trade gimmick of Frank Farian paid off and over the next decade Boney M’s albums went on a winning spree.

Sophisticated and high fidelity sound recording was by itself the single big factor behind the success of Boney M albums. It came to be called the Boney M sound. It was a time when multi-track sound recording had just been introduced. Boney M captured the technical highs of the new technology and fully exploited all the opportunities it presented. As stereo-phonic music players spread around the world, Boney M came to be heard as the music of the new technology. When Ilayaraja brought the technology of stereo-phonic sound to Tamil film music with the film Priya, he also composed scores that had the impact of Boney M’s music. It was due to the facilities offered by multi-track sound recording that Frank Farian was able to sing single-handedly like an entire music troupe.

Boney M also released many songs of Black Liberation. Songs like ‘No more chain gangs’ were wildly popular. When Boney M sang and released Bob Marley’s song ‘No Woman No Cry’ in disco format, it became a big hit. In fact, most Asians know it only as a Boney M song. Describing Boney M’s music as the ‘perfect blend of the depth of Black music and White technical excellence’, Frank Farian pronounced that Boney M failed in America because of its racial hatred. Boney M was the only Western Music troupe allowed to perform in the then Soviet Russia, barring their famous number ‘Ra Ra Rasputin’. Apart from the fact that Rasputin was a renegade mystic/charlatan who made the Russian Czar dance to his tunes, the song ends with the line ‘Oh those Russians’!

In 1982, Bobby Farrell, after a quarrel with Frank Farian, left the troupe. Reggie Tsiboe took his place and was made to sing. He was truly a good singer. He sang numbers like ‘Kalimba de Luna’ really well. But Frank Farian and Bobby Farrell both lost in the process of split. Bobby Farrell was the face that the world recognized as Boney M. In India many thought that ‘Boney’ was his name! The voice of Frank Farian was, as far as the world was concerned, the voice of Bobby Farrell. In 1984, Bobby Farrell rejoined the Boney M troupe with the support of a court order. Now Boney M again came into being, albeit with two ‘male singers’.

‘Ten Thousand Light Years’ which came after this ‘reunion’ is, was a fine album. ‘Happy Song’, a single, was released with blurbs proclaiming ‘Bobby Farrell with Boney M and School Rebels Troupe’. Bobby Farrell even had a tilt at singing for the first time in this number. The result was truly pathetic. Since the court order was in favour of Bobby Farrell, albums continued to be released with the title ‘Boney M in association with Bobby Farrell’. But these did not have the stamp of class that made Boney M so famous. ‘Top Songs of the Decade’ was the only album worth noting between the years 1981 and 1988. Boney M broke up totally by the end of 1986.

In 1987, the secret of masquerade in Boney M came out in the open when the ex members of the troupe were left picking up the pieces. But even today, I am not sure how many of the ardent fans of Boney M are aware that their favourite Western Music troupe was a charade or a dupe, that its frontline singers were not singers at all and that they were the first among modern day stage troupes that gyrated on the stage merely ‘lipping’ the pre-recorded songs.

Boney M’s true trick was to arrange the audio-tape to run on stage even as the troupe danced and pretended to play the instruments and moved their lips to the songs on the tape. In the present day stage show the pre-recorded songs and tracks are part of the electronic music instruments. And as the song and dance reaches climactic moments, excited fans jump up to accord standing ovations.

It is sad that behind the Boney M that gave happy and peppy numbers like ‘Sunny’ and ‘Hurray, Hurray’ there was nothing but miss-steps, disappointments, back stabs and heart breaks. Everyone in the troupe yearned to be recognized and paid better for their ‘parts’ in the show. When Boney M broke up, every member expressed bitter disappointment by blaming others. Every one had a case in law courts against the troupe leader Frank Farian. But their contribution to the Boney M band was a big question mark. Boney M and its songs were practically Frank Farian’s creations in their entirety.

The real contributors to Boney M’s music were elsewhere. Munich Machine, a German troupe of top flight music artistes, helped with background score. Stefan Klinkhammer, genius of a music conductor, arranged music for most of Boney M’s albums. Michael Cretu, Harry Baierl, Mats Biund and Johan Daansen were some of the other conductor-arrangers for Boney M albums. Great Drum artistes like Keith Forsey, Curt Cress and Todd Candy played for Boney M. G. Gebauer, Gary Unwin, Dieter Petereit and Dave King played the rhythm guitars while Mats Biund, Johan Daansen and Nick Woodland played guitars. Most of Boney M’s Strings Sections was the contribution of London Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 1990 court ruled that the name Boney M belonged to all the members of the band. After this ruling the singers who sang and the ‘singers’ who did not sing a note formed their own separate Boney Ms. At one time as many as five separate Boney Ms functioned. Liz Mitchell’s band functioned with blessings of Frank Farian was one of them. The name Boney M brought in opportunities to all of them.

In 1990, Frank Farian got caught in another music controversy. It came to be called the Milli Vanilli fraud. Frank Farian got together some great German music artistes and singers in a troupe called Milli Vanilli and created some outstanding dance song albums. He made two black dancers to act as ‘singers’ in these albums. And alas! These ‘singers’ went on to win the Grammy Award in the Best Debutant Troupe category. It is said that Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus, the two young black dancers who ‘sang’ in the albums, began blackmailing Frank Farian. Losing his cool, Frank Farian announced that ‘singer’ duo in Milli Vanilli were only dupes. Grammy Award had to be withdrawn!

It is not necessary that Music artistes should be good dancers and actors with attractive features. Most of the time, a person achieves perfection only in one stream of art. When such persons specializing in different fields of music get together to perform, the result can be truly impressive. But Television viewers and fans of stage shows have the irrational expectation that a singer must also dance. This expectation continues to this day. It was on this expectation that Frank Farian staked his beliefs. He formulated the strategy and tricks of trade to cater to this business opportunity. Don’t we see this in Indian films day in and day out? But how appealing will it look if S.P. Balasubramaniam danced in place of Kamal Hasan?

Frank Farian went on undeterred to form troupes like No Mercy, La Bouche and Le Click and won great fan following for his creations. He produced a dance-drama under the name ‘Daddy Cool’. The story is composed of famous numbers from albums of Boney M, Milli Vanilli, No Mercy and his other troupes. This three million British pound show was inaugurated in Germany in April 2007.

The copyrights of all Boney M albums are held by Frank Farian’s Music firm Faria. Today the albums of Boney M are being released by BMG. But, sitting in the background, Frank Farian is taking home a rich daily haul of royalties for these releases. He is among the richest men of the world. Though largely living in Germany, he has grand residences all around the world. Generally speaking, it must be admitted that Frank Farian committed a fraud on his fans. But it must also be admitted that he is, beyond doubt, extraordinarily talented musician and an expert marketer of music. His fans cannot but acknowledge him as the creative genius behind Boney M.

Liz Mitchell is the daughter of a conservative priest of Pentecost Church. She claims to have
been frozen into a state of shock when the cover of ‘Love for Sale’ was designed. “They photographed us completely nude wearing only heavy gold chains with Bobby Farrell standing over us. I cried that whole day.” Liz, now 56 years old, lives in London. She has residences all over the world. She recently released the remix version of the album ‘Daddy Cool’. She is still conducting music shows under the name ‘Liz Mitchell’s Boney M’.

Marcia Barrett, now 60, lives in Florida, USA. She conducts music shows under the banner ‘Marcia Barrett’s Boney M’ in spite of being cancer-stricken. She sang at the Goa Film Festival some years back. Maizie Williams, 57, is conducting her music shows under the banner ‘Maizie Williams’ Boney M’. Since she cannot sing, she is lip-synchronizing to the old recorded versions.

But Boney M’s masculine sex attraction Bobby Farrell’s lot has been pitiable. Today he is 59 years old, but looks a lot older. He has lost all, including his famous crop of hair. He lives with his family in a narrow lane in Amsterdam on welfare payment from government. At the height of fame, he was paid 70000/- pounds for every album and 1000/- pounds for every stage show. But he says, “I was not paid sufficient remuneration. Accounts will show that I should have been paid 20 million pounds. Whatever I was paid, was given in bits and parts. And they got spent then and there.” His problems started when he parted ways with Boney M in 1981. He could neither keep his money nor do anything worthwhile with them. A Pop star who flew to all parts of the world in private jets today, descended to the level of living orphaned in Holland on government handouts.

“When we fall from a height, we do not comprehend what is happening. 1986 saw my worst days. On athe Christmas day they disconnected power supply to my home over unpaid bills”, says Bobby Farrell. The life he lives now may be hell, but Bobby Farrell says his time working with Frank Farian for Boney M was a ‘terrible period’. It is intriguing that not a single Boney M star has something good to say about Frank Farian. It appears what rankled was the fact that Frank Farian made more money from Boney M than the four stars, appearing on the stage, put together. But, it is another matter that none of them had a good opinion on their co-stars.

Die-hard Boney M fans from 1970s can only cry over the present state of affairs of Boney M stars, their tantrums and petty squabbles. But then that is the way stars are, when you look at them from close quarters. I cannot forget the day when I first learnt of the Boney M charade. My sense of loss and disappointment were deep and inconsolable on learning that the lips from which I thought I had heard the Boney M songs were only actors and interlopers. My one adolescent infatuation totally blew up to create a disquieting vacuum. But when you realize that songs are to be heard and not seen, Boney M’s magic as songs continues to reign. But ‘Still I am sad’.