How 1970s band Boney M taught me history
Youtube is a great companion on a wet and windy afternoon.
Particularly when you can watch hits from the 70s and 80s.
And especially when those hits teach history better than my school ever could.
On one such day, YouTube transported me back to 1978 with a Boney M video. Boney M was a popular four-piece German group comprising three women and Robert Farrell, the flamboyant lead singer who was once an exotic male dancer.
Boney M caused a minor controversy in the late 70s when debate raged about the legitimacy of its vocalists. Were the performers on stage real singers or merely eye candy?
Ironically, this did not detract from their popularity. Instead, it gave them an air of mystery.
The 1980s duo Milli Vanilli was not as lucky. They ended up being hounded by the press and ordered to return their grammys when their lip-synching scam was exposed. Incidentally, both bands shared the same producer, Frank Farian.
Boney M’s song clips were energetic and ridiculous. But huge fun.
Superhero costumes, platform shoes, head-dresses, tight pants — and that was just Robert Farrell. The female singers also wore outfits that Miley Cyrus would recognise as they tried to mime the lyrics without laughing.
Yet, despite the combination of lip synching and high farce, the songs were clever and surprisingly factual.
Rasputin lesson from Boney M
It was Boney M who taught me about the mysterious Russian sorcerer Rasputin: ‘Ra, Ra, Rasputin, lover of the Russian Queen, there was a cat that really was gone!‘
Boney M’s use of 1970s slang to convey historical characters and events certainly impacted on a generation of teenagers who learnt their history watching Farrell dance in a red cape.
Ma Baker, another hit song, was also highly theatrical. Farrell, wearing an outfit that pre-dated Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal suit, danced and sang about a real gangster family during the prohibition era.
Other hits with historical content included Rivers of Babylon, Belfast, Brown Girl in the Ring, Sunny and many more.
Boney M imparted an oral history with catchy tunes reminiscent of the mythological tales once sung by minstrels.
Singing history is a powerful way to impart knowledge. Catchy rhythms and rhyming phrases easily embed the words into memory. As we hum a tune it reinforces the song, making it easier to recall and be passed on to a new audience.
Many historians have used song lyrics to help understand the culture and consciousness of the people who sang and listened to them. It serves as a forum for public debate about manners, morals, politics and social change.
Whether the writers of Boney M’s hit singles wanted to impart a history lesson is unknown. The combination, however, of 1970s platform shoes and exotic dancing certainly brought history to life.
It also encouraged the sale of red capes.
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About the author
Sue Bell is an entertainment writer and author of Backpacked: A mostly true story, Beat Street and When Dreamworks came to Stanley.