Disco, it must be said, is generally not the most profound of genres. As a musical form for rhythmically moving to, it is quite outstanding, since it operates at a bpm (beats per minute) rate1 that is very conducive to such movement. As a backdrop for taking large quantities of illegal stimulants and showing off in ludicrous clothing in expensive nightclubs, it is equally well conceived. As a forum for informed debate on matters such as philosophy, history, politics and the like, however, it leaves a lot to be desired.
Frank Farian - A Lot To Answer For
It was against this backdrop that German Eurodisco act Boney M appeared. The brainchild of German producer Frank Farian2, by 1978 the group were regulars at the top end of the charts all over Europe. Having prepared the ground with five consecutive UK top ten hits, including the vague political mithering of 'Belfast' and the religious overtones of number one double A-side 'Rivers Of Babylon/Brown Girl In the Ring', Farian decided that the time was right to release Boney M's historical epic, a single detailing the life of one of history's most notorious and controversial characters. So it came to pass that in October 1978, 'Rasputin' was thrust onto an unprepared public.
'It Was A Shame How He Carried On'
With hindsight, it is easy to look back on this decision and see how inevitable it was that this would turn out to be one of the most ridiculous records of all time. We have already established that disco was not perhaps the most suitable medium for expressing complex stories. What is less obvious to those unfamiliar with their style is that Boney M were even less suited to such an approach than anyone else. Although Farian was German, and the group were formed in Germany, all of the members of the group were originally of West Indian origin and so spoke English as their first language. The lyrics to their songs, however, always sounded like they were written in German and then translated (badly) into English, which resulted in a lot of rather embarrassing phrasing and imagery. The job facing the group was difficult enough already, what with the problems of rhyme, meter and syntax to deal with, on top of trying to get the facts right, but combined with this idiosyncratic writing style there was never much chance of any sense resulting. 'Rasputin' took this unpromising premise and elevated it to a level that bordered on a sort of insane genius.
'Ra Ra Rasputin'
To truly appreciate the daftness of 'Rasputin', it is really necessary to listen to the song itself, or even better, to watch a video of it being performed. In this medium we sadly do not have that opportunity, so you may have to use your imaginations a little. Despite this, you may rest assured that whatever you think up is unlikely to be as lurid as the truth.
The first thing that will be obvious to anyone who knows the story of the rise and fall of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin is that much of the song is surprisingly factually accurate3. He was indeed a tall, strong man with a mesmerising quality (He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow,) who scandalised Russian society through his womanising and outrageous behaviour, (Most people looked at him with terror and with fear/But to Moscow chicks he was such a lovely dear,) yet was able to survive due to his hold over the tsarina (despite the fact she apparently knew he was a wheeler-dealer) as she believed he was able to control the bleeding of her haemophiliac son. What is more perplexing is the combination of beatnik jive talk and Mills And Boon gushing romantic cliché that is used to tell the story. In another memorable couplet, it is speculated that No doubt this Rasputin had lots of hidden charms/Though he was a brute they just fell into his arms, which would have been an interesting defence if he had ever ended up in court.
'But she just fell into my arms, yer honour!'
'Did she? Well, case dismissed then.....'
Despite Rasputin's well-documented attractiveness to the ladies of the Russian imperial court, it is doubtful that any of them ever described him as 'such a lovely dear', and if they had, when his enemies allegedly announced that 'this man's just got to go!' it is likely that their response would have been somewhat more strongly worded than don't you try to do it, please! Even less likely is the idea that even his best friend or worst enemy would describe him as Russia's greatest love machine, or a cat that really was gone.
'He Danced Really Wunderbar'
But even the song's lyrical eccentricity does not match the flamboyance of its performance. As has already been mentioned, disco was not a genre for shrinking violets, and anyone who has ever seen footage of Earth, Wind And Fire , Odyssey or any other big disco acts will know that the more excessive the stage outfits, the better. Even these luminaries had to bow down before Boney M's Top Of The Pops4 performance, however. In it, the three female members, (Marcia Barratt, Liz Mitchell and Maisie Williams,) were dressed in a sort of Rio carnival approximation of Russian courtly dress, dripping with beads, sequins, spandex and wearing elaborately bizarre headgear. Bobby Farrell managed to outdo even this with his equally unfeasible outfit, bare chest and enormous afro. To top off the performance, he also added some of the most incongruously energetic dancing ever seen on the programme, including high kicks, jumping splits and vague attempts at the famous cossack dance in a high-energy disco style. And all this from a man who seemed to have a voice like Barry White after 200 high-tar cigarettes5. Anyone who saw it would have wondered why the Russian nobility hadn't just left Rasputin to it and waited for him to have a heart attack.
'Oh, Those Russians.....'
Despite the obvious ludicrousness of their paean to one of history's most supposedly evil men, 'Rasputin' reached number two in the UK hit parade and remained in the chart for ten profitable weeks. It would also feature on the supremely camp 'Nightflight To Venus' LP, where its silliness would be counterpointed by the beautifully choreographed drum solo transition between the robotic album title track and 'Rasputin's stomping faux-Russian intro. Boney M went on to notch up another five top ten hits, including another number one in 'Mary's Boy Child' and several 'megamix' re-releases in the late 80s and early 90s. They amassed over 150 million sales worldwide before the cat really was gone.
It is therefore doubtful they minded that their records were so bloody daft.