Monthly Archives: August 2013

European Disco

This is a highly specific blog entry which might be lost on any readers who weren’t in PHV at roughly the same time I was, and still might not mean much depending on your or your parents’ musical tastes.  But nevertheless, it’s tied to PHV and living in Germany for me, so here goes.  There is some bonus trivia at the end for people who remember pop music of the late 1980s.

Being born at the tail end of 1972, I was too young to really be fully aware of the whole disco movement.  I have vague memories of it, such as my mom taking disco dance lessons at a studio not far from Campbell Barracks, and I remember TV shows such as Solid Gold and Dance Fever, the latter being a game show where amateur couples would show off their moves and get scored (from 1-100?) by a panel of what I believe were celebrity judges.  Witness this extremely cheesy TV commercial:

Later, upon returning to the States, I remember seeing “Disco Sucks” graffiti here and there, but I didn’t really have a solid grasp on the rise and fall of the disco scene until years after it had passed and I’d gotten older.  So while I was alive during the disco fad, it mostly went over my head since I was still fairly young.

There are a handful of disco songs from my days in PHV which have always been half-buried in my memories.  I could remember a few lines of lyrics or maybe the melody, but didn’t know what band performed them or what the song titles were.  There are some isolated memories of Germany, such as wandering on a soccer field during a school field trip while the speakers blared similar music, that always bring these songs bubbling back to the surface momentarily.  I’ve always assumed that these songs were big hits which anyone from that era would know, right alongside the Bee Gees and whatever else was popular at the time.  A few years ago I set off on an internet investigation to finally identify these vaguely remembered songs, which disproved my original theory that they were Abba songs.  Finally, I discovered that they were performed by a band which was extremely popular in Europe but virtually unknown in the USA:  Boney M.

That name didn’t even ring a bell for me when I first came across it, but I definitely recognized some of their music — songs like Ma Baker, Rivers of Babylon, and Rasputin had been bouncing around in a dusty corner of my brain ever since my elementary school days at PHV.  Take a listen to Rasputin in this unintentionally funny video, a song which was popular enough to inspire another band to name themselves Ra Ra Rasputin:

I learned that Boney M has a long and contentious history which I won’t bore you with here, but it turns out that I really only knew them from their album Night Flight to Venus, and maybe a couple songs from the previous album.  It still boggles my mind that this band was never known in the US, because I remember some of the songs on that album being huge–HUGE–in my limited view of popular music back in PHV.

Now, before I can reveal the bonus 80s trivia, a little groundwork needs to be laid first.  It turns out that Boney M was the brainchild of a German producer named Frank Farian.  In fact, the male vocals in that Rasputin video above?  That’s Frank singing, and the guy in the video is just a dancer, Bobby Farrell, who was hired to lip sync the vocals and be the group’s public front man.  Bobby’s from Aruba, but you can clearly hear the German accent in the vocals.  Apparently back in those days, lip syncing was fairly common and everybody knew it was going on but nobody cared.

So, after the disco era went away, Frank Farian decided to put together another group similar to Boney M but with more current music.  He found a couple dancers who looked good on stage and were happy to lip sync vocals that were actually sung by others.  This band became huge in the States and had several hits.  But what Frank didn’t count on was that public opinion of lip syncing had reversed itself.  When it was revealed that this band was lip syncing, there was great public outcry which spelled the end of this band’s dominance of the US charts.

Have you guessed this 80s band yet?

It was Milli Vanilli!

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