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Daddy Cool, Rasputin are still a rage: Liz Mitchell of Boney M


Liz Mitchell at Phoenix Market City, Kurla, Mumbai

ON November 21 and 22, popular 1970s disco group Boney M, featuring original vocalist Liz Mitchell, rocked at Phoenix Market City, Kurla, and Willingdon Gymkhana, Santa Cruz. Besides popular hits like ‘Daddy Cool’, ‘Rasputin’, ‘Sunny’, ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’ and ‘Rivers of Babylon’, it stormed the crowd with ‘Maa Baker’, ‘It’s a Holi-holi-day’, ‘No Woman No Cry’, ‘Malaica’, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, ‘Bahama Mama’ and a wonderful version of the Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’.

Boney M was the brainchild of German record producer Frank Farian, who named the group after an Australian detective show ‘Boney’. Besides Liz, the early line-up included Maizie Williams, Marcia Barrett and Bobby Farrell, who passed away in 2010.

In the Mumbai shows, Liz had a wonderful stage persona. She displayed a unique voice that blended her Jamaican roots with her London upbringing, and a fantastic range. Whether it was a disco stomper or a slow ‘a cappella’ piece, her notes were perfect.

Before her shows, this writer spoke to Liz over the telephone for an article published in the dummy run of ‘The Hindu’, which was launched in Mumbai on November 28. Excerpts:

It’s been 40 years since Boney M first became a rage. Can you talk about your early association with the group?

Frank Farian, the producer, had a fantastic vision to do dance music influenced by sounds of the Caribbean. I joined in January 1976, and soon we had a string of hits like ‘Daddy Cool’, ‘Sunny’, ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’ etc. The rest, to use a cliché, is history. We had a huge tide of success in our first four albums, and ‘Daddy Cool’ and ‘Rasputin’ were played all over. We released a few albums after that but politics in the music business interfered with our success.

What went wrong?

The business had changed. The politics in our record company became bigger. We too had problems struggling with our own success. Expectations of fans ran too high and it was difficult to consistently match them. Punk music had become the latest craze. Bobby Farrell’s departure from the band had its own effect.

You yourself have been in out of the Boney M scene since the late 1980s. Was that a conscious decision?

Travelling the world is very difficult. I love being with my family. In fact, the singers accompanying me are my family members, one being my sister. Most of my family members work with me. They all love Boney M and can reproduce the music well.

An older generation grew up on your music. But how many of the younger audiences identify with Boney M?

They get to know of us somehow. Songs like ‘Daddy Cool’, ‘Rasputin’ and ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’ are still played in clubs and restaurants. So many others. Many have been sampled by modern musicians. At our shows, the youngsters really enjoy even if they are hearing us for the first time.

Being in a disco or dance music group, did it restrict you from exploring other forms?

I personally listen to all kinds of music, be it jazz, blues, gospel, reggae, classical, rock, country, you name it. Each genre has something to offer. Music is a universal language. Boney M was great at its own style, and we stuck to that. Good we did.


Of Donna Summer and the disco era

FOR many born in the 1960s, Donna Summer would have been an early favourite. After all, they would be in their teens when the disco craze swept the music world. The earlier generation would have had direct exposure to the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Cliff Richard, whereas the next generation would have caught Michael Jackson and MTV in the early stages of their popularity.

With Donna Summer’s death on May 17, the pop universe has lost a trendsetter. Suddenly, memories of growing up on the songs ‘Love To Love You Baby’, ‘Hot Stuff’, ‘I Feel Love’, ‘Bad Girls’ and ‘She Works Hard For The Money’ are doing the rounds. Her collaboration with producer Giorgio Moroder, which blended her sensuous vocals and a dance music flavour with a very Kraftwerk-influenced electronic sound, is being talked about. After all, nobody deserved the title of ‘Disco Queen’ more than her.

Donna’s fame came during the golden era of disco — the second half of the 1970s. At that time, many acts were blossoming across Europe and the US, resulting in a wide variety of fresh sounds, ranging from disco and Europop to synth-pop and funk-pop. Michael Jackson had arrived, but was yet to become the worldwide phenomenon he became with 1982’s ‘Thriller’.

Those were the days when pop music was heard, and not seen. There was no MTV, and the radio played an important role in artiste promotion. Compared to the 1980s, media hype was much lower. And yet, artistes became popular strictly on the basis of the quality of music they produced.

On hearing of Donna’s death last night, that entire disco era came flashing back to mind. Besides her, some of the biggest pop acts those days were ABBA, the Carpenters, Boney M and Bee Gees. Of these, only the Carpenters didn’t come in the disco segment, though their melodic pop was immensely popular. Most of ABBA’s songs were pure Europop, but hits like ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Voulez Vous’ and ‘Summer Night City’ were a rage on the dance floors. Boney M were the champions of Euro-disco, and Bee Gees changed their earlier balladsy sound to spearhead the disco movement with ‘Saturday Night Fever’.

Those days, disco hits were produced like cakes at a bakery. Before 1975, we had Manu Dibango’s ‘Soul Makosa’, George McRae’s ‘Rock Your Baby’, the Jackson 5’s ‘Dancing Machine’, Barry White’s ‘You’re The First, The Last, My Everything’ and the Carl Douglas-Biddu collaboration ‘Kung Fu Fighting. That list only kept expanding.

Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’, Giorgio Moroder’s ‘From Here To Eternity’, Village People’s ‘YMCA’, Van McCoy’s ‘The Hustle’, KC & The Sunshine Band’s ‘That’s The Way (I Like It)’ and ‘Shake Shake Shake’, the Trammps’ ‘Disco Inferno’, Ottowan’s ‘D.I.S.C.O’, Kool & The Gang’s ‘Celebration’ and Lipps Inc’s ‘Funky Town’ are played to this day. Cerrone was a rage of the time, with the hits ‘Love In C Minor’ and ‘Supernature’. And some of Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’ songs — specially the extra-popular ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’ — fall in the disco category.

Some songs came, conquered and vanished. ‘Le Freak’ by Chic, ‘Ring My Bell’ by Anita Ward,’Shadow Dancing’ by Andy Gibb, ‘One Way Ticket’ by Eruption, ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’ by Baccara, ‘Born To Be Alive’ by Patrick Hernandez, ‘WeAre Family’ by Sister Sledge and ‘Dance Little Lady’ by Tina Charles had their phases. Artistes from other genres also cashed in on the disco wave — notable examples being Rod Stewart’s ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’, David Bowie’s ‘Johnny I’m Only Dancing Again’, Diana Ross’s ‘Upside Down’ and George Benson’s ‘Give Me The Night’. Western classical music got a disco twist with the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ piece ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’. Here in India, music directors like Bappi Lahiri got into disco too, with ‘Disco Dancer’ and ‘Disco Station’.

Alas, like many sudden crazes, disco too died a natural death. By the beginning of the 1980s, the genre had become passé. Artistes began getting repetitive, and the new entrants never added any value.

Tastes changed too. The same audiences who grew up on disco were now describing it as unfashionable, primarily because they themselves had moved on to other genres like rock, metal or jazz. With the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna  and Whitney Houston, the next generation was exposed to another brand of pop. Following MTV’s launch in 1981, even pop musicians changed their approach and sound. Video had killed the radio star.

No one can, of course, deny the huge influence the disco phase has had on future generations. Electronic dance music is huge these days, and its various variants — techno, house, trance and dubstep, to name a few — actually find their roots in the dance music and disco of the 1970s. In that sense, Paul Van Dyk, Sasha, Armin Van Buuren, David Guetta and other currently-popular DJs owe it directly or indirectly to the era of Girogio Moroder and, yes, Donna Summer. Rest in peace, Disco Queen.

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