The career of producer Frank Farian had a divisive impact. To fans of his music, which sold millions of copies, he was a reliable source of simple and enjoyable pop music. Much like Giorgio Moroder, another artist-turned-producer from Munich, Farian wanted to break away from singing schlager, a popular type of MOR (middle-of-the-road) music in central and northern Europe. He enlisted the help of Munich’s renowned session musicians, known as the Munich Machine. However, unlike Moroder, Farian’s productions were not groundbreaking or highly praised by critics. He also never fully left behind the world of bubblegum pop. Boney M’s hits in 1976 and 1977, “Daddy Cool” and “Ma Baker,” were essentially revamped bubblegum music for the disco era. They were well-crafted and produced, with catchy melodies (such as the bassline and string arrangement on “Daddy Cool” and the call-and-response verses on “Ma Baker”). Lady Gaga even sampled one of the melodies from “Ma Baker” on her hit song “Poker Face.” However, these records were not considered revolutionary in the same way that Brian Eno famously described Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”
Farian’s critics viewed him as a deceitful imposter, who specialized in promoting musical artists who did not actually sing on the records credited to their names. While this was a common practice in the 1970s pop industry (for example, White Plains’ 1970 hit “My Baby Loves Lovin'” featured different bands in the promotional film and Top of the Pops performance, neither of which included the singers Alvin Stardust and Alan Williams from the Rubettes), it was not always the case with Farian’s productions. Precious Wilson, with whom Farian had successful hits as Eruption in the late 1970s, had a remarkable singing voice. However, it was true for Farian’s two most popular artists. Milli Vanilli had to return their best new artist Grammy when their deception was exposed, and neither Bobby Farrell nor Mazie Williams sang the vocals they mimed to in Boney M.
Despite facing accusations of deceit, Farian remained unaffected. Following the sudden downfall of Milli Vanilli’s career, one of its members, Rob Pilatus, passed away from a drug overdose in 1998. However, Farian made a comeback within a few years, achieving commercial success once again with a new boyband called No Mercy. If one were to check the credits on Boney M’s 1979 album Oceans of Fantasy, it was evident that Farrell and Williams only appeared on the cover and had no involvement in its creation. Despite this, the album still reached platinum status in Europe and produced multiple hit singles.
Farian had the ability to create both commercially successful songs that appealed to the lowest common denominator, as well as truly excellent disco tracks that did not require any special justification. On one end of the spectrum, there is the terrible Hooray! Hooray! It’s A Holi-Holiday! by Boney M, a hit song that essentially uses the melody of the children’s song Polly Wolly Doodle with a moderate dance beat. On the other end, there is the exciting blend of dramatic orchestration and Afrobeat-inspired brass in He Was a Steppenwolf from their 1978 album Nightflight to Venus, or the incredibly funky Dancing in the Streets from the same year.
Boney M’s body of work does not appear to be cynical in hindsight, mainly because it now seems strange. Farian had a fascination with covering unlikely songs. Listening to Boney M’s first single “Baby, Do You Wanna Bump?” – a success in Europe but not the UK – is a strangely unsettling experience: it bears a resemblance to “Gangsters” by The Specials, as it is based on the ska record “Al Capone” by Prince Buster. Boney M also covered Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?,” Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” and The Yardbirds’ Gregorian chant-inspired song “Still I’m Sad,” which served as a signpost on the way to psychedelia. They even covered two freakbeat anthems from the mid-1960s. Five years before the Creation inspired the name of Alan McGee’s record label, Boney M achieved a Top 10 hit with their version of “Painter Man” from 1967. A year later, they were back on the charts with a cover of The Smoke’s “My Friend Jack,” despite the fact that the original from 1967 had been banned by the BBC for being an obvious ode to the Summer of Love trend of consuming LSD-laced sugar cubes.
During my 2005 interview with him at a quiet London hotel, I inquired about this topic. Farian appeared puzzled and explained that the songs were simply ones he enjoyed listening to, despite his record label pressuring him to produce schlager music. He saw his success with the group as an opportunity to finally create music he personally liked, as a sort of compensation.
Their unique material was hardly any less peculiar, like their song “Rasputin” which was an unexpected choice for a Euro-disco hit, both then and now. The song became even stranger due to its portrayal of the Siberian mystic’s actions, including influencing Tsar Nicholas II to take charge of Russian forces during WWI, ultimately leading to the downfall of the Romanovs and the rise of communism. The lyrics nonchalantly state “it was a shame how he carried on.” However, this was not the most unlikely topic for Boney M, as they also released “Belfast,” a Euro-disco song about the Troubles, which surprisingly reached the Top 10 just months after seven IRA bombs exploded in London’s West End. When asked about the controversial song, producer Farian remarked, “I don’t think this was the best fit for Boney M. It’s too serious.”
The music of Boney M, unlike their 70s Europop rivals Abba, has not received the same critical reevaluation. This often leads to forgetting the immense popularity and reach of their songs. Despite this, iconic hits like “Rivers of Babylon” and “Brown Girl in the Ring” are rarely heard today, even on oldies radio. However, in 1978, the double A-side became the second highest-selling single of all time in the UK and remains one of only seven singles to sell over 2 million copies in Britain after 46 years. When asked about Abba’s more “normal” image, Farian nonchalantly responded, but it’s worth noting that songs like “Knowing Me Knowing You” or “The Winner Takes it All” seem to possess a certain artistry and emotional depth that may be lacking in “Brown Girl in the Ring” or “Daddy Cool.”
Although Farian’s work may not receive the same level of recognition as the songs of Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, it is unlikely to be completely forgotten. In today’s digital age, even the most unexpected content from the past can experience a resurgence in popularity through online virality, disregarding traditional standards of critical acclaim. This was evident in 2021 when “Rasputin” reappeared on the charts due to its popularity on TikTok and a dance remix that stayed true to the original song. It is not improbable for something similar to occur again in the future.