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Boney M – No Woman No Cry

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The biggest tantrum I’ve ever thrown occurred when I was six, on the day I learned that Boney M’s Rivers of Babylon had been knocked off the no.1 spot by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John’s You’re the One That I Want. As far as I was concerned, Rivers of Babylon was obviously going to stay at the top forever because it was the best record ever. When the announcement was made on the radio and the awful truth dawned, I went nuclear – especially when it was pointed out to me that You’re the One That I Want was also quite good and I perhaps might want to grow up a little. My poor parents must have wondered what the hell they had created, but they quite sensibly let me get it out of my system – which involved a lot of crying, shouting and several hours sulking in my room.

First musical crushes are brilliant though, aren’t they? You won’t hear a word against whoever or whatever it is you happen to love and will defend your choice almost to the death. My father and I once had an almighty row when he pointed out that the theme from the BBC’s Miss Marple (my favourite show) was practically identical to the theme from Blackadder. Of course he was completely right, but try telling that to a petulant eleven year old. That kind of unreasonable fandom fades with time, but it never entirely goes away. I still love Boney M and consider them to be very cool indeed – they were one of my first big musical crushes after ABBA, and it certainly looked like I’d backed a winner. By the end of the 1970s they held two spots in the top ten best selling singles of all time in the UK. And guess what? They still do.

Colossal (if short-lived) popularity and declining overall sales in subsequent years may have conspired to keep them in that exclusive chart, but history itself has not been so kind, bestowing upon them a kind of naffness which nobody seemed to notice or care about at the time. There is no long-running, much-loved Boney M musical playing in the West End (though in 2006 an attempt was made: Daddy Cool, starring Michelle Collins as Ma Baker in a show which also took in the collected works of Milli Vanilli and La Bouche). Meryl Streep is probably not taking calls about a movie adaptation.

For today’s entry we’re going back to the beginning of Boney M, and 1976’s debut album Take the Heat Off Me. I’m quite certain that the sleeve (partial nudity alert!) guaranteed it would never have made it into the house, but at some point I must have heard their version of No Woman No Cry, despite it not ever being a single. I know this because I almost always cry when I hear it and I get a craving for Farley’s Rusks, which I retained a fondness for long after I was supposed to have outgrown them. It was well into the 1980s before I even found out it was a cover version and that some considered it an almost sacrilegious one. But if you ask me, Boney M (or to be more accurate, their mastermind Frank Farian) were the greatest risk takers in all of pop history. Like the BBC, their mission was to educate, inform and entertain, and boy did they do all three. It is thanks to them that I gained an early awareness of Russian history, the Troubles, the Chicago gangs and a freedom fighter named El Lute (who was possibly a distant cousin of Fernando), all while spinning around manically in my living room/bedroom/kitchen. Cover Bob Marley and the Wailers in a Europop style? Sure, why not?

Of course the other Boney M mission was to make towering piles of cash, and Frank Farian clearly understood that you could do that with just about any subject as long as you made people feel good at the same time. Cover versions served a useful purpose here – yes, the royalties went to someone else, but they were quick to do, meant you could get the album out faster and provided welcome title recognition when on-the-fence potential purchasers were scanning the back of the LP. No Woman No Cry was (I think) already a classic by the time their version came along and it played nicely into the group’s 50% Jamaican heritage. If it was thrown together in a hurry, it doesn’t show – the vocals are stunning, the strings are the most Boney M-ish of all Boney M string arrangements and the “everything’s gonna be alright” chant is incredibly affecting (when it was later sampled by Naughty by Nature in 1991 I was teary for days). Basically, it’s a glorious record.

Now, I’ve always struggled to quite grasp the meaning of the song, possibly because I was barely using sentences when I first heard it. I used to think that it was telling us not to blubber just because we didn’t have a girlfriend, but Wikipedia informs me it’s supposed to be an assurance to a woman that things will improve and that she should absolutely not be crying. If that is indeed the case, then the Boney M version absolutely nails the spirit of it and I shall no longer feel bad for feeling completely euphoric whenever I hear it. All I cared about before I became aware of any of this was that this song sounded completely brilliant and that the lady singing (Liz Mitchell – always at pains to point out that she IS the voice of Boney M) was amazing. That’s all I care about now, too.

Despite – and perhaps because of – Frank Farian’s best efforts during the 1980s and 90s to obliterate all the original versions with new mixes featuring impossibly annoying clap tracks, Boney M have never quite risen above being the pop equivalent of a relative you secretly love but always stick in the back row of family photographs – an outrageous practice and naturally not one I ever indulge in. I am proud to love Boney M – then, now and forever.

boney_m-_-_take_the_heat_off_me_1976Entered chart: Criminally, was not released as a single.

Who could sing this today and have a hit? I have a vision of this being an X Factor group performance, and boy do I wish I could get rid of it.

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