Dr. David Shevin photograph


July, 2005

For all of the evidence and for all of the popular culture reinforcement that love makes people do the stupidest things of all, I remain convinced that political paranoia can make for even stranger actions than love ever brings us to. My case in point is the treatment by the 1985 Soviet government of the Eurotrash disco group Boney M and their hit “Rasputin”.

Boney M was an assemblage of singers from Germany and the West Indies who tore up the disco charts in Europe in the early ‘80s. While relatively unknown in the United States, the group had eight No 1. hits in the European Charts, including “Daddy Cool", "Ma Baker", "Belfast", "Rasputin", and "Mary's Boy Child". They sold over 40 million albums and more than 65 million singles worldwide. Led by gravelly baritone Frank Farian, the band presented a lively party sound featuring the one male and three male voices.

Farian presented an interesting phenomenon in music marketing. Growing up near American military base life in Germany, he was immersed in U.S. culture and music. His early attempts at marketing his songs were not largely successful. Influenced by singers like Sam Cooke and Little Richard, he found that the German music scene wanted him to be more German in his approach to his art. "No one wanted my music," he recalls. "It was better from America. A white singer singing black music wouldn't work. The record companies sent me back to German music." So Farian convinced Ghanaian Reggie Tsiboe to pose with the women singers of Boney M for publicity shots. Later on, Tsiboe would perform with the band.

Now, back in those days of disco and excess, my brothers and I would amuse each other by sending tapes back and forth of the most ridiculous music we could find. A true treasure of these was the Boney M hit “Rasputin. The song recounts the Romanov’s favored monk as a religious-sexual dynamo to rival Jim Bakker. The setting combines the drums-and-bass standards of that moment’s popular production with both synthesizers and balalaikas:

“There lived a certain man in Russia long ago He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow Most people looked at him with terror and with fear But to Moscow chicks he was such a lovely dear.”

This led to a rousing, shouting chorus:

“RA RA RASPUTIN Lover of the Russian queen There was a cat that really was gone RA RA RASPUTIN Russia's greatest love machine It was a shame how he carried on.”

The lyric to this song was nothing short of remarkable. There are accusations of the monk kidnapping children of his sexual conquests, of his falling from royal favor, only to have his life saved by a harem of sex-slaves. The band even extols the monk’s skill at dance (“He ruled the Russian land and never mind the Czar / But the kasachok he danced really wunderbar”). Then his famous death is recounted in intricate detail, not missing a stabbing, poisoning, or shooting. By the time the final chorus rolls around, it’s

“RA RA RASPUTIN Lover of the Russian queen They didn't quit, they wanted his head RA RA RASPUTIN Russia's greatest love machine And so they shot him till he was dead.”

You can’t simply put a song premise like that to rest without punctuation. After the instrumentalists have played their resolutions comes Farian’s voice to summarize what has passed in the previous three minutes: “Oh, those Russians!”

Years and decades passed when I did not give a thought to this classic of stupid music. Then my younger brother told me that a teenaged Russian émigré was blasting that old Rasputin song while partying with friends. How would a kid in 2005 come up with that old song from the age of Carry White and Donna Summer, we wondered. So I visited the Boney M official web page, only to discover how the band entered the Soviet underground. The year was 1985, and the age of Gorbachev-era liberalization was in full swing. Many of us have memories of Western performers like Billy Joel and Paul McCartney performing for screaming crowds in Red Square. This was cultural side of the dying throes of the cold war.

Now, according to The First and Official Boney M Webpage, “Boney M were actually the first western pop band to perform concerts in the then called Soviet Union. They were the first European group to perform at Moscow's Red Square where they made a Video. For ‘historical’ reasons, the song ‘Rasputin’ was not allowed to be performed.”

There it is! Western revisionist history was not interpreted musically in Red Square in 1985. Forbid the artists to perform their dissembling of Russian history in Red Square, and you create a subversive phenomenon. Then 20 years after the banning, a dissident Russian girl in the new world will rattle her neighbors’ windows with the bass-and-balalaikas of “Rasputin”. Oh! Those Russians!

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