423. ‘Rivers of Babylon’ / ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’, by Boney M

I’m going to describe the intro of this next #1, in case you’ve never heard it, as Chicory Tip’s ‘Son of My Father’ spliced with Johnny Mathis’ ‘When a Child Is Born’. I’m not sure if that sounds horrendous or amazing. Either way, the rest of the song sounds very little like this weird, waves-washing, rocket-landing intro…

Rivers of Babylon / Brown Girl in the Ring, by Boney M (their 1st of two #1s)

5 weeks, from 7th May – 11th June 1978

The rhythm comes in, and we have a new genre atop the charts: discalypso. Oh, yes. A pounding beat spliced with steel drums. By the rivers of Babylon, Where we sat down… They’re not your average disco lyrics, either… Yeah we wept, As we remembered Zion… It’s distinctive, it’s new, it’s two sounds that have appeared plenty of times in this countdown – disco and reggae – reimagined. But… It’s not great. It plods along, you see, and the pious lyrics bog it down. Why would you want to dance to a song with lyrics like: Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song, In a strange land… To think that this was a number one for Boney M, and not ‘Daddy Cool’ or ‘Rasputin’ upsets me.

When you lump this in with recent chart-toppers from Baccara and Brotherhood of Man, it’s clear that this kind of Eurodisco is becoming a popular chart force. I was going to call it ‘Eurotrash’, but that seems harsh on a song that is literally quoting the Bible. Plus, when you add the fact that the original – a Jamaican hit from 1970 – is all about Rastafarian persecution (‘Babylon’ being slang for the police), and the obvious comparison with Desmond Dekker’s seminal ‘Israelites’, there’s clearly more to this tune than first meets the ears.

Long term readers of this blog will know that one of my pet peeves is a double-‘A’ holding two similar soundings songs. Alas, that’s what we have here. In fact, Boney M up the steel drums and go all out on a Caribbean nursery rhyme. Brown girl in the ring, Tra-lala-lala! (the tra-lalas get quite annoying, quite quickly) She looks like a sugar in a plum! At least this one has a slightly more urgent tempo to it, compared to ‘Rivers of Babylon’, but any foot-tapping that occurs is a knee-jerk response. It’s another one I can’t imagine dancing to…

I suppose it is quite cool that an old West Indian folk song appeared at the top of the UK singles charts, talking about fried fish and Johnny cakes, and the fact that nobody is quite sure where or when it first originated means that it could be our ‘oldest’ ever #1. But both these songs have you checking how long is left (neither needs to run for over four minutes!), and to listen to both on repeat, as I have just been doing, is a slog.

But what do I know? ‘Rivers of Babylon’ / ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’ is officially the 7th best-selling single in British chart history, one of only seven discs to sell over two million copies. Why? Well, the late-seventies was pretty much the peak era for single sales – ‘Mull of Kintyre’ was another massive seller we met not long ago – and I’ll be posting several more over the coming weeks. Plus, after ‘Rivers…’ had kept this record at #1 for five weeks in May, DJs simply flipped the disc, started playing ‘Brown Girl…’ and the record shot back up to #2 in September!

Boney M were nominally a West German band (their first seven releases all hit #1 on the German charts!), but all four members were of Caribbean origin, which at least gives these two tunes some authenticity. They’d been a chart force in the UK since ’76, and they will be back on this countdown soon enough with, yes, another disco-hymn. Yay…! As I write, the band are having a comeback in the charts of 2021, with a remix of their masterpiece ‘Rasputin’ (Russia’s greatest love-machine!) Maybe it’ll finally get to #1…?

20 thoughts on “423. ‘Rivers of Babylon’ / ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’, by Boney M

  1. Boney M were like a disco Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich – you just couldn’t get away from them for a couple of years at their peak, but they were catchy and the records were well-made, even if they drove you bonkers after a few months (or days). Interesting Wiki article about Bobby Farrell, revealing that he hardly if ever sang on the records at all and was later deprived of his rights over the group’s hits by producer Frank Farian (who actually was the singer) – and spookily, Bobby died in the same city and same day/month of the year as Rasputin. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Farrell

  2. I was rather fond of Rivers Of Babylon, their best track since Daddy Cool, although Ma Baker was pretty much fun (about gangster Ma Barker, more or less). One of Boney M’s best features, apart from bringing back calypso, was the unpredictable subject matter of the songs – they actually 100% had a hit about the troubles in Northern Ireland! They didn’t do love songs!

    That said, I continue to pout at the rewriting of history because Brown Girl In The Ring has no place in the Hall of Number One Hits because it wasn’t a double A side when Rivers Of Babylon topped the chart. It played no part in the success of Rivers Of Babylon, and just turned out that it had a bloody catchy throwaway B side that kids & parties loved. Many people who’d bought Babylon had no idea that the “follow-up” was the B side (like me, they must have rarely played B sides!). It was only when it picked up airplay that it was turned into a double A side, so really Rivers Of Babylon was a number one and had dropped to number 20 by July 22nd, with Brown Girl In The Ring picking up plays after that and ultimately peaking at number 2 weeks after it got made a double A side last week in July, by which time no-one was playing Babylon much. So, sales are huge because it’s essentially 2 singles and quite a few prob bought it twice, hah! 🙂

    1. I’d be more than happy to write ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’ from the #1 record books… Was it a canny decision from the band/record label to simply push the B-side as the follow up single, or did it happen organically? I can imagine a prat like Mike Read starting to play it and making it a hit…

      1. I’m not sure TBH, but it was certainly getting radio play so maybe it was a bit of a buzz about the track that persuaded the record label to push it once Babylon was on the decline and past radio playlisting..?

  3. Just last month while listening to the Hit Parade podcast I learned a lot about Boney M than I would have expected as its creator Frank Farian would become better known for introducing the world to the successful and now infamous Milli Vanilli a decade later. Boney M were basically no different than Milli Vanilli considering Farian created the group after songs with his voice started taking off under the Boney M name. And yet even in the high disco era, Boney M weren’t that successful across the Atlantic with “Rivers of Babylon” being their only Top 40 hit peaking at #30. As host Chris Molanphy points out, perhaps Boney M were too European and exotic to cross over to the US market even though a decade later Milli Vanilli would become an absolute hit machine here in the short time they were big before everything fell apart. But they were sampled in a #1 hit 30 years later with Lady Gaga using the “Mum-mum-mum-mah” hook from “Ma Baker” for “Poker Face” and despite never charting on the Hot 100, “Rasputin” does seem to be a big favorite considering aside from the recent remix people have been using it on TikTok and it’s a big song on the Just Dance 2 video game. I will say after listening to the podcast, I’ve gotten “Rasputin” stuck in my head a lot lately.

    https://slate.com/podcasts/hit-parade/2021/05/milli-vanilli-grammys-controversy-stuck-tape-incident-dance-pop-influence

    1. Boney M are the sort of band that, without any research, you could confidently predict were not big in the US. Too European, too camp… And yes, Rasputin is a song that lodges if you allow it residence in your brain…

      1. Yeah pretty much. Also, I’d highly recommend checking out Netflix’s new series This is Pop which has an episode on the ‘90s Britpop scene which made me learn just how seriously the Brits take their music showing the massive coverage over the Blur/Oasis chart battle and how it all connected with the renewed hope and optimism of the New Britannia era. This is insane for me as an American. Not that people here rally around artists and the charts but nothing like this.

        Also, it’s my birthday today and in celebration I posted on the most obvious song I could talk about
        https://dorazihitparade.com/2021/06/25/random-tracks-taylor-swifts-22/

      2. Sounds interesting. I’d heard other people mentioning the series too. To be honest, the Oasis Vs Blur week wasn’t normal. I was nine, with little interest in music, and I can remember it being news. That being said, I think downloading/streaming has killed off a lot of general interest in the singles charts. Going to a shop to buy a single – something I can just about remember – felt more like a casting a vote for your song or act of choice. Plus, Top of the Pops – the BBC rundown of the charts- stopped airing in 2006 so people don’t have it piped into their living rooms each week. Nowadays only the Xmas chart makes the news, or weeks where Bieber or Sheeran dominate the top 5 and oldies can complain about how everything new is terrible

      3. Yeah that does not sound normal! During the days of record buying in America, it seems like people bought albums and singles largely for themselves or support an artist when they release a massive album rather than supporting their placement on the charts or casting a vote. The closest we had to a TOTP style program was the American Top 40 radio program that just recapped the past week’s chart while performance shows like American Bandstand and Soul Train highlighted a lot of current acts but not in a chart countdown way. You do make a good point with how the digital listening technology along with the cancellation of chart countdown programs has kind of dimmed interest in seeing what happens on the charts. In America, people at large only pay attention to the charts whenever some massive controversy happens like what happened with “Old Town Road” which is mentioned in the series. But still, there is a seriousness that Brits take in their charts that I don’t see anywhere else whether it’s the Christmas #1, acts like Sheeran clogging everything up, or older songs constantly getting big.

      1. badfinger20 (Max)

        Yes….I can understand number 1 but I see what you are talking about….it’s spotty.

  4. I kinda like Brown Girl In The Ring better. I’ve heard the name Boney M but, I don’t recall hearing these pieces. I remember the Milli Vanilli debacle but, I don’t recall hearing their music, either.

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