430. ‘Mary’s Boy Child / Oh My Lord’, by Boney M

One of this blog’s main drawbacks rears its head once again: Christmas songs in July. Oh well… Boney M’s 2nd discalypso hymn of the year. Ready?

Mary’s Boy Child / Oh My Lord, by Boney M (their 2nd of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 3rd – 31st December 1978

It’s a wonder why more acts don’t do this: rush out a Christmas single while at the peak of their popularity. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because the results might sound a bit like this… The steel drums are back, the insistent, steady pace of ‘Rivers of Babylon’ remains. It could be the same, karaoke-ish backing track.

But we do get off to a positive start when I realise that ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ / ‘Oh My Lord’ is not the double ‘A’-side I’d first feared; but a medley. Our first (official) chart-topping medley! (*Edit* Since Winnie Atwell.) And thank goodness because, for my money, the ‘Oh My Lord’ section – newly written by Boney M’s founder Frank Farian – is the best thing about this song. Oh my Lord, When in the crib they found him, Oh my Lord, A golden halo around him… as a backing singer harmonises. It’s nice.

We’ve heard the main bit of song atop the charts before, of course, way back in 1957. Harry Belafonte’s treatment of it was a bit more hushed and reverential. Not that Boney M sound sacrilegious or anything – they do sound genuinely Christian – but it’s hard to sound too pious with that rinky-dink Eurodisco backing. One thing that does work is the way that the band’s Caribbean accents add a slight gospel flavour to the vocals.

One thing that seems to be a very late-seventies phenomenon is the length of our chart-topping singles. This must be the era of the longest average #1. The 7” of this ditty runs to close on six minutes, while the 12” keeps things running for another minute or so. Why, oh why? Pop songs rarely need to run over 3.5 minutes, I’d say, yet disco seemed to encourage indulgence.

Again, as the song plods on and the minutes pass, my mind turns to wondering why this, and ‘Rivers of Babylon’, gave Boney M their pair of chart-toppers, and not ‘Rasputin’, ‘Daddy Cool’, ‘Sunny’, even ‘Ma Baker’… Rare is it, I suppose, for an artist to be properly represented by their chart positions. Anyway, this was the fourth festive themed Christmas #1 of the 1970s – after Slade, Mud and Johnny Mathis – making it officially the Christmassiest decade ever. It’ll be six years until the next one. But, on the plus side, we are about to enter 1979, and are on the cusp of some all-time great chart-topping singles. Bring it on!

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…?

375. ‘Barbados’, by Typically Tropical

Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome aboard Coconut Airlines… It’s August ’75, and we’re spending the summer in the Caribbean.

Barbados, by Typically Tropical (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 3rd – 10th August 1975

‘Captain Tobias Wilcock’ delivers a pretty convincing pre-flight welcome, detailing our cruising altitude and speed, sounding just like what you might hear if you stepped on a plane today. Until he reminds us to refrain from smoking until the aircraft is airborne… that is. Ah, the seventies.

Woah, I’m going to Barbados, Woah, Back to the palm trees… Let’s address the elephant in the room before going any further. We’ve got two white guys, one of whom is giving us a heavy Caribbean accent (ah, the seventies…) I’m going to see my girlfriend, In the sunny Caribbean sea…

London’s rainy, Brixton’s a mess: it’s time to go home. ‘Barbados’ is one of the first ‘summer holiday’ hits – not a song about summer (we’ve had plenty of them); more a song that sums up the summer holiday feeling – the escape from the daily grind to a world of sun and cocktails. A song that wouldn’t hit #1 at any other time of year. (The ‘90s will be the peak of this phenomenon, when record buyers will send one cheesy Europop record after another to the top of the charts.)

However, the singer doesn’t seem to have much intention of coming back from Barbados. Maybe he’s there to stay. Maybe this isn’t a holiday hit at all! The fact his girlfriend is called ‘Mary Jane’ adds another layer to it… Maybe he’s just high as a kite? Layers upon layers… The song itself is catchy – I like the twiddly synth riff – but very disposable. By the end, the cabin crew have taken over again, preparing us for landing: The weather is fine, with a maximum temperature of ninety degrees Fahrenheit… Sounds lovely!

If time and space permitted, I might make more of social commentary on the growing accessibility of foreign travel in the 1970s, and the growing impact of the Windrush generation on British culture. Plus, there’s this decade’s clear and undying love for a novelty single. All of which culminate in a week at the top for Typically Tropical, who were two Trojan Records engineers, Jeff Calvert and Max West, stepping out from behind their mixing desks to record this single. It is a 100% certified one-hit wonder: none of their later singles charted at all.

I knew this song as a teen, as ‘We’re Going to Eat Pizza’… sorry… ‘We’re Going to Ibiza’, in which it was neither sampled nor covered, more reimagined, by one of those Euro-cheese acts I mentioned earlier: The Vengaboys. I’m not linking to it, though, as we’ll be meeting it atop the charts in twenty-four years.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that yet again this is a record completely absent from Spotify. It’s interesting to observe that it wasn’t until 1972 that I encountered this problem. All those pre-rock ‘n’ roll #1s that nobody has listened to in decades were all present and correct, but several big hits from the mid-seventies aren’t. Not sure what point I want to make, but it’s definitely something to note.

65. ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, by Harry Belafonte

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Mary’s Boy Child, by Harry Belafonte (his 1st and only #1)

7 weeks, from 22nd November 1957 – 10th January 1958

Must we?

Maybe it’s because we are approaching mid-summer as I sit down to this, but I am really not in the mood to write a post about a Christmas song… Especially a song as dull as this one.

You surely all know it: Long time ago, In Bethlehem, So the Holy Bible says… Mary had a baby – one Jesus H. Christ – and the herald angels sang. The shepherds saw a star. Man will live for ever more… So on and so forth…

I am potentially the most-irreligious person going and so, to avoid offending any sensibilities, I will refrain from any cynical interpretations of these lyrics. Plus, Harry Belafonte is a titan, both of pop music and of the Civil Rights Movement, and to belittle this song (his only appearance at the top of the UK charts) would be to belittle the seventy-year career of a ninety-one-year-old man, who has achieved more in life than most of us could ever hope to.

Actually, talking of the Civil Rights Movement, the most notable thing about this record is how black it is. And how Harry Belafonte becomes, five years after its inception, the first man of colour to top the UK singles chart. And considering the sheer number of black male artists who have topped the charts – some of the biggest names in popular music history – that’s a pretty cool trail to blaze. He’s of course not the very first black artist to reach the top… So far we’ve had Winifred Atwell playing old-fashioned, white, music hall tunes on her piano, and The Teenagers with Frankie Lymon giving us a good dollop of Doo-Wop. And that’s been it. The charts are still very white. But here, Belafonte sings in a Jamaican patois (a heavily diluted patois, but still). And lines like: While shepherds watch their flock by night, Them see a shining star… are almost subversive in their flaunting of proper grammar! This is technically a Calypso record, but I struggle to hear anything particularly Calypso-ish about the strings and violins that swirl around Belafonte’s voice.

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Let’s treat this is an interlude, then – a moment’s respite from the advancing march of rock ‘n’ roll. The songs that top the charts at Christmas time are rarely reflective of current tastes (cough Cliff Richard cough cough Bob the Builder). Normal service will be resumed presently. Though to call this record’s stint at the top a ‘moment’ is a slight under-exaggeration (what is the opposite of an exaggeration?) It stayed there for seven weeks – hitting the top spot as early as the second last week in November! People clearly loved it.

Searching out the right version of this song has been a bit tough. Belafonte recorded various live versions, and an extended version in the early-60s, though the link below should be the song that topped the charts for Christmas ’57. But if you asked me what the best version of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ is, I’d have to say Boney M’s!