With the passing of Bobby Farrell, the lead male singer of the 1970s hit-makers Boney M, a chapter has been closed for millions of disco fans across the former Soviet empire.
The body of the 61-year-old Farrell was found in a hotel room in St. Petersburg, Russia, following a performance in a country where his fans remain as devoted as the first time they heard songs such as "Ma Baker" and "Rasputin" decades ago.
Forget the fact that many of Boney M's recordings featured the voice not of Farrell but of the group's producer, a German named Frank Farian. For legions of people who came of age behind the Iron Curtain, it was the flamboyant, Aruba-born Farrell and his coterie of Caribbean female singers that made Boney M what it was -- an intimate reminder of their romantic and dance-filled younger days.
While virtually unheard of in the United States, Boney M took Western Europe by storm with their highly danceable, infectious anthems. But their true home was further east, in the dimmed halls of the early disco clubs of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, and Poland. There, local deejays would pump up "Rivers of Babylon" and "Daddy Cool" on low-quality, East German-made reel-to-reel tapes. And the crowd, which remained stubbornly inert as long as the Komsomol-sanctioned tunes were playing, would suddenly erupt back to life on the dance floor. Ideologically Unsound
For those of us who remember such scenes, there was little understanding at the time that there were bigger, flashier, and more creative acts out there. The Jacksons, featuring a wunderkind named Michael, had already established themselves as a solid presence on the American disco scene. The divine vocal harmonies of the Temptations would consistently rise to the top of the U.S. music charts. Diana Ross and Donna Summer would embody the finest moments of the disco era. But for the rest of us behind the Wall, there was only Boney M.
Boney M on Red Square in Moscow in 1978
I still remember the surge of collective excitement when Vlado the Dog, an older and better-connected member of the vinyl black-market scene in Sofia, proudly showed the rest of us his latest acquisition -- a crisp, Made-In-Germany copy of Boney M's third release, "Love for Sale." We didn't understand what they were singing, but the irresistible, danceable beats and the vivid cover art did their subversive work all too well. We knew instantly, instinctually, that this was far superior to the lame tunes played on state radio stations under the generalized banner of "estrada."
At the time, state censors had largely deemed recordings by contemporary Western acts ideologically unsound. They weren't available in stores, and illicit copies could fetch a considerable sum on the black market -- sometimes up to a quarter of the average monthly wage in Bulgaria or Poland. In the Soviet Union, they sold for even more. We always envied the Yugoslavs, who under the relatively relaxed reign of Tito enjoyed considerable cultural freedom and the sale of a number of popular Western pop-music acts. Owning even a small collection of these records was highly prestigious and translated into a free pass to parties with cigarettes, booze, and attractive girls where one otherwise might not necessarily be invited.
The mindset of those censors was a puzzle to me for many years. Why would they green-light acts like Elton John and Rod Stewart but ban groups like Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones? Now, in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. The serrated guitar riffs and the rebellious, sexual groans of Mick Jagger were full of threatening undercurrents, and thus off limits. But the clean-cut, smooth-sounding balladeers, on the other hand, were less intrusive, and therefore harmless, to the psyches of us unsophisticated Eastern Bloc radio listeners. Plus, by allowing some of the more sanitized, sugary Western performers to slip through, the communist tastemakers could always claim that they were not in fact censors but equal-opportunity purveyors of entertainment for all. 'Russia's Greatest Love Machine'
While Boney M was initially viewed with suspicion by communist cultural authorities, by 1978 it was evident that they matched perfectly with the ideologues' standards of suitable listening: harmonious, catchy tunes, apolitical lyrics, a pleasing stage appearance. They occupied the same conformist, cheerful spot the Swedish quartet ABBA had dominated a year or two earlier. Bobby Farrell's theatrical antics as he danced around his female bandmates added spice to Boney M's performances and drove their Eastern European fan base wild, but they were nowhere near the perverse sophistication and provocative gyrations of, for example, America's Rick James.
And so, in 1978, when Boney M became one of the first mainstream Western pop acts allowed into the Soviet Union, Kremlin image-makers seized an opportunity to promote the brighter side of the system. On the eve of the 1980 summer Olympic Games in Moscow, a Soviet military plane flew Boney M from London to Moscow for an open-air performance on Red Square. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev himself was reportedly in attendance and spoke approvingly of Boney M. Tickets were such a hot commodity that scalpers were reportedly earning up to 150 rubles apiece -- the equivalent of an engineer's monthly salary at the time.
Tracks like "Rasputin" -- which referred to the infamous Russian mystic Grigory Rasputin as "Russia's greatest love machine" -- were not initially released in the Soviet Union due to their controversial lyrics. The Kremlin also asked Farrell to tone down his erotic stage movements, a request with which he willingly complied. Once those rough edges were smoothed down, Boney M were quickly transformed into music megastars throughout the entire Soviet bloc.
Fashions come and go, and as perestroika brought new artistic freedoms to the Soviet Union, Boney M's popularity faded but never completely vanished. The band's original members parted ways in 1989, with its female members changing frequently from that point on. But Farrell remained a constant, continuing to tour throughout the former communist empire three decades after the band's last hit single in 1980.
Boney M's influence on post-Soviet popular culture can be heard in the soundtracks of a number of movies, the latest of which is the 2008 Kazakh film "Tulpan," where the protagonist -- Boni -- repeatedly plays a cassette recording of "Rivers of Babylon," one of Boney M's most successful hits.
In an irony noted with delight by many of his fans, Farrell's death on December 29 fell on the same day -- and in the same city -- as that of his favorite song subject, the "lover of the Russian queen," Rasputin himself. Nikola Krastev is a New York-based correspondent for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL