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…?