Coldplay recently performed on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. They were promoting a new album that Jon Stewart referred to as the currently biggest selling album all over the world. When asked whether this bold statement was actually true, the lead singer sheepishly replied that yes, actually it was true. That was no surprise to me.
After spending a year traveling through various South American countries, I realized that Coldplay was one of those bands that had managed to become an international juggernaut of a rock band―one whose appeal and popularity, understandably or not, had managed to cross and infiltrate a majority of the world’s political and cultural boundaries.
Other musical groups that had attained similar status during my time south included U2, the Rolling Stones, ABBA, and not so expectedly to me, Green Day. It apparently doesn’t require a decades long back catalog of music to reach such popularity however. The song heard most during my year below the Equator was “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt.
I have always been intrigued by bands and musicians who have managed to become popular overseas despite a lack of comparable popularity here in the United States. Some of these occurrences are often dismissed to the poor or peculiar taste of a particular country or region―David Hasselhoff’s popularity in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland is a case in point. But the same fans that adore Mr. Hasselhoff can’t possibly be responsible for the current popularity in Germany of indie band Portugal the Man.
Never heard of them? They are from Portland, via Alaska (Wasilla even!), and despite their lack on notoriety on this side of the pond, their releases consistently sell out in Germany. Similarly, during the height of their popularity, the Dandy Warhol’s played sold-out stadium shows and obtained platinum album sales throughout Europe and Australia while only playing to modest sized crowds in their hometown of Portland, Oregon.
As I experienced this past spring, you are much more likely to hear the very American sounding music of Tennessee’s Kings of Leon while enjoying a pint of Guinness in a neighborhood pub in Ireland than you are at any bars throughout the United States. While in South America, I was somewhat inadvertently exposed to an international musical icon that made little to no impact in the American music industry.
Much like a portion of Americans that seems to only vaguely know of Jonathan Richman as that guy with the acoustic guitar in There’s Something About Mary, most of the few Americans that are aware of the band Boney M at all only know of them from a movie as well.
Boney M was responsible for the annoying song “Brown Girl in the Ring” that was stuck in the head of the desperate mountaineer Joe Simpson as he crawled and scratched his shattered body back to base camp after being left for dead after a crevasse fall in the Andes Mountains of Peru.
His plight, including his unintended and unappreciated affinity for Boney M during his drastic challenge to save his own life, was chronicled in the movie Touching the Void. A good portion of the unwavering and gritty determination that Joe Simpson needed to accomplish this now legendary mountaineering feat was the simple fact that he didn’t want to die with Boney M stuck playing in his head.
Ironically, I was first introduced to Boney M in the shadows of the same Andes Mountains. It occurred in a modest café along the wind-swept shores of Lake General Carrera in the Chilean Patagonian frontier hamlet of Chile Chico. Upon entering, my wife and I were greeted by its accommodating proprietor and an orchestral music performance on the café’s lone television.
Being his only customers at that time, we had his undivided attention. Despite our protests, he insisted upon switching to a DVD of music he felt more appropriate for us. Apparently, based upon our appearance he could tell we were not the classical music types. I don’t recall exactly what we looked like that afternoon, but his DVD selection of greatest 70’s disco hits made me wonder what sort of impression we made upon him.
The first track on the DVD was a performance of “Daddy Cool” by Boney M and I was, to be honest, enthralled. Who was this skinny, scrawny, high afro-sporting, bare-breasted, Turkish-flag-crescent-moon-medallion wearing, sexually flamboyant singer? As he continuously gyrated, spun, kicked, flailed his arms, did the splits, and straddled the microphone stand in what must have been his 27 inch waist bell bottoms, I thought perhaps it was Prince’s exotic looking older brother. For all I knew, Prince was the first small statured (only 5’2”!) singer to exude such extroverted sexual, pigeon-chested confidence in MTV smash videos such as “When Doves Cry” but apparently the lead singer of Boney M beat him by a decade or so without even the benefit of MTV.
I became frantic. Having made it 36 years without hearing this song, I was convinced that this was an once-in-a-lifetime occurrence and that I would never hear, never mind see, this song again. Quickly, I forced myself to craft a mental image of the lead singer which I committed to memory along with the song’s chorus. For months, well now I have to admit it has been years, I would periodically sing the refrain to myself so it would not fade into a forgotten memory. She’s such a fool, for Daddy Cool.
Today, my dire concern of forgetting my first Boney M experience may seem a bit exaggerated but mind you, this all occurred shortly before YouTube was to change the availability of videos on the Internet. Little did I know at the time that shortly after returning from our journey that I would be able to click on a link such as this one, Boney M – Daddy Cool, and be able to watch and listen to Boney M in all their funky glory.
So who exactly was this subject of my fascination? Boney M was a creation of Frank Farian, the same German producer that was responsible for Milli Vanilli a decade later. The band consisted of three female singers from Montserrat and Jamaica fronted by Bobby Farrell, an exotic dancer from Aruba.
The success that Boney M attained outside the Untied Stated is truly stunning. Boney M had number one albums in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden, and Norway and number one songs in all those countries plus Switzerland, Ireland, France, Spain, and South Africa. In addition, Boney M became one of the few Western groups to become well-known in places such as Africa, the Middle East, China, Iran, Southeast Asia, India, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and apparently from my personal experience, Patagonia.
Their popularity continues to this day with recent concerts in India, Israel, Russia, the United Kingdom, South Ossetia (yes Boney M performs in breakaway states), Lithuania (a New Year’s Eve performance for Vladimir Putin and 16,000 of his closest friends!), Bulgaria, and Poland. A musical based on the music of Boney M entitled Daddy Cool opened in London in October 2006. What I find most amazing is that Boney M is the only artist to have two of the top ten all-time best selling singles in the United Kingdom. Not even the mighty Beatles or Rolling Stones managed that accomplishment, only Boney M.
The contrasting lack of success Boney M attained in the United States is equally startling. Boney M’s highest charting album in the US reached 134th and their highest charting song reached only 30th. Some of Boney M’s most popular albums were not even available on compact disc in the United States until 2007. It seems that North Americans can add Boney M along with soccer on the list of international phenomenons they just don’t appreciate.