Top Ten Things About "Rasputin" By Boney M
y paternal grandfather, rest his soul, only liked old jazz and big band music, with one shining exception: "Rasputin". We have no idea why. - Ian Mathers.
Modern pop music is cursed by cyclicism. Whenever something new comes out, people will immediately find things to liken it to. One thing that nothing ever gets compared to, though, is “Rasputin” by Boney M. #2 in October 1978 (kept off the top slot by ‘Summer Lovin’’), and an influence on roughly no-one at all. To be fair, claiming to have a Boney M influence to your sound will most likely lead to people thinking you’ve taken the piss. Yes, disco’s credible nowadays, but only the credible bits of it. Chic, Earth Wind & Fire, Donna Summer—come on in, we’re making a list of people we can dismiss as ripping off Gang Of Four! Boney M, though, were Belgian, and are continuing to drag themselves around Europe on tours with revamped line-ups and ‘updated sound for the new millennium’, picking up more and more derision as they go. The only certified cover of “Rasputin” that AMG throws up is by… James Last. I can’t quite work out whether or not I’d want to hear that.
This list isn’t about taking the piss out of an easy target, though. There’s a difference between enjoyment and mockery—if this was just a thing about crap lyrics, then I’d have gone for ‘Whodunit?’ by Tavares instead (“Tell Dirty Harry / We’re supposed to get ma-ha-rried!”), though that’s a quality song too. No, “Rasputin” is a whole wide world of odd—delicious odd, delightful odd, a complete and utter idiosyncracy in pop music. With disco double handclaps, obviously. What follows are my ten favourite things about it, in no particular order. We begin with:
1) It’s a disco song. About Rasputin. And that’s it.
“Rasputin,” you would think, has some clever hidden context to it. It’s about love in some way, no? Well, though he does repeatedly get referred to as “Russia’s Greatest Love Machine,” there doesn’t appear to be any kind of a context beyond that at all. It’s the story of Rasputin. The authorities didn’t like him. He was quite good at sex. Women enjoyed this. The authorities attempted to poison him. They failed. So they shot him, and he died. And that’s about it. No metaphors, nothing like that, just the ultra-ultra-ultra abbreviated summary of Rasputin’s life and sexual prowess. With disco double handclaps. From Belgium.
2) And now, some balalaikas
Russia’s impact on Western pop music is a bit muddled. So far as I can make out, two Russian acts have made the UK Top 40, and even then only recently—firstly, PPK’s ‘Resurrection’, a fairly generic trance tune that made #3 in December 2001, and whose main concession to being Russian was that it featured about a minute of what sounded like some people on a submarine talking in Russian at the end, for reasons no-one ever quite figured out. Then, of course, there were Tatu, who we could tell were Russian because one of them had ginger hair, they couldn’t speak English, and the Western world was utterly terrified of them.
This sort of fear and alienation often crops up when Western acts attempt to incorporate Russian elements into their music—Michael Jackson’s ‘Stranger In Moscow’, for instance, or Simply Red’s album Love And The Russian Winter, whose cover primarily features Mick Hucknall’s head above a big steel train, looking a bit cold. There’s also the whole ‘literary allusions’ thing—Love And The Russian Winter sounds a bit mysterious, a bit poetic, and, well, poncey. This recurs in what is perhaps “Rasputin”’s main heir, that being the opening of The Decline Of British Sea Power—some men chanting for a minute (‘Men Together Today’), before some taut, sparse guitar and a man proclaiming “Oh Fy-o-dor-you-are-the-most att-ract-tive man… HWERP!” British Sea Power, you see, read books.
Boney M, on the other hand, seemed to use the balalaika & chanting method because it’s quite good to dance to. More power to them.
3) How you like bass?
So the balalaika and the “HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY! HEY!” have got you settled in, all nice and cosy… and then, with no prior warning, in comes a bassline. This is the main sticking point for me—I can’t quite work out whether it’s utterly disorienting and jarring, or completely sublime. It’s often struck me that DJ’ing with “Rasputin” could be an extremely hairy experience, simply because that bass is so pronounced, almost like a third intro (after the drums and the balalaikas)—but crucially, not the one people would recognise. Its appearance is so sudden and pronounced that people might think you’ve messed up with the fading, and then they’ll think “Ah, he/she is rubbish at DJ’ing, I’m going to go somewhere where they play Razorlight instead.” Alternatively, they might think you’re trying to do a mash-up, and then they’ll think “Ah, he/she is rubbish at DJ’ing, I’m going to go somewhere where they play Razorlight instead.” Thing is, though, that over time you really start to appreciate how smoothly it comes in, slipping in between the balalaika and the chanting, subtly usurping the balalaika and switching the tempo and pitch considerably but still going absolutely perfectly with the slowly diminishing chants, and providing the perfect bridge into:
4) Yes, it’s the double disco handclaps
To be honest, you can probably go wrong with the old violins & handclaps approach. In fact, you definitely can. “Rasputin”, however, doesn’t. The strings are tight, clipped, and slightly jarring, always high up, aloof, swirly, slightly furious, and timed brilliantly. And the handclaps—gosh, it seems like such a meme, sometimes, liking something cos it’s got handclaps in it, but in “Rasputin” they are timed absolutely perfectly, coming in right after the “Ra, Ra” of the chorus to back up the “Rasputeen” that comes right after. It’s incredible, really. The whole arrangement of the song—that bassline, with no idea of what it’s doing other than it HAS THE FUNK and IT MUST OBEY, propelling it along, no time to stop and admire the scenery or what have you, we’ve got some disco to be doing.
5) “But to Moscow chicks he was such a lovely dear”
So, as we’ve already pointed out, doing a disco song about Rasputin isn’t the most obvious thing to do. The thing about “Rasputin” is that at no point do you ever think anyone that’s involved in the making of the song has any idea about Rasputin at all, something that the lyrics waste no time establishing:
Most people look at himThis is possibly the most confusing lyric in the whole thing (not the most confusing part—we’re saving that for later). It’s just… bedazzling, really, the way in which it shows absolutely no grasp of anything at all ever, the schism between the terror and the lust—no malice or controversy intended at all, somehow it just seemed like a good idea at the time. People could probably write whole doctorates about it, so let’s just say it’s OMGWTFLOL like nothing before or since. Or at least, outside the confines of this record.
With terror and with fear
But to Moscow chicks
He was such a lovely dear
6) It’s a little thing I like to call ‘vocal interplay’
The backing music for “Rasputin” is truly amazing, making it possibly one of the greatest disco records ever. The vocals, however, are what people tend to remember. Quite apart from that mother of all chorus hooks –“RA RA RASPUTEEN, LOVER OF THE RUSSIAN QUEEN!”—we also get the contrasting vocal styles of The Bloke Out Of Boney M and The Girls Out Of Boney M. He sounds like Leonard Cohen on the pull, slurring and leching his way through goodness knows what kind of intoxicants—“Zere lived a cerrdin man, in Ruzzher longer go…” The Girls, for their part, just sound really pissed off. When they proclaim that Rasputin “also was the kind of teacher women would—desire”, you can imagine them thinking “Was he bollocks as like. Oh Christ, the bloke out of Boney M’s on the daiquiris again.”
7) “And he really came”
Then again, when you see some of the lines the girls got to sing, you can perhaps understand why. Aside from no-one being quite sure why they’re singing about early twentieth century Russia, the storytelling can at times be a bit… muddled. When it comes to detailing the plot to poison Rasputin, for instance, it gets summarised thus:
Then one night some men of higher standingRhyming’s a bitch, isn’t it?
Set a trap, they’re not to blame
Come and visit us, they kept demanding
And he really came
8) Once more for the ra-ra’s
And yet, the rhyming needs to be a bitch, because the structure of the song itself is simultaneously so structured and yet oddly free. See that intro—or rather, all three of them. The drumming and the military three-clap, the balalaika (it might not be a balalaika, but I’d like to think so) and the chanting, then the bassline and the strings. The way every verse and chorus gets stuck in the exact same metre, using the rhythmic repetition with the actual rhythm section’s intensity to make it incredibly infectious—even the strings have a hugely regimented feel to them. Most of all, though—“RA RA RASPUTIN!” What a chant that is, perhaps the most plausible explanation for the song’s existence—someone just sings it to themselves one day and thinks, “Ooh, I could make a hit out of that, though obviously not as popular a hit as ‘Summer Lovin’.” It’s all so perfectly planned, and yet there’s those touches that distract from all that, a whole litany of flourishes that make it feel truly liberating. Perhaps most notable, though, are the last two points on this list.
9) “Hi, I’m Ed Winchester”
Easily the oddest vocal moment comes in the middle of the song, when, entirely unheralded, the backing gets all Morricone, and then some man comes along and says “But when his drinking and his lusting and his hunger for power became known to more and more people, the demands to do something about this outrageous man became louder and louder!” Now, spoken word interludes in themselves are not odd things. Spoken word interludes that are delivered by a quite possibly drunken man attempting to imitate Walter Kronkite are a somewhat different matter. He talks like he’s just stumbled through the front door of his house. “Darling. Summinimportant to tell you. Bloke in Russia, yeah. Has sex. People, right, nottappy. Gissa kiss.” He makes no appearance at any other point in the song, just a fleeting fifteen seconds of fame in the middle of the record to advance the storyline a bit. I can’t really explain why, but I think I love him.
10) “Oh, those Russians…”
Eventually, though, it comes to an end. There is a suspicion that the songwriters might have forgotten about that until it was a bit late:
Ra ra RasputinAnd, er, that’s it.
Lover of the Russian queen
They wouldn’t quit, they wanted his head
Ra ra Rasputin
Russia’s greatest love machine
And so they shot him till he was dead
Except, of course, for the postscript, the one thing above all others that people tend to remember “Rasputin” for: “Oh, those Russians…”
And perhaps that’s all you can say, really. “Oh, those Russians…” “Rasputin” manages to be both one of the most technically impressive yet bizarrely simplistic pop songs ever, and that one line, delivered in the bloke from Boney M’s laconic drawl, seems to sum it up. What is it all about? Does it really matter?