Music Moments: Boney M's Daddy Cool on Top of the Pops

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 18 November 2017 |



Any UK dwellers old enough to remember a mid 1980s alt comedy show called Who Dares Wins, may recall a clever and well played sketch in which a motorist is stopped by the police at night. In the sketch, the possession of certain embarrassing audio cassettes is a criminal offence. Having pulled over the car, the police rifle through the motorist's tapes and initially, find most of them acceptable. Soon, however, they unearth his most embarrassing specimens hidden in the glove compartment, and adopt sickened expressions as they explore the collection. Among the almost criminally embarrassing abominations, is a cassette by Boney M.

At a time when music's appeal in the UK was heavily governed by fashion and subcultural credibility, any group who'd courted success as blatantly as Boney M, would be ridiculed by default.

But in the beginning it wasn't like that. On the evening of Thursday 6th January 1977 when Boney M made their Top of the Pops debut, they came in as a refreshing crowd-pleaser with an engaging vibe and a good song. Catchy, without being tacky. Although punk rock was a thing by New Year '77, there was virtually no punk vinyl, and the inverted musical snobbery that punk ignited in Britain, was yet to take root. In January 1977, a Boney M cassette would definitely have been on the Okay list.

Looking back at both the song and that Top of the Pops performance, Boney M's Daddy Cool doesn't seem either calculating or dated. It's a simple number built primarily around an E minor, D major, B minor, E minor chord progression, and I doubt the lyrics took longer than 45 seconds to write. But with its disco beat - wildly popular in the track's day - and its attention-grabbing instrumental embellishments, it forms a pretty near perfect pop song.

BONEY M FULL-ON LIVE!


The most obvious point of interest surrounding this performance is that it's 100% live, and backed by the BBC's Top of the Pops Orchestra. At the time, the policy for Top of the Pops performances was not as simple as many people think.

In theory, no artist appearing was allowed to merely go on and mime to the record. This didn't mean they were banned from miming per se, but if they did mime, they were required to create a recording specifically for Top of the Pops, and mime to that. Behind this policy stood the Musicians' Union, and their intolerance of anything purporting to be a musical performance, which bypassed the involvement of musicians.

There's a wealth of stories about artists and their representatives loopholing TOTP's fresh version requirement, and some have claimed they flat-out lied to TOTP about the track they submitted. They gave the programme their existing recording, claimed it was a re-record, and got away with it - so it's said.

But whichever stories happen to be true, or false, it's clear that a lot of artists did mime to the actual record, whilst others did re-record.

And the live options were no less convoluted. If a group had the means to perform the track, as it was on record, totally live, they could do so. Albeit that most did not. But if they were, say, a three-piece guitar/bass/drums outfit, and their record featured a broader range of instruments, they would not be considered capable of reproducing the recorded sound for the show. In these instances, the group would almost inevitably be implored to use the BBC's own Top of the Pops Orchestra.

Vocal groups, in particular, found the orchestra difficult to avoid, because they would not, typically, have the internal resources to convincingly reproduce the track. That's not to say everyone wanted to avoid the orchestra. But at least some of those who did want to avoid the orchestra, couldn't. The Top of the Pops appearance of reggae duo Althea and Donna with Uptown Top Ranking was a well-acknowledged case in point. The girls were not impressed.

When the orchestra was employed, the track could either be pre-recorded or performed live. Which brings us to Boney M's Daddy Cool. How do we know it was live?

THE EVIDENCE


Firstly, the orchestra are subtly visible in the footage, complete with conductor wearing headphones. There are also some close-up superimpositions of the instruments being played. Not even the BBC would pay the orchestra twice (once to record and again to appear on TV), so if you saw them, you could be pretty sure they were playing. And if the orchestra were live, there was virtually no way in the 1970s that a band could use recorded vocals.

Secondly, Boney M's male vocal, normally performed by group mastermind Frank Farian in the studio and only mimed by on-stage performer Bobby Farrell, is voiced by Farrell himself. The vocal has a different sound from that on the record.

Thirdly, at the beginning of the track, before the orchestra provides a pitch reference, Liz Mitchell sings her first line a whole tone above key, with one of the other girls (out of shot, but probably Marcia) starting closer to pitch. Marcia (if it is her), drops out upon hearing the discordant clash, to let Liz complete the line alone. The group deal with it very professionally, and you have to be listening carefully to realise what's happened. But this would never have got through a recording process - especially right at the beginning of the song. Indeed, it wouldn't have happened in recording, because the singers could easily have been given a reference pitch.

Fourthly, the whole group's lip-syncing is far too flawless for a mime. And the vocals sound live, with volume and tonal discrepancies depending on the singers' distances from their mics. Those proximity effects would be controlled and minimised in a studio recording.

THE PERFORMANCE


The orchestra's contribution is excellent in my opinion, if a little prone to the same issue as with Althea and Donna - i.e. playing black music with a characteristically white attitude. It's a fuller sound than on the record, but it's not as funky. The orchestra were often derided, and it's true, they weren't always suitable. But they would 'adrenalise' a lot of the more up-tempo performances they drove, and this version of Daddy Cool does have that 'pushed' excitement. You're never in doubt that the group are enjoying it. Contrary to popular belief, most of the time, the Top of the Pops Orchestra did a damn good job.

But most of all, the performance verifies the quality of Boney M as a live outfit, and suggests that they should have been far better respected as performers. It's not just about their ability to summon that magic combination vocal sound without any tinkering or tape tricks. It's about the flow of their moves - the party vibe. Having a party on stage might be straightforward when you're miming, but when you're going for it live, looking relaxed is a much bigger ask. With the best live Top of the Pops performances of the pre-digital age, you don't at first think: "Oh, that's obviously live". You get about halfway through the track and start thinking: "How can this possibly be recorded?". Boney M's Daddy Cool epitomises that. It's extremely professional.

Another great, underestimated example was Joe Dolce's sublime live TOTP rendition of Shaddap You Face. It was never taken seriously because it was humour, but the delivery was flawless and, unless you absolutely ooze talent, sounding like a studio production whilst you're singing live and larking around is phenomenally difficult. Most live artists could make it look like fun and sound a bit rough, or make it sound good and look a bit stilted. Few could make it sound great, and look like fun. Boney M were among those few.

You can find the performance on YouTube here. Unfortunately, the original beginning, in which the lack of a reference pitch causes that tell-tale glitch, is missing. But you do see and hear the glory of what was a superb pre-digital live Top of the Pops performance. The performance is also represented by the images heading this post - captured from the BBC TV footage and colour-enhanced for a more contemporary look.

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