Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of the odder figures of 19th-Century history, Grigori Rasputin. The Russian scoundrel may have been something of a very early equivalent of a televangelist and may have altered the shape of World War I and Russia for decades…and inspired one of the ’70s more interesting dance hits. Which is why we look at Rasputin on this Sound Day.
Rasputin was born in what is now Siberia, the son of peasant farmers. Sometime around the turn of the century, he decided to go on a pilgrimage to a monastery. By this time he’d already married and had three kids. Some claim he’d had a religious epiphany, being visited by the Virgin Mary. Others suggest it was a convenient way for him to hastily leave town after being accused of horse theft. Either way, he spent time with the monks and soon declared himself a holy man in the Russian Orthodox Church and began preaching. A short period of healthy living, swearing off booze and being vegetarian and devout soon gave way to a life of hedonism, which he proclaimed a route to God.
One thing that is clear is that Rasputin must have been a very charismatic man. No matter what he did or said, people seemed to flock to him and his alleged ability to heal the ill helped him gain followers. Soon he was befriended by the Tsar and his family, particularly the Tsar’s wife. He seemed to be able to make their sickly child well and soon became a honored, and trusted member of the Royal circle. So respected was he that the Tsar followed his advice on matters related to World War I, including going to the front himself (leaving Rasputin alone with the tsaress, as it were.) All the while, resentment towards the Tsar and his family was growing among the masses and Rasputin was seen as perhaps the worst of the lot, with his love of the tsar and his womanizing with many of the ladies of the elite class. In 1914, a girl stabbed him in the stomach; Rasputin survived. Two years later a group of noblemen set out to kill him. they invited him to dinner, fed him poisoned food and drink… and hours later, he was still in good spirits, showing no ill effect. At which time one of the nobles shot him in the headi, which likely finally killed him. If that didn’t, his being dumped in the icy river nearby certainly did. Months later the Tsar himself was dead and of course, Russia took a mighty swing to the left politically.
Fast forward to the 1970s and Boney M. Boney M. were a disco-quasi-reggae group put together by German singer/producer Frank Farian, who would go on to put Milli Vanilli together the following decade. He put out the first Boney M. single entirely himself, but decided that there needed to be other people on stage for TV or concerts, so he brought in four singer/dancers from Caribbean countries to make the “group” Boney M. Live performances were often supplemented heavily by dubbed in, taped voices. Nevertheless, the group put out catchy, danceable tunes that really caught the ear of Europeans. In Germany, for instance, they had 7 #1 singles (including Rasputin) and in Britain, three #1 albums. They were particularly well-known for their Christmas tunes, recording no less than 6 different Christmas albums, and having a platinum Christmas single through much of Europe, “Mary’s Baby Child”.
Although “Rivers of Babylon” was their biggest single overall worldwide, another single from their third album, Night flight To Venus, dealt with the crazy-looking bearded Russian, putting his life and death to a dance beat. “Rasputin”, with a balalaika (a Russian three-stringed guitar) adding texture to the sound, was a #1 single in Germany and Australia, hit #2 in the UK and #7 in Canada where it was their only significant hit. Surprisingly, that helped the album go 5X platinum in the Great White North, the only non-compilation of theirs to even make gold status there! In the U.S. though, bigtime success eluded Boney M, then and now.
The band continued on, somewhat through the 1980s and at times since, with varying lineups. At times in the late-’80s, Farian actually had several different Boney M.s playing tours in different countries.
Ironically, the “lead singer” of the song, Bobby Farrell (quotation marks because some dispute whether he actually sang at all) died on Dec. 30, 2016 in St. Petersburg, Russia – 100 years to the day after Rasputin, in the same city.