Daddy Cool the musical: Hooray! Hooray! Boney M are back!

Plucked from obscurity, they went on to sell 800 million (rather irritating) records. Guy Adams on a phenomenon of the Seventies
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The Independent Culture

They were the black Abba: four singers from the Caribbean, plucked from obscurity to become one of the world's most successful pop acts.

With their outlandish outfits, flamboyant Europop stage shows and irritatingly catchy disco anthems, Boney M clocked up 20 No 1 hits, and sold more than 800 million records. To this day, no office party can be without them.

Last night, more than a quarter of a century after the band's 1970's heyday, the curtain was raised on Daddy Cool, a £3m West End musical based on such unforgettable hits as "Brown Girl in the Ring," "Rivers of Babylon" and the endearingly bonkers "Ra-ra-Rasputin".

The 1,500-strong audience paid tribute to a pop phenomenon which - despite being more outlandish than cool - once counted Ella Fitzgerald, Fidel Castro and the Queen among its fans. Guests expected at the Shaftesbury theatre included Phil Collins, George Michael and Sir Cliff Richard. Also in the stalls were two members of Boney M's original four-strong line-up, Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett, who in their prime could fill stadiums with almost 100,000 lycra-clad fans.

They sat alongside Frank Farian, a German pop svengali who created the band in 1976, and was responsible for a musical oeuvre that ranged from the sublime "Mary's Boy's Child" to the sublimely camp "Hooray, Hooray, it's a Holi-Holiday!"

Farian - no longer on friendly terms with the group's other founding members, Maizie Williams and Bobby Farrell - turned Boney M into the only band in UK history to boast two singles in the top 10 best-sellers of all time. He benefited from the lion's share of subsequent royalties, which are estimated at more than £40m.

The story of his, and Boney M's, success began in 1975, at Europa-Sound studio in Beiber, a village in the West German region of Hesse. Farian, born Franz Rüther, spent six weeks there producing a catchy disco single called "Baby, Do You Wanna Bump?"

Using a combination of special effects and state-of-the-art mixing techniques, Farian performed all of the vocals on the track, which was released under the name of a made-up group, Boney M. It went on to become a surprise hit in the nightclubs of Holland and Belgium.

"Audiences loved 'Do You Wanna Bump?' and, after a while, the publishers were getting so many requests for television interviews that I was told I had to create a band to perform it," he recalled yesterday. "I was 35 at the time, and didn't really look like the sort of person who ought to be singing that music; so I decided to present them with a group that would combine to look like the people who would produce the sound I had made with special effects."

Three slender West Indian girls and a weird-looking boy with an extravagant haircut and hyperactive hips were hired to "front" the group and record its first album, Take the Heat off Me.

Liz Mitchell a gospel singer who had left Jamaica for Germany in her childhood, had the voice that carried the lyrics of most of their tracks. Her friend Marcia Barrett, a nightclub singer from Hamburg, performed backing vocals.

Maizie Williams, a former model, was hired to gyrate prettily on stage, while Bobby Farrell, a DJ who couldn't sing but looked good and knew how to dance, completed the foursome. They were an instant hit.

"Frank created a group that, from a looks point of view, was modelled on Abba, but whose music was more soul-orientated, and borrowed from Diana Ross," recalls Daniel Diezi, Barrett's close friend and agent.

"Then he wrote these incredible, catchy tunes, and gave them a set of costumes that, with each new hit, became more and more crazy. It was all part of their appeal. The songs were a bit silly sometimes, childish even, but people seemed to love them all the same. They were the sort of songs that football fans would take and adapt."

The hits kept flooding in. Love for Sale, the group's second album, went platinum and included the No 1 track "Sunny," a remake of a Bobby Hebb hit. The next year, 1978, saw the release of Rivers of Babylon, Boney M's greatest hit, which became the second-biggest selling single in UK chart history.

Farian, who didn't allow the vocals of either Farrell or Williams to appear on any of their tracks, devoted his energies to writing nursery-rhyme lyrics, and masterminding ever-camper stage shows. "I tried to be a perfectionist," he says. "The sound of the group was new, and we tried to make the whole performances the same. So I was organising the stage shows and costumes to make a real impact. Bobby's movements were absolutely crazy, and they would steal the show."

Boney M were largely based in Germany, but had No 1 hits across Europe and were the first Western group allowed to perform in Communist Russia during the Cold War. "It was December 1978," says Farian. "We went to Moscow at the invitation of President Brezhnev, and it was huge. He had personally OK'd a concert. Shortly after that they performed to the Pope, and were also presented to the Queen."

Once a month, Farian would bring his act to London, where he stocked up their sequin- encrusted wardrobe. "I got my inspiration from fashion magazines at the time. I would simply open the magazine and work out which designers were making the most crazy stuff, and then go and buy it. I'd go shopping in Carnaby Street, or along the King's Road, which in those days were at the cutting edge."

The fun lasted until 1986, by which time the prolific group had produced 12 albums. Farian says he pulled the plug because he was feeling "creatively exhausted". Cracks were also opening in his relationship with the band. "They had been touring for 10 years, working really hard and closely together, and at times the mood was not good. So I decided to call it a day."

In 1988, he founded Milli Vanilli, whose career ended in disaster when it was revealed that they had never sung any of their hits. They were subsequently forced to hand back a 1990 Grammy.

For Barrett, Mitchell, Williams and Farrell, the good times were also coming to an end. Although they managed a short career independently of Farian, the four then formed their own "official" versions of the band. At one point, four Boney M's were touring.

Barrett spent the 1990's battling cancer, which struck four times. Last year, she returned to the studio and recorded a comeback solo album, Come into my Life. She now divides her time between Germany and Florida.

Liz Mitchell lives in a cottage in the Oxfordshire countryside. She makes a living touring pubs and clubs with the most successful of the Boney M "franchises", The Official Boney M.

Bobby Farrell is fast losing his trademark afro hair and has sunk into relative obscurity. He was reported earlier this year to be living on benefits in Amsterdam.

Maizie Williams has endured the most spectacular fall. At 54, she lives in a tiny flat in Maida Vale, and scrapes a living performing a one-woman cabaret act in pubs and clubs. Occasionally, she'll top the bill at Butlins.

In March, it emerged that Williams is taking legal action against Farian, whom she claims owes her 18 years worth of royalties. Farian says Willliams was a dancer and not a singer. They say she was paid for her work as a performer and is now owed nothing. The case will be heard in Germany next month.

In the meantime, Farian will stay in London, fine-tuning the musical he created from the wreckage of his group. "With Boney M, it was always about putting on a show," he said before yesterday's curtain-up. "This will be the same. We have decided to use the original costumes. I promise: this will be huge."

Musical stars immortalised on stage

Mamma Mia

Considered as the ultimate "tribute" to the music of the Seventies Swedish band, Abba, the show at the Prince of Wales Theatre has been running since an Abba fan persuaded band members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus to let her turn their back catalogue into a musical in 1999. The story is based on a daughter trying to find her true father to give her away at her wedding. It has been one of the top five productions on Broadway since it opened in New York just after the 9/11 attacks. A film version is due for release next year.

We Will Rock You

A musical show with a sci-fi storyline which was written by the comic Ben Elton, it features the hits of Queen, and was hailed as a "theatrical extravaganza" when it opened at the Dominion Theatre. Set in the Ga Ga world of Planet Mall, where musical instruments are banned and young people are permitted to listen only to manufactured pop and dance, a rebel group emerges, singing the hits of Queen.

Buddy

A "heart rending" musical biography celebrating the brief life of Buddy Holly, the star who died in a plane crash along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in 1959, the story concludes just before the crash. It opened in 1989 at the Victoria Palace in London before opening on Broadway a year later. Written by Alan Janes and Rob Bettinson, it transferred to the Strand in 1995. It traced Holly's musical journey from Nashville, where he signed a contract with record producer Norman Petty. Within hours, Holly & the Crickets had started creating hits from the recording studio built in Petty's backyard.

Jailhouse Rock The Musical

Opening at the Piccadilly Theatre in 2004, this musical version of Elvis Presley's 1957 movie, Jailhouse Rock, tells the story of a no-good drifter, Vince, who manages to conquer his violent rages to become a rock star. The original role, played by Elvis, was hailed as a perfect performance by The King, while the musical was a far less dark version with the emphasis on Elvis himself, played by Mario-Kombou, and featuring some of Presley's greatest hits.

Love

In July this year, Sir Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Yoko Ono gathered at Las Vegas for the premiere of the Beatles-based musical. They were joined by relatives of John Lennon and George Harrison. The story is a surrealistic portrayal of the Fab Four's career, performed by Cirque du Soleil. It is filled with characters from the Beatles' songs, including the Walrus, Lady Madonna and Sgt Pepper, and is set to a soundscape of parts of songs, out-takes and fragments of sound.

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