Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Non-synchromeshed gears and synced lips

Some time ago, when I was in a local bookshop, the saccharine 1970s disco coming over the music system sounded vaguely familiar. I listened for a bit -- could it be? -- yes, it was -- Boney M.

And as I listened, the already syrupy sound abruptly became a bit more high-pitched. The song ended (or faded out) a semitone higher than it started.

The next song was Boney M, too. So, I believe, were the next three (though I recognised only the last one). It was Boney M day at that bookshop. And every one of those songs became more high-pitched at the end. I used to have a cassette player that would randomly speed up or slow down a little, changing the pitch up or down a semitone now and then; this was like that, except it wasn't random. It was always towards the end of each song, at the repeat-to-fade, and it was always up.

Apparently this is a known ethnomusicological phenomenon that someone with the unlikely name of Siegfried Baboon has devoted an entire website to, dubbing it the truck driver's gear change. It is something a music producer does when he wants to extend the song by another minute or so, and repeating the chorus again and again would become boring, and he can't think of any other way to vary things. Says Baboon: "This reflects the utterly predictable and laboured nature of the transition, evoking a tired and over-worked trucker ramming the gearstick into the new position..." He supplies an impressive list of offenders, in which, to my disappointment, Boney M does not figure. As you may expect, the list is dominated by the likes of Barry Manilow and Westlife, while Michael Jackson's "Man in the mirror" is cited as the champion among stomach-churning gear-changes. But there are examples from more respectable rockers such as The Who, Eric Clapton, and even the Beatles (who, surprisingly, are repeat offenders). All examples are accompanied by amusing commentary (and, in the case of the Beatles' "Penny Lane", a defence).

Back to Boney M -- as I remember, they were wildly popular in India when I was a kid (including with me), so I was disappointed to discover, when I was perhaps 12 or 13, that (unlike the other wildly popular europop group, ABBA) they weren't actually a band. They were a front of West Indian pretty faces for an individual, German music producer Frank Farian; most of the female vocals were by session singers and most of the male vocals were by Farian himself. More infamously, Farian did the same thing some years later with Milli Vanilli, where initially spectacular success was followed by a savage backlash and the withdrawal of a Grammy award.

Boney M probably avoided Milli Vanilli's fate by never actually penetrating the US market, let alone winning any Grammies. But in India, the land of the playback singer, they fitted right in during their heyday. Subsequently they seem to have quietly faded away.

1 comment:

Tabula Rasa said...

fantastic site :-D