Choices: Boney M, Eartha Kitt and Ken Boothe

Each English word carries a world within it. A world shaped by time and human tongues. Love has been whispered into its perfect soft shape by centuries of human emotion. Say the word love out loud and feel it move slowly within your mouth.

The word love rolls back, from its first, warm, wide shape, back along your tongue, slowly, roundly, into the centre of your mouth. Love rests there, in the middle of your mouth, for as long as you wish. You hold it, then it leaves with the warm breath of its ve.

All words have a physical life. You enact each word when you sing it.

Now say the word sex. The word is short, quick and to the point. A sharp at the beginning, a fixed-length at the centre and the axe chop of an efficient, definite to end it all. Sex never reaches the warm centre of your mouth. It’s a word formed and finished just inside your front teeth. A blurt of sound. Over in the blink of an eye

The word love feels smooth and warm in your mouth; sex feels crisp and businesslike. The physical sensation of each word captures the difference between them. The word love was born in the mouth, to give shape and sound to tenderness. In all languages, the word for love is cosy enough to soothe a newborn baby and powerful enough to bind a mate closer.

In song, words are laid bare. Love is a generous word. It has a sense of humour. Rasputin can be Russia’s greatest love machine and it makes us smile. Russia’s greatest sex machine is a different imagining:

Sex machine would have sounded crassly out of place in Boney M’s Ra Ra Rasputin. Why? Meaning, mood, comedy and consonants. Rasputin has to be a love machine, not a sex machine, for the sake of his story in the song. Boney M don’t have time to repeat sex machine into James Brown softness so they have to use love with irony.

If love speaks to us of softness and romance, why do we accept Boney M describing Rasputin as a love machine? After all, there’s nothing affectionate or virtuous in Rasputin’s treatment of the Russian ladies within the song – Though he was a brute, they just fell into his arms. Wouldn’t a James Brown-style sex machine have described Rasputin more accurately?

Quick answer: no. Boney M’s song is the story of Rasputin. His whole life, not just his sex life. His sex life is a juicy detail, that’s all. Love machine communicates without distracting. It moves Rasputin’s story along. James Brown needs a different word.

Even James Brown has to put a lot of work into sex machine, to keep the phrase strong but light, cheeky and danceable. He’s careful to leave sex machine to speak for itself, without over emphasising it. He doesn’t wink or smirk when he sings the phrase sex machine. He doesn’t drag the phrase into pornographic imaginings. James Brown doesn’t brag – he is what he is. The movement, the dance, the swing and the easy simplicity of the lyrics surrounding sex machine stopped the song being banned. James keeps it all jolly and matter of fact:

Ra Ra Rasputin doesn’t have time to develop a ‘safe space’ for sexual words. It’s a light, disco tune. A funny story. Russia’s greatest love machine paints a vivid picture for the adults, but sounds sweet enough for a family singalong. Perfect.

Lover of the Russian Queen trips off the tongue and fits the rhythm of the song. As does Russia’s greatest love machine. Try saying Russia’s greatest sex machine out loud. It’s a slush of s sounds. Sibilance is useful. Uncontrollable spitting isn’t.

Love machine is far more relaxing for a singer to sing, and it echoes lover of the Russian Queen pleasingly. Boney M’s Rasputin is built on a disco pattern of control and repetition – preach/preacher, love/lover and heal/healer – a Hall of Mirrors built of nouns and verbs. Sex machine won’t fit the rhyme pattern of the song because you can’t add the necessary er to sexSexer of the Russian Queen doesn’t sound romantic. It sounds like a job for a specialist beekeeper.

The central vowel of love can stretch smoothly, as far, or as deep as you choose. The central vowel of sex can’t stretch. It’s too short and clinical. On the level of vocal mechanics alone, love machine works for RasputinSex machine doesn’t.

And the meaning? Sex machine would have sounded too brutal in this song. Too distracting. Describing Rasputin as a love machine adds to his mystique and suits the romantic balalaika background.

Love machine sounds far more playful than sex machine. The adults in the audience would have have felt drawn into naughty complicity with Boney M. Children could sing along without offending anybody. Remember, this was 1978 and the world was alive with innuendo.

Love machine fits the song’s heritage as a version of this traditional Turkish song – Kâtibim. Love is the right pigment for the melody’s sound picture.

Which is not to say that Boney M’s words are the only possible words for the melody. Eartha Kitt took Kâtibim and ran with it:

Ken Boothe (namechecked on The Clash’s White Man in Hammersmith Palaistook Kâtibim’s melody as a riddim on his 1968 song, Artibella.  His lyrics are straightforward and light. They tell a story of disappointed love and romantic betrayal. You can hear Ken playing the ell of Artibella like a musical instrument:

Artibella was developed  by Snoop Dogg as La La La (in his days as Snoop Lion).

The melody, like all melodies, burns brightly under a variety of words and song stories. Or alone on the clarinet:

© Sing Better English, 2014


4 thoughts on “Choices: Boney M, Eartha Kitt and Ken Boothe”

  1. As a native english-speaker (and former ESL teacher) I really appreciated this post. The linguistic analysis is spot on, as is the cultural connotations and implications associated with ‘love’ and ‘sex’. I can’t wait to see what you write about next!

    –your friend at colorsandcharacter


    1. Thank you for that kind comment.

      The more I write about words in songs, the more they remind me of icebergs, with a whole body of meaning under the waterline. I think, for a native speaker, the cultural undertones of different words are visceral – when I was thinking about Rasputin and the impossibility of a James Brown style Russia’s greatest sex machine, I knew the word sex felt absolutely wrong, but it took me a while to work out what was actually wrong with it.

      It was like that feeling you get when you very first have to explain a phrasal verb to a non-native English speaker. They’re so deeply embedded in our consciousness that they have a feel to them, rather than any logical explanation, don’t they? It’s hard to make them sound reasonable. Nobody teaches them to us in school, but we all know them intimately. Have you heard that Oscar Brown song The Snake? Now there’s a reptile who knows his way around a phrasal verb!

      I think, for a non-native singer/songwriter, the ‘mouth feel’ of a word is their best clue to what’s beneath the waterline – at least I’m hoping it is an accurate barometer of meaning, otherwise I might as well give up reading Lorca or Neruda!

      I find what you say in your blog about the emotional power of colour fascinating. We humans are such subtle creatures,aren’t we?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed this post. It’s an intuitive observation. Do you reckon that, sometimes, the emotions we’ve attach to the ‘sounds’ of certain words are actually the products what our minds have ascribed to those particular emotions?

    For example when I think of friends or family I find it hard to think of their persona inhabiting any another name different from what I’m already used to. It’s almost as if my mind has got used to, and thus subconsciously tied, a particular name embodying a specific person(s).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for that thoughtful comment, Sid. 🙂

      You’re right, I think, about how we attach emotions to certain words. As an audience we pick up both the general cultural significance of a word and, on a more subtle level, the singer’s intention when they sing the word. I think it’s one of the subtleties that wrong-foots people from other countries who sing in English. A word is never simply a word. It has a whole hinterland of meaning, most of which you’ll never find in a dictionary. As a native speaker you can tell when a singer isn’t quite congruent with what they’re singing. It’s unsettling.

      I think you’re right about names. There was a time when Adolf was a perfectly acceptable name for a child. You realise how the sound of certain words comes to be laden with extra layers of acquired ‘meaning’ when you try to name your first baby. Names that have no resonance, or a positive association for one parent can feel poisonous in the mouth of the other, because of a love affair gone bad, a bullying boss or any other negative connotation. The name itself is blameless – it’s just impossible to untangle a neutral version from the briars of memory. And impossible to explain the power of the feeling a name evokes to another human who thinks of it as ‘just a name.’

      As far as Ra-Ra-Rasputin goes – I think ‘sex machine’ sounds too clinical and, with the disco speed of the lyrics, they had no time to soften that impression. Even James Brown softens ‘sex machine’ with a few rounds of ‘love machine’ in his song:
      I think in both cases, it’s the music that ultimately dictates the ‘right’ word. ‘Russia’s greatest sex-machine’ has too many ‘s’ sounds to sing it comfortably. If James Brown had been singing ‘Swish on up…’ he wouldn’t have dropped ‘… like a sex-machine’ into place after it. Too many distracting ‘s’ sounds.

      You might enjoy this post – about the power of the order of words in a list

      Liked by 1 person

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