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 l 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 s at the beginning, a fixed-length e at the centre and the axe chop of an efficient, definite x 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 sex. Sexer 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 Rasputin. Sex 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 Palais) took 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:
The melody, like all melodies, burns brightly under a variety of words and song stories. Or alone on the clarinet:
© Sing Better English, 2014