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Sunday, 18 November 2012

'The Boiler' - Rhoda with the Special AKA

Recently, I wrote about Rape Crisis, Glasgow's 16 Days of Action for the Elimination of Violence Against Women campaign and the Glasgow Reclaim the Night march (see 'here'). As part of this campaign, I've been trying to organise, along with one of my union colleagues, a few suitable consciousness-raising events at my workplace. Another organisation which I support, White Ribbon Scotland, a campaign for men in Scotland who want to end violence against women, are also taking part in the 16 days of action and from them I got the idea to put on an after-work film showing.

My union colleague and I were having a discussion about which film we thought would be best suited to the event and I suggested the powerful and harrowing New Zealand drama 'Once Were Warriors'.
My colleague hadn't seen it and agreed to have a look at it to assess its suitability. After she'd agreed to watch it I began to have some doubts about it. After all, while it is a superbly acted and critically acclaimed piece, it can be very difficult viewing. And, sure, while the main female character, Beth, does eventually find the strength to leave her abusive partner, the journey to this point is not an easy one, for the character or the viewer. Eventually, my colleague and I decided that something else would better suit the bill, but our decision did make me think quite a bit about the portrayal of domestic and sexual violence in popular art-forms and  just where the line should be drawn between raising an issue and Cinéma vérité-style portrayals of violence. It also reminded me of an extremely controversial song, which caused quite a few waves in the world of popular music back in 1982, but which is barely mentioned nowadays. The song in question is 'The Boiler', a chilling and nakedly-emotional story of date-rape released by “Rhoda with the Special AKA”.

The Rhoda  in question was Rhoda Dakar, the former lead singer of minor ska revival band The Bodysnatchers. The Bodysnatchers were a seven-piece, all-female band, who were signed to Jerry Dammers' (The Specials' musical mastermind) 2 Tone record label.The Bodysnatchers were infamous for forming when they were barely able to play their instruments with the intention of "learning to play as they went along". The band played together for less than two years, disbanding in 1981, without having released an album.

'The Boiler' was actually the first song that The Bodysnatchers ever wrote, previously they had just played covers of old ska and reggae classics. Jerry Dammers heard it and was keen to produce it for the band, but pressure from Chrysalis (who were 2 Tone's parent company) caused The Bodysnatchers to record the safer, and more commercial, single 'Let's Do Rocksteady'. However, Dammers didn't forget about the song and made plans to record it in the future.

The song itself, which features a chilling, never to be forgotten, first-person narrative, spoken word vocal performance from Rhoda, came about through her improvising and just talking over a riff in rehearsal. Rhoda herself says of the song:

"I didn't know about writing songs, but I knew how to improvise - I had originally wanted to act and had worked in the theatre on leaving school. Performing it live was acting, that's all. A friend had been raped a couple of years earlier and I suppose I was thinking of her at the time. Recording it was a very long and drawn out process."

Indeed it was. After The Bodysnatchers split, citing ‘musical differences’ for their decline, with some members purportedly wanting to take a more political stance while others wanted to follow a more pop orientated career, Rhoda began working informally with The Specials on their second album 'More Specials'. However, The Specials too were coming to the end of their shelf-life and were soon to split themselves, with vocalists Terry Hall, Neville Staple and Lynval Golding leaving to form the Fun Boy Three. Prior to this, in the summer of 1981, Jerry Dammers had started working again on 'The Boiler', making several different remixes and, after the bands' break-up, finally began recording it. The recording of Rhoda's vocal started about a year before the song's eventual release and has been described by those involved as "a long and difficult process".

The song was released on 23 January 1982 under the name of “Rhoda with the Special AKA”. Jerry Dammers, who was adamant that the song should be released in order to raise an important issue, has desribed it as follows:

 "It is the only record that was ever made quite deliberately to be listened to once and once only".

 Most radio stations disagreed with playing it even once, and it was widely banned from commercial radio. The BBC banished it to a few plays on the night time schedule, where it was predictably championed by John Peel, but mainly tried to ignore it. Some retailers thought even less of it and refused to stock it. Despite this, the song reached a creditable number 35 in the UK singles chart.

I was one of the many people who bought a copy, but I will also admit that this is not a song that I have listened to much subsequently. It is a wonderfully produced piece of work, with Dammers' haunting musical accompaniment a perfect vehicle for Dakar's vocal. However, it is, without a doubt, one of the most difficult songs to hear through to the end, or to listen to more than once. In particular, the final 90 seconds are heart-rendingly horrific. I remember, at the height of the record's infamy, that some feminists argued that although the song highlighted the date-rape issue they felt that the way it did so was too harrowing and for that reason they could not support its release. I can certainly understand that argument although, personally, I feel that the right of an artist to explore the darkest parts of the human psyche is a considerable counter-balance to it. As such, I am embedding the song below, for those who are interested, but I am also warning any victims of sexual abuse or rape that this song is a potential trauma trigger. If you have any doubts at all about whether you want to hear this - then don't.

I mentioned the White Ribbon Scotland campaign above. I would be grateful if any Scottish boys or men reading this would consider visiting their website in order to show their support and to make their personal pledge never to commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women.

Thank you.


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