Milli Vanilli and one of the greatest hoaxes in pop music at 30
For a while, there was chatter about a biopic on the rise and fall of Milli Vanilli, the pop act at the center of a scandal when it was discovered that the two faces of the group—Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan—were not the singers on the recordings.
It’s a subject ripe for goofball comedy, but the only writer-directors who could do justice to the absurdity, the utter folly of the whole brouhaha, are long departed. Imagine The Milli Vanilli Story in the hands of Preston Sturges or Frank Tashlin, masters of chaotic, cartoonish tales, schemes that get wildly out of hand. It would be like Hail the Conquering Hero meets The Girl Can’t Help It, set in the world of the music biz in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I’d get on line to see that. I also was sort of part of that.
When Milli Vanilli were signed to Arista Records, I was an exec in the label’s A&R department. Our job in this case was to look for a few songs to modify/upgrade the All or Nothing album that already existed, produced in Germany by Frank Farian. This was common practice: When Arista began its association with Air Supply, for example, Clive Davis and his A&R team took that Australian duo’s LP and tinkered with it a bit for U.S. release. In the Milli Vanilli situation, the album that became Girl You Know It’s True was enhanced by some domestically sourced material, including Diane Warren’s “Blame It on the Rain” (a #1 single). I may or may not have had a role in suggesting the Simon Climie–Dennis Fisher song “Take It as It Comes” (not a single). Come on: it was thirty years ago.
After the Big Revelation, anyone who worked at Arista was asked, Did we know? I guess that depends on what the definition of “know” is. Honestly, no, and people find that difficult to swallow, but listen: all we had were the recordings, made in Europe well before our involvement, and video—almost everyone mimed in videos—and studio credits supplied by Farian. Some of us found it curious that Farian wouldn’t allow any Arista A&R presence in the studio when he cut the songs the label came up with (what was he hiding?), but we took it on faith that Milli Vanilli were who they were purported to be. Why wouldn’t we? When Arista released the first two singles, “Girl You Know It’s True” and “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” in 1988, no one at the label had ever met them, or even heard them speak, let alone sing.
Anyway, they were a smash hit, Arista sold millions of records—the U.S. version of the album hit stores in early March 1989—and then it all unraveled. Act two: In interviews, Rob and Fab said some dumb, arrogant stuff; on tour, there was a mishap with the pre-recorded tracks they were lip-syncing to; and they won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist. I was there that night in Los Angeles, and when the recipients were announced, some of us slunk down in our chairs. Not because we were complicit in a fraud, not because this was the worst Best New Artist award ever bestowed (I’d say the singles were better than the ones Starland Vocal Band and A Taste of Honey had won for), but because we were prepared for some serious mocking. (That was also the year Michael Bolton beat Roy Orbison for Best Male Vocal Performance, so we weren’t the only label with cause for embarrassment.) The Grammy after-party was one of the gloomiest I’ve ever attended.
The L.A. Times broke the Farian story; the Recording Academy took back the Grammy (and can we pause here to note that among the eligible artists not nominated were Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and De La Soul?); and there were accusations, speculation, and lawsuits. Lawsuits! That’s what cracked me up, and still does. What was the damage inflicted on anyone? What was the basis of the legal action? “We liked these songs, and we purchased the album that contained those exact songs, but when we found out that the guys whose picture was on the cover didn’t sing those songs, we didn’t like them anymore”? Are these consumers staring at the album cover as they listen? The singing by the “real” Milli Vanilli wasn’t even that impressive. It could have been Rob and Fab. It could have been Norman and Herb from your company’s HR department who commandeer the karaoke machine at your office party. Who cares? When I found out that the Grass Roots on the first Grass Roots album weren’t an actual existing group, but P.F. Sloan, Steve Barri, and a bunch of Wrecking Crew musicians, I didn’t sue Dunhill Records. Did you know that the T-Bones who cut “No Matter What Shape Your Stomach’s In” weren’t “real” either? Did you realize Susan Dey didn’t play keyboards and sing backing vocals in the Partridge Family? That the Crystals at any given session might be whomever Phil Spector decided they were that day?
(Oh, there was additional MV legal action: David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat and Tears noted that “All or Nothing” was sort of similar to “Spinning Wheel,” but both of them resemble Randy Newman’s “Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad,” and Randy’s song came out first.)
The Artist (Best New, or whatever) Formerly Known as Milli Vanilli (and how neat that Vanilli is an anagram for “villain”) was Frank Farian, who created a bifurcated entity by that name. A studio half, and a visual half. It was inspired fakery, a conceptual pop-art project, and people who were, or pretended to be, offended were predisposed to jump on it because it was such blatantly silly Euro-pop (“Girl you know it’s true/Ooh-ooh-ooh, I love you”), the “rapping” was cringe-worthy, and Rob and Fab did themselves no favors by telling an interviewer they were more talented than Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney. Critics were unkind before (Jay Cocks in Time magazine: “How much worse than the Millis can things get?”), so the glee over their humiliation, the endless jokes, felt vindicating: It was all a ruse!! The public was duped!!
If they hadn’t gotten that Grammy (NARAS should have just let them keep it: they’d given out dumb ones for years), and they hadn’t become a symbol of music industry calculation and cynicism, Milli Vanilli would’ve long been forgotten as a blip on the pop screen, like Dino (“I Like It”), or Sheriff (“When I’m With You”). Would most civilians be able to recall which was Milli Vanilli and which was Haysi Fantayzee? Instead, everyone remembers Milli Vanilli. That’s an ending Preston Sturges would have known how to write.