The Story Of Milli Vanilli And The Great Pop Swindle

Their story has become part of the fabric of popular culture, but how did two German male models come to represent the ugly face of superficiality in the music business?
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Their story has become part of the fabric of popular culture, but how did two German male models come to represent the ugly face of superficiality in the music business?

It's hard to imagine now, in a music industry teeming with quick fixes and ten second careers, that pop music was once a very serious business. Well actually, that not quite true. Most decades have seen sleight of hand studio fixes when it's come to fooling the general public into the authenticity of the pop machine. From Spector's Ronnettes to Stock, Aitken and Waterman and beyond, technically gifted svengalis have shaped the outline of the teenage voice into something approaching a polished sheen.

The eighties though. How to describe the eighties. An icy decade where art was thrown like a diamanté veil over everything that twitched. An age of the high cheekbone and pretentious pose. Especially in pop. The second invasion of English chart music had invaded the world, and people were thriving for a meaning in it. Endless essays on the postmodernism of the three minute throwaway. Black polo necks in small cubicle offices, tripping over themselves to describe the importance of it all.

By the end of the decade however, such pseudo intellectualism had given way to the age old twitch of sex and the hard sell again. Madonna had breezed in with a mix of cold ambition and lingerie and the age of dance/pop ensued. The throwaway kind. It was a complete turnaround. The age of the 12 inch extended mix and acts that rarely had a longevity of more than twelve months.

One such act was Milli Vanilli. The brainchild of German producer Frank Farian, they first emerged on the charts with 'Girl You Know It's True' in March 1989. It was an optimistic and innocent piece of soul pop which was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. The band consisted of two members, Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, two male models Farian had discovered performing in a Munich Nightclub. Farian, who had a history in the music industry, was quick to spot their potential to a teenage market and commercially in sales on a burgeoning chart market. A shadowy, narcissistic figure, he saw himself as pop's Colonel Parker, and had played a major role in the success of cheesy, late seventies band Boney M. The partnership was not without controversy. Farian had actually sung lead vocals on all of Boney M's studio albums, reducing the band's frontman Bobby Farrell to a promotional and touring puppet. It was a philosophy that would later come crashing round his ears later on.

For now though he had a major success on his hands. After the release of two more hit singles (Girl I'm Gonna Miss You/Baby Don't Forget My Number), and a successful album release, Milli Vanilli seemed a genuine pop brand - marketable to teenage girls the world over with their particular brand of European charm.

Farian must have been delighted but deep down he knew he had a secret problem and the bigger Milli Vanilli got, the harder he knew it was going to be to conceal.

What Frank Farian had done was to create a front. Pilatus and Morvan were the face of Milli Vanilli but certainly not its real vocalists. That had been created in the studio by Farian and engineers looking to break into the lucrative pop market. What Farian had underestimated however was their longevity and the quality of the songs. Milli Vanilli's eclectic sound had made inroads into the tricky 'urban' market. It was garnishing a reputation as serious 'soul pop' stateside, rather than the superfluous pop they intended.

It's here things slowly started to unravel. At MTV's studios in 1989, two incidents threatened to if at least not unravel the band then certainly make people highly suspicious. First, at a live performance of 'girl you know it's true' the pre-recorded vocals that had been recorded began to skip and jump. The MTV engineers were astonished to see Pilatus and Morvan keep on singing as if nothing had happened. This alongside an interview in which the two had struggled to answer questions in broken English had been the talk of MTV that season. How come two men that could hardly grasp English could sing in such clear cut accents they wondered. A fuse was slowly being lit under Farian and the band.

For now though it was 1990 and the band and Farian were waiting to hear the winner of best new artist at the Grammy ceremonies. As their names were read out Farian must have winced deep down. The Grammys at that time were paragons of virtue when it came to artists and live music and here was a table of total impostors. For Chuck Philips too, an La Times writer who had been studying the story closely - the announcement of their names must have give him a buzz too. He was about to break the whole story to the world and bring their foundations crashing down.

That story was subsequently published and the backlash was huge. Rather than the public however, who didn't really care whether Milli Vanilli mimed or not, it was the industry itself that bared its teeth against the band and Farian. Their Grammy was taken back immediately and Arista dropped the band from their label immediately. The real singers of Milli Vanilli then started to appear out of the woodwork. Farian, taking the Oscar Wilde route of maximum publicity announced that the band were more talented than Elvis and Mick Jagger put together. Seemingly he reveled in the notoriety.

The real victims of course were Pilatus and Morvan. The truth would later emerge that Farian had given them a small advance and made them hastily sign a contract. When the money had run out Farian had threatened the pair and forced them into a whole conspiracy. Now however they were the public face of the whole controversy. Pilatus in particular struggled with it, he'd never wanted to be famous anyway and in truth would have been better off cutting his losses from the whole debacle.

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Only the pair remained under Farians spell. By 1997 there was even a planned comeback and an album whose title seemed overly aggressive and slightly off kilter with the times. 'Back in and Attack' was already virtually finished and would have been sooner if it hadn't been for Rob Pilatus' strange behaviour. By now a violent drug addict, he'd already spent three months in a Californian jail for attempted robbery. Farian, perhaps taking responsibility for the singer's problems but more than likely knowing a promotional tour was coming up, paid for the singer to go into rehabilitation. It wasn't to be however. On the eve of that tour, Pilatus was found dead in a German motel room from a mixture of prescription drugs and alcohol. Although many thought it was suicide, it was later ruled as accidental.

It put to rest one of the most tragic and hypocritical events in pop music in its recent history. Hypocritical in the sense that the whole industry, despite its vapid and cut throat nature put Milli Vanilli out to dry from their moral high ground. Tragic in the sense that a man died for little more than fronting made up pop music.