In 1988, a group managed by Boney M creator Frank Farian arrived. Milli Vanilli were two models and breakdancers by the name of Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan. Fronted by the dishy dreadlocked duo, Milli Vanilli's exotic mix of rap and dance won over first Europe, and then America. Debut single "Girl You Know It's True" raced into the top 3 both here and in the States.
Milli Vanilli were huge. After "Girl You Know It's True", the groups next three singles all made number 1 in America and debut album "All Or Nothing" (aka "Girl You Know It's True") was a big smash, selling seven million copies Stateside.
The first threads began to unravel in December 1989, when a rapper known as Charles Shaw told the press that neither Rob or Fab had sung a note on the Milli Vanilli album. He quickly retracted his statement, however, after being paid off by Farian, and Milli Vanilli won a Grammy for "Best New Artist". They thanked no-one in their acceptance speech, which didn't help to pacify the gently fuming artists watching the duo take the credit for music they hadn't even contributed to.
But success was going to the heads of the dynamic duo, with Pilatus especially having developed a cocaine habit and claiming in interviews that he had contributed more to pop music than Dylan, McCartney, and Jagger. Farian now recalls how he once demanded that he was "made louder" on a remix, forgetting that it wasn't even his vocals on the track! In November 1990, Farian himself, tiring of the twosome, blew his cover and revealed that Shaw's earlier claim had been true. Rob and Fab had been urging the producer to allow them to sing on the follow-up to "All Or Nothing", forcing his hand, and the scam was suddenly exposed.
The comeback was immense. For the first time ever, a Grammy had to be returned and a lawsuit was filed against Arista Records. Buyers of "All Or Nothing" were even told they could apply for a refund on the record, and the album was deleted. It remains the biggest selling album ever to be taken out of print.
In 1991, the original session musicians that had made "All Or Nothing" released an album called "Moment of Truth" under the title "The Real Milli Vanilli". Meanwhile Rob Pilatus went off the rails, slashing one of his wrists under the influence of a cocktail of alcohol and prescription drugs and threatening to jump off a balcony. In 1993, under the name "Rob and Fab", the duo re-recorded the song "All Or Nothing", and an album, themselves. It sold only 2000 copies.
"Rob and Fab"...
...and "The Real Milli Vanilli"
In 1995, Rob Pilatus was arrested for several assaults and robberies in L.A and served several months in jail the following year. He also went into rehab for his cocaine addiction before returning to Germany. In April 1998, he overdosed on a fatal combination of pills and alcohol and was found dead in a Frankfurt hotel room.
Morvan, aka Fab, continues to pursue a solo career and recently had his own show on German TV. His web site claims that he has "put the past behind him" and is releasing his debut solo effort, "Love Revolution".
Milli Vanilli are now considered an absolute joke. So it's hard to forget just how huge they were. The figures speak for themselves - seven million albums sold, five Top 5 hits in America. Ironically it was undoubtedly the scale of the bands achievements that made their downfall such an epic one. The public were furious. The complete erasure of the group's success from history, withdrawn Grammy, deleted album and all, was a matter of principle and revenge.
In hindsight though, it seems a waste and unfair, not to mention hypocritical. The same music that is now considered laughably bad without ever being re-listened to (a "joke" cover of "Girl You Know It's True" charted in the UK a year or two back) was fine when bought by the shedload in 1989. Indeed, the songs today are great and fairly innovative - "Girl You Know It's True" and "Baby Don't Forget My Number" especially, are pop classics the world is not now allowed to recall - just because a different person sung on them than we thought. Ironically the worst thing about the songs are the vocals, which do indeed sound just like session voices.
It's almost like it doesn't matter what the records sounded like, which is surely to miss the point. And was their crime that great? Many top pop artists today have the help of extensive vocal trickery to make them sound good, and in a lot of teen bands, who would like to bet that everybody actually sings on the record? Is it really any different? Poor old Milli Vanilli, now re-written from history as if the music didn't matter. Ironically they were awarded their Grammy for, amongst other things, their "unique image".