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Tuesday, 12 July 2016

How To Invent A Musical Group

Milli Vanilli was a successful musical group in the late 1980's whose singers did not sing. Instead, they lip synced to pre-recorded vocals, sung by others. It all went well at first, until the duo insisted on singing for real on the second Milli Vanilli album. Image Source: Gossip Brunch

The musical group as an invention

Is it really possible? Well, it is. Sometime in the late 1980s a musical duo called Milli Vanilli burst on the international pop scene. They were a good looking duo who could sing and rap. And dance! Their music was catchy and their lyrics were simple. Soon, people everywhere were singing along to their hit, "Girl You Know It's True!" 

It was a hit when I was in primary school. I remember listening to it. I remember my classmate, Neil Ravindran, singing along with it. (It's one of the few memories that I've had from primary school.)

There was a talented German musician...

And his name was Frank Farian. He wanted to make it as a singer and a musician, but he did not make it big at first. He sang the blues, the music of black people, and was good enough to perform in German clubs that catered for homesick US soldiers. But his career as a singer never really took off.

The Origin of Boney M

Sometime in the 1970's, he gave up performing. He began to produce music instead. One of the first projects he began was the group Boney M. The group produced a good number of hits like "Rasputin", "Ma Baker", and "Brown Girl in the Ring". It was fronted by black singers from the US who had made Germany their home. The line up changed from time to time, but nobody really noticed. The band was a success, and Farian made money.

Boney M made it big because of the 1970s disco craze. Few know the origin of the group, however. From Wikipedia:
German singer-songwriter Frank Farian (real name Franz Reuther) recorded the dance track "Baby Do You Wanna Bump" in December 1974. Farian sang the repeated line "Do you do you wanna bump?" in a deep voice (entirely studio created) as well as performing the high falsetto chorus. When the record was released as a single, it was credited to "Boney M.", a pseudonym Farian had created for himself after watching the Australian detective show Boney. ....

After a slow start, the song became a hit in the Netherlands and Belgium. It was then that Farian decided to hire performers to 'front' the group for TV performances.

And Along Came Milli Vanilli

The story goes that after the success of Boney M in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, Farian was bored. He was looking for a change, and a breakthrough into the American pop scene. 

From the Washington Post, in 1990:
Farian was selling millions of records and became one of the world's most valued producers, making records for Meat Loaf and Stevie Wonder. But Farian still hungered for his U.S. breakthrough.

He found some new singers, Brad Howell and John Davis, former American soldiers with a good sense of the new thing, rap. He worked up new mixes for some of the numbers he'd written in the Boney M days. But Howell was 45 (by his own account; Farian insists he is 38) and wasn't too thrilled about the idea of going on tour.

Farian wanted a catchy look to go with the bouncy sounds. With the Milli Vanilli songs already recorded, Rob and Fab walked into the studios one day, seeking work. They looked great. They sang terribly. They were perfect.
The two guys who would eventually "front" for the band were Rob Pilatus, the German-born son of a black American soldier and a white German mother, and Fab Morvan, the French-born son of parents from Guadaloupe.

The name of the band, Milli Vanilli, was based on a "advertising slogan" that Rob and Fab found while on a trip to Turkey. (Wikipedia) It might have also been based on the name of a defunct discotheque in Germany. (Washington Post)

Rumours spread that the duo of Rob and Fab did not sing, only lip-synced. Shaw, the real rapper on the original "Girl You Know It's True", told a reporter that the duo lip-synced, but he retracted his statement after Farian paid him $150,000. It was big money in those days, and a smart way for the "invisible backup singer" to get paid. (Charles Shaw was paid only $6,000 for his original rap in "Girl You Know It's True".)

Eventually, however, the duo of Rob and Fab wanted to sing on the second Milli Vanilli album. Farian himself revealed the whole scam to the media.

Milli Vanilli's Grammy Award was withdrawn. Arista Records also removed the album from its catalogue and stopped selling Milli Vanilli's records.

Farian was unrepentant in the aftermath. The Washington Post quoted him as saying:
What was the betrayal? Did anyone in America believe that the Village People or the Monkees really sang themselves? The Archies? Please. Everyone's been doing it for 25 years. Madonna, Janet Jackson -- these perfect dance shows are expected now. So the best way to go onstage is with tapes.
That was the end of the original Milli Vanilli. There was a follow up act, featuring the real singers of Milli Vanilli, but that's another story.

Here's the original Milli Vanilli hit, "Girl You Know It's True", that made it all happen.

They want you to know that you can blame it on the rain.

And you know what, I'm going to miss their music.

Other Groups

Milli Vanilli were by no means the only Eurodance group fronted by black singers. Here are some other examples.

Snap! was a group formed by two German musical producers, Michael Münzing and Luca Anzilotti. Like Milli Vanilli, it was another Eurodance group. Unlike Milli Vanilli, the original singers of the group, Turbo B and Penny Ford, performed the songs on their own. There was no lip syncing. The song above, "The Power", was a huge hit.

Another Eurodance group form the 1990s was 2 Unlimited, which was founded by "Belgian producers Jean-Paul DeCoster and Phil Wilde and fronted by Dutch rapper Ray Slijngaard and Dutch vocalist Anita Doth". (Wikipedia) Their song below, "No Limit", was also another hit.

Some Interesting Questions

There are some interesting questions that arise from the Milli Vanilli story.

Question: Who owned the band's brand?

Rob and Fab coined the name of the band, Milli Vanilli, inspired by their travels in Turkey. It became the band's identity. But the band was a project of Frank Farian. Could Rob and Fab have claimed the band's identity for themselves?

It really would have depended on the agreement Farian had gotten his performers to sign. Did the agreement (there must have been one?) state clearly to whom the band's brand belonged to? 

Question: Can old band members perform using the band's brand?

As you know by now, Milli Vanilli later split up. The duo that fronted it wanted to continue as Milli Vanilli, and obviously, it was a problem. They were merely the musical equivalents of hired hands. They danced in place, flexed a few muscles, and looked the pretty face, but did not sing. That would have been a disaster for Farian if Rob and Fab had showed the world how inept they are. 

But there was a band later on, called "The Real Milli Vanilli". It was made up of the guys who sang in the background while Rob and Fab took the limelight. Was it an affront to Rob and Fab's rights?

And there was the case of the other famous Farian project. That's right, Boney M. Here's an excerpt from Washington Post, again:
There are the old Boney M singers who left Farian and are now in a messy legal battle over the name of the band. Three original Boney M members who claim the right to keep performing under the name say Farian is out to destroy their livelihood. They point to a letter warning club owners, deejays and music publications not to hire the "the band illegally using the name Boney M."

Question: Who owns the publishing rights to the Milli Vanilli's songs?

If you read my last piece, you'd know that Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney made a ton of money from publishing rights of songs. The owner of publishing rights can license the songs out, authorize remakes, and a whole lot of other fun stuff. Who owns the publishing rights to Milli Vanilli's songs?

That guy could be making a lot of money. (How? Ask me.)

Question: Were audiences cheated?

This question is more an ethics issue rather than a legal one. Audiences buy what they want. They saw a few music videos, and thought that the people performing in the music videos were the ones who sang the musical track. 

When audiences first got to know that it was all lip-syncing, I guess they felt like they had been cheated. Like a guy who orders an organic beef sandwich, and got a vegan beef sandwich instead. Even it was never stated on the album sleeve that so-and-so sang this song, it was understood that Rob and Fab sang the songs. Why else would they show them singing in the music videos?

A whole bunch of those who became disenchanted were young children. For them, the magic never came back. But we watch the Milli Vanilli music videos from time to time, and relive the magic of the old times. Them old Milli Vanilli songs hardly ever come on the radio anymore. 


  1. Washington Post, 22nd December 1990. The Man Who Mixed Milli Vanilli
  2. Wikipedia entry on Boney M
  3. Wikipedia entry on Rob Pilatus
  4. Wikipedia entry on Fab Morvan
  5. Wikipedia entry on Charles Shaw
  6. Pop Matters, 26th June 2014. The Truth of Milli Vanilli a Generation Later by David Himmel
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