Milli Vanilli
Pop

Blame It on The Tape: A Behind-the-Scenes Oral History of the Rise and Fall of Milli Vanilli

For the 30th anniversary of the group's best new artist Grammy win, Billboard does a deep dive into the real story behind the faux duo.

Forget the great rock and roll swindle, this was the massive pop shell game. In Nov. 1990, Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, the dancers known around the globe as pop sensations Milli Vanilli, scored an ignoble record: they became the first artists to ever have their Grammy Award revoked by the Recording Academy after the organization said the liner notes to the group’s debut album falsely claimed “vocals: Fab and Rob.”

The meticulously coifed pair's high-wire mime act was nearly two years in the making, but in a pre-Twitter age, their 12-month crash-and-burn felt more like a slow-motion car wreck than instant cancellation. After winning three American Music Awards in Jan. 1990, and the best new artist statue (over The Indigo Girls, Neneh Cherry, Soul II Soul and Tone Loc) at the Feb. 21, 1990, Grammy Awards, the whispers grew louder that something was rotten in Munich.

That’s where Svengali producer Frank Farian cooked up the idea to re-record a little known American hip-hop single by the Baltimore crew Numarx with a group of German and American session singers and musicians, who remained in the shadows while he boosted the dancing duo to global superstardom. Farian had pulled similar sonic seduction over Eurodance pop fans’ eyes more than a decade before with his band Boney M. -- a mid-1970s co-ed disco funk group whose supposed lead “singer” was really an Aruban exotic dancer, who simply looked the part as he mouthed Farian’s vocals. In fact, Farian had recorded the first songs for MV’s debut album before he’d even cast the two faces with all the right moves who would front his latest Wizard of Oz-like creation.

After irresistible first single “Girl You Know It’s True” turned into a smash across Europe, Farian enlisted the young, fame-hungry hoofers to be the face of his group, no vocals necessary. (In a 2017 interview with VladTV, Morvan claimed Farian signed them to a contract, and after paying around $5,000 worth of their bills, told them they needed to either lip sync or pay him back immediately. “Let’s do this and let’s get out of there… but then it went crazy,” he said of what he described as a difficult choice.) “Girl” caught the ear of legendary music man and Arista Records boss Clive Davis, who licensed the album from BMG (while tweaking its title and adding a handful of new tracks for American ears), and soon it conquered America, selling a reported seven million copies worldwide and hitting No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Released in Europe on the LP All or Nothing in Nov. 1988, the undeniable strength of “Girl” was such that Arista didn’t hesitate to put on a full-court press, releasing the revamped version as Girl You Know It’s True in March 1989, complete with the fresh Diane Warren-penned soon-to-be No. 1 smash ballad “Blame It on the Rain." The album already contained two other tracks that would both hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” and “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” with no spotlight on who actually sang and rapped on the LP. The Girl album spent 78 weeks on the Billboard 200 albums chart -- peaking at No. 1 for 8 weeks, making Milli Vanilli one of the year's most dominant pop acts.

And the entire plan might’ve worked, if it wasn’t for a pesky tape that went rogue during a Club MTV performance at Lake Compounce amusement park in Bristol, Connecticut, on July 21, 1989. While many on the inside of their American label were beginning to think by then that Rob and Fab were just smoke and pre-taped vocals, the televised flub turned the growing whispers about lip syncing into a scream. During the now-infamous incident, the two briefly kept “singing” -- then ran offstage --  as the “Girl” backing track got stuck on repeat, raising questions that a year later would result in the reveal of the biggest lip syncing scandal in pop history. On Nov. 15, 1990, Farian admitted that Rob and Fab -- by then megastars whose insistence on singing on their next album drew a hard “no” from the producer and Davis -- were merely his puppets in an elaborate, incredibly lucrative pop ruse.  

They were summarily dumped from Arista and their Grammy was yanked -- marking the first time in Recording Academy history that an award was taken back -- and a few days later, Farian blithely brushed off the controversy by telling the Washington Post, “One part was visual, one part recorded. Such projects are an art form in themselves, and the fans were happy with the music." Rob and Fab found themselves without an American label as the album was purged from Arista’s archives, another humbling first to add to their list of dubious distinctions. Tragically, Pilatus died of a suspected overdose of alcohol and drugs in April 1998 at age 32 (or possibly 33 based on other reports at the time), and Girl You Know It’s True became the biggest-selling album to ever be taken out of print voluntarily.

In the end, Rob and Fab were simply pre-Internet avatars, shiny popbots who perfectly fit into the bicycle shorts and leather jackets, fronting a band they never really met, featuring singers who toiled in the studio anonymously while they reaped the lion’s share of the awards and accolades. All they had to show for it was the lavish rewards of pop stardom, an undeniably catchy album they had nothing to do with, and a feeling that they’d gotten swept up in a whirlwind they had no control over.

After Pilatus’ death, Morvan was left to wrestle with a music career that was missing the most important ingredient: the ability to sing like the studio musicians who made him a star. He soldiered on, serving as a pitchman for KFC’s cheeky “What’s real and what isn’t” campaign, and capably singing alongside one of the unheralded vocalists who made him rich (John Davis) as the zero-irony Face Meets Voice. (Another session veteran, Brad Howell, sang the male vocals on the Milli album alongside Davis). To this day, Morvan continues to release singles in Europe, recently scoring a dance chart hit in France with the song “Hold On.” A second MV album, The Moment of Truth, credited to The Real Milli Vanilli, was released in 1991 outside the U.S. to critical and commercial shrugs -- with vocals from Davis, Howell, the sister duo who sang back-up on the original album (Linda and Jodie Rocco), Ray Horton and Gina Mohammed.

How did the ultimate pop con play out the way it did? For the 30th anniversary of Milli Vanilli's Grammy win, Billboard spoke to the behind-the-scenes players responsible for the album’s recording and U.S. promotion, as well as an engineer and songwriter behind the music, one of the duo’s U.S. managers and a number of then-Arista Records staffers. You might know the broad sketches of the story, but you’ve never heard the fuller tale of what they knew when, and why they were certain that Farian’s house of cards was destined to come toppling down... around an album they're all still proud to have worked on.

(Editor’s note: Billboard made several attempts to reach Morvan, whose representatives declined to make him available for this story, as well as Brad Howell, Clive Davis, John Davis (unrelated) and Frank Farian, who did not respond or declined requests for comment. Some of the quotes in this story have been edited and condensed for clarity.)

“I HAVE A NEW SONG, AND IT'S GONNA BE A HIT..."

In the beginning, there was the song. After producer Frank Farian heard Numarx’s 1987 single “Girl You Know It’s True” in a German disco, he set out to assemble a crack team of studio veterans to sing and perform a fresh hybrid version of the song. His spin on "Girl" mixed the hip-hop flavor of the original with a Eurodance vibe that gave it a new, mainstream-ready energy. Once it was done, Farian set out to follow his proven formula of finding beautiful faces to front his undeniable melodies. 

Linda Rocco (original backup singer on “Girl You Know It’s True,” backing vocalist on both MV albums): I was working for Frank, and I was the No. 1 backing vocalist in the Frankfurt area. Jodie came to visit me and I said, “Why don’t you hang around long enough to sing with me?” It wasn’t for Frank… but while we were doing that, Frank asked if we had a minute to listen to this record by these kids. 

Jodie Rocco (original backup singer on “Girl You Know It’s True,” backing vocalist on both MV albums): Frank had one of the first digital studios in Germany, a beautiful $10 million one outside of Frankfurt. I was living in Dusseldorf working as a European pop singer, and one day someone couldn’t make it. Frank heard both of us [singing] and said, “When you have a break, I want you to do something for me.” 

Charles Shaw (rapper on “Girl You Know It’s True”): Before Milli Vanilli, my friend from the Army, Sydney Youngblood, and I had both been in Farian’s studio, doing some rapping on a remix maxi single for [Boney M.'s cover of 10cc's] "Dreadlock Holiday", which is how  [Farian] knew my voice. Frank called me into the studio, and let me listen to the song... and said, “I have a new song and it’s gonna be a hit, maybe you can rap on it.” 

Tobias Freund (engineer on debut MV album): I started working in the studio in 1983 and I worked on the Boney M. songs, Far Corporation and a Meat Loaf record [1986’s Blind Before I Stop]. Then we started with Milli Vanilli. I was just an engineer, so I didn’t have anything to do with the production or the final [look] of the band -- but we had the music way before anything else. It came from two DJs who worked in a club in Frankfurt called Frankadelic who were friends of Frank, and they brought [Numarx’s] “Girl You Know It's True” to him.

Shaw: When he [Farian] played the record for me, I already knew the song. He thought it was something new for me, but it wasn’t. I had been dancing to the Numarx version on the weekends in American clubs in Hamburg. Farian played it [“Girl”] and I said, “This song ain’t new.”

Linda Rocco: He wanted to redo that song, which was something he was always doing: putting together a singer and putting a picture on it and then throwing it up in the air and hoping that it sticks.

Shaw: Hell yes he knew it wasn’t new! He picked it up somewhere in Amsterdam, said it was new, and he was going to bring it out. He said, “If you know the song, can you rap it?” I went the next day and it didn’t take me but a half an hour.

Linda Rocco: It was just a drum track when we put our first vocals down. We were pretty much the first thing that was put down on that record. We had no idea what was going to be on it... and we ended up being the ones who sang the “ooh ooh ooooh” on the hook. 

Jodie Rocco: He said, “I want you to go, ‘Ooh, ooh, ooooh, I love you.” I looked at my sister and I said, “I’m going to kill you!” I hated that kind of traditional oom-pah German Schlager music. We did it, and I thought it sounded different. We did it in three- or four-part harmonies, and Frank sang as well on the “girl you know it’s true” part. It was maybe 20 minutes... and I never heard from Frank again. 

Shaw: He had everybody sing “girl you know it’s true,” then he mixed it up the way he wanted to. You can’t really hear the vocals or exactly who’s singing, because there are so many voices on the chorus.

Ken Levy (former senior vp of creative services, Arista Records): I’m sure the first time I heard [“Girl"] was at the weekly luncheon we had with Clive where he would go over the new records. A lot of records we had then came from things that were hits already overseas first -- where they would establish themselves in a couple or territories and we would break it in the States.

Robert Wieger (former product manager, Arista Records): Milli Vanilli sent it to us and asked do we want to put it out. We heard “Girl You Know It’s True” and were like, “Hell yeah, we want to put it out!” 

Richard Sweret (former A&R manager, Arista Records): Because it was coming from outside of the U.S., it was a different sensibility. It wasn’t purist, like MC Hammer and LL Cool J, which were around at that time. This was a different thing that mixed sensibilities, but it did appear on the Billboard rap chart and it was a top rap song at that time -- but it also worked as a dance and pop song. It truly was a crossover like few others we had at that time.

Jens Gad (guitar, arrangements, co-writer of three songs on MV debut): My brother [Grammy-nominated songwriter/producer Toby Gad] and I sent a cassette when we were 17 and 18 with three of our best songs to Farian, and he called us right away to come to the studio and offers us a publishing and artist deal. And then “Girl You Know It’s True” hit the charts and he needed an album overnight. 

We didn’t even speak proper English… we were just putting words together. It was such a surprise and no one thought it would hit like that in the States. They needed an album in a week, and songs that fit, and we were just there, so they took our songs. We thought we were on top of the world, and that our songs were the greatest. 

Sweret: We didn’t have any experience working with [Farian] before… but in terms of the American market, you have to look at it from the European/German perspective, where typically in the 1950s, you would cover American songs, and maybe sing them in German and adopt the songs to a German market.

Levy: It’s a terrific pop song, catchy, and the whole feel of the record was a bit different from the usual pop songs of that time. I think we were all very energized by it -- especially seeing what was happening in other countries where it was performing very well. 

"THE GUYS FROM MUNICH, THEY'RE GORGEOUS!" 

With a surefire hit on his hands, Farian scrambled to pull together enough songs to interest BMG’s partners at Arista Records in America. First, though, he found the two eager dancers that fit the part -- even as the rest of the songs for Milli Vanilli’s album were recorded without Rob and Fab ever setting foot in the studio. The formula had worked for one of Farian’s previous pop contrivances, the 1970s disco pop group Boney M., a decade before. Only this time Farian’s pop monster blew up internationally and the two hired hoofers dove so deep into their roles that Farian quickly began to lose the tight grip on his secret. As Rob and Fab did press in the United States, questions arose about their thick accents and clearly vocal-less performances. 

Jodie Rocco: When the song came out a few months later there was no picture, just the name Milli Vanilli. Milli was the nickname of Ingrid, Frank’s girlfriend at the time, who was the office manager -- and he used to rhyme it and call her “Milli Vanilli.” Once ["Girl"] became a huge hit and there were [still] no faces, Frank created the faces.

Shaw: Farian came back after the song hit the charts in England and said he had to have two faces for the project. I was already paid $12,000 for doing [“Girl”] and he said, “Keep your mouth shut and you can do the whole album.” I’m thinking, “That’s studio work for me.”

Freund: I’d never worked on a record like that [where the singers didn’t actually sing]. But I knew the Boney M. story, where two singers were real singers and Bobby [Farrell] was just a dancer. To be honest, I didn’t really care so much. I was happy to have this job and be surrounded by the most amazing gear. Frank’s studio was the best studio at that time in Germany. That’s why Stevie Wonder came to record “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”

Shaw: Rob and Fab weren’t in the studio, they didn’t exist at that time. Everybody came in after they started working on the album, that’s when he started putting the musicians in. He didn’t need them for “Girl You Know It’s True,” because that was just one rapping voice, and that was me.

Linda Rocco: There was no real plan… we were just recording stuff real fast, to get enough together for a four-song EP for the American market. Then Frank said Arista was involved and he was talking to Clive Davis. But we didn’t hear that much about it. We only got a sense of the excitement from what was going on in the office, where at some point it was humming. “America! America!” 

Gad: We had 10 songs from the duo I had with my brother, and he took three and put them on the [All Or Nothing] album -- “Can’t You Feel My Love,” [“Is It Love”] and “Boy in the Tree.” Ours were definitely the weirdest songs on the album. We tried to emulate Prince and be funky and crazy and do experimental, fun stuff. 

We really stood out and were crazy and talented, but we didn’t think it made a lot of sense to have our songs on the album, since they had nothing to do with “Girl You Know It’s True” and that rap style. We were good musicians and it all had to be fast and funky, and Milli Vanilli was more in the pop-rap [vein].

Linda Rocco: When we got in the studio it was just me and my sister. The only other singer I brought in — Frank wanted me to choose a black singer — I chose Joan Faulkner. And we finished “Blame It On the Rain” and “It’s Your Thing,” but the majority of the songs, 85-90 percent, are me and my sister. We worked eight hours a day in the studio for 60 days to get that done.

Gans: [Frank] worked on the Milli Vanilli stuff all the time, he was obsessed with it. He was always in Studio 1 working on Milli Vanilli. He was always calling us in to work on tracks and arrangements… he could work on a track for three months, and just remix and remix and remix. And in the end, it’s a hit. 

Frank really had a certain genius. He had a bulletproof feel for how it has to sound, and he worked on it forever and ever until it was completed. He can’t play any instrument and can’t play or tell you anything about a chord, but he has that feel.

Shaw: Frank didn’t tell me the plan to find two good-looking guys until after everything was recorded… after the song hit the charts in England. 

Levy: We saw images of the two of them [Pilatus and Morvan], and we felt it was going to be great for us. We didn’t ever imagine it would sell eight million albums, though!

Jodie Rocco: I knew Rob for years -- he danced in my shows and I knew him from the P1 nightclub in Munich, where I lived for 14 years. I saw Rob there and he said, “I’m a dancer and I’m trying to [be a singer],” but they were never singers, never singers. 

Linda Rocco: I lived in Germany for a long time, so I knew how Frank had handled Boney M. In the beginning there was no plan, then one day he said, “This thing’s taking off and we’re gonna have to put a front on it. Here are some pictures and here are these two guys from Munich,” and two guys from somewhere else. Both had dreads, and I said, “The guys from Munich, they’re gorgeous!”

Levy: We knew that the focus was Rob and Fab, and everything we did from a visual point of view was to focus on them because they were two good-looking guys with a great pop song. 

Freund: They [Rob & Fab] didn't do any recording… they did some backing vocals, but they weren't really usable. They spoke English, but Fabrice was more speaking French and Rob was German. It was Frank’s opinion that they weren’t good [enough] for him, but they fit perfectly to the music and the [look].

Gad: We never met Rob and Fab, there was no need for them to be in the studio. It was show business: Frank created the scenario where he put this and this and this together, and that was the show. It was completely normal. 

Jodie Rocco: The boys [Rob and Fab] would come in and go down to the basement where the pool was and hang out for a couple hours... They’d make appearances, then go down to the basement, but they never sang a note or went into the studio. 

Linda Rocco: I met Rob and Fab later on, but [Farian] tried to keep us apart. He was afraid someone would slip up and he didn’t want us to get too chummy. 

Mitchell Cohen (former vp of A&R, Arista Records): The thing that gave me pause was that Clive wanted Richard [Sweret] to go to the studio in Germany, because these were our songs and he wanted it to be under our direction. And Frank was absolutely adamant that there wasn’t anyone from Arista in the studio. 

Sweret: It wasn’t out of the question. Other producers would do their work and send it in. They just didn’t want anyone in the studio with them because it’s a creative professional distance a producer wants to have. I respected that and there was no reason to think that it was anything other than that.

Cohen: I wouldn’t say it raised a red flag in terms of how the vocals were being done, but it definitely raised a shroud of mystery as to whether they weren’t the only singers or if there were some shenanigans going on. 

Freund: When the group took off, Frank told me once that I shouldn’t talk to anyone about that. The real singer [Howell] was living near me in Frankfurt, so I had to pick him up in the evening after the secretaries left the studio and we would go in at night so no one could see. It was a secret. We worked in the evening and closed the windows. 

Jodie Rocco: The boys couldn’t go out in public and they had to hide their faces. We knew from the beginning that the wheels would come off, and I told Frank [that]. 

Wieger: I caught on pretty early, probably at the video shoot for “Blame It on the Rain.” They had trouble remembering the lines, which made me think maybe they hadn’t recorded the song. “What’s going on here?” It was something that was not talked about, to be honest, but definitely behind closed doors it was talked about. 

Cohen: People are always very skeptical when we say, “How could we have known?” You take it on a certain amount of faith that producers and the people supplying you with music are not misrepresenting it. And them being in Germany it wasn’t like we could drop by and hang out. 

Linda Rocco: We were all invited to dinner -- not John and Brad -- Jodie, Rob, Fab and Frank’s girlfriend [Ingrid], to go to [the restaurant] Kikkoman, and it looked like the Last Supper with us all sitting on one side of the table. We were celebrating finishing the album. “Girl” was already on the charts. I’d gone out with Rob several times in Frankfurt, but honestly I didn’t jive with them for another reason: They believed their own hype. They were slightly arrogant.

In fact, at that restaurant Rob had ordered a grape juice, and he was complaining, and the waitress started to cry. Jodie and I were former waitresses, and we couldn’t stand the way he was acting and treating that woman. So the two of us slid our chairs out, and everyone asked what we were doing. “I’m leaving,” I said. “I don’t need to take this. Frank pays me, YOU don’t pay me.” Rob said he was sorry and gave the waitress a $400 tip and we sat back down. 

Todd Headlee [former MV day-to-day manager for Gallin Morey & Assoc.]: Back in 1989, it was all about the video and these guys had camera-pretty faces, with the hair and bodies and beautiful clothes, so the real voices were pushed to the curb. Nobody knew “Girl” would be No. 1 in 15 countries in five minutes -- and it took everyone by surprise, and Rob and Fab got swept up in it.

Sweret: It’s just inexplicable when something reacts, and Milli Vanilli reacted. It went out there in a way no one anticipated. It was a rocket, and I don’t think Frank knew it was going to do that. 

Shaw: Frank thought he could pull it off, because he did it with Boney M. for 25 years! He thought he was gonna pull it off, but he made a mistake and sent them to the States. When the s--t got hot in Germany, he rushed them out and sent them to America. And I said it in a TV interview, I’ll never forget it: “I give them two years and believe me it’s gonna hit the papers.” Once they hit America I knew it wasn’t gonna last. 

"IT WAS LIKE SOMEONE DIED IN THE STUDIO"

Arista didn’t have Rob and Fab do the endless rounds of radio interviews, in-store visits and press that typical pop superstars did. Once the pair began performing in the States, some people at Arista, and on the outside, started wondering about their lip syncing. Even as they dazzled adoring audiences with their signature dance moves, Rob and Fab drew the wrong kind of attention with a performance on the Club MTV tour. Though several of the acts on the tour used lip syncing or singing over a vocal track, and Milli Vanilli had technical difficulties on several occasions, one particular show in Bristol went the 1989 equivalent of viral -- complete with footage of Rob running off stage when the group’s vocal backing track got stuck during “Girl.” The glitch seemingly provided evidence that, at the very least, they were not singing live at their shows.

Freund: We didn’t know if [Milli Vanilli] was a one-hit wonder, but it kept on going… “Blame it on the Rain,” “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” were huge as well.

Wieger: The first time I met them, I was like, “These guys are stars!” They were obviously green and they were surprised by the success, but they embraced it and very quickly learned to live the rock lifestyle -- calling girls up on stage, pointing to girls in the audience and giving them backstage passes, all the antics. 

Levy: They were good-looking guys and we had an image to work with, a song that immediately took off -- it wasn’t a slow build -- and they had the subsequent singles. They weren’t a one-hit wonder. Clive’s genius was picking the right songs in the right order. In those pre-Internet days if you had a record on the radio, if you had a video in rotation on MTV -- and it was in heavy rotation -- and stock in stores, you were in really good shape.

Wieger: They did an in-store appearance in L.A. That was a mob scene, the police had to do crowd control. There were hundreds of people as they were getting out of the limo, and they got mobbed, and they absolutely loved that. 

Rick Bisceglia (former senior VP of promotion, Arista Records): They were great pop songs. I didn’t care at all about [whether they were singing], that wasn’t my responsibility. The pressure I got was to get them played. Once I saw the reaction I knew we had something.

Marty Diamond (former head of artist development, Arista Records): My first experience with them was in a Warehouse Records parking lot performance in L.A. and the two guys get up to perform on the back of a flatbed truck -- and it’s obvious they’re not singing to track, they’re lip syncing. I said something to [their German rep], “I thought they were going to perform to track?” And he said, “Oh, we didn’t have the right tape.” I didn’t know the [rep] and he spoke German to them and good English to me, and what he said about the tape seemed plausible. So I didn’t think much beyond it. 

Bisceglia: I vaguely remember hearing about them not singing, but it was just noise that didn’t get into my head. I didn’t care and I didn’t think about it. It didn’t matter because the songs were working.

Wieger: They had this device called an Emulator, and I remember a glitch with it once where it wasn’t working in Vegas at the Thomas & Mack Center and they had to sing live. It did not go well. People noticed they couldn’t sing, but they were screaming so loud -- I don’t want to say it was like The Beatles -- but they had that reaction from a lot of fans, screaming so loud you couldn’t hear the vocals on stage.

I remember there were some words Fab couldn’t pronounce. He had a pretty thick French/Guadalupan accent, so on “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” he couldn’t say “miss,” and he said “meeees.” It was kind of a disaster because they didn’t have the backing tracks to sing to. But at that point their egos were so big, because they were such big stars, that they were like, “We can sing, no problem.” They became believers in their own false story. 

Headlee: I got a job with Sandy Gallin’s management company as an assistant to the manager assigned to Milli Vanilli, and my first job was to find them a house in Beverly Hills. I was given $20,000 to furnish it, which was a lot at that time. I had to do everything down to the toothbrushes, because they were moving to America to do the Club MTV tour with Paula Abdul, Tone Loc and Information Society. 

Louis Messina (Club MTV tour promoter): The tour was my idea… I was watching Club MTV -- I grew up in the American Bandstand era and I remember Dick Clark had his Cavalcade of Stars that he would take on the road -- and I called and asked if they wanted to take Club MTV on the road and have [MTV personality] Downtown Julie Brown host it. Paula was hot as hot could be and so were Milli Vanilli, they were a monster at the time. They had never toured before, because they were these make-believe characters, but I didn’t know that [they weren’t singing at all] until everything about them came out. 

Wieger: That Club MTV tour was so big, because it gave us an opportunity to get them in front of fans without them having to do the traditional meet-and-greets, the morning zoo radio slots and afternoon visits to retail. It was soundcheck, show and then the next city.

Headlee: It was a lip sync tour -- everyone was [singing to track] on it. It was a different time then, when videos were the important thing for selling music, and people went to concerts expecting the same dancing and sound from videos. And you can’t sing live and dance and have the same sound as on the record. Production became a big part of the concerts.

Downtown Julie Brown (former MTV VJ, Club MTV host): Everyone was singing to track on that tour. Was (Not Was) was live, because the whole band was studio singers anyway -- but we were so used to being on Club MTV, where it wasn’t so much about who had the best voice, just as long as you could perform and give the audience exactly what they wanted. They wanted to see you perform and touch you. That was the fun of that whole clubby vibe. Milli Vanilli definitely brought that to them.

Eliot Sekuler (MV’s outside publicist): I was on the MTV tour already with Paula... where [a number of the acts] were just singing to a recording. [Milli Vanilli] had a fairly elaborate playback system for its time, a digital device that was unusual for them. And it failed. It got stuck while they were on stage.

Steve Leeds (former director of on-air talent/ special projects for MTV): One of my projects was the Club MTV tour and Milli Vanilli were up-and-coming at the time and seemed like a great fit. We were playing Summerfest in Milwaukee [at the beginning of the tour], and they had this elaborate stage that was like a pyramid. Each guy would walk up on the sides and meet up at the top and body slam into each other and start singing.

It was a hot, sticky day and there were 22,000 people, sold out, and Milli Vanilli had this big live band, and then there was a track. It starts [hums "dun-dun-dun-dun"] and then the two guys come jumping out, getting hands in the air, and they’re waiting for the vocal track to come in -- and after seven times of it coming around, it was apparent that the vocal track wasn’t coming on. They ran offstage, punched [their tour manager] in the chest and locked themselves in their tour bus. 

Brown: I remember that whole first show in Milwaukee everyone was so nervous anyway. So in my mind it wasn’t such a big thing, because the crowd was getting geared up. But the one in Connecticut went on for a while. I don’t remember Milwaukee being that dramatic. It wasn’t in the key bar in the [“Girl”] chorus -- where even if you don’t know the words, you know the words to the chorus. 

In Bristol it happened on the key chorus vocal. It crescendos, and they bump chests, and the show was getting going… and the crowd was singing along and you’re sitting there and going, “That doesn’t sound right… there’s no techno break here.” It was stuck, “Girl, girl, girl, girl…” And I didn’t know what was going to happen, if it was going to skip to the end of the song or what. I told the crowd we had technical difficulties, and then the show continued and everything went well. 

Headlee: Julie Brown went backstage and coaxed them back out on stage and they ran out and the audience didn’t care. They couldn’t get enough of them. 

Brown: Backstage it was hell-raising. Rob was so mad. I told him to get open the door, and I just had to talk to him, saying, “They’re here to see you perform and you’re doing such a great job -- don’t let this stop you from giving fans what they want.”

We discussed it later and [Rob] was devastated. He couldn’t even laugh it off and say, “Oh that’s something that happens.” It was very serious for him and he was very embarrassed. He hated people laughing at him. He needed constant pats on the back to get him back into the groove. 

Linda Rocco: I heard about the MTV thing, and it was like someone died in the studio... It was a solemn day in paradise when that happened. Everyone was walking around mumbling.

Levy: I don’t think a lot of us really knew until the whole [MTV] thing when the tape broke. They had a product manager who went out on the road with them and spent a lot of time with them and he was the one that reported about the thing. That was the first indication that they don’t sing. 

Wieger: I remember hearing about the MTV show and the response in the company was, “Oh my God, what are we gonna do?" It was immediate damage control. “How do we address this? Do we ignore it?” 

Freund: I was always wondering how it could happen that this loop [would get stuck on repeat]. It was really strange. I heard that someone said it happened on purpose… maybe like sabotage.

Shaw: When the track skipped on MTV… you wanna know what I thought about it? Every dog has his day. They didn’t want anything to do with me, it was already being said they weren't singing. They just wanted to keep me away, but I kept fighting.

Headlee: I wasn’t there when it happened, but it all happened fast after that. Everybody on that tour knew it could have happened to any one of them. But it alerted the media to certain things, and that’s what put the big question mark out there about whether they were singing or not. 

Leeds: I remember earlier on the tour calling [someone] at Arista and saying something like, “Something is weird here and it doesn’t seem like they’re singing.” He said, “Oh, no, no, no they’re singing.” And I was like, “Okay, I was just checking because it seemed bizarre…” I don’t think it mattered to the audience, [who] were totally into it. It was a hit song. That’s a great show, if you think about it. Everyone was dancing and having a great time. It was a party. 

Wieger: The fact is, sales were going through the friggin’ roof, and it didn’t really have any effect because they were so big on radio, and at that point radio was everything. More than likely, the thought was just to let it pass and hope it doesn’t blow up any further.