"And now the Moment of Truth!" says Frank Farian, creator of Milli Vanilli, inventor of Rob and Fab, the pretty faces who--can you believe it!--people actually thought were singing.
Farian, the German producer who blew the whistle last month on his own fraud, swivels around from his 84-track mixing console, the Pontiac-size machine on which Milli Vanilli was really made, and furnishes the promised honest-to-God truth.
It's a record album.
"That's the name," he giggles as he hands over the freshly printed album cover. "The name of the new Milli Vanilli album is 'The Moment of Truth'! I say it's always best to make what you can out of a bad situation. So this is 'The Moment of Truth.' Good, eh?"
By God, it is. The new single, "Keep on Running," is out already in Europe, and of course, it's No. 4 and rising, No. 1 in Austria. Release date in America is Jan. 21, but right now there's still a problem--what to call the new Milli Vanilli, no, the old Milli Vanilli, well, that's the problem.
The new band is partly made up of the old band--that is, the same musicians who played and sang, sans credit, on the first Milli Vanilli album.
On the European album, the band is called "The Real Voices of Milli Vanilli," but in the States, they're not sure that's good enough.
Just off the fax machine, a letter from Joel Schoenfeld, senior vice president and general counsel of Bertelsmann Music Group in New York: " 'The Real Milli Vanilli' does not solve our problem." Maybe "The Original Milli Vanilli" would be better.
And with this, a caveat: "New members who weren't on the first album should be noted with 'new members.' "
"Yes, yes," Farian says to himself, wearily. "We did that." Frank Farian, the man Arista Records called a "creative genius" even after the Milli Vanilli fraud stripped the duo of a Grammy, can't get over those Americans. "Here in Europe, everything is positive. Stars play a greater role in America. They're taken so much more seriously. And they love the scandal. This music--it's just for dancing!"
Out here at the FAR Studios, Farian's sprawling villa of recording rooms and mixing consoles down a rutted road 40 minutes outside Frankfurt, the walls are chockablock with gold records and charts studded with Farian-produced numbers and--they're still here--posters of Rob and Fab, the 22-year-old pretty boys who finally gave Farian what he had always dreamed of, mega-success in the U.S.A.
"Robert has lied so much," Farian says. He sighs and shakes his shoulder-length orange hair. Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, the front men for Milli Vanilli, have said many terrible things about Farian since the lid finally was blown off their scam. They've said their producer took most of the money. They've said Farian refused to let them sing. They've said they agreed to fake being the lead singers only to escape their miserable existence living in the Munich projects and working at McDonald's.
"Terrible lies," Farian says. "I know Rob's father and mother--very honorable people. They adopted him from a children's home. He wants sympathy. There are no slums in Munich, no projects. He was a clerk in a department store, a normal German teen-ager.
"It's very bad now, but in five or 10 years, Rob will see it wasn't so bad. Then he'll be thankful.
"I made them rich. Rob and Fab got 3 million marks--$2.1 million--from us. The record companies were very satisfied. The real singers also got rich. And Frank Farian got even richer. Only Rob Pilatus wanted much more."
What Rob and Fab wanted was to sing, just as they saw themselves doing on the videos. Impossible, Farian says.
"I've never heard such a bad singer," he says. "They wanted to sing. They wanted to write songs. It never happened. They went instead to discos till 4 a.m. and slept all day. All they ever really did was party. Someone who lives like that can't make good music."
Rob and Fab have said repeatedly that they're good singers, and at a press conference after the hoax was exposed, they performed a lusty if inelegant rap riff from the song that launched them, "Girl You Know It's True." They could not be reached for comment.
Thirteen kittens live in the doorway. Farian's black Jaguar is parked outside, and inside, in his playroom, the producer tries to put it all in perspective. Why does someone named "Gerade Rifera" want him to appear on his American TV talk show? Why has "Milli Vanilli"--such a cute name, borrowed from a defunct Berlin discotheque--become a synonym for slime?
Farian, who sings in virtually unaccented English but speaks only a few words of the language, is alternately defensive and apologetic.
"This caused me to lose a lot of sleep," he says. His assistant nods and later adds that Farian even checked into the hospital with chest pains and high blood pressure at the height of the controversy.
Farian is uncomprehending. "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.
"But you have to say what you're doing. I know this."
Now he knows it.
"The press in America is exactly like the kids," he says. "Here in Europe everyone is more cool. They write about it, but not like I'm Saddam Hussein. Read the American press and you'd think I'm more important than Saddam."
He's 48 and looks like an overgrown Dennis the Menace. With Kennedyesque eyes, a square jaw and a two-day beard, he's still trying to look like the rocker he always wanted to be.
His father made briefcases, out of real leather. His mother played piano and sang in the church choir. Farian grew up near Saarbruecken on the German-French border, near the U.S. military bases that would change his life.
The Original Frank Farian never bought Beatles records. He was a soul man--give him Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Otis Redding. Farian imitated the sounds of black American music and began singing in the local clubs that targeted the homesick U.S. soldiers.
He got good enough to do decent covers of the latest soul hits. The soldiers liked his singing; the clubs brought him back. But Frankie Farian and the Shadows never made it big.
"No one wanted my music," he recalls. "It was better from America. A white singer singing black music wouldn't work. The record companies sent me back to German music."
Then, as now, German pop was a lilting barrage of bright sounds designed to elicit the rhythmic clapping that brings gleeful smiles to German audiences. It's oom-pah music gone high tech. Even the love songs sound martial. Farian was miserable.
In the early '70s, he shifted from performing into producing and soon pushed his way back into black music, forming Boney M, a disco-cum-Europop group that proved to be massively successful in Europe and a modest dance-club hit in the States. Numbers like "Sunny," "Gotta Go Home" and "Brown Girl in the Ring" repeated Farian's formula of pingy synthesizer rhythms, mind-numbing beats and simple, catchy melodies, often adapted from children's songs.
Boney M record albums pictured five black performers, mostly former U.S. service members who stayed on in Germany to make a living in music. But Boney M was also Frank Farian, finally getting to record the black music that got him into the business. On the albums, he was mentioned only as a back-up singer, and sometimes he wasn't mentioned as a singer at all. It was like practice for the Vanilli gambit.
"Boney M was the most perfect mix of black and white music, but in America, music still had to be black or white," Farian says. "The real crossover didn't come until the late '70s, early '80s."
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.
"I just said, OK, let's do it," Farian remembers. "What's the difference? It's some extra money for me. Even here in-house, the musicians didn't know. I knew it could get them all in trouble."
Farian set up Rob and Fab with long-braided wigs, costumes, dance bits.
Howell says Farian had him come into the studios after midnight to record, often working until 4 a.m. No one could see him. No one could know.
Another ex-soldier, Charles Shaw, was hired to do the rap on "Girl You Know It's True." The song would go platinum seven times in the States.
"It was a crazy idea," Farian says. "I thought, OK, it's just for discotheques and clubs. I never thought it would be a great hit, not No. 1, not Top 10 in America. And then it was too late and I was too embarrassed to say anything."
Now the Grammy is gone and Milli Vanilli's future is uncertain. "If I had it to do over," Farian says, "perhaps it would have been smarter to have them all together onstage, have the original people singing and Rob and Fab just dancing."
But despite all the outrage over Milli Vanilli, no one should expect artificial pop groups to disappear. Farian says it's American consumers who need to wise up.
"Sure, for young kids, it's very powerful to hear that the heroes are not on stage but in the studio," he says. "But the kids have to learn, have to open their eyes. We sell illusions and they are not reality. That's a good lesson for every kid to learn."
Others in the music industry admit widespread lip-syncing at concerts, but contend that Milli Vanilli went beyond the pale.
"What Milli Vanilli has done is criminal," Dieter Bohlen, Germany's most successful music producer, told Stern magazine. "You can't play around with teen-agers' dreams. As a teen, I was a total Beatles fan. If someone had told me that Paul McCartney didn't sing himself, my world would have collapsed."
Farian claims to be happy with himself. He has letters from fans who say he was courageous to admit the fraud, which Farian announced only after Rob and Fab forced his hand by demanding a singing role in their next album. "I take the responsibility with pride," he says.
But he finds himself back on the defensive even now, weeks after the initial storm. There are the former employees who say Farian paid them token fees and kept the riches for himself. Farian says the real Milli Vanilli voices got the same standard percentage that Rob and Fab got.
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 that 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."
A member of the non-Farian Boney M produces a pile of threatening lawyer letters the two sides have exchanged. The singer says the producer has threatened his former employees and is "very revengeful." Farian says only that he owns the rights to the Boney M name and plans to keep a band going under that name.
And there is the Charles Shaw case. Shaw, the rapper on "Girl You Know It's True," tried to blow the whistle a year ago, telling reporters that he sang the song then atop the charts. This fall, Shaw refused all interviews but let it be known through friends that Farian had threatened him and banned him forever from FAR Studios.
"I told Charles, 'You may not tell anyone you rapped,' " Farian says. "But threatening calls, that's something else. That he may not work here anymore, that's my decision. I told Shaw I wouldn't work with him if he said he was the voice of Milli Vanilli."
Farian says he recently settled with Shaw, paying him $155,000. "We shook hands, made a deal, and now he says Frank Farian is a genius again," Farian says, and he laughs. Shaw did not return numerous phone calls.
"Someday we'll be able to laugh about all this," the producer says. "It's a pity that I became recognized this way. My great dream is still to produce for 10 more years and be like Quincy Jones. People are realizing now that the new artists are producers. That's the most important role now."
Farian has to hurry off to finish the remix on "Too Late," a cut on the new album. "It's coming out exactly as it was going to," he says.
But before he goes, he wants to show off the publicity stills for the real Milli Vanilli, three original lead voices and two new singers. One's a woman, Gina Mohammed, an 18-year-old student at a U.S. military high school, who did back-up vocals on the first album.
Another is Ray Horton, 25. He's tall and thin, with thick eyebrows, light eyes, a prominent jaw, cleanshaven, braids down to his chest-- wait, wait, Frank, you haven't. . . .
"It's a wig, just like Rob and Fab. They all really have Afros."
But Frank, won't people think. . . .
"What?" Farian asks. "Why do all you Americans say he looks like Rob? I don't see it. It's just accidental. Coincidence." Frank Farian chuckles as he wanders back into the studio.