This Week In The 80’s: The Curious Tale of Rob and Fab
In February of 1989, I was in college, second semester of my freshman year. My freshman year started out ambitiously – getting up early to go to breakfast, attending all my classes, studying – but by this point in my collegiate academic career, all of that is out the window and replaced by eating ramen or macaroni and cheese or whatever else I can heat up in my dorm room hot pot, attending way more concerts than I ever have (most of the time we drove hours to the venue but damn we saw some good shows), or sitting in the dorm hallway till 3am smoking cigarettes and telling lies. And every morning, as I make my slow walk to the community shower in my dorm (ew), three different things are blaring out of people’s dorm rooms: Paula Abdul, Guns N Roses, or Tone-Loc. And it just so happens that they’re all three are on the chart this week. Hot on the heels of their only #1 song “Sweet Child O Mine”, Guns N Roses is climbing the charts with “Paradise City”. Tone-Loc is sitting at #3 this week with “Wild Thing” (which will peak out at #2 next week) and America’s Sweetheart, Paula Abdul, is sitting at #1 for the second week in a row with “Straight Up”.
Near the bottom of the charts, however, is a song that’s making it’s debut and is also the start of our curious tale…
German producer Frank Farian created this song using a track that he heard in a night club by the band Numarx, which was a modest European dance hit. He insisted on using American singers for his version because he wanted people with a feel for the hip-hop sound that was becoming popular in the States. Farian found three individuals who had served on the local Army base in Germany: singers John Davis and Brad Howell and rapper Charles Shaw.
Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan were aspiring entertainers who showed up at Frank Farian’s office looking for work at the same time Farian was looking for guys to front Milli Vanilli. The real singers were various combinations of too old, too ugly, or not willing to tour, so Farian decided that Pilatus and Morvan would represent the group, and he created an image for them, dressing them in wigs and biker shorts. The ruse worked a little too well, as Rob and Fab gave the song an intriguing visual element and a video that was so popular on MTV that the network invited them on their Club MTV tour along with Paula Abdul and Tone Loc.
“Girl You Know It’s True” sold over 7 million copies and generated the kind of money that’s hard to keep quiet. On a 1989 stop in Bristol, Connecticut on the Club MTV tour, their backing track malfunctioned, revealing that they were lip-synching at live events. This was followed by Charles Shaw going public and revealing that Rob and Fab did not sing on the album. Shaw claimed he was paid just $6,000 but thought he should be paid more for the hit. Curiously, he stopped talking to the press after reaching a settlement with the producer (which Farian claims was for $155,000). Milli Vanilli had won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1990. An award they had to give back when it was revealed they didn’t actually sing. Farian fired the frontmen a few months later. In an attempt to prove their talent and save their reputation, Rob and Fab recorded their own album but it was a critical and commercial failure and they never regained their celebrity.
This Week In The 80’s is a weekly look at the Top 40 charts with Eric Vardeman. His Twitter handle is @ericvardeman.