By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 30, 2023)
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” – Johnny Rotten
In my 2015 review of Danny Tedesco’s documentary The Wrecking Crew, I wrote:
“The Wrecking Crew” was a moniker given to an aggregation of crack L.A. session players who in essence created the distinctive pop “sound” that defined classic Top 40 from the late 50s through the mid-70s. With several notable exceptions (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack) their names remain obscure to the general public, even if the music they helped forge is forever burned into our collective neurons. […]
Tedesco traces origins of the Wrecking Crew, from participation in co-creating the legendary “Wall of Sound” of the early 60s (lorded over by mercurial pop savant Phil Spector) to collaborations with seemingly any other popular artist of the era you could name (The Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, The Righteous Brothers, Henry Mancini, Ike & Tina Turner, The Monkees, The Association, Nancy Sinatra, The Fifth Dimension, The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, Petula Clark, The Mamas and the Papas, etc.). […]
Tedesco assembled a group of surviving members to swap anecdotes (and as you can imagine, they have got some great stories to tell). […]
One of my favorite reminiscences concerned the earliest recording sessions for The Monkees. An apparently uninformed Peter Tork showed up in the studio, guitar in hand-and was greeted by a roomful of bemused session players, giving him a “WTF are YOU doing here?!” look before he slunk away in embarrassment.
That said, The Monkees were a “manufactured” pop act from the get-go; it was certainly no big secret that all four members were actors, hired to portray a fictional band in a TV series (fans couldn’t exactly claim that they were duped). And to their credit, band members did (eventually) write a few of their own songs, did all their own singing, and for live performances they played their own instruments as well.
Not surprisingly, the success of The Monkees spawned a number of TV musical sitcoms built around fictional bands, like The Archie Show (animated), Josie and the Pussycats (animated), and The Partridge Family. The Archies “band” scored the number one Billboard hit of 1969 with “Sugar Sugar”, selling 6 million copies (Ron Dante and Toni Wine were the studio vocalists). The Partridge Family (with vocals by actors Shirley Jones and David Cassidy, backed by members of The Wrecking Crew on the studio recordings) released 5 albums, even scoring a #1 hit in 1970 with “I Think I Love You”.
So it would appear that the majority of music consumers didn’t feel compelled to investigate “who” wrote, sang, played on, or (for that matter) produced the record; they liked something they heard on the radio, bought a copy, and didn’t give it much more thought.
Of course, there have always been music snobs:
“I just wanna hear the music…that’s all.”
Keep in mind, this was all pre-MTV. To be sure, music acts had been performing on variety shows from television’s inception (sometimes live, sometimes lip-syncing). Even pre-dating television, there were the “soundies” – short films containing single performances (filmed in 35mm and printed in 16mm for easier distribution to clubs, bars, eateries and other businesses outfitted with “movie jukeboxes”).
But once MTV signed on in 1981, there was a paradigm shift in record company marketing strategies. To MTV execs, the music videos were “content”, but to the record company execs, the videos were “free ads” to push product sales. As for viewers, it became more about the artist’s image and/or the clip’s entertainment value; one could argue that the music was secondary (I could name a lot of MTV “hits” from the 80s wherein, had I heard the song before seeing the video play on a continuous loop, I might have thought “meh”).
Hence, the artists who most quickly ascended to the top of the music video heap tended to be those who knew how to “make love to the camera”, (as opposed to the ability to hit a high ‘C’ or display mastery of an instrument). As a result, ripped physiques, fashion and choreography ruled the day…stagecraft over song craft. But hey…as long as it moved units and kept shareholders happy-[*chef’s kiss*]
Thus it was, in this milieu, that the curious case of Milli Vanilli unfolded…as recounted in Luke Korem’s documentary, simply entitled Milli Vanilli (streaming on Paramount+ October 24th).
If any act was tailor-made for the MTV fast track in the late 80s, it was Milli Vanilli. Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan (who hailed from Munich, Germany) were impossibly good-looking dancers and singers* (*I’ll get to that in a moment) with undeniably charismatic stage presence. The duo seemingly zoomed in out of nowhere in 1989 with a debut album (Girl You Know It’s True) that went platinum 6 times and sold over 30 million singles. Heavy MTV rotation of their songs certainly contributed to their meteoric rise.
But alas, what the lords of MTV giveth…in July 1989, Milli Vanilli was performing at a Connecticut theme park, when something went horribly awry. In the midst of performing “Girl You Know It’s True”, a disconcerting hard drive glitch left no doubt in the minds of concert attendees and viewers watching the live MTV broadcast that Pilatus and Moryan were lip-syncing. Embarrassed and flustered, Pilatus fled the stage in a panic, leaving Moryan and the band to vamp until he was coaxed back by emcee “Downtown” Julie Brown.
Weirdly, while the incident undoubtedly raised questions regarding the act’s artistic integrity, the show resumed and the crowd stuck with them, cheering and having a grand old time. And the duo still snagged a Grammy in 1990 for “Best New Artist”. Go figure.
Although public sentiment gradually turned against them (they became the butt of jokes, one of the vocalists on the records exposed them, and at one point the duo offered to give back their Grammys to quell the backlash), it wasn’t until late 1990 that the “mastermind” behind the act, manager/producer Frank Farian publicly admitted the con-and then promptly fired Pilatus and Moryan. While he appears in archival clips, Farian-who comes off as a cross between Phil Spector and Colonel Tom Parker-declined to appear in the documentary.
One of the declared aims of the film is to “pull back the curtain on the story that we thought we knew, but didn’t”. I’m not sure Korem quite achieves that goal (after all, this is an oft-told tale). The film works best in its moments of emotional resonance, largely provided by Morvan, particularly when he speaks of his challenging friendship with Pilatus (who sadly died in 1998 of a suspected accidental prescription drug and alcohol overdose at age 32).
Were they victims of Farian’s Svengali-like sway, easily preyed upon and exploited…or were they willing participants in a con, seduced by the trappings of fame and success? Also worth contemplation-as someone in the film offers, “nobody involved in this committed a crime”.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room (briefly touched on in the film)-a story as old as rock ‘n’ roll-the exploitation of artists of color. I once had the privilege of interviewing the great Bo Diddley. He spoke at length about how white artists brazenly co-opted the Black artists’ innovations in the 1950s. I’ll never forget how he framed it-he said “Elvis and those other guys took everything I did, threw it on the rock ‘n’ roll truck and drove it through town.” He also pointed out that he performed his signature tune “Bo Diddley” on The Ed Sullivan Show several months before Elvis’s first appearance on same. But historically, which appearance gets lauded as seminal?
While the Milli Vanilli story isn’t exactly that same scenario-you could say it’s “Elvis in reverse”. Producer Sam Phillips famously (or infamously) once said, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars!” Then one day, Elvis Presley walked into his Memphis studio (and the rest is history-although it was Colonel Parker who made the lettuce). At any rate, Farian saw two charismatic black performers (and dollar signs), and the rest is…well, you be the judge.
One of the most fascinating revelations in the film is that on the original 1989 European pressing of Milli Vanilli’s debut album (titled All or Nothing), Pilatus and Moryan’s names do not appear in the musician credits; whereas they are (falsely) credited in the subsequent U.S. release (re-titled Girl You Know It’s True). As I pointed out earlier, there are those who bother to read all the liner notes…and there are those who just want to hear the music. Caveat emptor.