The Number Ones

July 1, 1989

The Number Ones: Milli Vanilli’s “Baby Don’t Forget My Number”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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He’s A Rebel,” the Crystals single that reached #1 in November of 1962, isn’t really a Crystals song. The Crystals didn’t sing on it. Instead, Darlene Love and her group the Blossoms sang the song. Producer Phil Spector decided that the song would sell better if it was marketed as a Crystals single, and he had to get it out quickly before a competing version hit the market, so he just released “He’s A Rebel” under the Crystals’ name. The Crystals themselves, on tour during the song’s recording, didn’t know anything about “He’s A Rebel” until they heard it on the radio.

In other words, “He’s A Rebel” is a complete act of pop-music fraud — one that, in this case, was committed by a guy who would later become an actual murderer. But nobody holds the shady-ass backstory of “He’s A Rebel” against the song. Most of us consider “He’s A Rebel” to be a classic pop single, fraud or no fraud. This kind of thing used to be a fairly common music-business practice. It was sketchy, and it caused plenty of angst for performers, but it kept happening. The Monkees, for instance, were deeply stressed about their own perceived lack of authenticity, and plenty of people did dismiss the group for being teeny-bop hacks who didn’t play on their own songs. But Americans still bought insane numbers of Monkees records. In the ’60s, this whole practice wasn’t really a problem. Milli Vanilli didn’t have that luxury.

In retrospect, it’s remarkable that anyone ever bought the Milli Vanilli gimmick. Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, the two gorgeous European models who were presented to the world as Milli Vanilli, had thick accents, and their voices sounded nothing like the voices on their hits. With all the long spoken passages from Milli Vanilli records, nobody even worked especially hard to maintain the fiction.

The eventual revelation that Pilatus and Morvan didn’t sing on their own records was a giant news story in the fall of 1990. People were mad. I can remember ripping out the tape from the Milli Vanilli cassette I’d gotten for Christmas the previous year. I don’t know who I was trying to impress with that gesture, but it felt like a thing that I had to do at the time. The career arc of Milli Vanilli is so quick and jagged — an insanely fast rise followed by an even more insanely fast fall — that it immediately became a kind of pop-history Icarus legend. Seven years later, that story became the first episode of Behind The Music, and those of us who spent lazy Saturdays watching VH1 reruns were amazed to learn that we felt bad for these guys.

The wild Milli Vanilli roller coaster ride had consequences. A decade after Milli Vanilli first rose to fame, Rob Pilatus was dead. But even with that morbid ending looming ahead of us, I hope we can properly appreciate Milli Vanilli’s deeply silly Eurotrash pop moment. Before they became living symbols for everything wrong with the record business, Milli Vanilli had some truly ridiculous and fun songs. Some of those songs made their way to #1. “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” climbed the mountain first.

Like Milli Vanilli itself, “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” was largely the creation of the veteran German music-business huckster Frank Farian. Farian, born in Rhineland during the early days of World War II, worked as a cook when he was a young man, but he desperately wanted to become a pop star. Farian loved Black American music, but he was a white German guy, and so pop stardom was an uphill battle. In the late ’60s, Farian released some singles under the name Frankie Farian. They went nowhere. In 1975, though, Farian ripped off Prince Buster’s reggae classic “Al Capone,” transforming it into giddily horny disco and releasing it under the name “Baby Do You Wanna Bump.” Farian didn’t put his own name on “Baby Do You Wanna Bump.” (He didn’t credit Prince Buster, either.) Instead, the single was credited to a nonexistent group called Boney M.

Boney M came into existence in Germany in the ’70s, a time when producer-controlled Euro-disco acts were doing well for themselves. (That same year, Munich’s similarly anonymous Silver Convention hit #1 in America with “Fly, Robin, Fly.”) Farian sang the deep-baritone lead vocals on “Baby Do You Wanna Bump,” but when the song started to take off in European clubs, he hired a group of Caribbean-born Black models to mime out his vocals. The Aruban dancer and DJ Bobby Farrell lip-synced Farian’s vocals and became Boney M’s nominal frontman, even though he had no role in the group’s records.

Boney M’s second single, 1976’s “Daddy Cool,” became a massive hit across Europe. (In the US, it peaked at #65.) For the next few years, Farian cranked out more Boney M records, and they became inescapable on most of the planet. Boney M were bigger in Germany than they were anywhere else, but they also hit hard in the UK, landing multiple #1 hits. (Boney M never quite caught on in the US. Their highest-charting single over here, their 1978 version of the Melodians’ reggae classic “Rivers Of Babylon,” peaked at #30.) Boney M, like Milli Vanilli after them, were one huge and egregious con, and they also made extremely fun and likable music. I have a ton of affection for their absurd, theatrical form of bullshit.

Boney M didn’t last. Farian fired Bobby Farrell in 1981, and while he continued to crank out Boney M records into the ’00s, their hits mostly dried up by the mid-’80s. (Bobby Farrell, meanwhile, died broke in 2010, at the age of 61. The people who worked with Frank Farian often did not come out of the experience whole.) Farian made a fortune on Boney M, and his success continued long after that project faded. Stevie Wonder recorded his 1981 chart-topper “I Just Called To Say I Love You” at Farian’s studio. In 1985, Farian recruited a bunch of members of former Number Ones artists Toto to form a side-project group called Far Corporation. Far Corporation’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” has the trivial distinction of being the only version of “Stairway To Heaven” ever to hit the Hot 100. Zeppelin themselves never released “Stairway” as a single, so theirs never charted. Far Corporation, on the other hand, were shameless enough to take their cheesily synthed-out rendition to #89.

In the spring of 1988, Frank Farian heard “Girl, You Know It’s True,” an independently released dance track from a Baltimore group called Numarx. One of the members of Numarx was Kevin Liles, who would later become the president of Def Jam. Another was Bill Pettaway, Jr. who worked at an Annapolis gas station when he wrote “Girl, You Know It’s True.” The Numarx version of “Girl, You Know It’s True” never reached the Hot 100, but it was a hit in German clubs, and Farian decided to make his own version of the song.

“Girl, You Know It’s True” was already a slinky, new wavy club track before Farian got ahold of it. Farian recorded his version of the song with three Black American session singers. Brad Howell was a middle-aged music-business veteran who’d been in backing bands for a bunch of different stars. Charles Shaw and John Davis were both younger, and they’d both served in the military in Germany. Farian liked their vocals, but he didn’t consider these guys to be a viable pop group. They were just the singers on his record. Farian had Shaw rap, sort of, on “Girl, You Know It’s True,” and he also built the track around the breakbeat from the Soul Searchers’ 1974 funk instrumental “Ashley’s Roachclip.”

The Soul Searchers, a band that included future go-go pioneer Chuck Brown, never made a hit, but the little rattling drum workout from the end of “Ashley’s Roachclip” went on to power dozens, maybe hundreds, of songs. Before “Girl, You Know It’s True,” the “Ashley’s Roachclip” breakbeat had already served as the backbone for rap anthems like Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid In Full,” Slick Rick’s “Hey Young World,” Run-DMC’s “Run’s House,” and LL Cool J’s “Jack The Ripper.”

By the time Farian recorded “Girl, You Know It’s True,” Pilatus and Morvan had already started performing together. Pilatus, born in Munich, was the son of a Black American serviceman and a German stripper. He spent part of his childhood in an orphanage before a German family adopted him. Morvan was the son of two immigrants who came to Paris from Guadeloupe. When they were teenagers, both of them hung out on the club scene in Munich. There weren’t a ton of insanely good-looking Black guys on the Munich club scene at the time, so Pilatus and Morvan got to know each other. Both of them wanted to be musicians. In 1987, when the German schlager group Wind played at the Eurovision song contest, Pilatus played guitar and sang backup vocals. Wind came in second that year.

Pilatus and Morvan decided to form a group. They recorded a demo and performed at a local carnival, and this got Frank Farian’s attention. Farian invited Pilatus and Morvan to his studio. He heard them sing, and he wasn’t impressed. (After the lip-syncing scandal broke, Farian told The Washington Post, “These two guys came into the studio, they recorded, but they didn’t have enough quality.”) But Farian loved the way they looked, so he signed them to a production deal, and he made them the faces of his project Milli Vanilli. (Farian took at least some of the inspiration for Milli Vanilli’s name from the British post-punk group Scritti Politti.)

Pilatus and Morvan both wanted to sing, but Farian wouldn’t let them. He also wouldn’t let them meet the session singers who really did record “Girl, You Know It’s True,” and he wouldn’t let them out of their deal. Pilatus and Morvan later said that Farian kept telling them they could sing on later records, while Farian claimed that he promised no such thing. Pilatus and Morvan both got matching hair extensions and wild-ass spandex outfits, and they danced spasmodically in the “Girl, You Know It’s True” video, doing the move where they both jump up and slam their chests into each other. “Girl, You Know It’s True” took off in Europe. The song was a #3 hit in the UK by the time it reached Clive Davis, who signed Milli Vanilli to his Arista label for an American release. (Accounts differ as to whether Davis and the other Arista execs knew who had really sung on the record.) Released in the US late in 1988, “Girl, You Know It’s True” took off, peaking at #2. (It’s an 8.)

I’m pretty sure I first heard “Girl, You Know It’s True” on a 1989 British hip-house compilation that got advertised on TV. The people who put that comp together had a very loose definition of the term “hip-house,” but it worked for me, and “Girl, You Know It’s True” made sense alongside Rob Base and Salt ‘N’ Pepa and the Jungle Brothers and Marshall Jefferson. (I played that tape so much.)

Milli Vanilli’s “Girl, You Know It’s True” picked up on a lot of the sounds and ideas that were floating around in the ether in the late ’80s. Rap music hadn’t fully broken through on the Hot 100 when Milli Vanilli arrived. Like Teddy Riley and Bobby Brown, Frank Farian figured out that rap could do huge business if you cut it with hooky, athletic dance-pop. Farian’s version of dance-pop was a whole lot more sugary and ingratiating than what Bobby Brown did, but that sugary and ingratiating side is what works. (The rapping is terrible.) To me, “Girl, You Know It’s True” has a ton of the daffy energy of prime Duran Duran, and those beats and those hooks, paired up together, work. That song sticks with you.

In 1988, with “Girl, You Know It’s True” blowing up, Frank Farian and his session singers rush-recorded Milli Vanilli’s album All Or Nothing. Arista reworked the album and swapped out some of its tracks for others. In March of 1989, Arista released All Or Nothing in the US under the title Girl, You Know It’s True. The album’s second single was the song that sounded the most like “Girl, You Know It’s True.” Farian co-wrote “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” with his hilariously named Far Corporation collaborator Bernd Berwanger and with Brad Howell, one of the Milli Vanilli ghost-singers. Producing the track, Farian used the same “Ashley’s Roachclip” breakbeat that he’d already used on “Girl, You Know It’s True.” “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” pulls all the same moves as “Girl, You Know It’s True”: The clumsy-ass quasi-raps, the giddy synth-hooks, the sticky bubblegum chorus, the vague and goofy love-song lyrics. The model wasn’t broke, and Farian wasn’t trying to fix it.

“Baby Don’t Forget My Number” is just a ridiculous piece of music, the kind of thing that you can’t take even remotely seriously. This is what I like about it. Whereas “Girl, You Know It’s True” is the work of songwriters who spoke English as a first language, “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” is clearly not. The song rhymes “don’t forget my number” with “love is stronger than thunder,” the type of pop-music gibberish that I love dearly. Its rapping is, if anything, even more halfassed, but its hook lands just as hard. There’s tingly melodic euphoria all over “Baby Don’t Forget My Number”: the “bah-ba-ba-ba bay-beh” chorus, the synth-pings flying in every direction, the stupefyingly embarrassing “I been searching high, I been searching low” bit. (In the video, this bit gives Pilatus and Morvan an chance to do a “looking all around” dance-move, which makes it even better.)

“Baby, Don’t Forget My Number” is a song without a structure. It’s just things happening — a blasé rap careening into an outrageously sugary hook, than into another sugary hook. There must be four or five different bridges on the track. When it hits the best of those bridges, the “ba ba ba ba ba, and I dance with you” one, Farian and his collaborators achieve full nonsense-pop liftoff. That part could practically be ABBA.

“Baby Don’t Forget My Number” wasn’t the first #1 hit built on a sampled breakbeat; Yes producer Trevor Horn had done that on “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” way back in 1984. (On the “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” outro, after a quick sound-clip from Glenn Miller’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” Farian switches from “Ashley’s Roachclip” to the breakbeat from Funk Inc.’s “Kool Is Back,” the same loop that Horn used on “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” I’d like to think that this was Farian’s nod to Horn.) But “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” used a breakbeat in something resembling a rap context, and that makes it a first. In the years ahead, we’ll see a whole lot more breakbeats in this column. We’ll even see the “Ashley’s Roachclip” break return a few more times.

The video for “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” is a glorious little time-capsule. Rob Pilatus scores a pretty girl’s digits, and he’s just sitting there in his half-shirt, dialing her up, when Fab Morvan walks into their apparently-shared apartment, carrying groceries and somehow causing the slip of paper to fly out the window. The paper gets stuck to somebody’s shoe, and Pilatus and Morvan get into a bike chase with a taxi to get it back. They fail, but then they run into the girl anyway. In between little bits of that gripping narrative, we see Pilatus and Morvan, dressed up like Wall Street aerobics instructors, busting out some beautifully inane dance moves. There are also a bunch of old film clips of people using phones, including a few from some kind of unspeakably racist cartoon. The whole thing is sloppy and amateurish, and, racist cartoon clips aside, I love it.

By the time “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” reached #1, the Girl, You Know It’s True album was platinum, and Milli Vanilli were riding high. Milli Vanilli were a conspicuously European concern, but they caught on in the US even more than they did in the rest of the world. That summer, Farian sent Pilatus and Morvan out across America on the Club MTV Live tour, alongside fellow fresh-faced hitmakers Paula Abdul, Tone Lōc, and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam. (That’s a sick lineup, honestly.) A few weeks after “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” topped the Hot 100, though, something disastrous happened. While Pilatus and Morvan were lip-syncing their performance at a Connecticut stop on the tour, the track they’d been using malfunctioned and got stuck in a loop. Milli Vanilli were exposed. When the Milli Vanilli Behind The Music episode aired, that snafu became part of our shared cultural experience.

In the pre-internet era, though, the Connecticut oopsie never made the papers, and Milli Vanilli continued to sell. People were presumably starting to figure things out. (Frank Farian: “It was an open secret. I didn’t even tell my own son, but rumors spread.”) But Milli Vanilli were still on an upward trajectory, and we will see them in this column again.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: In a 1989 In Living Color Sketch, Damon and Keenan Ivory Wayans did a commendably nasty impression of Milli Vanilli advertising their do-it-yourself Milli Vanilli kit. “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” soundtracked the whole skit. Here it is:

(I am very happy that this column is now entering the In Living Color era.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Vanessa Williams used a sample of “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” on the outro of her 1991 dance-pop single “Running Back To You.” Here’s the song’s video:

(“Running Back To You” peaked at #18. Vanessa Williams will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1991 “Weird Al” Yankovic parodied “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” as well as another Milli Vanilli song that’ll appear in this column. Amazingly, he did not use his Milli Vanilli medley to make lip-syncing jokes. Instead, Yankovic turned those hits into an extended joke about clogged drains. I appreciate his discretion, even if his parody simply isn’t as funny as “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” itself. Here’s “The Plumbing Song”:

(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7. It’s amazing to think that the Milli Vanilli and Nirvana situations happened so close together that their spoofs ended up on the same “Weird Al” Yankovic album.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Beavis and Butt-Head briefly encountering the “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” video on a 1993 episode of their show:

(Journey’s “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” the other song from that clip, peaked at #8. It’s a 6.)

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