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.
Frank Farian must’ve felt like the dog that caught the car. Farian, the German music-biz huckster, had already hit one jackpot with Boney M, the campy disco project that became hugely popular throughout Europe in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The members of Boney M weren’t really the musicians making the Boney M records; Boney M frontman Bobby Farrell was simply lip-syncing Farian’s own vocals. In the high disco era, you could get away with that kind of fakery. When Milli Vanilli happened, things were different.
Milli Vanilli got extremely big in an extremely short period of time. More importantly, Milli Vanilli got big in America, one of the few places on the planet that hadn’t really bought into the whole Boney M thing. Just like Boney M before them, Milli Vanilli were an extremely silly dance-pop project. They made music for clubs, and Farian figured that nobody in that realm was worried about anything resembling artistic integrity or musical talent. But with Milli Vanilli, the big lie quickly became too big to sustain.
Farian had recorded Milli Vanilli’s debut single “Girl, You Know It’s True,” a cover of a track from the Baltimore group Numarx, with a crew of Black American session singers who were living in Germany. Farian didn’t think those singers had star quality, so he hid them from the public, and he hired Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, two astonishingly good-looking men, to act like the real singers of Milli Vanilli. Farian had to con Pilatus and Morvan into taking the gig, promising that he’d eventually record them singing for real, even though he knew he was never going to do that. Instead, as “Girl, You Know It’s True” took off, Farian recorded Milli Vanilli’s entire 1988 debut album All Or Nothing with those session singers, and he released it with Pilatus and Morvan’s faces on the cover.
Clive Davis looked at these guys and saw money. Davis’ Arista label picked up Milli Vanilli for American release. They switched a few tracks around and rush-released the album as Girl, You Know It’s True in America in March of 1989. In the US, the “Girl, You Know It’s True” single peaked at #2. (It’s an 8.) The next Milli Vanilli single, the quickie soundalike “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” made it all the way to #1. So did the next two Milli Vanilli singles. By the time the supremely goofy ballad “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” became Milli Vanilli’s second #1 hit in the US, the Girl, You Know It’s True album was double platinum. I wonder if Frank Farian was scared. I wonder if he knew the whole thing would inevitably fall apart before long.
In any case, “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” marks the height of an extremely short imperial era for Milli Vanilli. The first two Milli Vanilli hits were both wild, energetic dance-pop songs that pulled in sounds and ideas from rap and house and synthpop. Farian had made his fortune in disco, and he presumably realized that this stuff wasn’t too terribly different from that. The beats were different, but you could still get away with using those beats on infinite repeat. Farian, producing both “Girl, You Know It’s True” and “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” used the exact same breakbeat on both tracks.
But “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” was a heartbroken ballad — a mode of communication that was way, way, outside the skillsets of everyone involved in the whole Milli Vanilli enterprise. It was probably a bad idea to even record a song like this. There was simply no way that it wouldn’t come out looking and sounding horribly awkward. But “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” still came out as a single, and it still made it to #1. America was buying what Frank Farian was selling.
“Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” is built from the same musical ideas as Milli Vanilli’s uptempo singles, but it presents those ideas in different ways. There’s no breakbeat behind “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You.” Instead, the drum programming is a funky and elaborate pattern of heartbeat thumps and woodblock bips. Farian layers on the synth melodies, but he sets the synths to that sickly fake-Fender Rhodes sustain that so many late-’80s ballads ran into the ground. The session singer Charles Shaw once again raps clumsily all over “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You.” This time, though, Shaw attempts the chintzy, breathy loverman rap style that LL Cool J had popularized on the 1987 single “I Need Love.” (“I Need Love” peaked at #14. LL Cool J’s two highest-charting singles are both breathy loverman raps, too. The 1995 Boyz II Men collab “Hey Lover” and the 1996 Total collab “Loungin’” both peaked at #3. “Hey Lover” is a 4, and “Loungin'” is a 6.)
Frank Farian co-wrote “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” with two fellow Germans with the extremely German names Dietman Kawohl and Peter Bischof-Fallenstein. Both of them had been working with Farian since the Boney M days. The simple, generic lost-love lyrics could’ve come from a five-year-old. Charles Shaw does his best to sell those lines, but it’s fairly obvious that the people who wrote the “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” lyrics don’t speak English as a first language: “Like a honey bee, you took the best of me/ Now I can’t erase those memories/ Like a fairy tale, you were so unreal/ You left a scar that’s so hard to heal.” If you’re trying to replicate the sound of late-’80s American pop-rap, then perhaps Dietman Kawohl and Peter Bischof-Fallenstein should not be the first two people you call.
As someone who was an actual elementary-school kid at the time — my 10th birthday was two weeks before “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” hit #1 — I never really held those dumbass lyrics against the song. (Context is everything, and I’m never going to pretend that the ratings in this column are remotely objective.) The real problem with “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” is that it’s clumsy and boring. “Girl, You Know It’s True” and “Baby Don’t Lose My Number” were craven con-jobs, but they were also goofy, fun, exciting records. “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” is goofy, but it’s not fun or exciting.
And yet “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” isn’t a disaster, mostly because Frank Farian and his collaborators knew how to write a hook. The song’s chorus — “It’s a tragedy for me to see the dream is oooh-vahh” — is lovely and weightless Euro-pop silliness. That hook wants so badly to be disco. It needs someone to scream it melodramatically over a four-four thump. But disco wasn’t moving units in 1989, and Farian adjusted. Nothing else about “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” lives up to that chorus, and certain parts of the track, like the tootly sax solo, are almost offensively weak. But that chorus still rides. It sustains the song.
The “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” video isn’t as funny as the videos for “Girl, You Know It’s True” or “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” mostly because it doesn’t give Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan a chance to dance. Instead, the clip finds both of them mooning over a pretty blonde ex. (I’m pretty sure it’s the same ex for both. She has a type!) At the end of the video, the ex and Pilatus hold court at an art gallery while Morvan lurks in the background. Someone unveils a butt-ugly portrait of the ex. I guess Marvan is supposed to be the painter? And the last shot of the video is the painting burning? I don’t even know. I can’t make any sense of that storyline. Maybe I was too bored to properly pay attention.
“Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” reached #1 a couple of months after Milli Vanilli’s famous glitchy-backing-track lip-syncing fuckup at a Connecticut show. The rumors were getting louder, and a lot of people were at least guessing that Pilatus and Morvan hadn’t actually sung on the record. To make things more complicated, when Arista picked up the Milli Vanilli record for release, the album credits listed Pilatus and Morvan as the vocalists. Down the road, this would cause legal problems for Frank Farian and Arista.
For the moment, though, Milli Vanilli were riding on the zeitgeist. The group’s sound — awkward rapping, filtered through bubblegum melodies and clubby beats — anticipated the new directions that the pop charts would take in the next few years. In fact, Milli Vanilli were turning out to be bigger in America than they were in the rest of the world, which can’t have been what anyone predicted. In West Germany and the UK, two countries that had histories of loving those ridiculous Frank Farian hooks, “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” peaked at #2. In the US, the single went all the way.
The same week that “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” hit #1, the Girl, You Know It’s True LP finally topped the album charts for the first time. For the next few months, into the beginning of 1990, Girl, You Know It’s True kept returning to the #1 spot, notching seven weeks at the top overall. It sold millions of copies, and it kept spinning off hits. Before their whole saga reaches its sudden and dramatic end, we’ll see Milli Vanilli in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the UK dubstep producer Flux Pavilion sampling the “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” drums on his 2010 track “I Can’t Stop”:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Warrant’s sincerely soaring poodle-preen power ballad “Heaven” peaked at #2 behind “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You.” It’s an 8.