When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor

Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

11 Surprising Facts About John Lennon

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before he was one of the world's most iconic musicians, John Lennon—who was born in Liverpool on October 9, 1940—was a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Let's take a look at a few facts you might not have known about the leader and founding member of The Beatles

1. John Lennon was a choir boy and a Boy Scout.

Yes, John Lennon, the great rock 'n' roll rebel and iconoclast, was once a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Lennon began his singing career as a choir boy at St. Peter's Church in Liverpool, England and was a member of the 3rd Allerton Boy Scout troop.

2. John Lennon hated his own voice.

Incredibly, one of the greatest singers in the history of rock music hated his own voice. Lennon did not like the sound of his voice and loved to double-track his records. He would often ask the band's producer, George Martin, to cover the sound of his voice: "Can't you smother it with tomato ketchup or something?"

3. John Lennon was dissatisfied with all of The Beatles's records.

Dining with his former producer, George Martin, one night years after the band had split up, Lennon revealed that he'd like to re-record every Beatles song. Completely amazed, Martin asked him, "Even 'Strawberry Fields'?" "Especially 'Strawberry Fields,'" answered Lennon.

4. John Lennon was the only Beatle who didn't become a full-time vegetarian.

John Lennon (1940 - 1980) of the Beatles plays the guitar in a hotel room in Paris, 16th January 1964
Harry Benson, Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

George Harrison was the first Beatle to go vegetarian; according to most sources, he officially became a vegetarian in 1965. Paul McCartney joined the "veggie" ranks a few years later. Ringo became a vegetarian not so much for spiritual reasons, like Paul and George, but because of health problems. Lennon had toyed with vegetarianism in the 1960s, but he always ended up eating meat, one way or another.

5. John Lennon loved to play Monopoly.

During his Beatles days, Lennon was a devout Monopoly player. He had his own Monopoly set and often played in his hotel room or on planes. He liked to stand up when he threw the dice, and he was crazy about the properties Boardwalk and Park Place. He didn't even care if he lost the game, as long as he had Boardwalk and Park Place in his possession.

6. John Lennon was the last Beatle to learn how to drive.

Lennon got his driver's license at the age of 24 (on February 15, 1965). He was regarded as a terrible driver by all who knew him. He finally gave up driving after he totaled his Aston-Martin in 1969 on a trip to Scotland with his wife, Yoko Ono; his son, Julian; and Kyoko, Ono's daughter. Lennon needed 17 stitches after the accident.

When they returned to England, Lennon and Ono mounted the wrecked car on a pillar at their home. From then on, Lennon always used a chauffeur or driver.

7. John Lennon reportedly used to sleep in a coffin.

According to Allan Williams, an early manager for The Beatles, Lennon liked to sleep in an old coffin. Williams had an old, abandoned coffin on the premises of his coffee bar, The Jacaranda. As a gag, Lennon would sometimes nap in it.

8. The last time John Lennon saw Paul McCartney was on April 24, 1976.

Paul McCartney (left) and John Lennon (1940-1980) of the Beatles pictured together during production and filming of the British musical comedy film Help! on New Providence Island in the Bahamas on 2nd March 1965
William Lovelace, Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

McCartney was visiting Lennon at his New York apartment. They were watching Saturday Night Live together when producer Lorne Michaels, as a gag, offered the Beatles $3000 to come on the show. Lennon and McCartney almost took a cab to the show as a joke, but decided against it, as they were just too tired. (Too bad! It would have been one of the great moments in television history.)

9. John Lennon was originally supposed to sing lead on The Beatles's first single, 1962's "Love Me Do."

Lennon sang lead on a great majority of the early Beatles songs, but Paul McCartney took the lead on their very first one. The lead was originally supposed to be Lennon, but because he had to play the harmonica, the lead was given to McCartney instead.

10. "All You Need Is Love" was the best lyric John Lennon ever wrote.

A friend once asked Lennon what was the best lyric he ever wrote. "That's easy," replied Lennon, "All you need is love."

11. The last photographer to snap John Lennon’s picture was Paul Goresh.

Ironically (and sadly), Lennon was signing an album for the person who was to assassinate him a few hours later when he was snapped by amateur photographer Paul Goresh on December 8, 1980.

Lennon obligingly signed a copy of his latest album, Double Fantasy, for Mark David Chapman. Later that same day, Lennon returned from the recording studio and was gunned down by Chapman, the same person for whom he had so kindly signed his autograph.

Morbidly, a photographer sneaked into the morgue and snapped a photo of Lennon's body before it was cremated the day after his assassination. Yoko Ono has never revealed the whereabouts of his ashes or what happened to them.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

30 Years Later: The Great Milli Vanilli Hoax

Milli Vanilli VEVO via YouTube
Milli Vanilli VEVO via YouTube

Pop music has always been part talent show, part magic trick. This has never been more apparent than it was on November 15, 1990, when German producer Frank Farian revealed in a press conference that then-superstars Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, members of the pop duo Milli Vanilli, hadn’t sung a note on Girl You Know It's True, their 1989 multi-platinum debut album.

Milli Vanilli truthers had long speculated that Rob and Fab, two guys with thick European accents and limited command of the English language, couldn’t possibly have crooned hits like “Girl You Know It’s True” and “Blame It On the Rain.” And yet the news came as a shock to many. Milli Vanilli instantly went from Top of the Pops to laughing stocks. Rob and Fab were stripped of the Grammys they had won for Best New Artist, and duped fans filed class-action lawsuits.

It was one of the biggest scandals in music history, though it wasn’t an isolated incident. Around the same time, dance-pop groups Black Box and C+C Music Factory got caught doing almost exactly the same thing.

“We sold our souls to the devil,” Pilatus told the Los Angeles Times just days after Farian’s bombshell. “We lied to our families and our friends. We let down our fans. We realize exactly what we did to achieve our success. We made some very big mistakes and we apologize.”

 

The devil, in Rob and Fab’s version of the story, was Farian, a genius musician and marketer who’d pulled similar stunts before. In the 1970s, Farian struck gold with Boney M., a German disco group seemingly fronted by four Caribbean singers. In reality, Farian himself had provided the vocals on the group’s first album. He knew the importance of image better than anyone, and when he met Rob and Fab in early 1988, he immediately saw an opportunity.

Young, attractive, and hungry for success, the aspiring pop stars were easy marks. Rob, the son of a black American soldier and white German woman, was born in New York City but spent the first several years of his life in a Bavarian orphanage. He was adopted when he was 4 years old. Growing up in Munich, he grappled with racism and feelings of isolation. It was only through music and breakdancing that he found his identity. When he met Fab—who had been raised in Paris by parents from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe—he found someone with similar interests and life experiences.

“Something clicked between us,” Rob told the Los Angeles Times in July 1989, when Milli Vanilli’s star was still on the rise. “Maybe it’s because we’re both black people who grew up in foreign cities that don’t have too many blacks."

In the early days of their friendship, Rob and Fab were regular faces on the Munich club scene. They dabbled in dancing and modeling, but what they really wanted to do, Rob said in a 2017 interview with VLADTV, was make music. They began hanging out with local studio musicians in Farian’s orbit and played a few club shows. Soon, Farian himself took notice.

 

What happened next is the most crucial and contested part of the story. Farian invited Rob and Fab to his studio and signed the duo to a record deal. That much is known. The question is whether Rob and Fab knew what they were getting into.

“We walked into a trap, not knowing it was a trap,” Fab told VLADTV. In his version of events, he and Rob signed the contract without realizing they were being hired purely to lip-sync. They wanted to sing, and the first time Farian played them “Girl You Know It’s True”—the song that would become their international breakthrough—he presented the track as an instrumental. Little did they know Farian had already recorded vocals with professional singers.

By the time they learned the truth, Fab said, they had already spent Farian’s advance money on new clothes and their trademark hair extensions. They were suddenly in debt to Farian, and they couldn’t walk away from the project until they paid him back. Once the group took off, and girls and drugs and money came into the picture, it became even harder for Rob and Fab to break away.

Farian claimed that Rob and Fab were never going to be proper recording artists. “I’ve never heard such a bad singer,” Farian said of Rob in a Los Angeles Times interview “They wanted to sing. They wanted to write songs. It never happened. They went instead to discos 'til 4 a.m. and slept all day. All they ever really did was party. Someone who lives like that can’t make good music.”

 

For all his showbiz acumen, Farian had no idea how big the whole thing was going to get. “It was a crazy idea,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I thought, OK, it’s just for discotheques and clubs.” But his mix of pop, R&B, and hip-hop was perfectly pegged for the times, and Milli Vanilli quickly became the music industry's equivalent of Frankenstein monster.

“Girl You Know It’s True” went to No.1 in Germany and earned the group a deal with Arista Records in the United States. Thanks in large part to their music videos, which featured the photogenic pantomimers rocking cool clothes and swinging those signature braids, Milli Vanilli scored five Top 5 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. That included three No.1 singles: “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You,” and “Blame It on the Rain.” All four singles were on the album Girl You Know It’s True, which went six-times platinum in America and sold millions more copies worldwide.

As they enjoyed the trappings of fame, Rob and Fab struggled to live with their secret. On July 21, 1989, the group’s backing tape malfunctioned during a Club MTV tour stop in Bristol, Connecticut. As the words “Girl, you know it’s ...” repeated over and over, Rob panicked and ran offstage. The incident had no immediate effect on their career, but Rob would later call the mishap “the beginning of the end.”

Figuring their time was running out, Rob and Fab turned against Farian and demanded to sing on their next album. As the battle intensified, Farian had no choice but to call a press conference and spill the beans. He was unapologetic about the scam, and in 1991, he released The Moment of Truth, a new studio album credited to The Real Milli Vanilli, i.e. the singers from the first album. Arista, meanwhile, claimed no prior knowledge of the deception, though Rob and Fab insisted the label knew exactly what was going on.

 

Days after Farian’s press conference, Rob and Fab called their own. They were joined by a voice coach who assured the audience that, yes, they could sing. Rob and Fab then gave back their Grammys, which they’d planned on doing even before the Recording Academy formally revoked the awards.

The fallout was devastating for Rob and Fab. They released a self-titled comeback album in 1993 and even appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show to sing for real in front of a national audience. But Rob & Fab flopped, and the two former idols wrestled with drug addiction.

Fab ultimately sobered up, but Rob spiraled out of control. In 1996 he served jail time for assaulting two people and breaking into a car, and in 1998, he died of a drug overdose in a Frankfurt hotel room. He was 33 years old.

At the time of his death, Rob had apparently been working with Farian again. "I'm totally shocked," the producer told the Independent upon learning of Rob’s death. "Rob looked really good again. He was full of optimism for the future. We intended to tape material for another album.”

Fab wasn’t involved in that project, but he has revisited Milli Vanilli’s past in his own way. In yet another bizarre twist to this story, Fab teamed up with John Davis, one of the real singers whose voice he’d once lip-synced to, for the project Face Meets Voice: A Milli Vanilli Experience. The emergence of that unlikely duo might make for a good ending to the Milli Vanilli movie that’s been in the works since 2007. Filming was all set to begin on the project when director Brett Ratner lost his co-financing deal with Warner Bros. amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Back in their heyday, Milli Vanilli claimed the band’s name meant “positive energy” in Turkish. That wasn’t true: The moniker was partially inspired by the English pop group Scritti Politti. But Fab has maintained a remarkably upbeat attitude as he’s gotten older. In addition to making music, he’s branched off into motivational speaking, using his story as an example of how one can “not just survive but thrive” after adversity. He’s certainly made peace with his own legacy. Speaking with the Associated Press in 2018, he defended his and Rob’s contributions to pop culture some two decades earlier.

“People might say, ‘Well, you know, they didn’t sing on the record,’” Fab said. “But look at the rest. We were the heart and soul of Milli Vanilli. We did those 107 cities (on tour) ... in eight months. We worked hard. We worked our butts off. We entertained people.”

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