Michael Jackson: Visionary
Forget all you’ve read… This is the real story of the entertainment phenomenon of our times. In a chart career now- incredibly - approaching its 40th year, Michael Jackson has set nearly as many records as he’s sold!
‘The King of Pop’, Michael Jackson is one of the most talented and popular musical artists of the modern age. An instantly identifiable voice, phenomenal dance moves, stunning musical versatility, and a wealth of sheer star power have seen him sell out stadiums across the globe and generate record sales in excess of 135 million around the world.
Michael was barely out of his teens when, following a hugely successful career with his brothers in the Jackson 5, he commenced a stand-alone solo career. In 1979 he began another golden partnership, this time with producer Quincy Jones. The jazz legend had first met Michael as a 10 year-old, at a party thrown by Sammy Davis Jr., but it wasn’t until a decade later that the two men started working together. However, the partnership quickly bore fruit, in the form of an album that hailed the arrival of a major new talent in popular music… Off The Wall.
An outstanding innovative singer, songwriter and performer, Michael Jackson has broken countless records for his singles, albums and tours. With the Jackson Five, he was the youngest vocalist to top the US charts. He was also the first artist to enter the US charts at No.1 with You Are Not Alone and the first US singer to enter the UK charts at No.1 since Elvis Presley. His 1982 blockbuster release, Thriller, is the biggest-selling album of all time with an estimated 51 million copies sold around the world, 26 million in the US alone. It topped the US album charts for an unprecedented 37 weeks and had a record 12 Grammy award nominations. He was also the first black artist to find stardom on MTV, breaking down innumerable racial boundaries and blazed the trail for music video as an art form. Jackson was the first artist to sell over 100 million albums outside the US and was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2004.
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough
This was the first single to be taken from 1979’s Off The Wall - which was Michael’s first solo album away from Motown, and the first he felt he had real control over. In its original review, New Musical Express wrote: “Michael Jackson must be the Peter Pan of pop... possessed of the elixir of eternal dancing or something. Now see if you can name the remaining Jacksons!” For Michael himself, ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ was all about “forces and the power of love”; but the record was also remarkable for introducing the sensational falsetto which would soon become a Jackson hallmark - and for marking Michael’s first appearance in a solo video. “Off The Wall was the album that demonstrated that a former child star had grown into a mature recording artist with an uncanny grasp of modern pop and dance music…” wrote Rolling Stone, placing the record in its list of Top 100 Albums. “It’s appropriate that the album came out the week Jackson turned 21, because it was truly a coming-of-age record.”
Rock With You
Off The Wall’s second track, and the third single to be taken from that album, ‘Rock With You’ was also the first Rod Temperton number that Michael recorded. The Cleethorpes-born composer had already written the hit single ‘Boogie Nights’ for his own band, Heatwave, when he was approached by Quincy Jones, asking if he had any songs for Michael Jackson. Temperton went on to write three numbers for Off The Wall , including the title track; but ‘Rock With You’ was the big one, giving Jackson another US #1 - and his first of the 1980s. Meanwhile, Off The Wall achieved a unique place in UK chart history by becoming the first album ever to yield five hit singles - thus paving the way for the future. As Billboard later noted: “Off The Wall… turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the biggest-selling record of all time.” It also went on to sell a thoroughly respectable 12 million copies, establishing Michael Jackson both as a solo act and a potent musical force. Now, the world waited to see what his next move would be…
ThrillerMichael’s follow-up to Off The Wall was unleashed just before Christmas 1982... and, by the beginning of 1983, it had turned the entertainment industry upside down. Within weeks, Thriller was selling an unprecedented one million copies a week - and the album went on to claim over 150 gold and platinum awards. It also won Michael a record-breaking seven Grammy awards, finally beating Roger Miller’s 1965 haul of six awards for ‘King Of The Road’. But Thriller didn’t stop there... and today, twenty-three years on, worldwide sales of the album stand in excess of 54 million.
The track had started life as ‘Starlight Love’; Michael recorded the wolf-howls himself, in an alley behind Westlake Studios in Hollywood; and then, of course, there was that video… Within days of its arrival instore, The Making Of Michael Jackson’s Thriller was on course to become the best-selling video of all time. Directed by John (An American Werewolf In London) Landis, Thriller pioneered the use of promotional video as an art form in its own right. Looking back on the whole phenomenon, Quincy Jones reflected: “It felt like entering hyperspace at one point. It almost scared me; I thought ‘Maybe this is going too far...’ But Thriller inspired black artists not to look at themselves in a limited way. Before Michael, those kind of sales had never happened for a black artist. Michael did it for the first time.”
“Those were good songs,” Michael said on the occasion of Motown’s 25th anniversary. “I like those songs a lot. But especially I like the new songs…” and, to prove his point, he proceeded to perform a breathtaking ‘Billie Jean’. This was the single that really marked the beginning of “Michaelmania”. Astonishingly, Michael cut the song’s confident vocal in just one take - and although he had already been a star for nearly 15 years by the time Thriller was released, it was ‘Billie Jean’ that gave him first UK #1 as an adult.
Afraid that people might assume the song was about tennis player Billie Jean King, Quincy Jones had wanted to rename it ‘Not My Lover’ - but Michael over-ruled him. The single was deposed from the US #1 spot in March 1983, ironically, by Patti Austen & James Ingram’s ‘Baby, Come To Me’... written by a certain Rod Temperton. Interestingly, the record that managed to interrupt the consecutive #1 runs of ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Beat It’ on the US charts - for one week only - was ‘Come On Eileen’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
Beat ItThe success of Thriller put it so far ahead of all competitors that it is yet to be equalled. Today, nearly a quarter of a century after its release, it remains firmly in a class of its own. It spent 37 weeks at the top of the US charts and although there were only nine tracks on the album, it produced a truly staggering run of seven hit singles. Among its many other achievements, Thriller has recently been revealed as Britney Spears’ favourite album.
The success of ‘Beat It’ as a single was in part due to the searing guitar solo of Eddie Van Halen - and that rock guitar sound helped Michael Jackson to cross convincingly over from the black marketplace into the predominantly white world of rock & roll. Once again, ‘Beat It’ was boosted by a pioneering video - and such was the power and originality of Michael’s dance steps, that he earned the endorsement of the smoothest moving authority on earth. “He is a wonderful mover!” Fred Astaire commented admiringly. And, to this day, an entire generation can remember exactly where they were on 16 September 1983, when they watched the Motown 25th anniversary show and saw Michael Jackson moonwalk for the very first time.
After the knock-out blow of Thriller, Michael Jackson found himself joining an elite group - Simon & Garfunkel, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac - all of whom had faced the daunting challenge of following-up surprise big sellers. But Michael alone had the impossible task of trying to top the world’s best-selling album. But when Bad finally emerged in September 1987 it did not disappoint - indeed, one out of every four albums sold in the UK that week was a copy of Michael Jackson’s new album.
To reach that point, Quincy Jones had sat down with Michael and sifted through 62 new songs to find just 10 tracks for the finished album. Regarding the four-year delay between albums, Michael explained: “Quincy and I decided that this album should be as close to perfect as humanly possible.” His fans clearly believed they had succeeded, and Bad stayed on the UK album charts for a stunning total of 125 weeks. In October 1987 the title track was released as a single, taking Michael once again to the top of the US chart. “‘Bad’ is a song about the street… “Michael wrote in his autobiography Moonwalk - and it came with yet another landmark video. This time, Michael played a tough street kid and put himself in the capable hands of Martin Scorsese, who - with modern classics such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull to his name - many regard as America’s greatest living director. Scorsese found his star “sympathetic, sweet and open.”
The Way You Make Me FeelThe third single to be taken from Bad, ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ gave Michael his seventh US #1 of the 1980s - confirming him as that decade’s undoubted superstar. Thriller was already embedded in the record books, and now Bad wasn’t far behind. He was already making headlines as a solo artist, when a reunion with his brothers sent box-office receipts ballistic. Between 1983 and 1987, the world really did seem to be at Michael Jackson’s feet. His best-selling autobiography was edited by Jackie Onassis... He appeared alongside Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross and Bob Dylan on the USA For Africa single, ‘We Are The World’... President Reagan invited him to the White House... He duetted with Mick Jagger... He was on the cover of Time magazine... He even bought up the Beatles’ song catalogue... Oh, and amidst all that, he still found time to write and record a new album.
By now every new release quickly became a record breaking feat, helping Michael create yet another chapter in the chart book of superlatives - and with this, the fifth single to be taken from Bad, Michael achieved his fifth consecutive US #1. Like ‘Beat It’, ‘Dirty Diana’ came with a blistering rock & roll guitar solo - this time courtesy of Billy Idol’s guitarist Steve Stevens. On 16 July 1988, Michael got to meet Princess Diana when she attended his show at Wembley Stadium. That run of shows also earned Michael yet another award, this time from Wembley Stadium, for playing more dates (seven) to more people (over half a million) than any other act. In all, Michael’s 1988 Bad tour played to a grand total of over 800,000 fans in the UK alone.
A top ten hit on both sides of the Atlantic, ‘Smooth Criminal’ continued the apparently seamless run of hits lifted from Bad. For Michael though, the most precious and mysterious thing of all remained the songwriting process itself: “I wake up from dreams and go ‘Wow, put this down on paper...’ The whole thing is strange. You hear the words, everything is right there in front of your face. And you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry, I just didn’t write this. It was there already.’ I feel that somewhere, someplace, it’s been done, and I’m just a courier bringing it into the world.”
Leave Me Alone
Although not released as a single at all in America, ‘Leave Me Alone’ - Bad’s CD-only bonus track - reached #2 in the UK chart. Which meant that the only track from Bad that didn’t make it as a single for the UK market was Michael’s duet with Stevie Wonder, ‘Just Good Friends’. Bad followed Whitney Houston’s Whitney to become only the second album ever to debut at #1 on both the UK and US album charts. The success of Michael’s follow-up to Thriller was due in part to the CD revolution: 1987, the year when Bad hit the shops, also marked the moment when many classic albums made their first appearance in the new Compact Disc format. No surprise then that Bad was the first of Michael’s original albums to be released on all three formats, as a vinyl LP, cassette and CD.
Black Or White
“Michael started on Dangerous the day we finished Bad,” remembered his long-time engineer, Bruce Swedien. “The next day he was in doing demos.” As with the previous album, Michael began by routining around 70 songs before whittling them down to the final 14. After three triumphant albums in a row with Quincy Jones, Michael had selected swingbeat maestro Teddy Riley to help him helm Dangerous. Another newcomer was Slash, the notorious guitarist from Guns N’ Roses, who contributed the ferocious guitar solo on ‘Black Or White’. “Michael just wanted whatever was in my style… No pressure. He was really in sync with me… All the stuff that I do or dig is from the same place that Michael Jackson comes from.”
A series of 30 second teaser ads, directed by David Lynch, were aired to promote Dangerous; while the 11 minute video for ‘Black Or White’ was directed by John Landis, back working with Michael for the first time since the landmark ‘Thriller’. ‘Black Or White’, the lead-off single from Dangerous, immediately became a British and American #1. Once again, that special chapter of chart history which belongs exclusively to Michael Jackson had to be updated: this latest success saw him become the first act to have enjoyed #1 hits in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
Remember The Time
This single from Dangerous reached #3 in both Britain and America in 1992; but for once, the B-side was equally notable. ‘Come Together’ remains the only Beatle song to be recorded by Michael Jackson, now the proud owner of the group’s song catalogue. Michael’s idols and influences have always been thoroughly documented. Among those, besides the Beatles, whom he has gone on record as admiring are Charlie Chaplin and James Brown. Another, rather more surprising, artistic hero was revealed during this same year, when Michael took time off from his UK tour to visit comedian Benny Hill, who was ill in hospital at the time.
In The Closet
On its release in 1991, Dangerous had quickly replaced U2’s Achtung Baby as the #1 album in America. It remained at the top for a month, until deposed by Nirvana’s Nevermind. In the UK, the album was knocked off the #1 slot by Queen: Greatest Hits II, in the aftermath of Freddie Mercury’s death in November 1991. Although the musical landscape continued to ebb and flow, Michael Jackson remained a constant fixture on both sides of the Atlantic and - almost as a matter of routine - ‘In The Closet’ became a top ten hit in both Britain and America. The now obligatory - and avidly anticipated - accompanying video, featured Michael dancing alongside supermodel Naomi Campbell.
Just prior to the release of Dangerous, Michael was best man at the wedding - her eighth - of his great friend Elizabeth Taylor. Over the years, the Cleopatra star had grown increasingly close to Michael, writing of him: “I think he is one of the finest people to hit this planet, and in my estimation, he is the true King of Pop, Rock and Soul.” The album’s opening track, ‘Jam’ featured rapper Heavy D (born Dwight Myers). Heavy had worked with Dangerous producer Teddy Riley before, which had in turn led him to Michael. But although ‘Jam’ unmistakably marked a new, harder-edged musical side of Michael Jackson, the other, softer side could still be heard on the album’s next single, which was released just a couple of months later…
Heal The World
A sensitive, touching and clearly heartfelt plea for peace, ‘Heal The World’ reached #2 in the UK. Despite having earned himself a very special place on Planet Pop (no less than three times over), Michael was soon back in the studio attempting to top the success of Dangerous. The first single from what would become the album HIStory was a duet with his sister Janet - and on its release, ‘Scream’ once again made chart history for Michael Jackson. Its arrival at #5 on the Billboard charts was the highest-ever placing for any new release, beating the record held for quarter of a century by Michael’s idols, the Beatles, who in 1970 had debuted at #6 with ‘Let It Be’.
You Are Not AloneJust when you thought he’d already broken every conceivable record, Michael did it again... In 1995 ‘You Are Not Alone’ became the first single ever to enter the US charts at #1. No one - not Elvis, not the Beatles, not Madonna - had ever managed to do that in the whole 55 year history of the charts. It had all started when Michael first heard R. Kelly’s ‘Bump & Grind’: he liked it, so he contacted the Chicago-born artist and asked him for an original song. “He was very easy going,” Kelly recalled, “we really wanted to get it right and concentrate on everything we could do to make history.” The result was ‘You Are Not Alone’, which knocked Blur’s ‘Country House’ off the top slot and gave Michael his first UK #1 since ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ in 1987.
HIStory was a double album which came complete with a lavish 52 page booklet, including testimonials from Steven Spielberg, Elizabeth Taylor, President Ronald Reagan and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Michael was also pictured alongside various admirers, ranging from Mick Jagger and Sophia Loren to Nelson Mandela and President Clinton. The album was subtitled Past, Present and Future, and a full four pages of the accompanying booklet were taken up with a list of the awards Michael Jackson had already received - but inevitably, the information was soon out-of-date, because HIStory earned him even more.
‘Earth Song’ reached #1 in the UK in December 1995, and became Michael’s biggest-selling UK hit so far. Britain has always been a special place for Michael - although, amazingly, this is the only one of his singles ever to sell more than a million copies here. In 1972, during his very first UK visit with the Jackson 5, Sounds presciently reviewed their Wembley concert: “The undoubted star of the show is Michael Jackson... He is a fine vocalist, who can handle virtually any kind of material - Jackson has much potential.”
They Don’t Care About Us
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Tony Parsons called HIStory “the most personal record that any major artist has released since Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks.” To celebrate the album’s UK launch, Michael’s record company arranged for a 50-foot tall statue of Jackson, based on the album’s cover, to float down the River Thames. ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ gave him another Top 30 hit in the USA, but fared even better in the UK, where it reached #4 and spent three months on the charts.
Stranger In Moscow
The UK-only single, ‘Stranger In Moscow’, was inspired by Michael’s visit to Russia while on the Dangerous tour in 1993. Long-time collaborator Bruce Swedien rated the song “one of the best things he has ever done. That’s what really started the ball rolling on the album.” The original plans for HIStory had been more modest: the intention was to release a single disc of Michael’s Greatest Hits 1979-1989 - to be called Decade - in time for Christmas 1994. But Michael was on a roll, and already had half an album’s worth of new material prepared and ready to go, so the two projects were eventually combined to make... HIStory.
Blood On The Dance Floor
Ironically, in the UK ‘Blood On The Dance Floor’ knocked ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ off the #1 slot - ironic, because the latter song was written and performed by Michael’s recent collaborator R. Kelly. For Thriller alone, Michael Jackson would have earned the title King of Pop. But as powerful new songs such as ‘Blood On The Dance Floor’ forcibly remind us, the magic continued long after the global knockout of that one album. And it continues still...
© Patrick Humphries, 2005