This essay is necessarily a partial view in that I haven't touched on the Jackson Five stuff; it is also partial as in subjective, but is inevitably influenced by the superb collection of essays, The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson (Zero Books, 2009). I intend this piece to be pithy at times, as the task of listening to every single Jackson song is bound to have its frustrations, but the wise writers collected together in that book have encouraged me to take an open minded, fresh look at this remarkable character's work... much of the back-catalogue was unfamiliar to me, and I found it insightful to listen chronologically, progressing album-by-album through the career and the life. The focus is on the music, but inevitably one has to cover the context within which the music was produced.
We begin with Got to Be There (1972) and, frankly, the initial impression is: this is lovely. Even if it is a mirage of warmth, it is a welcoming album, with the awesome 'Ain't No Sunshine' opening proceedings - fitting into the predominant soul sound of the time, a sense of dynamics and artful deployment of strings learned from Norman Whitfield. This fine song of melancholy romance from Bill Withers is given widescreen treatment, with a precocious, yearning vocal from the 13-year-old Jackson. 'I Wanna Be Where You Are' is again sterling stuff for any lovers of that early 1970s sound, with harpsichord and flutes redolent of The Stylistics. Curling, gentle guitar licks adorn 'Girl, Don't Take Your Love from Me'. Things get even more Stylistics with that sitar fusing with the harpsichords again on 'In Our Small Way'.
It is all too easy to take the idyll evoked on this record at face value; Jackson's actual experience of childhood at this time was horrendous. This sweet music, whilst commercial, is recognisably black American music, arising from that culture at a time when Philadelphian sophistication was in the ascendancy: recall the sublime, orch-soul expanses of The Delfonics' 'Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)' (1970). In truth, most of GTBT is insignificant when seen in this rich context, but it is subjectively a moving listen. However, much of this is down to Jackson's youthful vigour and the poignancy of realising that this was a sweetness and light induced at gunpoint. Enjoy, entertain the crowd or else, son.
'In Our Small Way' is the first in an extensive litany of maudlin songs in the Jackson catalogue, its lyrics and delivery straining for poignancy and not reaching it. Whereas, when singing songs of adult love like Elliot Willensky's 'Got to Be There', it works absolutely - and it will and should have people in tears: "I need her sharing the world BE-SIIIIIIIIIIIDE MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE." He navigates that absolutely sublime soul-jazz chord change* with burning intensity.
A deserving top 5 hit in the UK Singles Chart. But next we get rock 'n' roll novelty and offensive cuteness in the shape of 'Rockin' Robin' and - even if it is cuteness underscored by the use of a vibraphone. There is not much more of interest on the record, simply competent and nicely produced variants on what has gone before: a creditable, youngster's venture into the treehouse of early 1970s soul. 'Love Is Here and Now You're Gone' shows that you could not really go wrong with Holland, Dozier and Holland songs and Motown productions in this era.
Now, for Ben (1972). The cover shows a notably more pensive Jackson than the previous record's cover, which had shown him apparently happy within the Motown aesthetic, wearing corduroy jacket and cap; an uncomplicated smile on the face. All for show and more ominously 'show-business' of course, but there is something there. 'Ben' is, of course, a tellingly sad song in itself, a love song to a rat, with very uneasy strings and plaintive guitar chords picked. There is even a distant cor anglais, that most stately of instruments used to similarly melancholic effect in the great work of The Carpenters.
He was always distant from mere humanity.
It is perhaps inevitable that I will like things like 'We've Got a Good Thing, Going', an attempt to express upbeat sentiments with a prominent ukulele that somehow cannot conceal an underlying glumness:
'Everybody's Somebody's Fool' simulates the Flamingos' 'I Only Have Eyes for You' doo-wop vocals at the start, but like a lot on Ben, the approach is slick and subdued. His stab at 'My Girl' is efficient enough and aided again by that omnipotent early-70s harpsichord, but feels ultimately rather pointless.
'What Goes Around Comes Around' is the other best thing on the album, capturing that end of summer holiday / end of term wistfulness. There is a Peanuts essence to the best two tracks on this album and one YouTube user makes the connection explicit here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csS6FFGSO1I
The rest of the album is rather nondescript, but pleasant enough listen.
The Music and Me (1973) is a key record in the Jackson oeuvre, even if it is one of the worst. Its cover is patently ludicrous, with an uncertain looking Michael incongruously clutching an acoustic guitar that he does not play on the record or indeed have any affinity with whatsoever! 'With a Child's Heart' is perhaps the first explicit self-justification he was to produce - the first of many and one of the more poignant. He makes this song seem entirely his own; Detroit songwriters Henry Cosby and Sylvia Moy originally wrote it for Stevie Wonder in 1966 (and later went on to co-write 'My Cherie Amour'). In contrast to Wonder's exquisite meditation on worldly love, Jackson's song is resolved to remain 'pure', taking against the adult world: 'No need to worry / No need to feel'. Or indeed to think, deeply about things, as adults should do.
It is not necessary to dwell on the irony of these lines as sung by a Jackson presumably on the cusp of puberty, or already post-pubescent: 'With a Child's Heart / Nothing will ever get you down' and 'So gay and so carefree'. At 2:14 the music and Jacko's 'yeah' could not sound less carefree; a Vince Guaraldi/Alessi Brothers piano figure that seems to emanate from the afterlife, and spooky, rather Flamingos-like harmonies. It was odd but perhaps unsurprising that Jackson did not recall having recorded the song when Bashir pressed him on it in the famous 2003 documentary.
'Up Again' has some deft musical interplay between the non-syrupy strings and its clavinet (or synth bass?) It feels such a shame then that the album lapses into tedium and schmaltz from 'All the Things You Are' onwards (tracks 3-7 are without any interest). 'Too Young' is a yawn-worthy courtly detour into fantasy land; a semi-musical outing that would find curious echoes in some of his later work. It makes one restless for Green Gartside's lexis of love. 'Doggin' Me' is one of the most purely boring things Jackson ever recorded, and I will not listen to it again by choice. 'Johnny Raven' is the sort of song that you just know won't surprise you, merely from reading its title. 'Euphoria' is marginally more listenable but rarely has a song so less evoked its title: such a cautious and workaday sense of euphoria is evoked!
The titular track, which does actually have some prominent acoustic guitar, is an excellent finale; my word, the album needs it. Like a sequel to 'Ben' that offers a bit more hope, it is Jackson's hymn of devotion to music itself. This love of music potentially offers an escape route from the horrors he has experienced. It is not quite 'I Love Music' (either the O'Jays or Prefab Sprout varieties), but he certainly expresses truths that so many of us can empathise with. His tragedy was partly that he lost any sort of sustained obsession with music and its liberating, enlarging possibilities. If only the young Jackson could have time-travelled forward to 2009 to listen to and learn from Paddy McAloon's words: 'She's richer than money, bigger than fame / Love is the reason I'm playing this game'. But then he did certainly listen to Nile and 'Nard when they came into prominence...
Forever, Michael (1975) begins with 'We're Almost There' which sounds like Jackson beginning anew; a glittering, if basic vision of disco adorned with candyfloss synthesizer and aqueous wah-wah guitar. It is slightly overlong and deploys a routine fade-out at the end, but it is a very promising piece of work. Yes, it is not quite 'Rock Your Baby' - George McCrae's sensual hymn and number one of the previous year. In truth, 1975 only saw disco limbering up; the heights were to come: with Dr Buzzard's Original Savannah Band a year away, Donna Summer's seminal work with Giorgio Moroder and Chic's debut album two years away. Most of the great 1975 music was away from the mainstream: reggae was advancing with the likes of Keith Hudson's 'Turn the Heater On', the Skatalites' 'Every Day I Pray' and Augustus Pablo's 'Well Red' released; classical music taking crucial detours in the form of Arthur Russell's Instrumentals and Gavin Bryars' 'The Sinking of the Titanic', jazz and folk blossoming with the likes of Gil Evans' 'There Comes a Time' and Julie Tippetts' 'Mind of a Child'; electronic music raised up by Eno with Another Green World. In the embryonic area of 'disco', there was Summer's 'Love To Love You Baby', Frankie Valli's magnificent urban panorama 'Swearin' to God' and Van McCoy's bliss-disco 'The Hustle' and lots of the earthy sublime in Barry White, whom Jackson was clearly never going to emulate.
Jackson is patently still learning and not yet in control; as a result Forever, Michael never scales any of these heights. After the promising opening track, the first half is filled out with routine mid-tempo shufflers ('Take Me Back') and coy and childish pitches for the Osmonds teen love market ('Cinderella Stay Awhile', 'We've Got Forever'). However, 'One Day in Your Life' has a sublime production - languid, dreamscape guitar and John Barry style harmonicas. The opening is worthy of Abba (their magnificent 'Gonna Sing You a Lovesong', for example) or The Carpenters. Ultimately, it is a limited song, but so winsome and delicately rendered that it managed to become #1 in the UK singles chart when reissued in the bleak summer of 1981. In that context, it represented an uneasy calm before the storm and indeed was replaced at the summit by The Specials' 'Ghost Town' on the eleventh of July. A Brian Wilson or Harry Nilsson would have developed the sense of melancholy and elaborated upon some of the fine aspects of the production.
'Just A Little Bit Of You' opens the second side, and was the biggest US hit of the album, reaching #23; alongside its welcome increase in BPM, Jackson seems more purposeful again in his vocal, even if the cantering brass and synth parts are tame when compared with Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes. It is interesting also for being a Brian and Edward Holland Jr. attempt at disco. In truth, Jackson was better at ballads at this stage in his career, or at least ones like 'You Are There', with its distinctly Carpenters-like English Horn and Stylistics sitar giving it that melancholy sophistication that the 1970s offered in abundance. 'Dapper Dan' is a contrived effort to up the sex quotient, with Michael interacting with a chorus of disco femmes; sparks do not fly, frankly. 'Dear Michael' is heralded by pleasingly wonky synth flourishes and a canny orch-pop production, but the song is not quite good enough for any sort of ascension to occur. Still, it is one of the better things here and certainly dwarfs the album 'finale', 'I'll Come Home to You', which is a tiresome return to the Osmonds balladic mode.
After this album, Jackson stood at something of a crossroads; it didn't 'shift the units' and he himself was not making sense when pitched as a Donny Osmond style balladeer with the occasional sideways step into the discotheque. It says it all that this album can only be considered a mild advance on its predecessor, Music and Me. Neither record charted in the UK. The 1975 LP managed merely #101 in the US album chart, nine places lower than 'the one with the little boy lost and his guitar cover'.
His next solo recordings were for an all-black cast's take on The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1978. I haven't seen the said motion picture, but Jackson's turn as the Scarecrow is said to be relatively telling; the film overall is not reputed as well as most of its director's other 1970s films. 'You Can't Win' and 'Ease on Down the Road' are the main songs with his input, and both are fairly standard, slick late-70s disco; they do not excite, but are notable in that they are the first Jackson tracks to be produced by Quincy Jones. 'You Can't Win' was his first single to be released as part of his record deal with Epic, and his working with Jones on the film led to the invitation to produce Off the Wall (1979).
Now, business is meant and it is not just about business. From that purposeful bass to Jackson's ecstatic cry, leading into the vertiginous swirl of the strings, this is a living music that somehow manages to be both sensual and to transcend the merely human. Everything is in perfect proportion within the mix; it is as if Jackson's music has leapt from a tiny monochrome television to boisterous widescreen, aided by Jones. There are submerged, jubilant voices - the beginning of The Avalanches? - and a jocular guitar. There is space to dance and there are all manner of lights, inviting and enticing. I do not even have to name this opening song, do I?
Then we have one of the greatest confections in all music: 'Rock With You'.
'And when that groove is dead and gone / You know that love survives'.
One of the greatest moments in MJ music is that unearthly synth sound from 2:17; this is the rarest of grooves, laying the groundwork for the languid machine love inherent in Pure Groove classics such as Patrice Rushen's 'Forget Me Nots' (1982), Keni Burke's 'Risin' to the Top' (1982), Mtume's 'Juicy Fruit' (1983), Loose Ends' 'Hangin' on a String' (1983) and Nu Shooz's 'I Can't Wait' (1986). There is also a subtle influence on Prince, who began to find his feet around this time. 'Rock With You' is astonishingly ethereal, in a way that is difficult to conceive when you think about the utter bombast that was to come in latter-day Jackson records. Quincy Jones builds on the Chic template and Jackson invests the lyric with otherworldly tenderness. It is nirvana as dreamt up in Cleethorpes - this was, lest we forget, solely written by Rod Temperton of impressive British disco outfit Heatwave.** When you listen to the delicate 'Mind Blowing Decisions', with its late-70s electric piano and heartbreaking harmonies you will realise that Temperton had a sublime talent and that Jones had clearly been listening intently.
'Working Day and Night' is an appropriately busy pause after the magnificent opening pair of songs; it works as something of an ambivalent tribute to the Motown ethos: the Fordist work ethic that had, for better or worse, made Jackson who he was. It is notable that he is talking about working; being an entertainer, singer, dancer and musical force was a vocation still - he had yet to become an 'Icon' in the era of neo-liberalism and celebrity spectacle. 'Get on the Floor' is pretty much a Chic record, but with Jackson's magnetic persona placed centre stage; his voice beginning to show its range (at points, he even sounds like the shamefully underrated pop-soul singer, Teena Marie). It is not just an average Chic track but up there with slices of Edwards-Rodgers majesty like the same year's 'My Feet Keep Dancing', but given a bit more Rick James style punch.
The title track closes one of the greatest sides of music (or five-track sequences, if you prefer to think in CD terms) that has ever been, and is a profound way to wind down. Rod Temperton again provides some astutely direct lyrics: 'Tonight, going to leave that 9 to 5 on the shelf / And just enjoy yourself'. Words that speak to adults across the world; Jackson had yet to get nostalgic for his lost childhood. He is clearly up for some partying and mischief - and the result is divine disco. Plus, those ghostly sounds in the intro and again after 03:00 give the first indication of Jackson's oft-overlooked gothic side.
Perhaps inevitably, the quality takes a dive after this point; the saccharine 'Girlfriend', adopted from Wings' 1978 'opus' London Town, is performed competently enough, but it represents a plodding descent to earth after the Icarus-like heights of the first half of the record. 'She's Out of My Life' was a bigger UK hit single than 'Off the Wall', which is all too predictable, sadly. The best that can really be said is that it is a well-crafted proto-'power ballad'; it never becomes a torch song. 'I Can't Help It' brings the record back to life again - the first and only entirely successful collaboration with Stevie Wonder that MJ achieved. This is a soul-jazz ballad with lovely synth touches and an inventive string arrangement; trademark languid Wonder chord-changes are conveyed with gossamer delicacy. 'It's the Falling in Love', written and featuring Carole Bayer Sager (whom MJ was to duet with two years later on a memorable piece of schmaltz, 'Just Friends') is more of the same and works well enough; while not quite as inventive as the Wonder track it maintains the slow-paced, tender atmosphere of this second side.
Temperton returns to write the last track: 'Burn This Disco Out', which brings us back to the dancefloor, appropriately. There's a slight Kool and the Gang influence, which is always welcome (if you are talking about their 1970s incarnation, anyway). In truth, even this fails to rekindle the magnificence of the first five tracks, but it is a very affable end to a confident record; one that contains more ideas and brilliance than exists in the whole careers of some lauded bands. Off the Wall contains Jackson's first song-writing credits during his own solo career, and he sounds like an artist who has suddenly found his voice. Or perhaps rather found his ideal collaborators: Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton provide the intrinsic quality - in terms of lyrics and production - that propels him into the stratosphere, though it should be noted that he is the sole writer of 'Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough'.
Now comes the harder part of this enterprise, when one comes to the melancholy realisation that Jackson's music was never to surpass Off the Wall or, rather, the sustained magnificence of its first side. The planning and recording of Thriller (1982) marks the beginning of Jackson's self-willed transformation into the biggest franchise on the planet; he was to become a colossus, embodying the globalising forces of consumer capitalism, where before he had been a precocious star recognisably part of the Motown lineage and black culture. Once he did his deal with Pepsi, once he appeared with Reagan dressed like some form of extraterrestrial royalty (both 'turning points' were in 1984), there was perhaps no way back for him to simply make music. He became a business magnate and locked himself away from wider humanity; he did not want to live in civic, adult society, instead trying to reclaim the childhood that was so horribly denied him. All of that being said there was still greatness left and this 'Megastar' phase of his career is crucial to understanding the whole.
The cover of the album that need not be named shows he means business, first and foremost; the emphasis is on the luxurious clothes and the focused, impassive glare. 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' starts very slickly, with irritatingly 1980s horns, but the skittering groove and choppy, loping funk guitars inject it with a certain compulsive quality, and Jackson's bizarre lyrics - 'you're a vegetable!' - instil novelty. 'Baby Be Mine' mimics the previous album as a Rod Temperton ballad placed at track #2, but it stands entirely in the shadow of 'Rock With Me'; the magic is not rekindled and this sounds just like an average slice of 1983 Pure Groove music. It is not bad at all - Quincy's production is at times lovely - but it does not inspire. There is little content here, just rhetoric about 'a love that will last all time': not so far really from the cusp-of-adulthood shtick of Forever, Michael.
Then the album moves from being merely inoffensive to being actively offensive with 'The Girl is Mine' - which seems to offend more than any of the missteps of his 1970s albums. Where some previous follies can be passed off due to youth and lack of artistic control over his own music, this is the first time his own judgement comes seriously into question. A forty year old ex-Beatle and a twenty-four year old Jackson should have known better than to construct a simpering, painfully unfunny and unmoving piece of 'camaraderie'. Whilst Traceyanne Campbell is insightful in her overall take on MJ, I simply cannot understand her positive view of this song (though I like the idea of Jackson covering CO's 'Tears for Affairs'):
So far, so ho-hum, but things pick up with the title-track. In this, Temperton captures some of the comedic-horrific essence of John Landis's An American Werewolf in London and Jackson invests the gothic hokum of the lyrics with more conviction than he does the standard 'love song' rhetoric of tracks #2 and 3. This marks the beginning of a dichotomy in Jackson's music wherein the weird stuff sounds increasingly personal and the 'personal' stuff sounds increasingly bombastic and distanced.
Landis himself directed and co-scripted (with MJ) the famous video-come-short film, which expands the concept to 14 minutes. The film was photographed in vivid dark blues, purples and reds by veteran British cinematographer Robert Paynter, who learnt his trade working on British Transport Films such as this idealised, poetic view of Northumberland:
The 'Thriller' video covers a budding romance wherein Jackson tells his girl that he is "not like other guys", and then turns into a werewolf, a scene which ingeniously turns out to be a film-within-a-film; his girl then cannot bear to watch the symbolic scenes, perhaps thinking more precisely of the looming prospect of bedroom experiences. We then have the musical sequence, where Vincent Price's voice-over is lent more meaning by the context: "And though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver".
The final shot, as captured above, is ambiguous: it can be read as a fun twist, conventional in horror hokum, or as a reference to the awakening of desire: the nature of the 'beast within'.
'Beat It' is a mixed bag for me; an excellent and much-sampled metallic intro (which points the way to cyberpunk), then a solid enough beat, but then an Eddie Van Halen guitar guest spot. This plays as part of the commercial calculation, rather than as interesting music; all well arranged to gain the maximum number of listeners: horror film fans (the voice of Vincent Price resounds at the end of 'Thriller'), rock fans, Beatles fans, soul fans &c.
But then Jackson does manage something that goes beyond Off the Wall: 'Billie Jean'. One of the first lyrics to explicitly reveal his adult neuroses: the admonishing and denying; the paranoia, the persecution complex. Jones's production is magnificent and better writers than me have articulated its particular hall of mirrors; suffice to say that it matches and exceeds Trevor Horn's work on ABC's The Lexicon of Love (and that is saying something). Jackson's lexicon is not of love but of distrust and godhood - he is above such concerns, that he may regard as sordid.
'Human Nature' was one of the real discoveries of my yearlong investigation of his work: a tender, if dislocated invocation of what it is to be human. The lyrics were written by one John Bettis, responsible for the words to Carpenters hits like 'Goodbye to Love' and 'Yesterday Once More' - providing a link back to the Carpenters-like feel of some of MJ's formative work. This song has one of the more lovely 1980s productions, comparable with Thomas Dolby's work on Prefab Sprout's Steve McQueen (1985) and Lindsey Buckingham and Richard Dashut's on Fleetwood Mac's Tango in the Night (1988). 'I like living this way' is a line of intriguing ambivalence when coming from the budding business mogul and media manipulator that he was becoming. With its archipelagos of guitar and subtle Fairlight synthesizer, 'Human Nature' is a mellifluous spider's web of a song: Jackson demonstrating that he could handle sophisticated ballads.
'P.Y.T.' is an unremarkable song really but is enlivened in true early-80s fashion by ELO-like vocoder, nifty use of the Fairlight, synth tootling and even some pitch-shifted vocals, decades before the Cuban Boys and Kanye West. 'The Lady in My Life' is a slightly saddening end to the association with Rod Temperton, being another overwrought ballad competently produced but with Jackson's vocal arising from obligation rather than fascination. There is 'bonus track' that doubles the saccharine dosage: the faux-lachrymose 'Someone in the Dark', which I would advise anyone with an aversion to modern Hollywood's idea of sentiment to stay well clear of.
The LP's release heralded the big time for Jackson; Thriller became the most successful album of all-time and his delusions of godhood took hold. In the summer of the same year as his sponsorship deal with Pepsi and the appearance at the White House, Motown released an album of unreleased 1973-75 tracks, designed to cash in on his newfound superstardom; it was imaginatively entitled Farewell My Summer Love 1984.
In order to maximise sales, the original tracks were remixed and instrumental overdubs added to make them sound more contemporary. This gives the whole record an incredibly dated feel - and not in a good way. This stands as the only record in Jackson's oeuvre that sounds tedious all the way, with the source material and the eighties appendages clashing, creating an unappetizing potpourri. A cover of Smokey Robinson's 'You've Really Got a Hold on Me' is mauled by processed drums and caterwauling AOR guitar; 'Melodie' and 'Touch the One You Love' are like some of the more auto-piloted tracks from Music and Me and Forever, Michael and are given a ghastly 1980s airbrushing to boot.
'Girl You're So Together' is mildly more engaging and sounds like it would have been rather nice in its original 1970s form. The title track edged into the US Top 40 and was a Top 10 hit in the UK, capitalising on seasonal topicality in a manner of course unimaginable to this writer! 'Call on Me' is probably the pick of this collection, as it actually manages to sound summery, with languid guitar and flute and relatively little of the 1980s sheen noticeable. Here is what appears to be the original version, which would stand as a rather decent addition to a mid-70s Jackson LP:
However, the sterile, cod-tropical 'Here I Am' is the closest MJ came to matching the sound of Black Lace. Things end with 'To Make My Father Proud', which has an absurdly hushed reverence that seems almost like one last dark joke perpetrated by his father Joe.
In the curious case of the Farewell My Summer Love 'record', the US record buying public showed a bit more nous in their summing-up; it reached #46 over there, whilst here in Blighty it reached an injudiciously generous #9, showing just how hungry for all things Jacko the British were at that stage.
Following the Pepsi advert in 1984 there was the telling project Captain EO, a 1986 short-film made to be exhibited as an attraction within Disneyland. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, co-written and produced by George Lucas, it stands as an attempt to make bankable Disney 'product'. There are elements typical of the worst kind of Disney 'cuteness' with anthropomorphised elephants and the like comprising Captain EO (Jackson)'s ragged crew. It is a tiresome good-against-evil story wherein Jackson, dance and rock 'n' roll are shown to be the way forward: indeed ending up converting all of the 'baddies' into EO followers and transforming the 'ugly' alien leader (Anjelica Huston) into a 'beautiful' human. I am in full agreement with Evan Calder Williams' reading in the Zero book: this film embodies the cultural imperialist programme in all its pomp and circumstance: Star Wars-style spaceship shoot-em-up graphics early on, endless reaction shots of the ugly in retreat and the cute animals partying to the strains of 'We are Here to Change the World'. It is pretty ghastly stuff, emphasised by the expression on Huston's Supreme Leader's face. Aye, it's not just the sentiment that is questionable, but the quality of that music too!
Jackson slots into a rather prescient role of semi-military leader, using magical powers to convert the non-believers. Inevitably things end consensually, with the pretty obvious conclusion that Jackson has become the new Supreme Leader, the King of Pop indeed. Blind loyalty is expected.
If there was the whiff of compromise about Thriller at times, then the next record proper confirmed Jackson as a consummate second-guesser of what the American public wanted. Purely in terms of chart placements, Bad (1987) did better business than Thriller - 5 US #1 singles and 5 UK Top 5 singles were achieved (in comparison to two for the 1982 album).
And... I just don't like it as much: you get the sense that this is not the record he wanted to make but that it was the one the marketing people wanted him to make. He obliges, though immediately things are quite promising; the title track is similarly propulsive and inventive as Thriller's opening. There are some telling synth interventions in the bridge and the rather percussive organ actually shares kinship with the early House music that was emanating from Chicago. The lyrics are Jacko-By-Numbers, however, and begin this particular album's macho posturing; it is a guise which never suited him. 'The Way You Make Me Feel' starts with unlikely, Rod Stewart-style cries of 'C'mon girl!' but thankfully never descends into 'Baby Jane' lairy terrain, and instead becomes a tuneful pop procession. The lyrics may be protest too much - 'My lonely days are gone'- but it has to be acknowledged as a well-crafted piece. I am much less enamoured of 'Speed Demon', wherein Michael tries to assert some sort of 'hot rod' status - the track veers towards Transformers: the Movie territory but without the self-aware absurdity. This attempt to make music for bikers and meatheads really does not come off; Quincy tries to inject a few interesting sounds but the whole thing is weighed down by its fundamental wrong-headedness.
In a schizophrenic progression, we move from this to the delicate 'Liberian Girl', where Jackson displays his sensitive, less macho side: i.e. the person he clearly was. It is one of Jones's most luscious productions, with Vandrossian strings (see 'The Other Side of the World'), Egyptian-sounding sitar, plaintive 1980s synth pads and that marimba-like instrument swimming in pools of delay. It is the finest thing on this record, yet the promotional video almost seems to play out as an act of sabotage, with its plethora of feckless celebrity walk-ons: including, shudder, arch-Scientologist John Travolta and that ludicrous hustler Don King:
'Just Good Friends' is a duet with Stevie Wonder that barely transcends the previous album's Macca abetted atrocity; such a shame after Jackson's careful handling of Wonder material on Off the Wall. While not as actively repellent as 'The Girl is Mine' it is overwhelmingly indifferent; evidence of Jackson calculating that he needs to have equivalent songs and 'guest-spots' to those that were on Thriller. It is very much the mark of an artist who is starting to regress, rather than push things forward.
'Another Part of Me' does not sound welcoming to me; its aural quality is perhaps one that only the Patrick Batemans of this world could love. Compressed, lifeless horns and chugging, funk-free rhythms that put one in mind of the abyss. Of Peter Gabriel's 'Sledgehammer'; of a Thatcherite handbag whacking a human face, forever.
In context, 'Man in the Mirror' comes across as an attempt to reclaim some 'soul'. A calculated attempt, perhaps, but the lyric does at least seem to represent an attempt at openness and honesty; one strangely similar in sentiment to that perennial self-analyst Matt Johnson in The The's Dusk (1993): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7egHKcDQiQ&feature=related. It could have been excellent with a subtler production; the stadium rock thud of the percussion and the all-too-predictable key change at 2:53 undercut the sincerity and heartfelt impact that the song might have had. Which is such a shame; the opening verses are very affecting. It is strangely appropriate that it made #2 when re-issued in Britain after his death; the faltering power of the song perhaps emblematic of Jackson's inability to find peace with himself.
'I Just Can't Stop Loving You' is just so much syrup, and one cannot stand too much of that. It is as if Quincy Jones has been forced to tone down everything fascinating in his previous productions for Jackson, in favour of turning out anodyne MOR: the musical equivalent of anti-depressants. 'Dirty Diana' is only marginally less deadening, with its 104bpm rhythm again lacking funk; Jackson aims for the AOR rock audience***, trying to emulate 'Beat It' and falling some way short. This album provides evidence that he saw women as either whores (the groupies alluded to in 'DD') or angels (the idealised 'Liberian Girl'); once you have assumed godhood, maybe you cannot see others in any realistic perspective.
But, he manages to rescue the album to some extent with 'Smooth Criminal'. Its first note was brilliantly sampled for Obscure FM's 'Michael Jackson is in Heaven Now!' (Previously posted on this blog) The central groove is simply stonking; one of only a handful of songs on the album to have a rhythm that I can conceive people dancing to. However many copies this record sold, Jackson was losing his knack of populating dancefloors. The lyric is the usual obfuscation; Jackson becoming a simulation, concerned with the words as percussive sounds rather than as directly conveying any meaning - and this works fine, if alongside a formidable, swaggering groove as it is here.
Then we have the bonus track, which is actually the most portentous of his future direction: 'Leave Me Alone'. A whining call to be left alone, this anticipates how his neuroses would come to dominate his 1990s work. Such strutting petulance is not an engaging stance, and begins to smack of Howard Hughes or even Charles Forster Kane. Nine out of eleven songs on Bad are solely written by Jackson; whilst it is not an outright failure, the album shows some songwriting weaknesses and an overall lack of judgement - particularly in terms of a slick AOR production that bears little of the Quincy Jones imprint. It is worlds away from the magnificent, forward-looking sound of his sister Janet's 1986 future-soul classic, Control and MJ now had to play catch-up in terms of credibility with black and dance audiences: Jam and Lewis and Detroit were where it was at. Bad is an album whose unsubtle, streamlined sound mirrors the dispiriting success of Reaganite politics in the late eighties.
Dangerous (1991) is a fascinating album within Jackson's trajectory; it established him in new territories - being much more successful in most of Europe than the previous record. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and Communism in Eastern Europe, plus the onset of globalisation in formerly 'third world' countries, Jackson saw the opportunity to expand his audience. He manages this by creating a much more personalised and yet globally focused album: there are messianic anthems and grittier urban dance tracks which address some of the man's complex neuroses.
'Jam', from the opening burst of its beats and from the video - with its derelict urban landscape - sees a Jackson attempting to re-engage with the 'street' after the glossy mainstream-radio stylings of Bad. He does this by employing Teddy Riley - the innovative New Jack Swing producer and leading force in Harlem band Guy. Riley produces and has a hand in writing all of the first six tracks, giving the opening 30mins of the record a cohesive sound; his edgier New York style fuses intriguingly with the increasingly pent-up and angst-ridden Jackson: the collaboration proves an inspired call.
'Why You Wanna Trip on Me' showcases a leaner musical palette than perhaps ever before - the verse pared down like the bass-less Prince of 'When Doves Cry' and then there is the ghostly paranoia of the orchestra-hit and synth-infused chorus. "Why...? Why...? Why...?" The emphasis is on the inventive, skittering and harsh rhythm track, with blocks of guitar that have the funk surgically ripped out. 'In the Closet' goes further into purple terrain, with a distinctly Prince-like feel to that central locked-groove motif. The video shows Jackson with supermodel Naomi Campbell, though there is only a brief moment when they are dancing together. The song has an interesting dichotomy with the sexy-as-Prince verse contrasting tellingly with a chorus that seems to express frustrated passions of the flesh. It is one of the few Jackson songs which admit the possibility of some present or future sin.
'She Drives Me Wild' is a further foray into Teddy's fairground; simple, minimal yet giddying verse, progressing into a chorus with stately synth-strings. There is a space in the mix that we haven't heard in his music since 'Billie Jean'; Jackson's vocal manages to be both restless and resigned, enveloped in Riley's box of tricks. Then there is the organ-tastic 'Remember the Time', where the hitherto hovering melancholy of the album comes into focus. It would work well in a mash-up with H Two O's 'What's it Gonna Be' (2008) with that song's spectral invocations of rave and cavernous yet agile organ. This made #3 in both the UK and US singles charts and works effortlessly; in terms of heartbreak-distilled-into-four-minutes-of-pop it is only equalled by The Carpenters, Gilbert O'Sullivan and late period Abba:
"when we were young and innocent..."
"those sweet memories will always be dear to me"
It is the lament of a jaded man entering his thirties, ruefully reflecting on teenage love, trying to conjure up how it felt to be so alive: it is a genuinely hauntological memory song on a par with 'Yesterday Once More'. The video misses the point, or tries to conceal the pain, by basing it in Ancient Egypt and employing Eddie Murphy as a Pharoah.**** But then it does have some effective expanded bits where Jackson is left almost acapella and delivers a searing James Brown-like vocal solo.
'Can't Let Her Go' rounds off what I would argue is the finest six-track sequence in his career; Off the Wall has the best five-track run and is by far the finer album overall, but this concentration of distilled Jackson-Riley is a marvel. However, as with so much 1990s Jackson, one is left increasingly frustrated that quality control was not exercised over a whole album. There is enough good material for an excellent 45-minute LP, which would have ranked with his best work, without a question. This sixth track sees Riley coaxing out another engaged and anguished Jackson vocal; there is a lovely, sad city vibe about the music: listen to that repeated night train-style sound at 2:48, sighing like a foghorn. This music evokes JMW Turner's Thames at Millbank and Edward Hopper's Nighthawks; it anticipates Nas' 'Life's a Bitch' (1994) and Burial's 'Night Bus' (2006), amongst other urban elegies.
Then, reality and depth is eschewed... we are presented with 'Heal the World'; the sampled child's voice seems to say: 'don't worry mainstream listeners, we've had enough of that nasty urban cutting-edge, WELCOME TO NEVERLAND!' Riley is gone and Jackson is pretty much left to his own devices and he feels this section of the album must cater for the family audience; if the Riley tracks represent an adventurous id, much of the rest of the album represents the Jacksonian superego. Healer of the world and friend of the children is how he wanted to be seen. Ever since the ghastly cultural imperialism of 'We Are The World' (co-written with Lionel Richie for Live Aid in 1985), he had been threatening to become an ambassador, hypocritically preaching with the rest: Bono, Geldof, Clinton - the capitalist true-believers promising that globalisation and charity will make Everything All Right.
We are presented with a cosy guitar and loping bass combo, we are given handclaps and an 'uplifting' key change, even, gasp, a choir! The whole ghastly farrago lasts not just six minutes, but 6:29. This was not to be the last such 'anthem' in his oeuvre, and it should be noted that it outperformed 'Remember the Time' as a single, reaching #2 in the UK, reflecting the British record buying public's perennial weakness for easy answers and overblown sanctimony. 'Black and White' was always the most popular track from Dangerous and its post-race message is right-headed and focused where 'Heal the World' is woolly and misguided. It hits quite hard, but I am afraid is a bit too familiar to excite.
Then we come to Jackson's own equivalent of Edvard Munch's 'The Scream'. 'Who is It' seems an interesting mix of the influences of Teddy Riley and Paul McCartney, and is one of the more confident Jackson productions (alongside Bill Bottrell).***** Some of the synth-wind manoeuvres display Macca's knack for fusing the jaunty and melancholy; the rhythm learns from what Riley did in the earlier part of the LP. One can almost make a case for this D-minor lamentation as Jackson's own variant on Abba's 'The Day Before You Came' - but exploring the emptiness of life after love has gone sour, rather than before it has arrived. The lyrics are some of the most pained on the album: "I'm lying to myself [...] I am the damned, I am the dead, I am the agony inside the dying head [...] I can't take it 'cos I'm lonely". This last line is followed by minor-key synths that mourn like Benny Andersson's nine years earlier. It really is one of the most open tracks he made, reflecting the more confessional tone that his work took on in the new decade: few MJ tracks contain so much telling first-person address.
'Give in to Me' is a ray of sunshine in comparison, but still gloomy in its minor-key. Slash is on obligatory guest guitar-soloist duties, to competent if Claptonian effect. There are some nice chord changes at times, but it is overlong at 329 seconds and elicits a shrug. 'Will You Be There' has a portentous, excessive introductory choral section, out of which strides a silly 'Sailing' / 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' hymnal ballad, firmly in the major key. Surprisingly enough, we are treated to key changes, handclaps and choirs. Even more astoundingly, this was used as the theme to Free Willy.
After this tiresome waste of 7 minutes and 40 seconds we are treated to 'Keep the Faith', a Jackson song-title so unpromising that surely even Rolf Harris would grimace upon reading it. The production is incredibly sketchy, sounding like a homemade trifle Jackson has thrown together in between oxygen chamber and funfair ride; it has indeed been a long way down from the heights of the Teddy Riley sextet 35 minutes or so earlier...
After a full six minutes of this sedated hyperactivity - complete with revivalist choir - we get Michael the Maudlin. I do, however, rate 'Gone Too Soon' as a telling admission of the damaged man; he is not playing at self-appointed world spokesperson here, but ruing that mislaid childhood and showing compassion for others in pain. Jackson's litany of similes should seem trite and soporific, but instead are quite moving in their banal simplicity. 'Like a castle built upon a sandy beach / Gone too soon' - this is accompanied by a plaintive keyboard figure that anticipates Paddy McAloon's celestial flights of fancy in Andromeda Heights (1997). The song is dedicated to an AIDS victim Jackson had befriended, and was performed at Bill Clinton's inauguration as US President in January 1993.
Inevitably, such a song lent itself to being wheeled out in 'tribute' after Lady Diana's death, but we should not hold that against it. Its sentiments are more modest than the sickly likes of 'Heal the World' and 'Keep the Faith'; he is at least singing as a person, not as a would-be cult leader. 'Dangerous' rounds off the album with an abrupt move back into Teddy Riley terrain; we are now back to an expansive, punchy sound, with finger-clicks, thunder clap beats and those awesome orchestra-hits that the likes of Jam, Lewis and Riley specialised in.
Having said that, the song is a bit of a re-tread thematically and it really does not need to last seven minutes. In the final analysis, Dangerous is a bloated, epically inconsistent record, lasting 77 minutes and spawning no less than 9 UK Top 40 singles. It is also a fascinating reflection of its creator's increasingly unhappy state of mind, which again demonstrates that he produced his best work when working closely with established producers with their own ideas: Riley's productions on this album are magnificent and Jackson's hiring of him showed he had some artistic judgement left. Without Riley at his side, however, he seems happy to go through some rather secondary motions.
The statue on the Thames, the messianic performance of 'Earth Song' at the Brit Awards which merited Jarvis Cocker's irreverent stage invasion; this is the standard context always given, but what of HIStory Past Present and Future Book 1 Disc 2 (1995) as a record?
The obvious riposte is to say that 'He' was less confident of his new material, hiding it away as part of a greatest hits package - indeed the new songs are secondary, placed on Disc 2. However, the beginning suggests that Jackson just might confound expectations and provide a future: 'Scream' is the long-overdue collaboration with the great Minneapolis producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and also with his sister Janet - that domineering mistress of pop who exerted a Control over her image and person from that 1986 classic album onwards that Michael surely envied.
'Scream' is true avant-pop, a mix of pop hooks amid jagged shards of extraterrestrial debris. Jam and Lewis and Janet make Jacko face the future and it certainly is not pretty or pure. A Cyberpunk thrash, a mutant disco; the video matches the music with its references to Magritte, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Japanese anime and the Buddha. It is probably the second most extreme thing he did musically - and was rather courageously released as the first single, though the UK public were slightly nonplussed, taking it merely to #3. Just listen to that slithering, reptilian guitar from 3:19 that seems to have emerged from the uncanny imagination of J.G. Ballard - sublime, uncanny stuff.
Jackson actually comes across as in touch with sensuality in the video; when finally presented in a futuristic context where he can dance like an alien or machine, it really makes sense:
He's not as sexy as Janet, mind; scowling beneath cyber-goth eyeliner, clothes and hair angular as the dance moves:
Whereas, the self-produced and penned 'They Don't Care About Us' is more of a whimper than a scream; despite the third-world tourism of the video, the song is really a diatribe against the modern media culture that he himself had helped create, as well as against lawyers and the follically challenged: "Skin head, dead head / Everybody gone bad / Situation, speculation / Everybody litigation." Those who try to play the media and its celebrity circus end up swallowed up by it. Interesting to see Jackson name-check FDR and MLK as people who "wouldn't let this be" - a sign of an uneasy man's increasing nostalgia for the Fordist past? Who now knows that Reagan, Bush and Clinton are a dead end? Again it is a case of Jackson allowing his neuroses full reign, though the musical track lacks any interest - right down to the inevitable, Van Halen mimicking guitar.
After this opening double whammy of bile the pace slows down and we get one of the most exquisitely sad things he ever did: 'Stranger in Moscow', wherein Jackson imagines what it might be to be anonymous - invoking one of the few places where this might have been possible, the formerly Communist Russia: "Stalin's tomb won't let me be". There are not many musical precedents, other than his own melancholy New Jack Swing on Dangerous and perhaps elegiac pieces like Elton John's 'Song for Guy' and the Pet Shop Boys' 'Being Boring'. It is Jackson's 'No One Cares', an acutely reflection on what it is to be lonely and famous, thus being unable even to find the solitude of anonymity:
'This Time Around' reveals a hardened, almost pugilistic Jackson talking about 'taking no shit' this time around, and features the Notorious B.I.G. himself as a guest rapper. It is the urban approach taken to the gangsta extreme, and while regrettable in sentiment it does provide something different musically, varying the impact of Jackson's confessional words.
'Earth Song' is better in the chorus where no words are articulated; where Jackson allows the plangent, almost Brian Wilson-esque chords to bemoan the state of the world. His words are trite, as they invariably are when he turns to the big topics, though it should be said that few others could have possessed the stature to record an environmental protest song and, what's more, reach #1 with it. "What have we done to the world?" need be the only line, really, as the rest is just rambling, with oblique references to God and questions posed that he could never answer, being part of the problem himself. No, Jackson does not single out global consumer capitalism, greed and excess human activity. Still, the heart seems to be in the right place and that wordless chorus could easily be imagined as part of Wilson's SMiLE; I used to hate this, but cannot any longer despite reservations.
'D.S.' is the closest he comes to sounding like Prince on the album in its winning groove, and features a more subtle guitar guest appearance from Slash; so far, so pretty good and this is followed by 'Money', which learns from Jam and Lewis in its machine-soul production and Adventures of Stevie V.'s 1988 house classic 'Dirty Cash' in its ambivalence about capitalism. The first seven tracks of HIStory are pretty good, actually showing that Jackson was managing some good productions on his own; there is one clunker and more unevenness than the first six on Dangerous but it is a satisfactory start, again reflecting the state of its creator's rather fevered mind.
'Come Together' is just awful, though. Ten years after buying up the Beatles' back catalogue, he simply records a tedious version of one of the less suitable mop-top songs for him; it has a clumping, grating production that I never want to hear again. Then we have that saccharine R.Kelly ballad and UK #1 single that is at least passable (that Stevie Wonder chord change around 0:53) until it takes the choir, handclaps and key change route and becomes unlistenable. 'Childhood' is a maudlin ditty given all the Hollywood schmaltz he can manage to summon; a song for people who like wallowing in victimhood, but not for fans of music. His delivery of the line "elementary things" does have the hint of Paddy McAloon, though it never threatens depth or wisdom.
'Tabloid Junkie' follows in telling fashion: the paparazzi samples intruding upon his previous lament for his lost childhood. Jackson pioneers in the biting-the-hand-that-feeds style of media commentary that the likes of Britney Spears applied to a whole album in 2007. For my thoughts on one of her singles on this theme see this February 2008 chart response, my last piece of writing anywhere as long as this thing: http://tom-may.livejournal.com/2008/03/02/ I stand by my words on 'Piece of Me', though I sorely underrated #7 and my comments on #3 have been overtaken by the Coalition's uneasy compromise on Europe (yet another part of Mr Clegg's soul that he sold for power). 'Tabloid Junkie' conveys the righteous, hardened side of Jackson to atypically precise effect, but the production is not quite prime Jam and Lewis.
'2 Bad' is one of the least engaging things in 'The King of Pop''s long recording career, containing a juvenile Shaquille O'Neal 'rap' telling us that "Mike is Bad" and, incredibly, that Shaq is even badder! 'HIStory' is a form of preaching that would indeed sit well with David Cameron and his sanitised 'new conservatism'. MLK is of course co-opted in favour of liberal interventionism: the lyric mentions "creating your history" every day and associates "conquest" and "liberty" in a fashion that would no doubt make Mr Blair's lower lip tremble. Jam and Lewis 'produce' but are nowhere to be heard.
We are also given the famous Robert Kennedy speech, presumably known to Jackson through its heartbreaking use on Tom Clay's 'What the World Need Now / Abraham, Martin and John' (1971). Clay's song is an object lesson in how to be political and emotive; 'HIStory' is merely the dulling sound of globalised Walmart culture. Considering the likes of 'Money' and 'Tabloid Junkie' it was clear MJ had misgivings about where things were headed, which makes it all the sadder to compare this 'End of History'-evoking dirge with this deeply felt history: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uqNLnEzDLA
It feels like a song intended to complete the record and indeed all human history and progress, but is followed by what amount to two codas. 'Little Suzie' and a cover of Chaplin's 'Smile' see Jackson reaching back in time to his pre-history: to the stage, even if the Chaplin standard was originally composed for the fascinating, anti-technological film, Modern Times (1936). Both are inoffensive in comparison to the title track, but never ignite: they tell of a solipsistic artist who is content to dream, rather than creating new dreams for his audience. The dream factory is left idle, Neverland has proven an elaborate a prison as the Village in The Prisoner; all that is left is for Jacko to quietly sedate himself, to dull the pain. The cruise-ship shuffle of 'Smile' sounds like death itself and it is left to the minute long outro to guide us to the afterlife, with its ghostly echoes of music-hall piano and Jackson's glacial humming and whistling.
Blood on the Dancefloor/HIStory in the Mix begins with its title-track and you get the feeling that Michael Jackson has recognised what HIStory lacked: music that could conceivably get people dancing. Maybe the sophisticated one-two of ‘D.S.’ followed by ‘Money’ is the exception, but neither of those could be described as sure-fire floor-fillers. Despite a compulsive rhythm, ‘They Don’t Care about Us’ would not work, due to Jackson’s paranoid lyrical onslaught. It is a wise move for him to return to one of his core concerns, and ‘Blood on the Dancefloor’ is an efficient, if far from vintage dance song. Whilst disappointing as the first fruits of a reunion with Teddy Riley, its workaday rhythm at least displays more signs of life than were there in the previous album’s bloated second-half. Still, I don’t think this will be revived by DJs to anything like the extent of his 1979-83 work.
Signs of life, signs of death...? ‘Morphine’ is something else entirely – Jackson taking the confessional aspect of ‘Who is It?’ and ‘Childhood’ and going further, specifically penning a love-hate paean to his drug of choice, demarol. The song clatters along like a twisted, mechanistic 'death disco' but unlike John Lydon’s lament for his mum’s passing, this is both a cry for help and a suicide note all in one. The song’s harsh, anti-funk passage reflects Jackson’s increasingly zombie-like state, and whatever one’s ethical position, it shows he could still fashion art out of his problematic existence.
‘Superfly Sister’ is a winning enough combination of Detroit 808s and Prince-like vocals and guitar that work in service to the rhythm. It feels over-extended at 6:27 though, with little variety or progression in the track after its promising start – he was never quite able to emulate Prince, as he quite simply was not the carnal force of nature that 1980s Prince was. ‘Ghosts’ is probably the pick of the five new tracks on this release; it contains perhaps the best use of choir in any Jackson record – it is heartening to hear some sepulchral use of choral voices after their endless use for ‘uplifting’ purposes in previous tracks:
This, Jackson’s most overtly Gothic track, is sadly his last collaboration with Teddy Riley; it suggests a potentially rich furrow that he could have ploughed: ghostly dance-floors, post-human rhythms. The video reveals the truth that Jackson was never happier as when dancing among strange circumstances: a spaceship with a snarling Janet in 'Scream', on a dancefloor in an old dark house with ruff-wearing ghosts here.
Like with 'Thriller', an expanded video/short-film was produced to support 'Ghosts', directed by Stan Winston and lasting 36 minutes. It contains dance sequences that revolve around '2 Bad' and 'Is It Scary' as well as the title-track, and '2 Bad' in particular is energised by its new context within a rather credible short-film. Developed from an idea by popular horror writer Stephen King, the video shows Jackson playing the Maestro, custodian of a gloomy gothic mansion that a group of children and adults have come across. The cynical Mayor takes the Maestro to task for his oddity: "We have a nice, normal town like ours, normal people, normal kids... We don't need freaks like you telling ghost stories". This character seems to symbolise the media criticism of 'Wacko Jacko' and the like, and he is portrayed almost like one of the exploitative figures in David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) - a film and eponymous character Jackson was known to admire. The Mayor even says "Back to the Circus, you freak!"
Of course, the Maestro goes on to pull his own face off and reveal a skeleton underneath, and then summons the ghosts of the house, leading a series of bizarre dance sequences, which form a kind of ballet of the undead. We have arch lady goth-ghosts, we have rotting Romantic poets; we have maniacal zombie-jesters:
After many fine routines - like the one where the ghosts walk up the walls and upside down on the ceiling - the Maestro faces the Mayor one last time, and understatedly acquiesces to his demands to leave: "Fine, I'll go". This is a lovely, melancholic scene, wherein the Maestro starts to crumble away, ending up as a pile of dust on the floor; it is all the better for not overplaying the children's reaction. There is a subtly sardonic reference to media reportage of Jackson's own facial disfigurements when his face starts to fall apart:
It is indeed a fine short-film, which shows that Jackson could still poke fun at himself at this stage. It is also a rallying cry for Weirdness, the most explicit of his career; an assault on stultifying 'normality' (as embodied by the Mayor) that the great Vivian Stanshall would have heartily endorsed. 'Ghosts' is one rare moment in his later career where you can bring yourself to believe that Jackson was "more sinned against than sinning", in the words of Shakespeare.
‘Is It Scary’, produced by Jam and Lewis, rounds off the new tracks in similarly supernatural style. There is sense that Jackson is looking to recapture the essence of ‘Thriller’, though this particular track could do with a bit more of the ‘Scream’ experimentation to make it fully satisfying – it stands rather in the shadow of these tracks and its predecessor on BOTDF.
The dance remixes of HIStory are not worthy of extensive comment; Flyte Time’s ‘Scream Louder’ makes the track a much more routine and cosy proposition, shearing off the crazed angles of the original. Todd Terry certainly makes ‘Stranger in Moscow’ danceable, jazzed up with house piano, but this robs the track of its subtle power. ‘Earth Song’ is remixed so that the opening piano takes on a Robert Miles quality; I will leave it up to the listener to judge whether that is necessary. ‘HIStory’ is given a lot more punch and pace, but Baby D’s ‘Let Me Be Your Fantasy’ this most certainly is not. Probably the most improved track is ‘You Are Not Alone’, given the Frankie Knuckles treatment; he downplays the more egregious aspects of the original and injects tactile piano and some productive, twisting synth modulations from 5:20. Still, none of these seven tracks are really essential listening; it works as little more than a supplement to an already excessive project.
Overall, Blood on the Dancefloor shows a lot of promise in its new tracks – which mercifully avoid the sermonising and self-aggrandising of previous albums, whilst remaining fascinatingly self-absorbed, e.g. ‘Morphine’. Taking the best of his 1995-97 work you could construct a substantial album; if not a masterpiece then something a lot more cohesive than what was released: 1. Scream, 2. Morphine, 3. Stranger in Moscow, 4. This Time Around, 5. Superfly Sister, 6. D.S., 7. Money, 8. Tabloid Junkie, 9. Earth Song, 10. Is It Scary? 11. Ghosts
And so we come to the last album proper of the man's career. Invincible (2001) begins with 'Unbreakable', a constricted song in the extreme; all life trapped in its grid of a rhythm, matters 'aided' by guest rapper Notorious B.I.G., appearing from beyond the grave - the man having died in 1997. As the first few songs progress, you get the feeling that Jackson is trying to erase all traces of himself, he is simply trying to make a 'credible' R&B record to tap into the considerable market for that style of music in 2001. 'The Next Episode', or The Blueprint this clearly is not, however; it is a blueprint merely for Jackson's bluster to be dampened amid studied, 'contemporary' sounds. At least to begin with, the grandstanding and the maudlin sentimentality are entirely absent; it is rather disorientating how relatively anonymous these tracks sound in comparison to the personal grand folly that was HIStory or the cyber-gothic tactics of Blood on the Dancefloor. 'Heartbreaker' has a spectacularly limpid chorus that grates on the nerves the first time you hear it. In many ways, the album seems to reflect how his life was being scaled back now that he was no longer a 'mega-star' in the present tense.
The Bashir documentary captured an oddity in the man that comes across in his 1990s albums, for better or worse. There was a real sadness in watching a formerly significant star - and sometime great artist - whiling away his time riding buggies around empty Las Vegas hotel corridors and spending obscene amounts of money on consumer tat. Bashir failed to probe Jackson on his thoughts on music, and all we get in the documentary is a partial impression of his love of dance; the journalist indeed plays to the tabloid agenda, seeking to prove that 'Jacko' is a freak and probing him unnecessarily regarding his sex life. Theroux might have been better, but only the likes of Paul Morley or Ian Penman could have got closer to understanding a crucial aspect of the man: his music. Music is a void in Bashir's film and, while you could just blame old Mr Living off That Diana Interview, you could equally say that Jackson had lost interest in music by this stage in his life.
The album bears that analysis out, on the whole. He goes for a veneer of the 'contemporary' and yet also re-employs Slash once again, on guitar-solo duty. There is no major new collaborator - no new Teddy Riley or Jam and Lewis - merely Babyface. If he had truly had his ear to the ground he would have hired Dre or the Neptunes at this moment in time and let them create the sort of science-fiction concept-album extravaganza that would have suited him and perhaps allowed him greater creative expression.
The title-track is embarrassing; Jacko is clearly singing about himself rather than 'that girl'; as with 'Unbreakable', this is some of the least convincing 'I'm alright!!' posturing since Neil Kinnock at Sheffield nine years earlier. But then, just as one is ready to write off the album as utterly devoid of interest, we have two rather nifty tracks: 'Break of Dawn' and 'Heaven Can Wait'. 'Break of Dawn', a slow jam with a languid, spatially adept production of the kind he had not really had since 'Liberian Girl' (the Dangerous stuff with Riley is a bit too frenetic and on-edge to be truly described as languid). This collaboration with the obscure Dr Freeze at least shows some fruitful adaptation to the norms of latter-day R&B - though listen to Amerie's Because I Love It (2007) to get a truly confident, enticing vision of R&B. In this and 'Heaven Can Wait' (which involves Riley), Jackson seems more engaged in what he is singing - he is not coasting and boasting as previously, but is comfortable with singing what amount to soul songs. Even if the Motown / James Brown sort of soul was an untouchable dream for the Jackson of 2001 - he forsook the music that was his inheritance long ago - the attempt is interesting. 'HCW' does end with a telling, typically Jacksonian line - 'please leave me alone' - showing that, despite the summery vibes of the production, things aren't crazy wonderful as they are for Amerie.
Then a problematic track indeed, 'You Rock My World', which only reached #2 in the UK chart, signalling that this would be his first album in 22 years not to contain a chart-topper. This track is a carefully designed facade intended to hide the fear and loathing; an attempt to present Jackson as the Man About Town that he never was or could be. From the opening patter - as stilted as that in 'The Girl is Mine' - to the revivalist major-key piano and disco strings, it is an attempt not just to prove he can do a straight 'sex song' but to evoke the music of his youth and early success. The infamous video suggests that the song ought to have been re-titled 'I Rock my World' with its primary focus being on Jackson's solo dancing; there is a lack of chemistry with his 'girl', barely achieving eye contact with his hat practically covering his eyes - and the crotch-grabbing dance moves are awkward. The 'tough guy' posturing - as in so many tracks on Bad - is a serious bar to taking this music seriously, or enjoying it: it is an act he never convincingly pulled off.
Infinitely more satisfying is 'Butterflies', with its lovely Stevie Wonder chord sequences, played on vintage-sounding electric piano. It is more true to Jackson's rarefied personality than the previous track with its surfeit of bluster. 'I just wanna touch and kiss [...] I wish I could be with you tonight' - it works as a stately, melancholy rumination on unrequited love from an outsider's point of view. Listen to that sad undertow of brass that comes in at 1:59, and feel the aching sense of regret:
This ethereal wonder stands as his last great song, as the rest of the album follows the seemingly inevitable pattern of deterioration.
'Speechless' with its unconvincing, awestruck vocals invoking God and 'you' ultimately comes across as a an unspeakably precious attempt at an evangelical sing-along. '2000 Watts' is a fair enough production by Teddy Riley, but doesn't really go into overload as it should. 'You are My Life' is a retread of 'You Are Not Alone', co-written by Carole Bayer Sager and Babyface. Not horrendous, but containing some of the most time-worn lyrical tropes you will ever hear. I said not horrendous, but past the 3-minute mark we get the key change and choir combo; lackaday! Then, just as rain will follow sun in English summers, we get Jackson playing the defensive attack-dog on 'Privacy'. This is a pale successor to 'Tabloid Junkie', with its paranoid words weighed down by a trudging, plodding rhythm:
"Ain’t the pictures enough, why do you go through so much
To get the story you need, so you can bury me
You’ve got the people confused, you tell the stories you choose
You keep on stalking me, invading my privacy
won’t you just let me be
‘cause you cameras can’t control, the minds of those who know
That you’ll even sell your soul just to get a story sold
I need my privacy, I need my privacy
So paparazzi, get away from me
Some of you still wonder why, one of my friends had to die
To get a message across, that yet you haven’t heard
My friend was chased and confused, like many others I knew
But on that cold winter night, my pride was snatched away
Now she get no second chance, she just ridiculed and harassed
Please tell my why
No there’s a lesson to learn, respect’s not given, it’s earned
Stop maliciously attacking my integrity
Now there’s a lesson to learn, stories are twisted and turned
Stop maliciously attacking my integrity
[CHORUS x 3]"
It ends up feeling like Chorus x 300. 'Don't Walk Away' is so forgettable in this company that I cannot summon up any words to denounce it. 'Cry' is an R. Kelly ballad that is outright offensive in its myopia:
"You can change the world (I can't do it by myself)
You can touch the sky (Gonna take somebody's help)
You're the chosen one (I'm gonna need some kind of sign)
If we all cry at the same time tonight"
Again, this is the neo-liberal view beloved of celebrities and right-wing politicians: that we can 'make a change' via feeling sorry for ourselves (or children in Africa) from the comfort of our own homes. It is the pampered and indulged consumer mindset writ large: the mantras of Positive Thinking Or Else and 'if we cry it will all be alright'. This wouldn't be a Jackson album without a paean to 'The Lost Children', a song with all the musical complexity of 'Cumbaya', which actually makes 'Childhood' seem like Bach. The lyrics are not even worth considering, as he has said it all before; we get it Michael, you cannot get to grips with the adult world. Please make some interesting music!
'Whatever Happens' suggests some late-in-the-day rally, with its surprising Morricone-esque intro - presumably courtesy of Riley in his last MJ production - and Spanish guitar flourishes. There is an excessive Carlos Santana solo, however, to undermine the subtle sense of dynamics hitherto created. It is ultimately a typically overwrought and possessive song, but provides some relief after the lifeless procession of tracks #10-14. 'Threatened' is a sequel to 'Ghosts' which personalises the matter; it also has a bit more musical nous and lyrics which tap into Jackson's undeniable weirdness: "I am the living dead", indeed. It benefits from a sampled cut-up of Rod Serling monologues from The Twilight Zone - presumably a series which influenced the young Michael's imagination. You might even detect a dry sense of humour in the sampling of Serling's authoritative tones speaking of "never, neverland", whilst Jackson in effect sends up his ghoulish image. This is one of the better tracks on the album - and it seems all the better for being in such dubious company - but it remains merely a supplement to 'Thriller' and 'Ghosts'.
The record ends with Serling reporting in his portentously omniscient tones: "What you just witnessed might have been the end of a particularly terrifying nightmare. It isn't. It's the beginning." Perhaps mercifully, it is the end of Michael Jackson's last album, but tracks #8-14 are pretty nightmarish, though not in the Carnival of Souls sense.
This final album clocks in at an absurdly long 77 minutes - not just a case of Jackson following contemporary R&B 'best practice', but the recent mistakes of his own checkered career. The ironically titled Invincible is largely a case of diminishing returns, reflecting the 'King of Pop''s reduced circumstances all too aptly - unable to re-invent himself convincingly as an R&B elder statesman he moves back into the comfort zone of mawkishness and self-help delusions. That said, 'Butterflies' shows he could still manage some beautiful music; too bad indeed that he couldn't tap into that essence and create an album that combined plaintive Stevie Wonder / Teddy Riley urban soul and Jam and Lewis / 'Thriller'-'Ghosts' cyber-goth. He might just about have been able to in the mid-late 90s, but was incapable - and probably past caring - by 2001.
There are a few postscripts. His last truly new single, 'One More Chance' - an R. Kelly helmed one-off - is a passably wistful, if unwitting parting shot. There is obvious irony in his singing of 'one more chance' when he was about to dogged by child abuse allegations once more. It is a pleasant enough single - and monumentally better than their previous collaboration 'Cry' - but a bit of a whimpering end, in truth. Other footnotes include a routine 2008 version of 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'', featuring Akon on lead vocals - recorded for the 25th anniversary of Thriller. In the five years following 'One More Chance' there was little sign that Jackson was looking to return to music, demoralised by the aforementioned allegations (which he was cleared of in 2005) and immobilised by his dependency on painkillers.
He had planned to return to live performance, driven by his financial problems; the famous 10-gig 'residency' at the O2 in London was planned as a 'final curtain call' for Jackson in London - to be followed by a prospective world tour. Who knows whether he would have been able to sustain the London performances, let alone others, given his drug problem. After his death, a film of carefully edited rehearsal footage was released - including as single its title-song, 'This is It', a 1983 Jackson song written with Paul Anka, an eminently forgettable AOR-soul number that would have been better left as an outtake.
In the final analysis, Jackson's music was not consistently brilliant over albums in a way you see with The Beatles, the Pet Shop Boys, Abba, Kate Bush or Prince; there is merely the period from Off the Wall to 'Billie Jean' where he gets close to that level. This 1984 commercial marked his transformation from pop star to global brand, and he was never the same again:
'You're the Pepsi Generation...' How true those words turned out to be; it is typically materialist that Jackson desecrates his own classic song in the process.
The 'whole new generation' would gradually tire of Jackson's music - such is the fickle way of pop audiences, particularly when the man's peculiarities became clearer. As the 1990s progressed, he allowed his sensitive yet detached and deluded persona to come into view on his records: sometimes revealing a bombastic, self-aggrandising cult leader, sometimes a rather melancholy alien. Neither was likely to entice a pop-consuming public who largely wanted upbeat slickness, or overt sensuality. The later Michael Jackson records are epically flawed propositions yet all have at least a few fascinating tracks that could not really have been made by anyone else, plus at least a few absolutely unspeakable ones.
Jackson was one of many casualties of neo-liberalism and celebrity culture; by 1984, he had cast his lot in with it and all the regret and disorientation of being isolated within a seemingly unlovely world burns through in his subsequent records. It would be unhealthy to obsess over all of his work as so many diehards do, although I would assert that Off the Wall ought to be taken into consideration alongside Janet's Control, Arthur Russell, Donna Summer, Chic and Derrick May, when people get down to the task of writing music which is profoundly of the city and for the future.
1: Got to Be There (1972) 7/10
2: Ben (1972) 6/10
3: Music and Me (1973) 4/10
4: Forever, Michael (1975) 5/10
5: Off the Wall (1979) 9/10
6: Thriller (1982) 7/10
7: Farewell My Summer Love (1984) 3/10
8: Bad (1987) 6/10
9: Dangerous (1991) 7/10
10: HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I Disc II (1995) 5/10
11: Blood on the Dancefloor (1997) 6/10
12: Invincible (2001) 4/10
* This has the feel of Stevie Wonder's autumnal chord progressions, or Roy Ayers's summery developments. That soul-jazz lineage, which takes in everything from Lonnie Liston Smith to Heatwave to 'British Hustle', is well worth investigating at suitably languorous length.
** Heatwave were a multi-national proposition, who included Americans, a Jamaican, a Czech and Temperton himself.
*** With Van Halen's shoes filled by Steve Stevens, Billy Idol's former guitarist, no 'less'.
**** This Egyptian fixation comes across in the Bashir documentary, with Jackson eagerly paying thousands of dollars for garish pseudo-Ancient Egyptian sarcophaguses and the like. This sequence also reveals his shallow conception of art, in terms of the paintings he buys.
***** The Californian Bottrell worked on some of the more humdrum early 1980s ELO records, Thomas Dolby's 1987 LP Aliens Ate My Buick and Madonna's undeniable pop classic 'Like a Prayer' (1989). More recently, he has worked with the likes of Lisa Germano, Sheryl Crow, Shelby Lynne and Elton John.