Source: Damien Shields
On July 16, 2009, just three weeks after his tragic passing, a portion of an unreleased Michael Jackson song leaked online. Celebrity gossip website TMZ posted a twenty-four second snippet of the track, called “A Place With No Name”. For the past four-and-a-half years the twenty-four second snippet is all that Michael Jackson fans have had access to. That is, until now.
A few days ago, on December 3, 2013, the full-length version of the song, which is essentially a lyrically re-written cover of the 1972 hit “A Horse With No Name” by the band America, appeared online to the delight of Jackson enthusiasts around the world. With the leak of the track came questions about its origins – some of which could be answered by reading previously published interviews with those who worked on the track, and others which remained unanswered. This article aims to put all the pieces of the puzzle in one place to tell the complete story behind the song.
“A Place With No Name” was first conceived in 1998 by Elliot Straite, a talented singer, songwriter, and music producer who goes by the name “Dr. Freeze”. Record executive John McClain, who was managing Michael Jackson at the time (and is now coincidentally a co-executor of The Michael Jackson Estate) gave Freeze the opportunity of a lifetime – to collaborate with the King of Pop.
“I knew his manager, John McClain, and I was working on an album with my partners, Spydermann,” recalls Freeze. “After completing the album, it did not go as planned and we had to cancel the project. I was very upset. And then John McClain said, ‘Do not worry Freeze. I have another project for you. You’ll be in business with Michael.’ I said, ‘Michael who?’ And he said, ‘Michael Jackson!’”
“I did not believe it at first and I thought it was crazy. And then one day I was on the phone with my father and someone called me on the other line… It was Michael! That’s how it all began… That’s how we met.”
“It was pretty scary for me! I felt like I was back in primary school and not knowing anything about the production! With Michael I relearned everything,” told Freeze. “The other producers and I were as students facing a teacher. With Michael, it was as if we knew nothing more to the business; we had to start over and relearn everything. He taught us to do everything the best way possible. Michael was a perfectionist… I was very nervous. Very nervous but very honored! He knew all about the music industry; everything about everything. Nothing was foreign to him, and he taught me a lot.”
“I introduced him to many songs. The main songs on which we worked are ‘Break Of Dawn’, ‘A Place With No Name’ and ‘Blue Gangsta’,” explained Freeze. “These three songs were our priorities… He adored them! Michael and I, we have a knack for melody,” he continued. “So every time I proposed something, it was easy for him to study the song because it was as if he already knew. I gave him some songs that he adored. He cherished them.”
“I did all the music, and he only had to learn the lyrics,” continued Freeze. “‘A Place With No Name’ is itself a kind of escape, a song where you just close your eyes to find yourself instantly transported into a wonderful world. In fact, this song was inspired by ‘A Horse With No Name’ from the group America. The lyrics of this song are very deep. I wanted to refresh it, make a version for the 2000s as well… The group America loved the idea. They found this ‘update’ absolutely terrific. They were really excited about this project.”
After presenting the tracks to Jackson, the pair began collaborating on musical ideas at Record Plant Recording Studios in Los Angeles, in August of 1998. At the time, engineer and bass guitarist CJ deVillar was assisting them with the engineering side of things. During a session Freeze told CJ that he wanted to have a bass guitar sound on “A Place With No Name”.
“I told Freeze I can play [bass] and would be happy to lay something down for him,” says CJ. “I brought my bass down to the studio, and a few days later Freeze was ready to record it. The problem was I was a bit concerned to play on MJ’s tracks while MJ was around. I just didn’t want to jeopardize my position as an ‘Engineer’ goofing around on Michael’s music, but in the end it was unfounded paranoia on my part.”
“Regardless, we waited till late in the eve when Michael usually slipped out for home long before that,” he recalls. “At least based on his M.O. from the previous few weeks.”
It was August 25, 1998 when CJ laid down his pass parts at the Record Plant. But it didn’t go to plan for the engineer, with Jackson catching him in the act!
“When I was certain Michael had left the studio I plugged in my bass and started to play around with the track with Freeze. But the very second I plugged in, I saw Michael emerge from his studio lounge through the vocal booth glass and into the control room, so I was like, ‘Uh oh!’”
“Michael immediately said, ‘What are you guys doing?’ I replied sheepishly, ‘Laying down some bass, Mike.’”
He said, ‘Let’s hear it,’ so I played a few bass licks and he immediately got excited and said, ‘Are you recording?’
“Umm, no Mike, I’m just trying to find a vibe.”
“Mike said, ‘Play and record it all!’ So I dropped in (hit record) and jammed on the song. Well, Michael turned up the big main speakers LOUD and was loving what I was playing.”
What happened next between Michael and CJ was truly a magic moment.
“After several seconds Michael was in my face rockin’ out while I pulled off all kinds of bass ideas,” he recalls. “At the end of that pass he said to do another and off we went again. Michael was poppin’ and lockin’, playing air guitar while we pulled out rock poses in front of the console.”
“He would say, ‘Oh yeah CJ, that was stinky! Sooo stinky!’ (a good thing for Mike) ‘Lets do another!’”
“I dropped in a total of five or six times with the last one being a solid groove track so we didn’t have to comp a bunch of bass ideas to make the song listenable right away,” explained CJ. “After more than a half-hour of rockin’ with Michael and a few more loud playbacks, I put together a quick rough mix and made him a dat tape to listen to. He graciously thanked me again and then went home for the day… I had a lot of fun recording Michael and Freeze… It showed me Michael’s relentless musical energy so vividly.”
The next day, August 26, 1998, Jackson arrived back at Record Plant Recording Studios ready to record the background vocals and “na nas” with Dr. Freeze, lead engineer Mike Ging and second engineer Jeff Burns.
While the majority of the background vocals on the track belong solely to Freeze, there are a few instances where the two have recorded in harmony and were then compiled seamlessly together by Ging.
After about a week of tweaking and editing the rough “A Place With No Name” mix, which was exactly 8 minutes in length at that point, Jackson was ready record the lead vocals. This session, again recorded by Mike Ging, took place at Record Plant on September 8, 1998.
Record Plant Recording Studios has about six studio rooms on site – two of which were hired by Jackson’s team. This meant that Jackson had little privacy with numerous other artists coming and going at any one time from the four others studios. Because of this, Jackson conducted his trademark vocal warm-ups with Seth Riggs before arriving at the studio to record.
“We never saw him do his vocal exercises before us,” recalls Dr. Freeze. “But when he came into the studio to record, he stood before the microphone and set fire to the song. As he left, the studio was in ashes and our jaws on the floor. It was really impressive to see.”
Jackson’s lead vocals were recorded by Mike Ging on a Neumann M149 microphone. Additional leads were recorded on October 16, 1998, by Ging at Ocean Way Recording, which is commonly referred to as Record One. The following day, October 17, Ging worked on a new mix. From there, “A Place With No Name” did some serious studio-hopping.
“It was such a round robin back in those days,” said recording engineer Michael Prince, who was bouncing between Brad Buxer’s room and Dr. Freeze’s room. “At one point we ended up at Marvin’s Place. We then moved back to the Record Plant, then back to Record One again.”
“Typically I was working mostly on the songs Brad [Buxer] and Michael [Jackson] were writing. We had our hands busy with about five or six songs, two of which, ‘Speechless’ and ‘The Lost Children’ made it on the [Invincible] album.”
At Record One on February 21, 1999, six months after starting the process Jackson, Freeze, Prince, Buxer and Ging revisited “A Place With No Name”, making additional minor edits.
“We were very happy at Record One and that’s where we got the majority of our work done. That’s when Rodney [Jerkins] joined the team. For at least the last month that we were at Record One Rodney, Fred [Jerkins] and LaShawn Daniels were there.”
At the end of March 1999 Jackson flew out to New York to work at The Hit Factory with Cory Rooney on a track called “She Was Lovin’ Me”. Jackson spent the best part of a month in the studio with Rooney, who remembers the pair did just as much goofing around as they did working on music.
“We spent so much time – I would say we worked for a good two weeks – on tweaking alone,” said Rooney. “Not just the vocals but different things, comps. And it took two weeks because we spent more time laughing and joking and talking and having such a good time in the studio. We stretched it out just to have fun. In the end we spent most of April in the studio kind of plotting and planning. We used that as our kind of headquarters to really get the record in line.”
“I could have taken advantage of the situation and tried to produce six songs and get Michael to record them, but I didn’t care for that,” added Rooney. “I just wanted to give him anything at that time that he needed. And I felt like he needed to have fun and to have a friend more so than some guy trying to push songs on him. That was genuinely what I truly felt in my heart. We had a great time.”
After wrapping the “She Was Lovin’ Me” sessions with Rooney, Jackson decided to move all collaborative sessions from Record One in Los Angeles to The Hit Factory in New York.
“It took us days to make copies of all the tapes and hard drives, and label them, then everything got shipped to The Hit Factory in New York and we spent months there,” said LA-based Michael Prince.
The Hit Factory engineer Paul J. Falcone worked on a mix of “A Place With No Name” in early May 1999 in New York. However, after Falcone completed his mix, the song got put on the backburner, along with Cory Rooney’s “She Was Lovin’ Me” and Dr. Freeze’s “Blue Gangsta”, which was being worked on at the same time as “A Place With No Name”.
By mid-1999 Jackson had seemingly dropped many of his former collaborations to focus on working with Rodney Jerkins, and Jerkins had done the same in return.
“It was up to me to finish the music (for ‘She Was Lovin’ Me’), to make the music track better and stronger,” explained Rooney. “And I completely lost the opportunity to do that because I got so caught up in trying to help Rodney Jerkins deliver for Michael.”
In the end it wasn’t until January 2004 that “A Place With No Name” was revisited. Jackson had asked to hear it again and some minor edits were made at Neverland.
“It has improved gradually,” said Freeze. “It was incremental work. He listened to the different mixes and changed some details around here or there. He was in full creative control. We wanted the song to be perfect… It was a bit like a director looking to improve his film by changing the script or changing players. This is the type of process that was used to create this song, and overall, the album ‘Invincible’… All that interested him was to have #1 hits.”
Freeze’s statement about Michael wanting to have hits was later echoed by producer RedOne, and also by Jackson himself.
“Michael always has been focused on having hits,” said RedOne, who spent time working with Jackson between 2008 and 2009. “So he always records a lot of songs and takes the best of them. That’s his formula, which I love.”
“It was Tchaikovsky that influenced me the most,” revealed Jackson in a 2007 interview. “If you take an album like ‘Nutcracker Suite’, every song is a killer, every one… People used to do an album where you’d get one good song, and the rest were like B-sides. They’d call them ‘album songs’ and I would say to myself, ‘Why can’t every one be like a hit song? Why can’t every song be so great that people would want to buy it if you could release it as a single?’ So I always tried to strive for that… That was the whole idea… I worked hard for it.”
Other than those minor 2004 tweaks and edits, “A Place With No Name” was again put on the backburner until being resurrected merely a year before Jackson’s death, in mid-2008.
“Michael Jackson had favorite songs, or songs that were works-in-progress,” said Michael Prince. “Once Neff-U took over from Brad [Buxer] when Brad started flying again in 2008, Michael brought out some songs, including “A Place With No Name”, and said, ‘Here work with this song. See what you can come up with for this song.’ So the vocals were always pretty much the same, but Neff-U would put new music on them.”
“Neff-U had originally worked with Michael, Brad Buxer and I long before 2008,” continued Prince. “He originally came to Brad’s house years earlier and worked on some stuff that never came out, like ‘Hot Fun In The Summertime’ – the 1969 Sly Stone song. I think MJ only sang a tiny bit on that one, but they were trying a bunch of stuff. Neff-U is very talented.”
The version of “A Place With No Name” that leaked is the final version Michael heard and approved in 2008.
“Compared with the 2004 version you can hear the drums are different in the leaked 2008 version. It has a different kick drum pattern, a little stronger snare, and the ‘na nas’ are copied to repeat through the fade,” said Prince, who personally looped the “na nas” for Jackson.
The mid-2008 edits were all made in Jackson’s home studio, at his 2710 Palomino Lane property in Las Vegas. Coincidentally, Freeze made a visit to Jackson at his Vegas home studio shortly before Jackson moved to Los Angeles. The pair had reunited to discuss the next chapter of Jackson’s musical journey.
“I was in the studio with him shortly before his death,” recalls Freeze. “To be precise, I remember going to see him at his residence in Vegas, and there was a studio there… Nothing was recorded, we just brainstormed. We were about to start recording sessions… I offered a few new songs I had written especially for him.”
“He loved [the songs] very much,” says Freeze. “This was our last discussion. He said ‘I love you’ and voila, it was over. He wanted to save [the songs], but he died.”
In the aftermath of Jackson’s death, as detailed at the beginning of this article, a snippet of “A Place With No Name” leaked online, via TMZ.
It was quickly identified as being a remake of America’s “A Horse With No Name”, prompting the group to comment on Jackson’s rendition.
“We’re honored that Michael Jackson chose to record it and we’re impressed with the quality of the track,” said America band members Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley in a statement made to MTV. “We’re also hoping it will be released soon so that music listeners around the world can hear the whole song and once again experience the incomparable brilliance of Michael Jackson,” they added. “Michael Jackson really did it justice and we truly hope his fans – and our fans – get to hear it in its entirety. It’s really poignant.”
Dr. Freeze reminisced on his time with Jackson during an interview with Michael Jackson fansite MJFrance.com, quoted on numerous occasions throughout this story.
“He was simply the most wonderful person with whom you could never dream of working with,” remembers Dr. Freeze. “He was very humble and creative. From dusk till dawn, he created sounds, melodies, harmonies… He could do everything himself. You know, Michael was truly a ‘living instrument’… It was quite an experience for me. I learned a lot from him.”
“A Place With No Name” remains officially unreleased to this day. Dr. Freeze has stated on a number of occasions that “A Place With No Name”, as well as “Blue Gangsta”, will be included on the next Michael Jackson album. “That I know. This is confirmed.” he said, adding that the album is scheduled to come out in Spring 2014.