BSBB Round 2: Paramore, “Ain’t It Fun” vs. Michael Jackson Feat. Justin Timberlake, “Love Never Felt So Good”

Sources: Billboard | All Things Michael

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JAMIESON COX: Argh, this is a tough one. “Ain’t It Fun” is exactly that, fun — so vital, sung to within an inch of its life by the indomitable Hayley Williams, and surprising even months after its release. It’s songs like this that make Paramore perhaps the most exciting rock band working today. But “Love Never Felt So Good” is vintage Michael, airy and frothy and gliding onto disco heaven, and JT comes at the song with a reverence and genuine appreciation that keeps a dish three decades old from being spoiled. I hear this song and it takes me back to a summer spent throwing discs in the park and sitting out on patios with cold beer in hand, basking in the dying light, and it’s really hard to deny that comfort and warmth.
My Vote: “Love Never Felt So Good”

ERIKA RAMIREZ: Michael Jackson’s collaboration with Justin Timberlake was the highlight of his recent posthumous album, “Xscape.” Since it’s hard for me to love the entire effort, I’ll support “Love Never Felt So Good” for as long as I can.
My Vote: “Love Never Felt So Good”

NICK WILLIAMS: I gotta go with “Ain’t It Fun” because, despite the loss of two members, they earned their biggest hit to date, which is an impressive feat given their longevity and current radio trends. Slow and steady wins the race!
My Vote: “Ain’t It Fun”

JEM ASWAD: The Paramore song is affable but honestly forgettable, almost John Legend-like in that I just listened to the entire song twice and can’t remember anything about it except the xylophone hook. Thus, it’s an unfair matchup against the best song Michael Jackson released since well before his untimely death, a “Rock With You” redux with a too-perfect foil and his most obvious successor, JT, putting in an arguably too-reverent performance. Still, unlike many posthumous performances, they got this one right.
My Vote: “Love Never Felt So Good”

ERNEST BAKER: “Love Never Felt So Good” was a capitalist ploy to cash in on Michael Jackson’s legacy, but given that it was recorded in 1983, when MJ was God, the song has its merits. However, it was never released for a reason. “Ain’t It Fun” is a far superior-sounding record, and I never envisioned myself saying Paramore did anything better than Michael Jackson, but here we are.
My Vote: “Ain’t It Fun”

KRISTEN YOONSOO KIM: This one was hard, because both of these tracks are some of the best feel-good songs of the year. But I can’t deny the feeling of getting hit over the head with sheer bliss whenever I listen to this posthumous MJ track (it might just be my most-listened to track of the year, in fact). To be honest, I prefer the version without JT doing the sexy breathing on it, but nothing can bring down “Love Never Felt So Good.”
My Vote: “Love Never Felt So Good”

JASON LIPSHUTZ: Paramore had no business staying relevant in the 2010’s, but their 2013 self-titled album was an absolute triumph commercially and creatively, and its xylophone-inflected, gospel-choir-sporting third single “Ain’t It Fun” somehow became the band’s highest-charting hit on the Hot 100 chart. Whereas the latest Michael Jackson posthumous release felt icky from the get-go, Paramore’s story was totally feel-good, and has established the band as an inventive rock act with whom one can picture growing old.
My Vote: “Ain’t It Fun”

OVERALL WINNER: “Love Never Felt So Good”

 

 

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Pitchfork Names Top 100 Tracks of 2014: “Love Never Felt So Good (Original Version)” Listed At #10

Source: Pitchfork -By Ryan Dombal| Edited By – All Things Michael

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Presenting The 100 Best Tracks of 2014, as voted by our writers and editors. Any track that was released in 2014 or had its greatest impact in the U.S. this year was eligible.

Michael Jackson – “Love Never Felt So Good (Original Version)” EPIC – #10

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Despite claims of endlessly fruitful archives, Michael Jackson’s forgettable first posthumous album, 2010’s Michael, suggested otherwise. Soon enough, the nagging worry that we would never hear another great unreleased Jackson song ever again began to harden into sad fact. And then: “Love Never Felt So Good”. The track was released in three separate versions this year, including a winning, swing-laden disco take and a contemporized Timbaland/Timberlake update, but it’s this spare piano-and-vocal demo put to tape in the first half of 1983 that sounds the most lasting.

Jackson wrote and recorded the track with Vegas crooner—and onetime child star—Paul Anka, who was attempting a comeback at the time and wanted to place a duet with Michael on his new album. But at the start of ’83, Thriller was just starting to become the universe-expanding behemoth we all now know. Realizing a collaboration with an aging lounge act may not be the best career move for the biggest pop phenomenon since the Beatles—in modern terms, this would be a little like Drake suddenly dropping a single with Engelbert Humperdinck—Jackson backed out at the last minute. Given Michael’s artistic trajectory, this also makes sense, because “Love Never Felt So Good” is the sort of unabashedly joyous pop song the singer was trying to grow out of back then. But after decades, the track now sounds like a much-needed respite from the darkness.

Without any extraneous embellishments, the demo functions as a singing clinic, with Jackson putting enough force through his lungs to make the the hook’s stacked vocals sound three dimensional. Meanwhile, his finger snaps and beat-boxed hi-hats could very well serve as this year’s most swinging percussion. At the end of the song, we hear him coming down to Earth: “All right, that’s fine,” he deadpans, ostensibly following a vocal take, not sounding tremendously impressed. In 1983, “Love Never Felt So Good” was another classic-sounding song made by someone hell bent on the future; in 2014, it’s a reminder of why everyone fell in love with Michael Jackson in the first place.

 

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“The Camera Literally Steamed Up” – How I Made The Video For Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean

Sources: The Telegraph – By Rupert Hawksley | All Things Michael

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Steve Barron is responsible for some of the most iconic music videos ever made. The roll call of artists he worked with in the Eighties is impressive: A-ha; David Bowie; Fleetwood Mac; The Human League; Madonna. Top of that list, however, sits Michael Jackson. Here, Barron tells the inside story of how the video for Jackson’s 1982 hit, Billie Jean, was made.

THE OFFER

‘By this stage [1982], I had done 15-20 music videos, including the one that was number one in the UK at the time: The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me. Michael Jackson’s name wasn’t on everyone’s lips. Remember that this is a few months before Thriller came out. There was, of course, a magic in Michael Jackson ringing you up, but in a way I was more excited about Human League. My wife was really pregnant with my first child at the time and my initial reaction was, ‘Oh, I don’t think I’m going to be able to do that.’ It wasn’t a case of, ‘we’ve got to do that.’ It was my wife who persuaded me.’

THE BRIEF

‘Michael Jackson’s manager said that Michael wanted the video to be magical, that he’d [Michael] seen Don’t You Want Me, and he liked the cinematic look and that whole vibe. Michael wanted this to be a piece of a film, as opposed to a music video with a story.’

THE BUDGET

‘$50,000. It was double the budget that I’d ever been asked to work with before. To put that in perspective, though, when Beat It was shot five weeks later, the budget was $300,000. And when they shot Thriller, it was $2 million. So, in the space of three months, the Billie Jean budget had become minute.’

THE INSPIRATION

‘I’d come up with the idea [for Billie Jean] based on an idea that I’d had for a previous video for Joan Armatrading: the Midas Touch thing. So the plan was that everywhere Michael went, everything would glow and turn to gold in the light. I wrote the concept down in a fax and we faxed Michael this page and a half of content and they said, ‘Michael really likes it, he really wants it to feel like a Peter Pan thing’. So, it was a case of, ‘yes, you’re on, come and do it, we like the concept.”

THE FILM

‘We used 16mm film. The reason we didn’t use 35mm – I’d just shot Don’t You Want Me on 35mm – is that there wasn’t enough in the budget.’

MEETING MICHAEL

‘He was sweet, super quiet, super soft, and really inquisitive about the plans for the video and then later, he wanted to know more about me.’

BEFORE THE SHOOT

‘I’d got a really good friend of mine to do the storyboards, and I sat down with Michael and showed him the frames and there were two blank frames in the chorus because the manager had said that he might be doing some dancing. He explained that Michael had been practising in front of the mirror.

I talked Michael through the idea of this private eye following him, which was loosely based on what he had told me was the basic concept for the song – something he’d read in a newspaper about a private detective.’

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Steve Barron on the set of Billie Jean with the private detective

MICHAEL’S MOMENT OF GENIUS

‘So, we ran through it with him, scene by scene. And when it came to the scene with the camera store, with the cameras all firing off, triggering his energy, triggering the Midas Touch again, Michael said he had this idea. ‘What about if one of the other stores in the street is a tailor shop with some mannequins in the window. When I go past it, before or after the camera store, how about the mannequins come to life, and they jump out behind me and they dance with me?’ I absolutely loved it, I thought it was an amazing concept, it enhanced everything. It was right on concept, right on story and just a genius idea.

After that meeting I got onto my producer and said, ‘Michael has come up with a great idea. We need to change that store, the third one along or whatever, we need to get some mannequins in, get some dancers in, do rehearsals. We need to get a choreographer, a costume designer, and I need a couple of hours more to shoot this in a certain way, because this will be after the first dance.’

My producer worked out that this would cost $5,000 dollars more and CBS [Michael Jackson’s record label] said no. They said, ‘No, we’re not paying you a penny more, we’ve told you, you’ve got $50,000 dollars and that’s it.”

Steve Barron talks to Michael Jackson on the set of Billie Jean

Steve Barron talks to Michael Jackson on the set of Billie Jean

A LUCKY BREAK

‘I presumed someone would tell Michael that we couldn’t afford his idea. I suppose half of me was hoping that he’d say, ‘I’ll pay for it’, but he didn’t. I got a phonecall on the Friday night – I was asleep, so it was one of those ‘where am I’ moments – and it was Michael on the phone, which was odd because he didn’t strike me as someone who’d make his own phone calls. And he was like, ‘Hey Steve, I’ve been thinking that we shouldn’t do the dancing in the video tomorrow’. I thought, ‘I won’t blow it. He’s cancelled, so what’s the point in telling him about the budget when he’s realised that he doesn’t want to do it anyway?’

I understand why he didn’t do it, creatively, because I think at that point, he was thinking about Beat It and he was thinking about Thriller. To not do that good idea was disappointing, it’s like the missing scene that I’d have loved to have actually shot. I think it would have made the video better.’

THE DAY OF THE SHOOT

‘I was comfortable around set, it was just another shoot really until he started dancing.’

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THE DANCE

‘I’d been told the day before that the paving stones wouldn’t all light up, that Michael couldn’t go wherever he wanted to go. There were 11 that lit up and they were all in a hop skotch pattern that they’d had to randomly decide over night. I had to say, ‘Michael I’m sorry, but there’s this stone that lights up, and then these two do, and then these two, and then that one does.’

Having not seen any rehearsal or anything, I was guessing at what he was going to do. I think he had been practising some moves, but how we was going to string them together was going to be a mystery. He looked at it all very carefully and looked at what I’d talked him through and then I said, ‘Michael, shall we just do a few rehearsals,’ and he said, ‘can we just shoot it?’

As the chorus approached, he started moving his leg a little bit more and then the chorus hit and he sprung into this dance that was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It was just extraordinary, instinctive. He pulled it all together and turned it into what we saw. I heated up, I definitely heated up off the energy that he was giving off. The camera literally steamed up, the eyepiece steamed up, because of my heat from what I was seeing. He almost disappeared into a mist through the lens, which made it even more like a totally surreal moment.’

Michael Jackson on the set of Billie Jean

Michael Jackson on the set of Billie Jean

THE EDIT

‘I met Michael in Covent Garden, just by Longacre, and it was a post-production facility. I remember we were up most of the night doing it because it was a really quick turnaround, as usual. He happened to be in London so it was perfect timing. I remember him lying on the settee at the back, and at one point he looked at one of the screens and said, ‘I like that shot’, and in fact [he was looking at] a split screen. He thought the three splits were there for him to choose one… I didn’t say anything.’

A VIRAL VIDEO

‘All I remember was that, about two weeks later, I heard that MTV weren’t going to play Bille Jean. They said it’s not their audience. And then I heard, and I’ve heard many stories, that CBS phoned MTV absolutely furious: ‘How can this massive hit pop record, with a massive video, and a great artist not be your audience. Who is your audience?’

They said they represented middle America. I don’t think white or black was ever used. MTV were in their early stage. They didn’t know who they were, didn’t know what they’d become, and they certainly didn’t know that Michael Jackson was going to become MTV. They were fighting against the thing that built them into the empire they became.’

Steve Barron’s memoir Egg n Chips & Billie Jean: a Trip Through the Eighties is out now

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Finally, Simple Instructions On How To Moonwalk

Sources: Ryot – By Oliver Micheals | All Things Michael

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In my lifelong quest to drunkenly replicate Michael Jackson at every wedding I attend, I’ve never been able to stick a proper Moonwalk.

That’s not for a lack of effort, I’ve just never been taught how — at least not until I came across these super simple animated instructions, called “How to Moonwalk”:

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So today I tip my fedora to computer animator Jacob O’Neal, because it is to him I will forever owe a debt of gratitude credit for being able to clear a dance floor when the wedding DJ predictably drops an MJ jam.

Oh, and if you want to see more of Jacob’s brilliant explanations on how things work — speakers, cheetahs, guns, etc. — head over to Animagraffs.com.

 

 

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Jackson 5 Christmas Album Is The Antidote To Holiday Cynicism And Fatigue

Sources: AV Club.com | Edited By – All Things Michael

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For the past three years, The A.V. Club has devoted the month of December to reflecting on our favorite holiday entertainments, and this year is no different. It’s a feature so nice, it’s never had the same name twice, and this year it’s the 12 Days Of Non-Denominational Winter Holidays. Kicking things off: the Jackson 5’s 1970 Christmas record.

It’s such an awful feeling, walking into a shopping mall and being reminded via in-store music that there is no such thing as autumn. According to the retail industry, there are no more than a dozen days separating the summer wind-down from the onslaught of the holiday season, which is a pretty awful time of year relative to its reputation. The sober truth is that Christmas isn’t all that fun for adults because it’s just an annual influx of responsibilities. Granted, they’re holly-jolly, pumpkin-spiced responsibilities, but those are no less taxing. And the harbinger of all the parking, shopping, wrapping, exchanging, pot-lucking, and general to-do is the sound of Lady Antebellum’s “The First Noel” wafting from Yankee Candle.

It’s a shame more shops don’t play Jackson 5 Christmas Album as part of their annual conditioning ritual, since it’s the only Christmas pop album that doesn’t blanket me with dread. Sure, there are other worthy Christmas albums produced both before and after The Jackson 5 released its sole Christmas release in October 1970. But Jackson 5 Christmas is tough to compete with because it isn’t—as Christmas records so often are—an inessential brand extension or bait for discography completists. It’s a potent distillation of the spirit of Christmas, an album joyful enough to make me feel like it’s the most wonderful time of the year rather than merely telling me so.

J5’s not-so-secret weapon is Michael Jackson, who in the summer of 1970 recorded the album—their third that year—as he was on the cusp of his 12th birthday. The timing is key: Michael was at the height of his talent as a child prodigy, and Jackson 5 Christmas was one of the final albums the band recorded before Michael’s voice yielded to puberty. The serendipitous timing is what elevates the album above its holiday-pop peers; Michael was still young enough to sing about Christmas with the voice of a child. To enjoy Christmas—like, actually enjoy it—you either have to be a kid or be near a kid, a kid who wants to bake cookies and will believe Santa Claus ate them even if the gingerbread crumbs lodged in Daddy’s beard tell a different story. Playing Jackson 5 Christmas introduces an irrepressibly happy kid into any space.

There’s a sad irony in the youthful jubilation Michael conveys in J5 Christmas because in all likelihood, Michael never had the Christmas the boy on the record is having. The adult Michael was forthcoming about his arduous childhood and how he often felt crushed by the tyranny of his taskmaster father and the pressure of worldwide fame attained before his self-identity had solidified. And he had little time to adapt. One moment, Michael was the eighth of 10 children living in a tiny house in Gary, Indiana with two working-class parents, one of whom was verbally and physically abusive by many accounts. Then, suddenly, he was the nucleus of a massive business concern entwined with the livelihoods of people as much as five times his age.

But it isn’t just Michael’s age that makes J5 Christmas succeed, it’s his passion. The kid loved to sing and perform as much as most boys his age love pretending to shoot each other or laying waste to ant colonies. So while the vitality in Michael’s performances on the album might not be an outgrowth of legitimate Christmas cheer, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Michael sounds like a kid on Christmas morning on all of J5’s records, and that vigor, combined with his angelic voice, made Michael the ideal vessel for J5 Christmas, a collection of traditional selections and new songs written by Berry Gordy and a murderers’ row of Motown session musicians. Motown released several classic Christmas albums, including The Temptations’ Christmas Card, but when it comes to selling the spirit of the season, there’s no competing with an 11-year-old Michael Jackson.

One notable difference between J5 Christmas and other albums of its kind is that its original songs are among its finest moments. It’s also in the originals where the Jackson boys assert their dominance over The Temptations, whose Christmas Card was released just weeks after J5 Christmas. The Jacksons were the first to record Gordy’s “Give Love On Christmas Day,” but The Temptations went on to record it for a reconstituted version of their Christmas album a decade later. The debate over the best Motown Christmas album is a two-horse race between J5 and The Temps, but “Give Love” is where the Jackson boys pull ahead. The Temps’ version is perfectly fine, featuring Glenn Leonard on lead, but compared to J5’s take, it’s non-alcoholic eggnog at the office holiday party.

Michael was cut from the same cloth as soul prodigies like Stevie Wonder and Billy Preston, and he carried their “mannish boy” mien. He could sound as insouciant as a child and as world-weary as an adult in the same phrase, a talent that neither made “Who’s Loving You” seem above his station, nor “ABC” beneath it. Michael hits the sweet spot between those qualities on “Give Love,” eliminating any mystery behind why Gordy gave J5 the first crack at the song. “Give Love” has a lovely melody, but its lyrics are a clunky indictment of Christmas commercialism that only Michael can properly sell. “No greater gift is there than love” is a wise, precocious sentiment when delivered by a honey-voiced preteen, but it’s a preachy bromide coming from a grown man.

The band’s success hinged on Michael’s ability to harness his youth when a song calls for it, and diminish it when it doesn’t, but to the J5 Christmas’ credit, he spends the majority of the album in kid mode on such classics as “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” Michael also leads on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” a wise choice since he was still boyish enough for the song to sound adorable as opposed to an awkward confession of Freudian trauma. At the risk of paying the other Jackson boys short shrift, their harmonies are stunning throughout, and Jermaine takes lead almost as often as his little brother. Jermaine sings “Christmas Won’t Be The Same This Year,” a J5 Christmas original about holiday heartbreak as funky and impeccably arranged as Motown’s most memorable hits, and one of the songs I most look forward to this time of year.

But the lasting gift of J5 Christmas is young Michael’s performance, a rendering of a child’s view of Christmas so beautiful it mows down any cynicism in its path. With any luck, the stores will start playing it more often, which I suspect would be as much of a boon to my sanity as it would to their bottom lines. Hearing a cash-grab Christmas record while working through a shopping list amplifies the commercialism and financial drain that make the holidays exhausting enough to warrant a nap, while J5 Christmas conjures memories of being a giddy kid on Christmas Eve, when sleep was the ultimate imposition.

 

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Reviews From The Home Video Basket: Michael Jackson’s ‘This Is It’ Documentary

Sources: Indie Wire – By Tambay A. Obenson | Edited By – All Things Michael

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As I’ve said in previous reviews, for those who missed them… I watch lots of movies (old and new) weekly, mostly at home, on cable TV, Netflix and Amazon primarily, usually as I’m working on S&A. I rarely write about what I screen, if only because I don’t have the time. But I’m now making a concerted effort to do so, and publish here. Consider them quickies.

I wasn’t sure if I would ever see it, given my profound disapproval of Sony’s obviously exploitative decision to produce and release the documentary so soon after Michael Jackson’s death. Alas, my love for MJ’s music trumped my disgust for Sony, and I acquiesced, and saw the film on Sunday afternoon.

It’s difficult to review a film like this – what is essentially a videotaped concert; or rather, more like a pre-concert concert, assembled from rehearsals that occurred from April through June 2009, for a tour scheduled for that summer. This isn’t some scripted reality TV-like program; there aren’t any moments of conflict or drama between members of the house; there are no scenes of salacity; there are no individual confessionals; there’s no foul language.

For roughly 2 hours, it’s Michael Jackson – mostly a very austere Michael – prepping rather rigorously for a concert tour that, due to his abrupt death, never came to pass; and how unfortunate, because the audiences who would have been lucky enough to be present for the live performances, would most certainly have been thoroughly entertained, and even enriched by the experience.

If there’s one thing I took away from watching “This Is It,” it’s that, quite a lot of work goes into producing a concert fit for a king – the King of Pop, that is. I was continuously impressed by the effort (and likely money) that apparently went into the preparation for the tour. There’s the old joke about the guy who asks pianist Arthur Rubinstein how to get to Carnegie Hall; and Rubinstein replies, “Practice, practice, practice.” And that’s exactly what they do here! The dancers, the musicians, the crew behind the pyrotechnics, and of course, MJ himself, who, throughout the entire documentary, is so self-assured and in full control of almost every aspect of the production, never hesitating to express his dissatisfaction (as well as praise) when necessary – traits that seem so counter to the almost fragile, effete Michael Jackson that the media often portrays. The man knows his music, his dance moves, what he wants and demands perfection – of himself, first and foremost, and as well as those around him – and he clearly has the respect of each and every person involved in every piece of the rather elaborate puzzle.

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Clearly, he wants to thrill his fans who’ve paid decent sums of money to see him perform live, and ensure that they are satisfied and even overwhelmed once the show is over, and one can only admire him for that. There’s absolutely no room for mediocrity here.

Your appreciation for the film will likely depend on your appreciation for the man at the center of it – because it’s really all about him. It seems useless to talk about it mechanically, or as a work of film art – the editing, the cinematography, the story, the direction, the message underlying it all, etc. Don’t bother trying to analyze those individual particulars. Just sit back, behold a master at work, and bask in it all. Because it works. It gets the job done. You, the audience, essentially are made privy to the kind of footage you likely would never get to see under most similar circumstances. You get to witness how much work goes into the preparation for a concert of this magnitude, as each piece is imagined and realized – no frills, no adornments. You get to see the magic that happens behind the curtain – in lieu of what you would have seen live and on stage, but now never will. In a way, it’s like buying a DVD that comprises solely of extra, behind the scenes features, without the completed film.

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My only gripe (and it’s a minor one) is that it could have been about 15 minutes shorter. Even in the case of an electrifying performer like Michael Jackson, watching him practice and prepare repeatedly, eventually starts to feel monotonous, as my mind wandered a bit, during the last act.

Regardless, I think any fan of MJ’s will appreciate what “This Is It” offers – a glimpse of a Michael that I don’t think we ever really got to know, and the final steps of a genius, fully dedicated to his craft, as well as the audiences that still love and support him.

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It’s on DVD, though not streaming on Netflix.

 

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No One Wants To Be Defeated: The Torment And The Triumph Of Michael Jackson’s Thriller

Sources: AudioOut.com – By Richard Eric | Cherrelle  | All Things Michael

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“Let me take you to the max.”

Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the biggest selling album of all time. In my life, I have heard this fact more than any other piece of music-related trivia, and I’ll bet you’ve heard it a couple of hundred times too. For thirty years now, no other album has overtaken Thriller and with sales the way they are now, it seems no album ever will. The legacy of Thriller is all about the numbers – the thirty-seven weeks at number one, the seven top ten singles, the eight Grammy Awards – so much so that it would be cliché to say the art got lost in the stats, but that thankfully isn’t true. ‘Billie Jean’ still fills dancefloors worldwide, ‘Beat It’ is still the benchmark for artists wishing to effortlessly cross over from one genre to another, ‘Thriller’ remains the music video all music videos aspire to live up to. In addition, the slightly smaller hits like ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’ and ‘Human Nature’ are constantly held up as prime examples of Michael’s genius. But this acclaim and the record-breaking sales belong to the end of the Thriller era – the journey to this triumph is a much more interesting story.

Off The Wall, Michael’s debut album as a solo adult artist, was an unquestionable success, spawning four top ten hits and becoming the biggest album of a career that was already at the end of its first decade. Immediately following Off The Wall was a reunion with the rest of the Jackson brothers (except Jermaine) for Triumph, a platinum success and very solid effort that gave us ‘Can You Feel It’ and the extravagant music video that accompanied the single. This video was Michael’s first foray into really conceptual short films, and would clearly inform the videos from Thriller. Following the Triumph tour in 1981, all was quiet on the Michael Jackson front in preparation for his next move.

While any outsider would consider Off The Wall a career peak, its creator was characteristically unsatisfied by the response. Notorious for taking industry awards and hype too seriously, from losing it over Madonna being named “artist of the decade” at the close of the eighties to mistaking a birthday cake for an Artist of the Millennium award in 2002, Michael was apparently extremely upset that the Grammys awarded Off The Wall a solitary trophy (Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male for ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’). With the benefit of hindsight it is certainly odd to look at the major nominees for 1980 and see Supertramp and the Doobie Brothers getting all the glory while Michael Jackson gets relegated to R&B and disco categories. In fact, the album Off The Wall garnered no nominations at all, with both nods going to the biggest hit from the record. Clearly Michael was more irritated by these oversights than anybody, with the perceived Grammy snubs often cited as one of the reasons he worked so hard to make Thriller an across-the-board hit.

Quincy Jones, the jazz legend who helmed Off The Wall, was back on board for Thriller, producing all nine tracks (with Michael billed as a co-producer for four). Rod Temperton, the songwriter behind ‘Rock With You’, is a sometimes overlooked key player on Thriller. He contributed ‘Baby Be Mine’, the title track and ‘The Lady In My Life’, becoming the most represented writer on the album besides Michael himself. Compared to the years spent on later albums, the seven months in 1982 that it took to complete Thriller may seem quick, but by all accounts both Michael and Quincy were in perfectionist mode, even becoming unsatisfied with a “completed” version of the album and carefully remixing each song individually at great expense. Finally, in October 1982, the first song from Thriller was released to the public, and ironically it would become the least fondly remembered track on the entire record.

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“Sending roses and your silly dreams, really just a waste of time”

Paul McCartney contributed in a roundabout way to Off The Wall when Michael covered ‘Girlfriend’, a track from the Wings album London Town, but their first proper collaboration to be released was ‘The Girl Is Mine’. The track is a light pop song that features Michael and Paul having an extremely tame argument about who is the better lover. A Michael Jackson/Paul McCartney sex sandwich might be the stuff of nightmares for most people but nevertheless ‘The Girl Is Mine’ received a favourable commercial reaction. Despite peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, the single reportedly lowered public and critic expectations for Thriller, and Michael received criticism that the song was clearly aimed at a white audience. While crossing racial barriers would become a theme of the Thriller era, ‘The Girl Is Mine’ isn’t really that far removed from ‘Girlfriend’ (of course) and some of the very adult contemporary ballads he had recorded with his brothers.

The year-end edition of Billboard magazine dated 25th December 1982 featured articles and full-page advertisements congratulating Barry Manilow, Joan Jett and The Go-Go’s, among others, for dominating the year that had just passed. Also included was a now amusing spread promoting Australian bands like Mental As Anything and Rose Tattoo. Quietly, on the Billboard 200, Thriller debuted at number eleven, behind that week’s number one, Business As Usual by Men At Work, and LPs by Pat Benatar, Lionel Richie and The Clash. Number eleven is actually a fairly high debut for the time period, but it was clearly not yet apparent that Thriller would soon be stuck at number one on that same chart, despite the success of ‘The Girl Is Mine’. Thriller’s second single would seemingly decide its fate.

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“She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene”

What a wonderful surprise, then, that the follow-up to ‘The Girl Is Mine’ would be the track that defined Michael Jackson forever. His signature song, his greatest achievement, one of the most popular and famous songs of all time, the defining song of the eighties, the defining song of the modern pop era – no matter which way you might choose to describe it or its impact, ‘Billie Jean’ is the crown jewel of Thriller, both critically and commercially. A contrast to ‘The Girl Is Mine’ in almost every way imaginable, ‘Billie Jean’ is moody, paranoid and deeply rooted in funk and R&B, as if to show the naysayers that Michael was very much staying true to his black musical heritage. Written as a response to the obsessive fans Michael attracted, and continues to attract, ‘Billie Jean’ introduced some common MJ themes: distrust of women, being targeted by liars, and a general sense of paranoia and suspicion that would permeate all aspects of his life and work in years to come. The nearest we have to a ‘Billie Jean’ precursor would be ‘This Place Hotel’ from Triumph, which uses a more cartoonish approach to weave a similar tale of former lovers disturbing the protagonist. ‘Billie Jean’ is more specific, with the title character presenting a child that she says belongs to Michael, as he cries the immortal hook – “the kid is not my son”.

On paper, these dark themes might seem unsuited to a massive hit single, but the song’s unbelievably catchy hook and dancefloor-ready production took care of that. As the song builds, each element introduced one by one, Michael’s voice becomes more bruised and hurt. The bridge of the song features scarily prescient lyrics: “mother always told me, be careful who you love, and be careful what you do, because a lie becomes the truth”. It would have been impossible to know at the time just how much this concept would haunt Michael later in his life, but listening now it just adds another creepy layer of subtext to this truly amazing recording. The carefree MJ from Off The Wall was gone, already ruined by adulthood, and he would only return sporadically from now on. In fact, the entire concept of dancing was tainted in ‘Billie Jean’, with the narrator constantly reflecting on his choice to dance with this girl “on the floor, in the round” and the world of pain it brought him. The song was a complete deconstruction of his image up to that point.

Two pieces of visual media shaped the way ‘Billie Jean’ was received and affected its rise to the A-list of pop classics. The first was the accompanying music video, or short film as Michael insisted they be called, which I would argue is just as nightmarish as the ‘Thriller’ video that would come later. A photographer stalks Michael as he walks down a dirty city street where everything he touches lights up, electrified by his presence. He proves to be the original elusive chanteuse, however, disappearing every time the photographer gets close enough for a clear shot. This grimy, soon-to-be iconic short was supported by the second defining ‘Billie Jean’ video – the performance at the Motown 25 television special. Motown 25 was a celebration of the legendary record label that gave Michael and his brothers their start, but after performing a medley of Jackson 5 hits, Michael was left alone on stage to perform ‘Billie Jean’, which was not released on Motown. It was, however, the number one song in the country at that time. This performance was where the elements of Michael Jackson The Icon seemed to fall into place – the fedora, the single glove, the white socks, the rhinestones, and yes, the moonwalk. When Michael moonwalks three-and-a-half minutes into the performance, the audience literally screams. And even though I must have seen it hundreds of times, my heart still stops when it happens. As he floats across the stage, walking forwards and backwards at the same time, to the tune of one of pop’s undisputed masterpieces, I find myself thinking – is this the peak of pop music? What could possibly ever beat this? Michael himself, however, was underwhelmed. He went home that night disappointed that a particular dance move involving staying frozen on his toes (right after the moonwalk) went slightly wrong. Again beating himself up over something any other performer would have brushed off, the success of ‘Billie Jean’ was clearly not enough to make Michael stop second guessing himself.

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“You have to show them that you’re really not scared.”

For all its successes, Thriller spawned “only” two Billboard Hot 100 number one singles. The same amount as Off The Wall and three less than Bad, Thriller’s follow-up. This can be attributed to the fact that everyone was clearly buying the album, meaning that some singles could only make top ten rather than go all the way to the top. ‘Billie Jean’ was a number one, of course, for seven weeks, and ‘Beat It’ followed it straight to the top soon after, for three weeks. In fact, if it weren’t for a solitary week of ‘Come On Eileen’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runner’s, Michael would have replaced himself at the top, a testament to his growing domination of the charts.

Aside from the unmistakable voice on the track, ‘Beat It’ is as sonically removed from ‘Billie Jean’ as that track was from ‘The Girl Is Mine’. My personal favourite track on Thriller, ‘Beat It’ doesn’t carry the emotional or historical weight of ‘Billie Jean’, yet because of that, time has perhaps treated it a tiny bit kinder. A stomping rock song about the dangers of getting into trouble on the streets – something Michael knew nothing about personally but would return to again and again – ‘Beat It’ features a desperate call of a chorus, a call to arms for action, even if that action is, well, running away. The track is augmented by the famous guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen, which, like the moonwalk, has not lost any of its power over the years. The success of ‘Beat It’ began a long tradition of rock songs in Michael’s catalogue, and while some of those tracks – ‘Dirty Diana’, ‘Give In To Me’, ‘D.S.’ – are among his very best, they don’t outdo the original concept.

Again harnessing the power of the music video (sorry, short film), ‘Beat It’ was given an MTV-friendly treatment that is more traditional in approach than ‘Billie Jean’ but no less legendary. Famously recruiting real street gang members, the short film is a grimy story of rivals who meet up to fight while Michael, looking more childlike than he did when he was an actual child, laments their violence in what looks to be his jim-jams. As more and more gang members flood the streets, including that little guy in the hat and tie who cracks me up every time because of how completely out of place he seems, our hero changes into a more fetching red jacket and proceeds to dance through a deserted pool hall. It is the contrast between these two images that shows Michael had more power with his idiosyncratic dance moves than any testosterone-fueled posturing could ever give these gang members – indeed, a lyric in ‘Beat It’ specifically tells the listener “don’t be no macho man”. Of course, it is dancing that saves the day in the end, with Michael appearing unannounced and unafraid at this gang fight. With a bit of West Side Story-style choreography (some of the most recognised and copied of Michael’s career), the gangs come together. Suddenly, the most “real” of Michael’s videos so far becomes the most ridiculous, but that fantasy element is what draws you in. As Michael and the dancers form a human wave, picking up other dancers as they move across the floor, the magic of the image totally cancels out any humour to be found in the unlikeliness of it all.

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“Someone’s always trying to start my baby crying.”

By the time ‘Beat It’ hit the top of the charts, Thriller was stuck at the top of the Billboard 200, MTV had stretched its unofficial policy against black artists to include MJ in high rotation, a move that forever changed the network, and Michael Jackson had become the biggest artist in the world. The success of Thriller was even making careers for people who had nothing to do with the record, including comedy artist “Weird Al” Yankovic, who scored his mainstream breakthrough with the ‘Beat It’ parody ‘Eat It’, which amusingly made number one in Australia while the original made number three. The time had come for the fourth single. ‘The Girl Is Mine’ was light pop, ‘Billie Jean’ was dark R&B, ‘Beat It’ was crossover rock – was it time to go back to the sound that had made Michael the toast of 1979? ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’, the opening track on Thriller, was chosen as single number four, and it owes a lot to the sound of Off The Wall. Not coincidentally, the song originated from those sessions. There was no music video for ‘Startin’ Somethin’’ so it had to stand alone, which it was more than prepared to do. The instrumentation may be reminiscent of the disco-funk of Michael’s previous era, but the lyrics fit perfectly with the paranoid edge of Thriller. Billie Jean, the character, even makes a cameo in the track (she’s “telling lies” here too), connecting it even more to Michael’s current work. A frantic, six-minute workout punctuated by a defiant performance and a chorus of backing vocals, lines like “you’re a vegetable!” might have sounded ridiculous had they not been delivered with such venom. It’s unclear who Michael is really talking to throughout the track. Lyrics such as “if you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby” suggest a social justice angle, but some of the more personal insults can seem very close to home, especially considering Michael’s penchant for self-criticism. Perhaps feeling the song was too negative, we are given a truly uplifting inspirational verse (“lift your head up high!”) before the backing vocal chorus launches into the famous “ma ma se ma ma sa ma ma coo sa” chant until the fade. By far the least conventional of the Thriller hits, ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’ opens the record triumphantly and is quite a trip for the listener. Charting at number five on release, the track has become one of the most sampled, covered and performed MJ singles, raising it out of the ‘Billie Jean’/‘Beat It’ shadow as the years have passed.

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“Get me out into the nighttime, Four walls won’t hold me tonight”

As a young teenager discovering Thriller for the first time, I kind of assumed ‘Human Nature’ was the most personal song on the album for Michael. Those ambiguous lyrics, the feeling of uncertainty – this felt like something Michael had written for himself and was tentatively sharing with the world. Of course, as I came to find out, ‘Human Nature’ wasn’t written by Michael at all, but by Steve Porcaro from the band Toto – one of the few acts to come close to Michael’s success in the early eighties – and John Bettis, whose other credits include Madonna’s ‘Crazy For You’ and Whitney Houston’s ‘One Moment In Time’.

The sexuality of Michael Jackson is a topic that has been debated by us onlookers for decades, despite such speculation being an impolite thing to do. We will simply never know, nor is it any of our business whether he was straight, gay, asexual or whatever. It’s just one of those things you can’t help but wonder about. It is partly because of this, and partly because I came to know ‘Human Nature’ at a time when I was getting to know myself, that it feels like a coming out story. “If they say why, why, tell ‘em that it’s human nature – why, why, does he do me that way?” The vague concept of a “girl” is present in ‘Human Nature’, but Michael initially only sees her from afar – “she knows I’m watching, she likes the way I stare”. By the end of the song, via a gorgeous melody that recalls the strongest of Toto’s adult contemporary hits, he has reached a place where he can “touch her shoulder”, a very platonic gesture. This fundamental, seemingly self-imposed disconnection and Michael’s fragile vocal only add to the feeling of sadness and loneliness that everyone who has struggled with their sexuality can relate to. Of course, even after saying all this, I believe that ‘Human Nature’ was most likely written as a simple R&B ballad with no real hidden subtext. Who knows what Michael felt as he sang the lyrics, and who knows what the writers really meant by them. Like a lot of things related to Michael Jackson, it remains a mystery. What I know for sure is how I personally interpreted ‘Human Nature’ during a very tough time, and the song holds a special place in my heart. It really does mean a lot to me.

‘Human Nature’ became the fifth top ten hit from Thriller, hitting number seven and breaking Off The Wall’s previously held record of four top tens.

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“Tenderoni you’ve got to be. Spark my nature, sugar fly with me”

Alright, now here’s some heterosexuality for you. ‘P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)’ has the distinction of being the smallest hit from Thriller, peaking at number ten, but the glittery funk of the track and the radio-friendly groove of the chorus have allowed it to live on as a classic example of eighties disco. Michael weaves his way through the song throwing out some timely slang, effortlessly seducing the titular P.Y.T., a tactic he put to good use on Off The Wall and would utitlise many times in the future.

“We can touch the sky and light the darkest day”

A sister song to ‘P.Y.T.’, in my view, is one of the two non-singles from Thriller, ‘Baby Be Mine’. On any other album ‘Baby Be Mine’ would have been a front-runner for single release, and at times it can sound fresher than some of the better-known songs. Sharing ‘P.Y.T.’s carefree R&B vibe, the two tracks, when taken together, form a breezy counter to the more claustrophobic hits. While ‘P.Y.T.’ was popular, certainly doing more than well enough for a sixth single, the most culturally significant moment of the Thriller campaign was, unbelievably, still to come.

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“I’m not like other guys”

Thriller runs through a huge variety of emotions and themes in its nine tracks. Despair, joy, frustration, rivalry, loneliness, betrayal, pleasure. These are all explored in a variety of ways, mostly shrouded in gritty realism or presented with bare honesty. The title track, and ‘The Girl Is Mine’, for that matter, relieves the listener for a moment, as they revel in pure cartoonish glory. “Something evil’s lurking in the dark” could be a description of the ‘Billie Jean’ video, but here it takes on a playful tone, riffing on B-movie horrors and the old Hollywood style Michael was so fond of. Written by Rod Temperton, ‘Thriller’ is a great dance track, full of quotable lines and catchy hooks. As I’m sure you know, however, it exists not only as an audio recording, having given birth to what many still call the greatest music video in history.

“Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.”

A quick rundown of the ‘Thriller’ plot, just in case you’re from outer space: the story begins with Michael and his girl, Playboy centerfold Ola Ray, acting out an innocent scene of young love which turns into a freak show when Michael transforms into a werewolf. We cut to a movie theatre in the present day, where Michael and Ola are watching the scene unfold on a cinema screen. The comedic timing and acting from Michael in the theatre sequences make me sad he didn’t do more film work in his younger years – his goofy smile in the cinema seat while furiously eating popcorn was the funniest he had ever been. Michael and Ola walk home, where they are confronted with some corpses, Michael has a bit of a dance with them, chases Ola into an abandoned house, where she promptly wakes up. It was all a dream, or was it?

It sounds simple enough but the execution was flawless, in no small part thanks to director John Landis, whose other credits include directing An American Werewolf In London, which he also wrote, and Clue, which he wrote with Jonathan Lynn. It was the former that inspired Michael to call upon his services for ‘Thriller’. According to J. Randy Taraborelli’s insanely detailed Jackson biography The Magic And The Madness, after all was said and done on ‘Thriller’, Michael threatened to destroy the tapes as the occult themes conflicted with his Jehovah’s Witness faith. Apparently saved at the last minute (although not without a disclaimer, quoted above), the short film went on to propel the album back up the charts, send the single into the top ten, and solidify the album era as the most successful of all time. The video was an immediate sensation, and even the jacket Michael wears in the video has its own Wikipedia page. Thank god Michael came to his senses – in fact, he would leave the Jehovah’s Witness faith in 1987, in part due to their reaction to ‘Thriller’. It remains the go-to example of greatness in the format.

“Meet me in paradise”

So that leaves one more song on Thriller, and it’s the most delicate and understated of them all. ‘The Lady In My Life’ is a sweet, tender ballad that closes the record and does so in the classiest way possible. A return of sorts to the Motown style that characterised hits like ‘I’ll Be There’, ‘The Lady In My Life’ presents a mature portrait of its vocalist and would go on to inspire countless R&B slow jams. It remains a hidden gem in Michael’s catalogue, as hidden as any song on the biggest album of all time can be.

“There’ll be no more mountains for us to climb”

Reports vary on exactly how much Thriller has sold worldwide. It has been certified 29 times platinum by the RIAA, signifying shipments of 29 million copies in America alone. It still sells over 130,000 copies per year in the US. The low end of estimates for Thriller’s worldwide sales place the album at around 50 million copies sold, while the more unreliable reports state over 100 million. Michael Jackson won eight Grammy Awards in 1984, easily dominating the ceremony, which became the highest rated in the show’s history, and more than making up for the perceived Off The Wall snub that fueled this whole era in the first place. For the record, and because they meant so much to him, the awards Michael won were:

  • Record of the Year for ‘Beat It’ (shared with Quincy Jones)

  • Album of the Year for Thriller (shared with Quincy Jones)

  • Producer of the Year, Non-Classical (shared with Quincy Jones)

  • Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male for ‘Thriller’

  • Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male for ‘Billie Jean’

  • Best Rhythm & Blues Song for ‘Billie Jean’

  • Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male for ‘Beat It’

  • Best Recording for Children for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (shared with Quincy Jones, the only award not directly related to Thriller but instead a side-project tied in with the movie)

In addition, Bruce Swedien won Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical for ‘Thriller’. Thriller is defined by statistics, and that is as good a point as any to sum up the story of this fascinating record, however it cannot be stressed enough that Thriller was not just a moment of marketing, timing, good luck or capturing the zeitgeist – it was the music that primarily sold this record, and the music lives on forever, beyond the creator, beyond the fans, beyond the numbers.

When all of us here who were able to experience Michael firsthand are dead and buried, ‘Billie Jean’ will still be a dancefloor staple, ‘Thriller’ will still be played every Halloween, dancers will still do the ‘Beat It’ routine and ‘Human Nature’ will still inspire romance and discovery. For no mere mortal can resist.

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DeepSoul, Holiday Edition: Jackson 5 – “Up On The House Top”

Sources: Blinded By Sound – By Kit O’Toole | All Things Michael

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Few collections have successfully melded soul and Christmas music as well as the Jackson 5 Christmas Album, a disc that has sold over three million copies worldwide and remains a mainstay on holiday playlists. While their enthusiastic versions of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” receive annual radio airplay, the album track “Up on the House Top” encapsulates the Jackson 5’s charisma and the incredible artistry of Motown’s production team.

By October 15, 1970, the Jackson 5 were at the peak of their popularity. They had already released three smash albums featuring the number one singles “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There.” Wanting to cash in on this success, Motown brought the Jackson 5 into the studio in July 1970 to begin work on a holiday album. The gamble paid off–the Corporation-produced effort immediately soared to the top of Billboard’s Holiday albums chart upon its October release. Indeed, Corporation members Deke Richards (guitar), Freddie Perren (keyboards), Fonce Mizell (keyboards), and label CEO Berry Gordy wisely selected traditional carols and a few originals to showcase the young band’s energy and soulfulness.

“Up on the House Top” dates from 1860 and was composed by Benjamin R. Hanby, an American composer, educator, and pastor. According to William Studwell’s The Christmas Carol Reader, the song may have been the first carol to focus exclusively on Santa Claus, and was one of the first entirely secular carols to be written in the United States. Its lyrics tell the story of Santa Claus’ annual journey, the reindeer-powered sleigh landing on rooftops to let Santa deliver presents to good girls and boys. Hanby most likely based the lyrics on the Clement Clarke Moore poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” most famous for the opening line “‘Twas the night before Christmas.” The 1822 work mentioned Santa Claus’ sleigh landing on rooftops, and Hanby clearly built his verses on that image.

When the Jackson 5 tackled the track in 1970, they put a decidedly modern spin on the traditional song. Listen to “Up on the House Top” through headphones or high quality speakers to fully appreciate the backing track. The bass particularly stands out, the dizzyingly fast notes sounding like the Funk Brothers’ James Jamerson’s technique. Unfortunately no musicians were credited on Jackson 5 releases except under the “Corporation” moniker, so one cannot say definitively that Jamerson played the bass part. Nonetheless, the funky bass and heavy percussion stress that this version is firmly rooted in soul. The horns blare, accenting the rhythm and enhancing the childlike excitement surrounding Santa’s impending arrival.

The Jackson 5’s cover also plays with the original lyrics. At the song’s onset, the Jacksons briefly croon lines from “Here Comes Santa Claus,” chanting “Here he comes!” to introduce Michael Jackson’s lead vocal. As usual, the twelve-year-old sang with astonishing precision and sincerity, at first singing the traditional lyrics. But he soon launches into a description of his brothers’ wish lists, proclaiming that Tito wants a new guitar, and Jackie a three-foot tall basketball hoop (“Jackie’s almost six feet tall . . . Maybe he’ll play like a pro,” jokes Michael). He states that Marlon needs new shoes for his dancing, and engages in banter with Jermaine. “Did you read Santa Claus my list?” Jermaine asks. “All the girls you’re waiting to kiss?” Michael responds. When Jermaine protests that the comment was a joke, Michael exclaims “Too late, Jermaine, he’s bringing you mistletoe!” At the end Michael reveals that while he would love toys, he particularly wishes for love and peace.

Just try to sit still when Michael begins listing the reindeer; in the background, the Jackson brothers chant “pitter, patter” in perfect synchronization with the drums. The section adds surprising danceability to “Up on the House Top,” in essence turning the original on its head. The Jackson 5’s spirited vocals and the superior musicianship result in a charming and funky take on the familiar Santa Claus tale.

This marks the last DeepSoul for 2014, but it will return in 2015 with more buried treasures. I thoroughly enjoying sharing my love of soul and R&B, and I thank you for following the column. I wish you a joyous holiday season and a happy and healthy new year.

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