'Thriller' was the masterpiece that set tone for pop's next generation
Saturday 27 June 2009
Roused from sleep with the shocking, if not entirely surprising, news that Michael Jackson was gone, I was halfway through my bowl of cereal when the inevitable happened.
The apparently mandatory tickertape of viewers' comments that now accompanies most rolling-news channels was spewing forth the familiar self-serving mix of banalities and crocodile tears when one textee actually made the claim that this was surely "the day the music died".
How wrong can you be? Because the day the music actually died occurred several decades ago, round about the first time we saw the video to "Blame It On The Boogie", or was it "Billie Jean", with those dazzling demonstrations of nimble footwork that rendered the music utterly redundant. From that point on, music, as a stand-alone cultural force, was dead in the water. And the biggest nail in its coffin, ironically enough, was the landmark video of "Thriller", directed by the Hollywood A-lister John Landis on a budget that dwarfed many full-length features.
This, more than anything, was Michael Jackson's most singular achievement, a truly game-changing move that altered forever the balance of sound and vision in the entertainment industry. Prior to Jackson, music alone had been the premier conduit of cultural dissemination among young people; after Jackson, it was merely the accompaniment to a dance routine, one small element in a larger spectacle. He didn't do it on his own, of course: it obviously helped that MTV was launched at around the same time, and despite its initial reluctance to programme African-American artists, eventually realised that nobody made more entertaining, endlessly watchable videos than the former child star. In his wake, the Eighties became the decade of dance stars like Prince and Madonna, neither of whom would have been able to establish themselves as quickly as they did had Jackson not moonwalked across the room and kicked down the door for them.
He became the most significant mainstream dance icon since the mid-century heyday of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Sammy Davis Jr, his signature moves such as the moonwalk and the zombie being copied by thousands of imitators. And while his musical output would eventually become stale and repetitive, Jackson never lost the urge to innovate choreographically, even having a patent granted in 1993 for a device that would enable him to suddenly lean forward at gravity-defying angles during a dance routine.
Indeed, it's possible that, in his determination to put on performances of jaw-dropping flamboyance, he may have lost focus on the core business of his music, which became clearly subservient to the visuals. Nowadays, nobody raises an eyebrow when Madonna uses pre-recorded vocal tracks in stage shows; but in the mid-1990s, when it became evident that not even an Olympic athlete could undergo the kind of exertions Jackson was indulging on stage without getting too out-of-breath to sing, it seemed a shocking betrayal of musical principle, akin to the notorious Milli Vanilli brouhaha of 1990.
There is a theory, not altogether contradicted by one's experience of rock stars, that most showbiz entertainers never really manage to develop, in terms of character, beyond the stage at which they first became famous. It's as if they become trapped by their public image, which strangles the real personality, like foot-binding. Thus does Dylan become the waspish outsider, Spector the paranoid nerd, Sting the supply teacher. And while Stevie Wonder – the one-time "12-year-old genius" – is the exception that proves the rule, it's undeniable that Michael Jackson's character development was permanently crippled by his success as the child-star frontman of the Jackson 5.
He was just 11 years old – and a very boyish 11-year-old, at that – when the Jacksons scored their breakthrough hit with "I Want You Back" in 1969, by which time he had been the group's lead singer for three years already. He never had the chance to experience a natural adolescence like other teenagers, but was forever sealed in a showbiz bubble of recording and performing, exacerbated by his father's violently abusive treatment of his offspring. Michael later admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he often cried with loneliness during his childhood, and became so afraid of his father's rages that he sometimes involuntarily vomited upon seeing him. Like the Beach Boys' paterfamilias Murry Wilson, Joseph Jackson effectively terrified his sons into stardom.
Michael's earliest solo affairs were typical Motown corporate efforts, his albums featuring plenty of company material previously recorded by other Motown acts. But the cover of his third album, Music & Me, depicting a serious-looking Michael nursing a big acoustic guitar, told its own story about the ambitions that were starting to emerge, under the influence of Marvin Gaye's and Stevie Wonder's development into mature artists. But when Motown chief Berry Gordy refused to allow him to record his own material, Michael and his brothers left the company and signed with Epic Records, where under the watchful eye and experienced ear of Quincy Jones, he would himself mature into the sophisticated soul stylist signalled by the cover shot of Off the Wall, with a bow-tied and tuxedo'd Jackson throwing shapes against a brick wall.
The 1979 album was a masterwork of funk, pop, soul, disco and even jazz, drawing on all areas of Quincy Jones's vast experience as a jazz and R&B producer/arranger. Smooth, confident and sumptuously textured, it would become the definitive template for what would later be known as "urban" or "R&B" (in its modern sense) music, which three decades on still owes its essential sound and structure to Off the Wall and its follow-up, Thriller, the most successful album of all time, with a string of seven Top 10 hits eventually leading to global sales reportedly in excess of 100 million.
Thriller's success was no accident. Stung by what he considered the meagre acclaim for Off the Wall at the 1980 Grammy Awards, where it won only one award (Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, for "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"), Michael determined that his next album should consist entirely of potential hit singles. The first single taken from it, the insipid duet with Paul McCartney on "The Girl Is Mine", led many to believe the album might struggle to equal Off the Wall. But it proved the least of the project's attractions, which extended Jackson's stylistic palette to encompass the surging dance-rock of "Beat It", featuring Eddie Van Halen's memorable guitar solo. It also showed how Jackson was maturing as a songwriter: while some tracks originated through studio associates – most notably Brit keyboardist Rod Temperton, who provided the title track – Michael alone wrote the most significant tracks, "Beat It" and "Billie Jean", which introduced darker elements of paranoia and persecution into his once genial, bubbly style.
By the time Bad was released five years later, these elements had come to dominate his writing, with songs like "Smooth Criminal", "Dirty Diana" and the title track offering agitated, antagonistic sentiments, and "Leave Me Alone" explicitly protesting against intrusive media coverage of his increasingly eccentric lifestyle, which had snowballed through a combination of his startling cosmetic surgery treatments, overgrown-child funfair behaviour, infinitesimally brief marriage to Lisa-Marie Presley, and the rumours of inappropriate relationships with minors, which would dog him for the rest of his life.
It was the classic Catch-22 of celebrity, the desire for complete privacy acting in direct opposition to the desire for ubiquitous recognition – a complex never more absurdly manifested than when Jackson had colossal statues of himself floated along the rivers of European cities to promote his HIStory album in 1995, a double album on which a disc of his earlier hits was included, presumably to distract attention from the obvious decline in quality of the new material. By that time, Quincy Jones had been replaced by swingbeat producer Teddy Riley on Dangerous, with a whole parade of reliable but less inspired talents – including Jam & Lewis, Dallas Austin, David Foster, R Kelly, Babyface and Rodney Jerkins – coming in as co-writer/producers for HIStory and his final album, Invincible.
By the time Invincible appeared in 2001, deteriorating relations with Sony Records had led the singer to proclaim he was leaving the label, prompting the company to cancel all promotional work on the album, which failed to perform at anything like the level of his previous albums.
Since then, Jackson has seemed like Bambi at bay, surviving a gruelling child-sex lawsuit, well-documented drug addiction, further physical deterioration, a child custody battle with his ex-wife Debbie Rowe, and a fairly constant hounding by a stream of creditors pursuing repayments on loans secured against the music-publishing business he co-owned with Sony, which was estimated to be making him $75m a year. With his back catalogue already reported to be dominating online sales figures since the announcement of his death, that tidy little kitty is likely to be expanded enough in the coming weeks to keep most of his creditors happy, at least.
The career: Jackson in numbers
13 No 1 singles, plus 13 Grammy Awards
750 million Worldwide record sales. This, and the above, led Guinness World Records to call Jackson the "most successful entertainer of all time"
£300m Estimated total career earnings
26 Years between his first and last No 1s, "I Want You Back" (with Jackson 5 in 1969) and "You Are Not Alone" (1995)
65 million Copies of Thriller sold worldwide, the biggest-selling album of all time
47 million People watching when Jackson first "moonwalked" in a televised Motown 25th anniversary special in 1983.
£29 million The sum Jackson paid for the rights to songs in the Lennon/McCartney catalogue
750,000 Tickets sold for his 50 comeback concerts at the O2 Arena in London
Thank you for the music: Andy Gill's Top 10
I want you back (1969)
The Jackson 5
The encapsulation of youthful euphoria, particularly the exultant squeal with which Michael caps his brothers' staccato doo-wop harmonies.
Blame it on the boogie (1978)
Light, infectious, and blessed with a hook that can't be extricated, three decades later.
Don't stop 'til you get enough (1979)
The young pretender gets his spurs with this funky debut single from Off The Wall, the first release over which Jackson exercised complete creative control.
Rock with you (1979)
Gentle and genial, Rod Temperton's first contribution to Jackson's repertoire remains one of his most beloved smoochers.
Billie Jean (1983)
Sheer genius, from the furtive, loping bassline to to Michael's impassioned vocal about an obsessional fan stalker.
Beat it (1983)
Another monster riff, with heavy metal guitar harnessed to an interlocking funk groove that just gets strongel.
Cornball schlock in excelsis, from the brassy fanfare to Vincent Price's hammy horror delivery, driven by an itchy funk groove with a bounding bassline.
Wanna be startin' somethin' (1983)
Staccato but smooth, a high-water mark of keyboard disco-funk, this was based in part on Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa", one of the first world-music crossover hits, and the line "You're a vegetable".
Effectively "Beat It" Part Two, but none the worse for that, with Jackson's interlocked vocal harmonies on the chorus sounding simultaneously soft and sinister. Less happily, heralds his crotch-grabbing period.
The way you make me feel (1987)
A "Rock With You" retread, lopes along like a friend with his arm around you.
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