How Eddie Van Halen made Beat It a hit behind Michael Jackson’s back

'He's either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he's going to like it,' legendary guitarist says in resurfaced interview

James Crump
Wednesday 07 October 2020 00:29
Van Halen performs Panama at Billboard Awards 2015
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An interview with Eddie Van Halen where he describes making Michael Jackson’s hit “Beat It” when the singer was briefly away from the studio, has resurfaced following his death from throat cancer on Tuesday.

The musician’s son Wolfgang Van Halen announced on Twitter on Tuesday that the legendary guitarist had died at the age of 65, and wrote that he was “the best father I could ever ask for”.

Van Halen was born in the Netherlands in 1955, but moved to California with his parents and his older brother Alex in 1962. 

He went on to become one of the most celebrated guitarists of all time while a part of the band Van Halen he co-founded with his brother, and in 1982, he helped make Jackson’s “Beat It” with legendary producer Quincy Jones.

Shortly after his death was announced, journalist Steven Hyden tweeted an excerpt of an interview Van Halen gave to CNN in 2012, where he explained how the guitarist changed the song while Jackson was away from the studio.

In the interview, Van Halen said that when he was initially asked to play on the track by Jones, he thought it was a prank call.

However, Van Halen said that after he realised his mistake, he accepted the producer’s offer and went to the studio the next day to meet Jackson and Jones.

During the recording that day, Jackson left the studio briefly for another project, and while he was away Jones told him to do “‘Whatever you want with the track.’”

Van Halen said that he then listened to what Jones and Jackson had already produced and asked: “‘Can I change some parts?’”

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He added: “I turned to the engineer and I go, ‘OK, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out.’ Took him maybe 10 minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.”

Van Halen said that he was in the middle of recording the second solo when Jackson got back to the studio, and he was concerned that the singer would not appreciate the work he had done.

“You know artists are kind of crazy people. We're all a little bit strange,” he told CNN. “So I warned him before he listened. I said, ‘Look, I changed the middle section of your song.’”

He added: “Now in my mind, he's either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he's going to like it.

“And so he gave it a listen, and he turned to me and went, ‘Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song, and make it better.’”

“Beat It,” which was from Jackson’s sixth album Thriller, peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983, and stayed there for three weeks.

Jackson died at the age of 50 in 2009, and speaking in 2012, Van Halen said that the late star “was this musical genius with this childlike innocence.”

He added: “He was such a professional, and such a sweetheart.”

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