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Michael Jackson probably wrote the music for Sonic the Hedgehog – so why is his name nowhere to be seen?

As the Sonic the Hedgehog movie ploughs into more difficulties, James McMahon explores the strange, unconfirmed union between hedgehog and popstar

Friday 10 May 2019 17:54 BST
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This year, we’re faced with mounting evidence that Michael Jackson was most likely a very bad man. And evidence that a live action Sonic the Hedgehog movie is most likely a very bad idea – even with director Jeff Fowler recently promising a full redesign (hopefully sans human teeth). These two statements might seem completely unconnected, but 25 years ago, an alleged union was born between hedgehog and popstar that lingers on.

The legend goes that Michael Jackson wrote the music for 1994’s Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Extraordinarily, it’s a rumour that has (unsettlingly hairy) legs. Jackson was definitely a fan of the blue blur. He was on good terms with Sega, having licenced his music and image to his own videogame, Sega’s Moonwalker, four years prior. Many of Jackson’s closest associates – composers Brad Buxer and Geoff Grace, as well as producer Cirocco – also turn up on the game’s credits. And some of the music sounds an awful lot like a bunch of music that would be released under Jackson’s name in subsequent years. And yet there’s no mention of Jackson anywhere.

Some of the similarities between the game’s soundtrack and Jackson’s songs are more textural than musical. “Who Is It”, from the 1992 album Dangerous, has a chord structure crudely similar to that of the game’s “Ice Cap Zone Act 1”. The game’s “Carnival Night Zone” features the breaking glass and the stop-start shouting from “Jam”, Dangerous’s opening number. The four-bar beat that accompanies Knuckles’ debut is extremely close in feel to the 1997 hit “Blood On the Dancefloor”. But perhaps closest in resemblance to Jackson’s own music is that which plays over the game’s credits. When slowed down, it distinctly resembles the opening bars of Jackson’s 1996 ballad “Stranger in Moscow”, synth line and all – though without all the bonkers stuff about the KGB layered atop.

Most people now accept that Jackson was at least supposed to write the music for Sonic 3 – that he contributed initial ideas, ideas that were used in their infancy – even if they don’t believe he saw the commission through. The question is though, why does his credit not feature on the game? Did Sega pull his name in the wake of the first wave of child molestation charges, in late 1993, whereupon Evan Chandler accused Jackson of sexually abusing his 13-year-old son? Soft-drink giant Pepsi distanced themselves, so why not Sega?

The Japanese games giant has never officially confirmed whether Jackson composed the music for Sonic 3. But Jackson definitely did visit the Sega Technical Institute, based in California, in 1993 – as was confirmed by former executive Roger Hector in a 2005 interview. This was where the idea was floated that he’d write music for the new Sonic game. “He wanted to drop by and say hello,” said Hector. “There was no agenda other than, he really, really liked the game. He enjoyed playing it a lot and he wanted to meet the people behind it.”

It’s believed that Jackson and his aforementioned co-composers wrote 41 tracks – or cues, as goes the videogame vernacular – for the release. “We were recording lots of beatboxing,” says Matt Forger, one of the game’s sound engineers. “Lots of Michael’s mouth percussion. He’d be laughing, joking, and that kind of infectious attitude would make the work not seem like work. Michael understood that this was for a game, he was in a really up mood whenever we’d be working.”

Hector went on to say that when the child abuse allegations arose, and Jackson was forced to leave the project, Howard Drossin – whose work has featured on a host of subsequent Sonic games, and who has worked with artists such as Wiz Khalifa, The Black Keys and Beyoncé – was drafted in to save the soundtrack. Sonic co-creator Naoto Ohshima has never confirmed exactly how far Jackson’s involvement with the third instalment of his speedy blue hedgehog’s odyssey took him. But he has revealed that Jackson sent Sega a beatboxing soundtrack demo, “in which every track was hummed by Michael Jackson”. Ohshima explains that “various incidents” stopped the songs being used on the finished game, but that it’s his belief that Sega “still has the tape…”

Some believe that Jackson had to have his name removed from Sonic 3 due to contractual obligations – music for a 1991 episode of The Simpsons, written by Jackson, had to be credited to John Jay Smith for this very reason. Some think that Jackson himself had his music pulled from the game. Perhaps Jackson – a notorious perfectionist, at least in his heyday – preferred to go uncredited, rather than attach his name to a project that didn’t turn out the way he’d envisioned.

La Toya Jackson calls out Michael Jackson for his relationship with young boys in 1993

Ten years ago, in 2009, Brad Buxer – who played keyboards on 1992’s Dangerous tour – broke rank and shared his take in the Michael Jackson fanzine Black and White. “Michael called me at the time for help on [Sonic 3],” he said. “At the time, games consoles did not allow optimal sound reproduction, and Michael found it frustrating. He did not want to be associated with a product that devalued his music. If he is not credited for composing the music, it’s because he was not happy with the result sound coming out of the console.”

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Regardless of whether he was pushed, pulled or made the jump himself, Jackson kept a relationship with Sega – who kept faith with the musician, despite child abuse allegations that never went away. In 1999, he made a cameo appearance as “Space Michael” in the music videogame Space Channel 5.

“We were in the middle of production, in 1998 or 1999,” says series creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi. “I got a call from the US from my partner – the executive producer of Space Channel 5 – and he said, ‘Oh, Michael wants to act in Space Channel 5.’ I said, ‘Who’s Michael?’ ‘Who is Michael Jackson?’ he said, ‘The Michael Jackson – the real Michael Jackson.’ My partner had shown him the 60-70 per cent complete version, when it was almost at the end of the game. We had one month to finalise. But Michael wanted to do something, so we suggested that if he was okay with it, we could program the people in the game to do the Michael Jackson dance when taken over by aliens.” Jackson said yes. “We initially had five aliens who danced. One of them became Michael Jackson.”

Whether Michael Jackson did write music for Sonic the Hedgehog 3 barely matters at all. “You don’t want the truth,” said Robbie Williams once. “The truth is boring.” The truth is that musicians go to work and write songs and then they go home and watch EastEnders. A pop superstar’s infatuation with a fantastically fast blue hedgehog is much more interesting. It’s much more pop. It’s more than reality, which rock’n’roll was always supposed to be.

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