Beat It! – The Rock Collaborations of Michael Jackson

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‘I had been thinking I wanted to write the type of rock song that I would go out and buy,’ claimed Michael Jackson, the ‘King of Pop,’ in his memoir Moonwalk. The song he was referring to was Beat It, the second single released from his 1982 classic Thriller, an album that would go on to outsell every other record and transform a twenty-four-year-old Jackson into a superstar. While he had carved his early career at Motown, initially as a member of the successful Jackson 5, before embracing the burgeoning disco scene in the late 1970s, it would be through Thriller, his sixth album as a solo artist, that he would finally achieve the success that he had been craving for so long.

Despite his association with R&B and pop music, Jackson would regularly indulge in his passion for rock through his collaborations with such celebrated musicians as Slash and Eddie Van Halen, the latter resulting in two Grammy Awards and Platinum sales. Always fascinated by new musical trends and eager to move with the times, Jackson knew that if he was to cross over into the mainstream charts he would need to appeal to the white demographics and so it was decided that Thriller would require a memorable rock song. To achieve this he knew he would need to recruit the services of a talented guest guitarist, with Jackson insisting the track be ‘something totally different from the rock music I was hearing on Top 40 radio at the time.’

Michael Jackson was barely eleven when he released his first single as a member of the Jackson 5, sharing vocal duties with his four siblings, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon on the track I Want You Back. Through a mixture of his adorable innocence and powerful voice, Michael soon became the focal point of the group and a little over two years later he had already released his debut album as a solo artist. But it would not be until his partnership with acclaimed producer Quincy Jones and his signing to Epic Records that Michael Jackson would become a pop star in his own right.

Off the Wall was released in August 1979, less than three weeks before his twenty-first birthday and through the success of singles Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough and Rock with You, Jackson was finally able to step out of the shadow of his family’s famous group. One significant aspect of the album was that one of the tracks, Girlfriend, had been written by former Beatles icon Paul McCartney with Jackson in mind. The two had grown close friends throughout the 1970s but scheduling conflicts had kept them apart and eventually McCartney had decided to record the song for the album London Town under the Wings moniker, the band he had formed with his wife Linda several years earlier.

When it came to recording Thriller, Jackson felt that he owed McCartney a debt for allowing him to include the track on Off the Wall, and so suggested a duet. ‘Michael originally rang me and said, ‘Do you want to make some hits?’ recalled McCartney in an interview with Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield in 2015. ‘I didn’t know who it was, I didn’t recognise his voice at first but I dug into it…We just started and it came very easily. I was quite excited to write with him, he was excited to write with me, so we were just popping off each other.’ The result was The Girl is Mine, a playful sparring between two rival men fighting for the affection of the same woman, while a second collaboration, Say Say Say, would find its way onto McCartney’s own solo album Pipes of Peace.

During this time McCartney had been approached about purchasing the musical catalogue owned by ATV Music which, among its impressive roster, also included the rights to the songs he had written with John Lennon for the Beatles. McCartney had declined the offer but Jackson, an avid fan of the group, expressed interest in obtaining the catalogue and, after almost a year of negotiations, finally purchased the library in August 1985. Three years later, when his ambitious motion picture Moonwalker was released in cinemas around the world, Jackson included a rendition of the Beatles classic Come Together.

While Off the Wall had boasted an impressive selection of guest musicians, Thriller would feature not only such celebrated artists such as Van Halen but also horror icon Vincent Price, who would provide the narration for the theatrical title track. Keyboardist Steve Porcaro, whose group Toto would enjoy top five hits with Rosanna and Africa while Thriller was in development, had worked as a session musician on Off the Wall and would return for the follow-up, while bandmates David Paich, Jeff Porcaro and Steve Lukather would also offer their services.

But the most famous contribution to the album would come from Eddie Van Halen, whose own band Van Halen had become local legends around California during the late 1970s before signing to Warner Bros. and releasing their eponymous debut to considerable success. It would be Quincy Jones who would suggest twenty-seven-year-old Van Halen after advising Jackson that Thriller would benefit from a more rock-oriented song. Jackson had already written a track called Beat It but had hesitated in playing the demo for his producer, but as soon as heard the rough cut Jones immediately thought of Van Halen as the ideal choice for what should boast a show-stopping guitar solo.

Van Halen had recently seen the release of his group’s fifth album Diver Down when he received a phone call from Jones, offering him the chance to contribute his talents to a new song by Michael Jackson. Due to a poor connection Van Halen dismissed the phone call as a prank and hung up on Jones and, when the producer called back moments later, was abruptly called an ‘asshole’ by the frustrated guitarist. ‘Eddie was convinced that the voice on the other end was a fake,’ recalled Jackson in 1988. ‘After being told to get lost, Q simply dialled the number again. Eddie agreed to play the session for us and gave us an incredible guitar solo on Beat It.’

In an interview with CNN thirty years later Van Halen recalled the experience of entering the studio at Westlake Recording in Los Angeles to perform the solo for the already-recorded track. ‘Michael left to go across the hall to do some children’s speaking record. I think it was E.T. or something,’ he explained. ‘So I asked Quincy, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And he goes, ‘Whatever you want to do.’ And I go, ‘Be careful when you say that. If you know anything about me, be careful when you say, ‘Do anything you want!’ 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.”

Without the support of his management or fellow band members and without agreeing on a fee for his services, Van Halen’s contribution to the song would last thirty seconds but would prove to be a significant moment for all involved, allowing Jackson to release a song directed at the rock crowd, while also helping to introduce Van Halen to a wider audience. Beat It would also be the first single that would break through the barriers between white-oriented rock and black R&B, paving the way for Walk This Way, the 1986 hit recorded by hip-hop stars Run–D.M.C. and members of Aerosmith, as well as the rap-rock style that would dominate Licensed to Ill, the debut album by the Beastie Boys.

Six months before the release of Thriller, the tenth studio album by Queen was issued to mixed reviews. Despite the appearance of David Bowie on the classic cut Under Pressure, the majority of Hot Space was dismissed as an ill-advised foray into disco, prompting the band to return to a rawer sound with their next offering The Works. ‘I think Hot Space was a mistake, if only timing-wise,’ admitted guitarist Brian May. ‘We got heavily into funk and it was quite similar to what Michael Jackson did on Thriller. The timing was wrong. Disco was a dirty word.’ Jackson and Queen‘s frontman Freddie Mercury had discussed a collaboration many times before but due to their respective workloads this had proved almost impossible.

By late 1983, however, Mercury found himself available and made his way to California, where he joined Jackson at his mansion in Encino. Their spontaneous sessions would result in three tracks but their collaboration was short-lived and the two parted company before any of the songs were completed. The reason for this remains unclear, although many biographers have offered their own theories. Author Laura Jackson claimed that Mercury’s frequent cocaine use may have angered Jackson, who had little interest in the sex and drugs side of the rock and roll lifestyle, while another writer, Lesley-Ann Jones, suggested that Jackson may have been too much of a control freak for Mercury to manage.

‘Mercury was still using cocaine and initially, while recording with Jackson, aware of his views on the matter, he would discreetly vanish to the toilet,’ stated Laura Jackson. ‘But the necessity to disappear so often irritated Mercury. Although he was not in the habit of wilfully upsetting outsiders with his behaviour – be it drug-taking or homosexuality – this time he grew sloppy. Seemingly Jackson witnessed Mercury snorting cocaine and this was enough to freeze their friendship.’ Of the three songs that Jackson and Mercury had worked on together, State of Shock would make its way onto Victory, the penultimate album by the Jacksons, with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones finally replacing Mercury.

The first that fans would get to experience of the collaboration between Jackson and Mercury would finally surface when the remaining members of Queen completed work on one of the songs, There Must Be More to Life Than This, which would be included on the 2014 compilation Queen Forever. The song had previously been issued on Mercury’s solo album Mr. Bad Guy in 1985 but without the participation of Jackson, leaving their duet remaining unreleased for the next four decades. Initially, though, it would seem that the song was destined to remain unreleased as one party were reluctant to grant permission for the track to see the light of day. ‘If we could get a decision from the Michael Jackson estate, who seem to be, well, difficult,’ claimed Queen drummer Roger Taylor ‘William Orbit did a really nice mix of one of our tracks with Michael and I’m pretty certain that will be on Queen Forever. But it’s been like wading through glue.’

For Bad, Jackson’s eagerly awaited follow-up to Thriller, he decided to include another rock track. For Dirty Diana, the tale of a groupie who offers herself to her favourite stars, he invited former Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens, whose prior work had included such hits as White Wedding and Rebel Yell, to lend his talents to the track. ‘I was invited to play on a new Michael Jackson song called Dirty Diana,’ explained Stevens in Van Halen: A Visual History: 1978 – 1984. ‘After Ed recorded Beat It with Michael, they needed some flash guitar on the follow-up record and I guess I was their man. The session was a one-afternoon deal.’

Unlike Beat It, however, Dirty Diana was dismissed by many critics as nothing more than an album filler, with Davitt Sigerson of the Rolling Stone stating that, ‘the wisp of a song about a sexual predator does not aim for the darkness of Billie Jean; instead, Jackson sounds equally intrigued by and apprehensive of a sexual challenge…producer Quincy Jones marshals his most flamboyant strokes – crowd noise, Steve Stevens guitar and John Barnes string arrangement – to make a substantial recording out of an insubstantial melody.’

With the exception of Eddie Van Halen, the most significant collaboration between Jackson and guitarist would come in 1992 when he requested the services of Slash. Having become a rock ‘n’ roll icon through his work with Guns N’ Roses during the late 1980s, Slash was invited during his band’s world tour to provide a solo for a track entitled Give In to Me, which was to be featured on Jackson’s next album Dangerous. At the time, Slash had been heavily promoting Guns N’ Roses’ latest release, the double album Use Your Illusion, but the opportunity to make an appearance on a Michael Jackson song was too tempting to resist.

‘I was flattered and I was intimidated, but it came off great,’ said Slash in his autobiography. ‘We did two songs; the first one, the cooler one, was called Give in to Me, which was kind of like a new take on his song Dirty Diana… It was trippy; the studio was as dimly lit and as dark as Guns liked to have it when we recorded.’ As with Van Halen, Slash contributed a guitar solo to the song, while also performing a second solo that would be featured at the beginning of the music video for Jackson’s comeback single Black or White, although he would later be openly critical of the guitar riff that the song had been composed around.

As with Van Halen, Slash found the experience of collaborating with Jackson both exciting and exhilarating, with the singer open to suggestions and improvisation in order to achieve the best result. ‘I’d do some shows here and there and it was fun because he was such a pro and he was such a fucking talent from on high. That was the main thing: he was so amazingly musically fluid. Such a treat to be around,’ he would tell Kerrang! many years later. ‘Onstage, his whole professional thing was really where he clicked. When he wasn’t working, or in production or whatever, it was then you could see that he was sort of at the mercy of his own success. All the people he had around him, the tugging and the yes people, you could tell that he knew ninety per cent of them were full of shit.’

Give In to Me had been intended as one of several singles to be released from Dangerous, but following an impromptu a cappella rendition of the song Who Is This for Oprah Winfrey, Jackson’s record label decided to abandon its release in the United States in favour of the other track. Give In to Me was still released in Europe and so Slash met with Jackson in Munich in June 1992 to record a ‘live’ performance music video with director Andy Morahan, who had recently shot the epic promo for the Guns N’ Roses ballad November Rain. Despite not being released in America, Give In to Me climbed to number two in the British singles charts, while landing the number one spot in New Zealand.

Three years later, Slash was approached once again by Jackson to perform on another song, D.S., which was to be included on his retrospective HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I, a double album that featured a disc of classic hits and a second of new material. ‘For the new material, Jackson has enlisted an army of top-shelf performers and producers,’ exclaimed Billboard in an article published shortly before its release, in which they described D.S. as ‘rock-edged funk jam,’ while also claiming that Slash had performed on a second track, They Don’t Care About Us.

For the last three months of his life Jackson had been committed to developing a series of fifty concerts dubbed This Is It, which would have marked his first major live event in twelve years. The run of performances had been set to take place at the O2 Arena in London, commencing in the summer of 2009 and running until the following March. Among those invited to participate in the well-publicised show was twenty-four-year-old Australian guitarist Orianthi Panagaris, who had shared the stage with both Steve Vai and Carlos Santana while still a teenager. But it would be during her performance with Carrie Underwood at the Grammy Awards in early 2009 that would lead to her involvement with Michael Jackson.

Sadly, Jackson would pass away a few months before the shows were set to take place, with the only souvenir of all the hard work captured in the acclaimed documentary This Is It. ‘I can’t believe I got to play with him,’ Orianthi told MusicRadar shortly after his death, ‘And I can’t believe he’s gone. It hasn’t sunk in yet.’ While Panagaris would ultimately lose out on the chance to perform with Michael Jackson on what was set to be an historical series of shows the young musician was soon offered the chance to become a touring guitarist for another icon, Alice Cooper.

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