Michael Jackson has died at the age of 50 in Los Angeles. Whatever the rumours, the whispers, the suggestions and some uncomfortable feelings at times, there was no doubt that the man wrote and performed some amazing songs, influenced and soundtracked a generation.
As an eleven year old, I remember knowing on my birthday in 1987 that what I was spending the £5 from my Grandad on was Jackson’s latest album, Bad. The title track had been a massive hit, and indeed almost every track on the album was a single, and a hit at that. It did not disappoint – and it still doesn’t.
It was announced that Jackson was going to be playing Wembley Stadium. The tickets were £17.50. The place held 72,000 and sold out within days (bear in mind that there was no internet then, which meant people had to queue in person or ‘phone; on the other hand, touts couldn’t flog them on ebay within minutes either). My parents, perhaps not unreasonably in retrospect, refused to shell out to pay for them, and I remember being bitterly jealous of those who got to go. But when Jackson arrived the following summer it seemed like the whole country was beside itself. That Christmas the two big films at the cinema were Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Moonwalker, the latter starring Michael Jackson. It was an odd mixture of music videos and a bizarre film in which he was a ‘benevolent gangster.’ It was odd, but fun at the time. His autobiography Moonwalk had also come out that year. He really was a big deal.
Thinking about Moonwalk, and the comments on Radio, TV and the Internet already, he’d had a hell of a career over forty years, and that’s leaving out the details of his private life. It started back in 1969 when after a couple of independent singles the Jackson 5, featuring an eleven year old Michael signed to Motown…
Jackson 5 – ‘I Want You Back’
His solo career started in parallel to the Jackson 5 in the early seventies and truly came into its’ own with the release of 1979’s Off The Wall album. Produced by Quincy Jones, who would produce his next two albums, it captured the disco zeitgeist, and the NME has frequently included it in its’ list of the 100 best albums ever made.
1982’s Thriller album is the best selling album off all time – and it continues to sell because it is, frankly, absolutely fantastic. Jackson has been credited with breaking the colour bar on MTV. The title track featured a voice over from none other than Horror legend Vincent Price performing a voice over, and was directed by John Landis. (Landis’ film An American Werewolf In London had made a big impact on Jackson.) Other hits from the album included Beat It, with a guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen, at a time when Van Halen were going stratospheric, and perhaps the album’s weakest point, a duet with Paul McCartney on ‘The Girl Is Mine.’ The following year, they collaborated on another song together ‘Say, Say, Say.’
Perhaps the best song on the Thriller album was this, and nothing to do with a well-known tennis player either:
Michael Jackson -‘Billie Jean.’
In 1987, Bad was released, spawning its’ many hits. Despite the lead-off single being ‘I just Can’t Stop Loving You’ which isn’t one of the album’s better tracks, the many hits kept coming. The video for the title track was directed by Martin Scorcese. ‘Man In The Mirror’ featured a montage of starving children which made for slightly uncomfortable viewing, but at least he gave the money to charity. UNLIKE A CERTAIN ENGLISH SLAPHEAD WHO USED A SONG ABOUT THE HOMELESS TO LAUNCH A VERY BIG ALBUM THE FOLLOWING YEAR, DIDN’T GIVE THE MONEY TO CHARITY AND THEN ANNOUNCED HE WAS VOTING CONSERVATIVE.
Umm, anyway, as an eleven year old, this was my favourite track on the album:
Michael Jackson -‘Dirty Diana.’
In 1991 he returned with Dangerous, and a string of collaborators in tow. Lead single ‘Black Or White’ the video for which can be seen here, included Macaulay Culkin, then the biggest child star in the world. Slash from Guns’n’ Roses played guitar, and KRS-1 rapped. The Jackson videos were an event, still: ‘Remember The Time’ starred Eddie Murphy, and Naomi Campbell appeared in the video for ‘In The Closet.’
Around this time, The Wire magazine, synonymous with left-field music had stuck Jackson on its’ cover.
. In the editorial that month, then editor Richard Cook stated: “if you also think that Michael Jackson is some addled freak making music for ten-year-olds, and not one of the creative masters of today’s black music, we’d like to suggest a different perspective.” The Wire included ‘Black Or White’ the following year in their list of Top 50 Rhythms of all time, commenting: ‘The facts about “Black Or White” are these: it’s discometal, a genre he more or less invented with “Beat It”, he’s singing for his life, to protect his honour, to declare his politics, it has a bass line like a funky needle-skip on a dust-covered record, and it’s affecting because it proves he knows how trapped he is – he’s as impassioned as he was on love songs ten years ago, but throws all the technique of passion, the little gasps and screams, at you as if they were easy and meaningless.’ Thriller also made The Wire’s list of The 100 Greatest Records ever made.
The nineties were a very up and down time for Michal Jackson. Though the records were continuing to sell, the rumours were getting louder about what he was like. In 1996, at the Brit Awards during a performance of ‘Earth Song’ Jarvis Cocker invaded the stage, fed up at what he felt was a completely over the top performance. ‘Earth Song’ had been the Christmas no.1 the previous year, one of many singles from the HIStory album.
For my money, ‘Scream’ beats it (no gag intended), not only as a video (Many of his videos were rumoured to cost into seven figures), but as a song, and features younger sister Janet, who was also making some pretty brilliant music of her own, and had been for a decade:
And that’s pretty much an understatement. Remember him for the music and the videos, for that we could see and hear, and share. It would have devastated me in 1988, but twenty-one years later, it’s still no little shock.