An Artist in His Own Skin: How MJ Became the Thriller
Los Angeles, California (October 2011)
Two years after the death of Michael Jackson, the late singer’s personal physician, Conrad Murray, is in Court facing charges of involuntary manslaughter. The trial, currently in its fourth week, is fast becoming a media circus with camera crews recording every testimony and broadcasting every admission. Scandal has long followed the life of Michael Jackson. But, focusing on the scandal doesn’t interest me. I set about uncovering how Michael, through tireless dedication and perseverance, honed his inner instincts to shake away his child-star status to become the Thriller.
Encino, California (early 1981)
In his home studio, recording the follow-up album to his acclaimed breakthrough Off The Wall, Michael Jackson leans into the microphone, his left hand clutching the monitor headphones to his ear, his right hand pointing to the console as he instructs, “More kick and stuff in the ‘phones … I need … uh, more bottom and kick in the ‘phones”. Twenty-two year old Jackson wasn’t satisfied with the way the bass sounded, adamant that he couldn’t make any mistakes on his second solo album.
Yet by this point in his career Jackson was already hot property in the music business. He had enormous success with the Jackson 5 under his belt and only three years earlier Off The Wall received immense critical recognition. Rolling Stone praised Jackson’s newfound vocal and melodic maturity and likened his transition into a slick, sophisticated R&B musician to maestro Stevie Wonder. Melody Maker wrote that Jackson was “probably the best singer in the world in terms of style and technique.”
The album won Jackson a Grammy in 1980 for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance (for “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”). Rolling Stone felt that his breathless, dreamy stutter and daringly used falsetto made the track undeniably sexy. Michael Jackson cemented himself as a blindingly gifted vocalist among critics. To date, worldwide sales of Off The Wall exceed 20 million and the album went 7 times Multi-Platinum in the US. Yet despite its commercial success, Jackson was disappointed and felt he was yet to fully prove himself.
Ironically, Michael’s history with the Jackson 5 was partly to blame. Jackson achieved fame early, he was five years old when he began performing and by his ninth birthday, his father had signed him to Motown Records. As part of the Jackson 5, Michael had little involvement in the song-writing process. Although the child prodigy sang with genuine emotion the lyrics he sang were often not his own. Jackson eagerly wanted to understand the “anatomy” of music – he needed to know what made music “tick”, how it “worked”’. But what did understanding music’s anatomy mean for young Michael?
Jackson spent hours alone listening to the great composers or quietly watching on as masters worked. The sounds of Tchaikovsky became his night-time companion, while the daytime was spent closely observing Stevie Wonder recording Songs In The Key Of Life. The effect of Jackson’s obsession was profound, as he mastered his own method of creating music. He would beat-box rhythms into a tape recorder, layering percussion and melodies one over the other. Clips on the Internet show Jackson’s commitment to the song-writing process, tinkering with a sound until it was just right and he knew he was onto something special. When following his natural rhythms, Jackson wrote dazzlingly infectious music – Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough was penned after he hummed the tune in the kitchen.
Jackson worked on perfecting his dance steps too. He was inspired by the energy of James Brown and the grace of Fred Astaire, who in the twilight of his career referred to Jackson as “the most wonderful mover he had ever seen”. Jackson’s choreographed routines were only enhanced by his spontaneity — the internal rhythms he channelled to craft his songs helped make him a natural dancer.
Michael did not hesitate to look for guidance when he needed it. Quincy Jones, co-producer on Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad was a large contributor to Jackson’s success. In many respects, Jones was the father figure Jackson had longed for, however one man is often omitted from the Michael Jackson story. That man is Bruce Swedien — a mild-mannered, warm and friendly Scandinavian fellow with a round frame and bold moustache; Swedien had more than just an ear for sound. He had synaesthesia, a rare genetic condition that prompted him to recognise musical sounds as a flurry of colours in his brain. He knew when something was good because he would “see the right colours”. Naturally, Jackson loved working with him.
Swedien recently released a book entitled In The Studio With Michael Jackson. In it he elucidates how Jackson always recorded in complete darkness, dancing as he sang and then moving away from the microphone, only to return at the precise moment to utter the next note. In their time together, Swedien recalls that Jackson never once sang with sheets — lyrics were committed to memory and he had an uncanny ability of nailing vocals in one take.
The pair trusted one another. So, when Jackson asked for more bottom and kick to help make his track pop, Swedien went to work to give Michael exactly what he wanted. He devised a zippered enclosure to house the microphone connected to the bass drum. To make that distinctive throbbing all the more recognisable, Swedien elevated the drum kit precisely eight inches from the floor. A homemade plywood deck, sans varnish not because there wasn’t some lying around, but because Michael and Swedien realised that without any extra coating on the timber, the drum was dampened just the right amount. They added the bass guitar — that bass line — and what started as layers of percussion and melodies in Jackson’s head became the track that changed the course of music history.
Billie Jean paved the way for black artists on MTV and Michael Jackson the “artist” had finally emerged. Stating the numbers here is not my purpose — the unparalleled album sales that followed, the amount of television airtime, sold-out concerts, awards won and records broken — as much as these facts matter, Michael’s genuine feats came from a more pristine temperament.
In an unguarded interview he gave to Jet in the 1990s, Michael told then editor Robert E. Johnson:
Deep inside I feel that this world we live in is really a big, huge, monumental symphonic orchestra. I believe that in its primordial form all of creation is sound and that it’s not just random sound, that it’s music.
At his most comfortable when pushing the boundaries of creativity with his mind alive and spirits high, Michael Jackson found a way to make music feel like magic.