Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)

Part II. THRILLER

“THE GIRL IS MINE”

IT’S SOMETIMES OVERLOOKED THAT THE BEATLES’ musical foundation was black music, particularly mid- 1950s rock and roll (John Lennon) and early 1960s rhythm and blues (Paul McCartney). In January 1964, Introducing . . . the Beatles, the group’s first U.S. album, was originally issued on Chicago-based Vee-Jay Records, which was owned by a black couple, Vivian and James Bracken, and their cousin Calvin Carter. Before going out of business in 1965, the company recorded a variety of acts, from the white harmony group the Four Seasons to the rich, thick harmonies of the Dells to rocking blues innovator John Lee Hooker. The album Vee-Jay issued was half Lennon and McCartney originals and half covers of songs originally recorded by black singers, including the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout” and two songs cut by the female vocal trio the Shirelles (“Baby It’s You,” “Boys”).

The conventional wisdom is that Lennon was the rawer, more bluesy composer and McCartney the softer, more tuneful writer. Although the Beatles’ catalog actually paints a more complicated picture, McCartney’s now lengthy post-Beatles résumé is a lot closer to that of Holland-Dozier-Holland than to Muddy Waters’s. “Silly Love Songs,” McCartney’s whimsical 1976 statement of artistic purpose about the value of feel-good, sing-along songwriting, is a direct antecedent of “The Girl Is Mine” and several other collaborations the ex-Beatle made, not just with Jackson, but also with another black music giant, Stevie Wonder. Between 1979 and 1984, McCartney wrote, co-wrote, and/or performed “Girlfriend,” “Ebony and Ivory,” “Say Say Say,” and “The Girl Is Mine.” To suggest that these songs are not the artistic high points for any of the three men involved is being kind.

But before we get into the merits (or lack of same) for this quartet of tunes, let’s contemplate why they exist at all. During the Beatles years, McCartney collaborated primarily with Lennon, but less so as McCartney and the band splintered. After he left the Beatles, McCartney did a lot of music as a one-man band before starting Wings, which was primarily a vehicle for his songs. At one point he loosened up the reins in Wings and let other band members contribute, but that didn’t last. Basically, after Lennon, McCartney didn’t treat too many people as creative equals (except for his wife, Linda, whom he gave a lot more creative latitude than she deserved).

Yet ten years or so after the breakup of the Beatles, McCartney chose to collaborate with two black stars. The hookup with Wonder made perfect sense. After the Beatles broke up in 1971, Wonder became the dominant singer-songwriter in pop, with a string of landmark albums that sold millions, won Grammys, and spawned a slew of classic songs. Talking Book in 1972, Innervisions in 1973, Fullfillingness’ First Finale in 1974, and Songs in the Key of Life in 1976 are some of the greatest pop recordings ever made. There was also a long-running personal relationship between the two men. In 1974 Wonder participated in a jam session in Los Angeles with Lennon and McCartney, the only reported post-Beatles musical meeting of the estranged bandmates. That they were both there demonstrated the respect they held for Wonder.

As great as Wonder and McCartney can be, both men have a real sweet tooth when it comes to the syrupy, heavy-handed imagery and cutesy melodies (“You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Michelle”) from which “Ebony and Ivory” suffers. There is a nice contrast in the melody between minor keys in the opening verses and the majors of the hook, and, of course, a plea for racial harmony can’t be faulted. Yet there is something unforgivingly perky about the last section of the song that trivializes a serious subject. “Ebony and Ivory” was a massive hit at the time of its release in 1982, but the song hasn’t worn well.

Thankfully, Quincy’s taste for quality material was at work in the selection of McCartney’s “Girlfriend” for Off the Wall. In acting as an intermediary between the ex-Beatle and Michael, Quincy found a song with several clever melody lines that played to Michael’s natural boyishness, while also bringing out his soulful side in the song’s last section. “Girlfriend” is also a nice contrast to Wonder’s contribution to the album, “I Can’t Help It,” a song about being sucked into a passionate love affair. If “Girlfriend” is about a teen becoming a man, “I Can’t Help It” is about a young man encountering his first serious love, a nice bookend that adds dimension and complexity to Off the Wallas a listening experience.

After Off the Wall, McCartney and Michael finally met and bonded. They went on to collaborate on several songs, the most prominent of which were “Say Say Say,” written by McCartney and produced by George Martin, who had helmed all the Beatles’ classic recordings, and “The Girl Is Mine,” which Michael wrote and Quincy produced. In a sense both songs were sequels to “Ebony and Ivory” because they both paired one of the world’s biggest 1960s pop stars with a black star, whom the Beatle treated as an equal, an idea that was almost radical in the segregated world of pop. The video for “Say Say Say,” an elaborate production that depicted the two stars as carnival performers, and the lyric for “The Girl Is Mine,” with the two verbally wrestling over a girl, were explicit antiracist statements well worth making at the start of the Reagan era. “The Girl,” the first single off Thriller and released in October 1982, was a pop hit, but it was met with lots of grumbling by African Americans unimpressed by the song’s perceived advocacy of interracial dating and its apparent retreat from Off the Wall’s great dance music.

Ultimately, the most significant aspect of the collaborations between Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson had nothing to do with the music the two made together. Though Michael had been around Berry Gordy and other smart music businessmen for years, it was a casual conversation with McCartney that inspired Michael to investigate music publishing as a source of revenue, foreshadowing a business deal that would be the most important of Michael’s life.

A LITTLE BEATLES BACKSTORY is necessary here. In 1963, McCartney, Lennon, and their manager, Brian Epstein, sold their publishing rights to Northern Songs to avoid paying a huge percentage of their incomes in British taxes. They would continue to receive their songwriting royalties directly, but their publishing royalties (the other 50 percent) would be filtered through the tax shelter of Northern Songs.

This antitax strategy worked well for six years until famous businessman Lord Lew Grade mounted a takeover bid for Northern Songs, which succeeded in large part because McCartney and Lennon couldn’t agree on how to rebuff Grade’s efforts. On one level this was great for the Beatles because Grade’s aggressive campaign raised the stock’s worth to almost seven times its original value. On another level it irked these two incredibly successful men that they could not control all aspects of their classic catalog.

Michael entered the picture in 1985 when the Beatles’ publishing, by then part of the 4,000-plus songs in the ATV Music catalog, was put on the market. Of that number, only about 200 of the songs belonged to the Beatles. Apparently, McCartney was seeking to grab just the Beatles’ songs when Michael scooped up ATV for $47.5 million. Obviously, this shrewd and aggressive business move did little for Michael and McCartney’s relationship.

With the ATV catalog (which also included songs from Buddy Holly and Sly Stone) generating income from films, movies, and commercials, the songs became Michael’s financial backbone for the rest of his life. Beatles purists worried that Michael would license Beatles songs for cheesy TV ads (a fear that was borne out when “Revolution” was sold for use in a 1987 Nike commercial). But, overall, he was respectful of the music, and the music was good to him. In 1995, he got $95 million from Sony for half of his ATV holdings, and a few years before his death, the ATV songs were used as collateral to secure a $270 million loan from Bank of America. It’s a weird irony that Michael financed the lavish lifestyle of his last years, in large part, with revenues generated from songs created by R&B fans Lennon and McCartney.