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

Part II. THRILLER

“BEAT IT”

IN THE 1940S, CARL HOGAN WAS THE ORIGINAL guitarist in the Tympany Five, a driving, jukebox-rocking band led by Louis Jordan, one of the leading black pop stars of the World War II era. From 1938 to 1946, Jordan’s peak years, he enjoyed hits such as “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” “Caldonia,” and “Five Guys Named Moe.” “I made just as much money off white people as I did colored,” he reflected years later. “I could play a white joint this week and a colored next.”

Jordan was a broad-smiling, funny-as-hell saxophonist/ singer who fused scaled-back big horn arrangements, a smoking rhythm section that specialized in rabbit-quick shuffles, and delightful story songs into a string of hits that would be labeled rhythm and blues (in 1947 by Billboard columnist, and future record producer, Jerry Wexler) and rock and roll. Initially, people called Jordan’s music “jump blues,” a reflection of the music’s up-tempo energy and bluesy roots.

On “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman (They’ll Do It Every Time)” (in 1946) and other Jordan tracks, Hogan, using the still relatively new electric guitar, played intros, fills, and solos that simplified Charlie Christian’s jazz chops, while being a lot more playful in tone than the hard-core blues guitarist would have been at the time. Under the canny commercial guidance of Jordan and producer Milt Gabler, Hogan’s play created a link among an African American musical star, the electric guitar, and crossover appeal that would peak with Thriller some forty years later.

There’s another important connection between Jordan in the 1940s and Jackson in the 1980s, and it’s visual. Because Jordan was a dynamic performer, he, with the aid of Gabler, produced a series of “soundies,” aka music videos, that were screened on jukeboxes that could show short films and that were shown as shorts prior to feature films at theaters catering to black audiences. Jordan wasn’t a dancer, but he had remarkable charisma and vitality, which popped on the screen.

IT WAS JORDAN’S PRODUCER, Milt Gabler, who supervised the recording of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” in 1954, which employed a simplified “big beat” rhythm under an arrangement that otherwise echoed Jordan’s hits. Although Haley was a one-hit wonder, the idea of a Jordan feel driven by an electric bass, trap drums playing in 4/4 time, and, for energy and flavor, a loud electric guitar was picked up and refined by Jordan’s inheritor, Chuck Berry. Aside from Jordan’s obvious influence on Berry’s singing style and storytelling lyrics, Hogan was the most important influence on Berry’s own dynamic guitar picking.

With Hogan’s lithe style hovering in the distant background, Berry made a Negro playing a guitar like he was ringing a bell as much a part of rock and roll as a pair of blue suede shoes. Although Bo Diddley, Ike Turner, and T-Bone Walker were among the many other sepia-toned guitar heroes of the Eisenhower era, Berry led the way. He duck-walked into teenage hearts from 1955 to 1959, alongside Elvis, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other rock and roll wild men.

Then, in late 1959, Berry was prosecuted under the Mann Act and charged with statutory rape for traveling across state lines with a fourteen-year-old Spanish-speaking Apache girl. Reputedly, she was a prostitute, but Berry hired her as a hatcheck girl at his St. Louis nightclub. He subsequently fired her, and the young lady, bitter at her dismissal, went to the local police. Berry was arrested and, after two trials, sentenced to two years in a federal penitentiary in Indiana. In a harbinger of Jackson’s career, the sex scandal effectively ended Berry’s and left him with a bitterness that he still carries.

After his release in 1964, Berry performed relentlessly, never traveling with a band, always using local musicians (after all, everyone knew his songs), and demanding to be paid in cash before taking the stage. Aside from a 1972 novelty hit with the risqué “My Ding-a-Ling,” Berry never had another hit.

The culture (and the marketplace) had changed. The nomenclature had shifted from rock and roll to rock, from rhythm and blues to soul. Three-minute records had given way to three-minute guitar solos, mostly played by white British guitar players. Throughout most of the 1960s, young black men who rocked didn’t become stars (though old black blues men such as B. B. King and Muddy Waters did pick up white rock fans).

THE EXCEPTION THAT PROVED the rule was James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix (born Johnny Allen Hendrix). In 1965, he was a charismatic R&B backup guitarist playing clubs in Harlem behind soul belters Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett, his hair processed and wearing a tux. A year later he was living in London, having reinvented himself as a psychedelic rock star with two white side men and multicolored outfits, with an Afro soon to come. The showmanship that so enthralled, and intimidated, so many in the segregated rock world was Hendrix employing the tricks he’d learned playing on the chitlin’ circuit.

As a performer, Hendrix, like Jackson years later, placed the lessons of flamboyance he had learned in black show business in front of white audiences. That both were eccentric geniuses made these crossover moves seem less like calculations and more like projections of their rich fantasy lives. Hendrix dreamed of castles made of sand; Jackson imagined Hollywood noirs in which he was the blessed r edeemer.

Where Berry had been one of the major black faces of rock and roll, Hendrix was the only true black rock star of the 1960s (I’m not counting Sly Stone here, who was a pop star more than a rocker). For all the peace and love pronouncements, 1960s white rock culture existed in a world as musically segregated as the South its young people vilified. Fans knew the songs of Berry, mostly through covers by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Grateful Dead, and others, but black rockers save Hendrix got no love. And if he hadn’t moved to Europe (like so many other black artists before him), he might not have broken through in America.

After Hendrix’s drug-related accidental death in 1970 (the same year the Jackson 5 conquered the charts), rock radio, which had been a relatively free-form format, became codified as AOR (album-oriented rock), a tightly formatted approach to programming that certified certain tracks as classics (Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Hey Joe,” and “Foxy Lady” are among the songs that made the cut) and allowed in rock acts that played guitar-dominated music. The casual musical segregation of the 1960s was cemented by radio programmers and consultants in the 1970s. The idea that black bands didn’t play rock became a self-fulfilling prophecy because record labels were reluctant to sign black rockers. Truly freaky black rockers such as Funkadelic had to play funk as Parliament to make ends meet.

Prince, who made true rock guitar-based songs (along with several other styles), was flatly rejected by AOR during his first five albums. I interviewed the program director of New York’s rock powerhouse WNEW-FM in 1981, and he told me with no hesitation that he’d never play Prince on his station. Opening for the Rolling Stones at RFK Stadium in Philadelphia that same year, the singer-songwriter was cursed by fans and had beer bottles hurled in his direction. Despite his brilliance, Prince joined lesser-known acts, such as the integrated Mother’s Finest and Betty Davis, which couldn’t build a white rock constituency. If you heard a non-Hendrix black voice on rock radio in the 1980s, it was Rolling Stones backup singer Merry Clayton wailing away at the end of “Gimme Shelter.”

Black radio wasn’t any more open-minded. Radio stations might play Earth, Wind and Fire’s cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You into My Life,” with its tasteful guitar, but little else that smacked of rock. Ernie Isley, drummer and guitarist of the Isley Brothers, apparently had a special rock pass that allowed him to play Hendrix-inspired solos on records like “Who’s That Lady.” But the guitars were mixed so that the tone was rather thin and not as commanding as it sounded at the Isleys’ live show.

IT IS AGAINST THIS HISTORY of African Americans and rock guitar that Jackson and Quincy created “Beat It.” Apparently, Quincy was the instigator of the song, inspired by the Knack’s hokey 1979 hit, “My Sharona.” This is an odd reference point: The Knack was a one-album wonder roundly disliked by most rock critics, and the era abounded with countless other pop rock hits from which to draw.

But rock wasn’t exactly Quincy’s specialty; in his extensive body of work as a producer up to 1983, there’s nary a rock track in the bunch. Rock was definitely new terrain for the vet. But his commercial instinct that a well-executed rock record would open Thriller up to a wider, whiter pop audience was right on. Surprisingly, the demo of “Beat It,” released on the This Is It compilation, isn’t very rock oriented. There are no guitars or much else on the demo other than Michael’s vocal brilliance, as we hear him stacking harmonies for the backing vocals with his usual diligence.

The intro to “Beat It” is actually a little misleading. When the jarring Synclavier kicks it over a stiff-sounding drum machine beat, it sounds as if Jackson is about to reference the underground electro-funk sound coming out of New York. A great many people think Eddie Van Halen played guitar on the entire record. In truth, the fat, aggressive sound that gave “Beat It” its personality was played by Toto’s Steve Lukather and David Williams, with Lukather getting an arranging credit for his work on the track. Lukather, who’d played lead guitar on Toto’s hits and those of many other stars, could have easily played the lead on “Beat It” and done the job.

Despite his musicianship, Lukather wasn’t a badass, Jack Daniels-swilling, rock guitar god like Eddie Van Halen. It was Van Halen who gave hard-rock credibility to an artist who, for all his talent, was seen as a soft-spoken R&B/dance act, just the kind of performer rock radio was designed not to play. Though the magnificent music video for “Beat It” was certainly crucial, the record probably wouldn’t have meant as much when it was released if Van Halen hadn’t played the solo on it.

As a young music critic at Billboard, I reviewed Van Halen’s first headlining show in New York, a gig at the steamy rock venue the Palladium, on East 14th Street. Lead singer David Lee Roth, with his long, swinging hair, athletic body, and splits, was the visual center of the band and was crucial to its MTV appeal. But Eddie’s quicksilver fingers and inventive solos created sonic textures that were both fun and very personal. In an era when rock solos were at an indulgent peak, Eddie Van Halen’s work announced that there was a major new talent on the scene.

THE TALE OF EDDIE VAN HALEN’S involvement with “Beat It” starts with a funny tale of miscommunication from the era before cell phones. “The phone in my house wasn’t working too well,” the guitar legend told Musician magazine in 1984. “I could tell the person on the other end of the line couldn’t hear me. Quincy called and asked ‘Eddie?’ I say ‘Who’s this?’ He didn’t say anything ’cause he couldn’t hear me. So I hung up. He called back. Same thing—he couldn’t hear me. Third time he calls back, he goes ‘Eddie?’ And I said, ‘What the fuck you want you asshole?’ He says ‘This is Quincy. Quincy Jones.’ ‘Oh my God. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I get so many crank calls that I didn’t know.’”

Once that comic confusion was straightened out, Van Halen had his regular engineer, Donn Landee, pick up the tape of “Beat It” from Westlake and bring it over to his house. After a listen, Van Halen asked for some changes, primarily over which part of the track he’d solo. He spoke with Quincy, and the alterations were made. On the day he recorded his historic solo, Quincy and Jackson stood behind Eddie as he made two passes at a guitar part that has become an air guitar classic.

At the time Van Halen cut that solo, he wasn’t paid for it. “I didn’t care,” he told Musician magazine in 1984. “I did it as a favor. I didn’t want nothing. . . . Maybe Michael will give me dance lessons someday. . . . People don’t understand that. I was [a] complete fool, according to the rest of the band and our manager and everybody else.” Just as Michael was given rock cred by Eddie Van Halen, the performance on “Beat It” helped Van Halen become a bigger pop group, with the band’s single “Jump” making the black singles’ chart and receiving black radio play. “I’m obsessed with music,” Van Halen said, “and I get off on playing and I don’t care how much money someone makes off it. Put it this way: I was not used. I knew what I was doing. I don’t do anything unless I want to do it.”

Despite the success of “Beat It” for Jackson, the song did not open the floodgates for black rock. But I do believe the acceptance of “Beat It” in particular, and Thriller overall, made it easier for America to accept Prince, an androgynous cult figure, as a pop star. He had been making rock records way before the 1984 Purple Rain album (such as “Bambi,” from Prince in 1979, and “When You Were Mine,” from Dirty Mind in 1981). And each of Prince’s pre-Purple Rain albums (Dirty Mind, Controversy, 1999) sold more than 1 million copies and the supporting tour for each had hit larger venues. But Thriller showed Prince’s label (Warner Bros.), the retail community, and radio programmers the growing possibilities of a young black pop performer.

Of course, the movie Purple Rain worked for Prince in the same way videos did for Jackson, giving a modern visual dimension to his music. The funny thing about Prince, given his considerable charisma and good looks, was that pre- Purple Rain he’d never really made any great videos. Most of his clips had been multicamera re-creations of his live show, which Purple Rain was, too. It was definitely a reflection of Prince’s otherworldly confidence that, in an era of increasingly conceptual videos, his visual expressions were all about capturing his band and himself.

IN THE YEARS AFTER “BEAT IT” and “Purple Rain,” a number of R&B acts tried to use rock guitars as a route to larger sales (Shalamar’s “Dead Giveaway,” Cameo’s “Candy,” Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat”). The black group that was most successful in fusing rock with its musical approach came from well outside the mainstream. Run-D.M.C., the self-proclaimed king of rock, whether produced by Larry Smith and Russell Simmons or by Simmons with Rick Rubin, made rap rock records that were credible to both black street kids and suburban rock fans. And Run’s collaboration with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way” was the son of “Beat It” and just as culturally influential. Out of Run-D.M.C’s rap rock came Public Enemy’s wall of samples, eventually inspiring a whole rap rock genre of bands incendiary (Rage Against the Machine) and insipid (Limp Bizkit).

Yet aside from Prince and the Revolution, no actual black bands made the rock pantheon. The closest was Living Colour, the flagship band of the Black Rock Coalition, a collective of New York-based critics, activists, and musicians whose avowed mission was to reconnect black music to the rocking tradition that Berry and Hendrix represented. Backed with an endorsement from Mick Jagger (who produced the tracks “Glamour Boys” and “Which Way to America?” on its 1988 album, Vivid), Living Colour crashed the MTV color line with the anthemic “Cult of Personality.” To see Vernon Reid, a product of New York’s avant-garde jazz circles, shredding on his multicolored guitar in between videos by Madonna and Guns and Roses was truly exciting.

After the band opened for the Rolling Stones on a stadium tour and made two successful albums, the band’s third release, Stain, fell flat. That it contained a song called “Elvis Is Dead,” criticizing rock and roll’s great white father, may or may not have something to do with the album’s reception, but Living Colour never became the consistent commercial/ artist force I, along with many other early fans, had hoped.

ONE EXAMPLE OF THE enduring appeal of “Beat It” can be found in Fall Out Boy, a twenty-first-century pop-rock band. This staple on MTV when MTV actually focused on videos went from performing “Beat It” on stage to recording it and doing an elaborate video homage full of bejeweled gloves, red jackets, and Thriller-era visual signifiers.

After Prince, Run-D.M.C., and Living Colour, the act most affected by the song’s success was Michael Jackson himself. For the rest of his career, Michael would regularly record wannabe rock anthems, often in collaborations with other rock guitar gods (Slash of Guns and Roses played on “Dirty Diana”) or in duets (the contrived, terrible “State of Shock” with Mick Jagger; the vibrant, playful “Scream” with sister Janet). But none of his subsequent efforts were as vital or as important as “Beat It,” which remains the most important black rock record in the years since Jimi Hendrix’s death.