Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)
Part II. THRILLER
OVER THE YEARS, MICHAEL WOULD TELL A couple of versions of the story about the girl who inspired his greatest song, but in a sense the particulars don’t matter. Originally titled “Not My Lover,” the lyric encapsulated years of fear of women, from girls tearing at his clothes when he was a kid, to his brothers having raw sex with groupies, to his being aggressively pursued by women throughout his young adulthood. The theme of the devouring, man-eating woman is as old in American song as the blues, as essential to rock as the electric guitar, and lives on with misogynistic gusto in hip-hop’s DNA. Men with too easy access to sex often become satyrs who revile the women they bed even as they feast on the bounty. Michael, unlike his brothers, never indulged, but good Virgo that he was, he observed and remembered it all.
By 1982 Michael had gone out with Tatum O’Neal and Brooke Shields and counted Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, and other show biz divas as confidantes. Whatever he’d already personally experienced with women, whatever he’d been advised by the older women in his life, “Billie Jean” suggested that his understanding of the opposite sex was very much a work in progress. And maybe that’s one reason it works: In defining “Billie Jean,” he actually revealed his own insecurity and wariness of sex, opposite and otherwise.
“Billie Jean” is one of those rare recordings whose greatness is apparent the first time you hear it, and as with so many things Michael Jackson, it starts with the rhythm. The pelvic thrusting, the sharp angular lines of Jackson’s body, and that black fedora held tightly on his head all flow from that profound introductory beat, which has been emulated, referenced, and plain old stolen on countless pop songs since 1983.
The song’s rock solid, yet sweetly shuffling beat is the consummation of marrying technology to a studio-skilled drummer. The basic rhythm was recorded by Michael on a drum machine at his home in Encino, and that drum machine beat remained the core of the record for most of the Thriller sessions until, in the hectic final weeks of finishing the record, Jackson and Quincy rethought the “Billie Jean” beat.
Top session drummer Ndugu Chancler was called in to the Westwood studio to enhance that rhythm. “I was placed in a room by myself, so there was no leakage,” Chancler told me in 1984. “Both Quincy and Michael came in to suggest things for the two or three hours it took to cut the track. I played it through about eight to ten times.” This combination of drum machine and Chancler, playing a nine-piece jacaranda wood drum set, was merged by engineer Bruce Swedien.
At the prodding of Jones, who asserted that “this piece of music has to have the most unique sonic personality of anything that we have ever recorded,” Swedien brought in a special kick drum cover made with a slot in the front where a mic could be slipped in and then zipped up tight against the drum skin. Swedien had fellow engineer George Massenburg, who was responsible for the incredibly crisp drum sounds on Earth, Wind and Fire’s records, bring over a portable twelve-channel mixing console just to capture the rhythm section, isolating those sounds from the rest of the track.
Hand in hand with that drumbeat is the song’s vibrant bass line. “Michael was very specific about how he wanted the bass line to sound,” recalled bassist Louis Johnson. “He had me bring all my guitars to see how they sounded playing the part. I tried three or four basses before we settled on the Yamaha. It’s really live with a lot of power and guts. If you’d have heard me on a different bass on ‘Billie Jean,’ you’d have said, ‘Use the Yamaha.’ On the basic riff I overdubbed three parts to strengthen its power.” Later, keyboardist Greg Phillinganes would overdub and deepen the bass line on “Billie Jean” (and most other tracks on Thriller).
Veteran Jerry Hey arranged the strings that heightened the record’s tension. “If you listen to the strings only, you’ll swear you’re in Carnegie Hall,” claimed engineer Swedien. “It has a very natural stereo spread. The recording of it is as legitimate and straight forward as a classical recording.”
The balance of Michael’s urgent lead vocal and his backing arrangements is the record’s emotional core. It could be argued that in later years Michael’s vocal embellishments were too often just that, embellishments, not details that heightened the lyric’s message and tightened the song’s groove. But on “Billie Jean” all his asides and flourishes are so well placed that they sound like wordless pleas for help, conveying exasperation and discomfort, fear and frustration. Yet they are always in the song’s pocket, driving the track into the realm of pop anthem even while exorcising a very personal demon. Part of the magic of the supporting harmonies is that many of them were sung through a mail tube, adding a sense of distance. But that passionate lead vocal was recorded in one hot-blooded take.
Quincy was very proud to later tell reporters about having had saxophonist Tom Scott come in late in the production process to “sweeten” the track with a Lyricon, a high-pitched wind instrument. “It was Quincy’s idea to weave this little thread into the thing,” Swedien said. “It was a last-minute overdub thing. Quincy calls it ‘ear candy.’ You’re not conscious of it. It’s just a subliminal element that works.”
I have listened to “Billie Jean” a zillion times and have never heard Scott’s playing, but then that is the point. The attention to detail, too small to be heard but nevertheless quietly felt, is just one of the many reasons that this recording was a true work of pop art even before Michael moonwalked.