Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)
Part II. THRILLER
ON THE LIST OF PERFORMERS AT THE MICHAEL Jackson memorial at the Staples Arena, the most surprising name was that of John Mayer. Unlike Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, or Lionel Richie, who were Motown comrades, or Usher, who was profoundly influenced by Michael, Mayer was a white guitarist/singer who didn’t make his first recordings until the twenty-first century. He’d tried his hand at some soulful-sounding records and had recorded some blues standards, but he had no real direct connection to Michael. In fact, the two men had never met. But like every young person of his generation, Mayer had grown up with Michael’s music. To a great extent for a musician of Mayer’s age (he was born in 1977), a lot of his ideas about what a pop song was (and wasn’t) had come via Thriller.
The Jackson family reached out and asked Mayer to perform “Human Nature,” and he wrestled for two days with how to do the song. Finally, he decided not to sing (figuring he didn’t have the chops for that), but instead opted to play the melody on guitar. Mayer’s instrumental version of “Human Nature” was wistful and sweet, despite his tendency to make unflattering facial expressions while playing.
WHETHER INTENTIONAL OR NOT, the choice of Mayer to play “Human Nature” worked as a nod to the white pop craftsmen who had been central to the song’s creation. Mayer, a maker of mass appeal mainstream pop (“Your Body Is a Wonderland”), is one of the few twenty-first-century stars whose hits echo the heyday of LA studio perfectionism. Toto, a group of LA session aces turned pop band, were not just symbols of that style but also played a central musical role in the making of Thriller. Composed of guitarist Steve Lukather, keyboardist David Paich, bassist David Hungate, drummer Jeff Porcaro, and his brother Steve on keys, they all grew up in North Hollywood and most attended the same high school, where they began their careers as a band called Rural Still Life.
Well trained and very collaborative, the members of this crew built a rep around LA as session axmen able to please picky studio perfectionists such as Steely Dan’s demanding Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Their skill was apparent on Toto’s self-titled 1977 debut, which spawned the pop-rock hit “Hold the Line” and sold more than 1 million copies. For many critics, it also made them symbols of a slick, glib sound that disgusted the angry apostles of punk rock in New York, London, and elsewhere. Along with Journey, Chicago, and several other one-named white bread bands of the 1970s, rock critics seriously disliked Toto.
But in the cloistered world of LA pop, Toto was royalty with a nice appreciation for R&B. “Georgy Porgy,” a single on the first album featuring black singer Cheryl Lynn, received considerable play on black radio and led the strong-voiced vocalist to land a record deal. Toto’s 1982 album, Toto IV, contained the Grammy song of the year, “Rosanna,” and was named album of the year.
Just the year before, Quincy’s album The Dude had won that honor, so when he recruited members of Toto to play on Thriller, he was bringing in musicians who knew a great deal about making commercial records. They played a number of important roles on Thriller, with Steve Lukather in a particularly key role because he arranged and played most of the guitars on “Beat It.” Not surprising, considering Toto’s success, Quincy also asked the band to submit some songs.
The oft-told tale is that Paich put some songs on a cassette for Quincy, but they didn’t interest him. The tape kept playing in Quincy’s office, and at the end of the tape was a rough demo of a song from Steve Porcaro. Quincy has said the fragment contained the famous “Why, why, why” section. In the delicacy and jazzy feel of the melody, Quincy, as good a judge of a pop song as anybody in the 1980s, heard a vehicle for Michael and an element that was missing from the album.
Quincy pulled out of his Rolodex the number of lyricist John Bettis, a songwriter with a knack for penning graceful pop sentiments with a hint of sex. He worked on the Carpenters’ “Yesterday Once More.” He wrote the Pointer Sisters’ “Slow Hand” and Madonna’s first successful pop ballad, “Crazy for You.” Bettis, who also had a long list of TV and movie theme credits, was a craftsman who, in the course of two days, pulled together Porcaro’s melody with beguiling words contoured to Michael’s persona.
Appropriately, “Human Nature” engenders Michael’s quietest vocal on Thriller. He’s slightly breathy at the start and then softly urgent the rest of the way, building to the “Why, why, why” section that caps the performance. On the key line, “If this town is just an apple, let me take a bite,” Michael has just the right tone of boyish yearning. Around Michael’s voice Lukather arranged little murmuring guitar riffs to support the song’s ethereal mood.
In 1981 on The Man with the Horn, trumpet maestro Miles Davis, like Quincy one of the few bebop era figures relevant in the age of the synthesizer, covered “Human Nature.” It’s a tribute to Porcaro’s melody and the structure Bettis brought to it that this song beguiled the ears of Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, and Miles Davis. (It would also have a very active hip-hop life as a sample.) So Mayer’s decision to do an instrumental version at the tribute was quite apt. Though written by two Hollywood pros, not Michael, “Human Nature” is one of the most recognizable melodies associated with the singer and absolutely the best one on Thriller.