If you’ve ever heard the below early demo of ‘Beat It’, you’ll know Michael Jackson’s extraordinary process of writing songs – by building each element of a track with his voice. Every note of every chord, harmony, melody, bass and even the rhythm through beat-boxing. The full harmonies will blow your mind:
Jackson couldn’t read or write music at all. Contrary to received wisdom, he could play instruments a bit – he’s credited as playing keyboard, synthesizer, guitar, drums and percussion on ‘HIStory’ – but none proficiently. He didn’t have any formal composition training, though one could say he was trained harder than any other performer by his father.
But just as Mozart could hear whole symphonies in his head, Jackson fully realised his songs before they were put down on paper. “The lyrics, the strings, the chords, everything comes at the moment like a gift that is put right into your head and that’s how I hear it,” said Jackson during the ‘Dangerous’ court case of 1994.
A top team of engineers and producers would work on the tracks that he brought into the studio but even they were wowed by his genius. Rob Hoffman, sound engineer, describes the process (h/t Rhythm Of The Tide):
“One morning MJ came in with a new song he had written overnight. We called in a guitar player, and Michael sang every note of every chord to him. “’Here’s the first chord, first note, second note, third note. Here’s the second chord first note, second note, third note’, etc etc. We then witnessed him giving the most heartfelt and profound vocal performance, live in the control room through an SM57,” says Hoffman.
“He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part. Steve Porcaro once told me he witnessed MJ doing that with the string section in the room. Had it all in his head, harmony and everything. Not just little eight bar loop ideas. He would actually sing the entire arrangement into a micro-cassette recorder complete with stops and fills.”
One of the most interesting and revealing interviews about the way Jackson crafted his work is the audio from the ‘Dangerous’ court case. Songwriter Crystal Cartier took him to court for plagiarism and during the trial Jackson was asked to describe his song-writing process. “I’ll just sing the bass part into the tape recorder,” he said between snips of sung melody, totally pitch perfect. “I’ll take that bass lick and put the chords of the melody over the bass lick and that’s what inspires the melody,” he explained, before beat-boxing in court.
On Billie Jean he says: “Listen, you’re hearing four basses on there, doing four different personalities, and that’s what gives it character, but it takes a lot of work.” At this point he had written a couple of hundred songs and said he’d usually be working on five songs at any one time. It’s well worth listening to the 10 minutes of the trial in the video above if you want to know more.
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Here’s another example of Jackson’s ability to beatbox to show how he created ‘Tabloid Junkie’. It’s from an interview with Diane Sawyer in 1995 (h/t MJ World) and you won’t believe the sound’s made by man not machine:
Of course, you don’t need to be formally trained in music to be a successful artist. Paul McCartney has sold over 100 million records without learning how to notate. There are loads of ways musicians have found inventive methods to write songs without being able to actually pen down the chords – or if they just fancied going off the traditional path. You’ve got John Lennon assembling 10 people with pencils used to loop different sonic elements for ‘Revolution 9’. Then there’s Radiohead ‘Idioteque’ with a backbone made from a snippet of a recording Jonny Greenwood gave Thom Yorke (Greenwood’s the only trained musician in the group). “There was this section of about 40 seconds long in the middle of it that was absolute genius, and I just cut that up and that was it,” explained Yorke. Other examples include OMD who created their own notation system early on and Jason Pierce, Spiritualized’s lead singer, who wrote all the orchestral parts for ‘Let It Come Down’ by singing them into a portable tape recorder. Ian McCulloch wrote ‘The Killing Moon’ by inverting the chords to David Bowie ‘Space Oddity’ and Goldie basically draws his tracks, using weird diagrams and squares and squiggles to write – watch this episode of Producers House, it’s amazing.
Jackson created some of the greatest pop anthems of all time. As anyone who’s tried to write a song will know, it’s pretty damn hard, even if you have some grasp of chords. That he managed so amazingly without only adds to the sense that what MJ had was a special, special gift.