Everyone knows these iconic tracks, but do you know the real stories behind them? Crib up on The King Of Pop with the essential facts behind his 35 biggest hits.
‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’. It didn’t always have that Quincy Jones sheen – Jackson demo’d it with then-12-year-old sister Janet playing the glass bottles.
‘Billie Jean’ Producer Quincy Jones was flummoxed that Jackson – who hadn’t had many relationships – could write this song, but also spilled a few beans: “I’d go to his house and there were always 30 girls outside all the time… One day there was one lying out by the pool, nobody knew who she was. I think she was the inspiration for ‘Billie Jean’.”
‘Got To Be There’ Jackson’s first solo single prompted Roger St Pierre to ask, in these very ‘pages’, “Is Michael Jackson an example of schmaltzy show business gimmickry at its worst, or is he really a stupendous if precocious new talent?” St Pierre stayed on the fence but the single went top 5 in both the States and the UK, and Jackson did OK.
‘Bad’ “‘Bad is Good!'” went Epic’s, um, inspired posters for Jackson’s comeback campaign in 1987. The song was conceived as a duet with Prince – who was in the process of nicking Jackson’s R&B crown – and there was a meeting in December 1986. All it served to do was chivvy Jackson into finishing his album to put his rival in his place.
‘Earth Song’ “Disgusting and cowardly,” is how Jackson described Jarvis Cocker’s unscheduled cameo during the 1996 Brit Awards performance of ‘Earth Song’. Looked rather audacious from here. Anyway, even in all this exalted company, ‘Earth Song’ remains Michael Jackson’s biggest selling single in the UK.
‘Rock With You’ ‘Off The Wall”s second single was one of three tracks – alongside the title track and ‘Burn This Disco Out’ – put forward for the album by songwriter Rod Temperton, a native of Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire and member of funk band Heatwave. He’d go on to write ‘Thriller’.
‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin” An integral element of the ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin” sound is the ‘bathroom stomp board’, a four foot by three foot piece of plywood that Jackson played in the middle of the song. Might be time to go and have another listen.
‘One Day In Your Life’Chipping every bit of material from the Jackson vaults is nothing new. In 1981 a heap of mid-70s recordings were released to (what’s the word?) capitalise on ‘Off The Wall”s success, and this sweet ballad even made No.1 over here, unseating another Motown legend, Smokey Robinson.
‘Black Or White’ Jackson’s electric first single from ‘Dangerous’ received a regal welcome. Any TV outlets that wanted to premiere the video had to pledge to call him ‘The King of Pop’, and MTV’s on-air staff were even sent a memo telling them to refer to him by this title at least twice a week. The horse-trading paid off, with around half a billion people watching the video’s unveiling.
‘Man In The Mirror’ In May 1988, Guns ‘N Roses’ Axl Rose said ‘Man In The Mirror’ was his favourite song of the moment. For everyone else it was a slow-burner – when Jackson died in 2009, it was ‘Man In The Mirror’ that became the big commemorative hit, going all the way to No.2 in the UK charts.
‘Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)’ ‘Shake Your Body’ represents the flowering of The Jacksons’ talents and the first signs of a grown-up Michael. They’d broken free of Motown in 1975 and took creative control for 1978’s ‘Destiny’ album. See this track as the prototype for ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’.
‘Thriller’ “I’ve known Vincent [Price] ever since I was 11 years old,” Jackson told Smash Hits, laying bare the difference between his childhood and yours. “I thought he was the perfect voice.” Price’s hammy turn is half the story; the rest is a 14-minute video with a $500,000+ budget that changed music telly forever.
‘You Are Not Alone’ Jackson’s fifth solo UK No.1 was also notable for a video featuring then-wife Lisa Marie Presley starkers. “I’d just come back from Hawaii,” she revealed a decade later. “And then suddenly, like, ‘Oh by the way, you’re going to be naked.’ There was always an element of manipulation.”
‘The Way You Make Me Feel’This 1987 single was all about Jackson as loverman, and he had such a profound effect on Tatiana Thumbtzen, the woman he woos in the video (and on stage during the Bad tour), that she wrote a book off the back of it. In it we find out that their stage smooch was Jackson’s first public kiss.
‘I Want You Back’ The one that catapulted the Jackson 5 to stardom, with the 11-year-old Michael regretting ending a relationship so soon. All right then. The song was originally on the radar of both Gladys Knight and Diana Ross, who each have a claim to introducing the brothers to Motown.
‘ABC’ Another ecstatic early single written by The Corporation, who comprised Motown top man Berry Gordy, Deke Richards, jazz producer Fonce Mizell and orchestral arranger Freddie Perren, who would end up working with Jackson 5 clones New Edition (featuring a young Bobby Brown) in the 1980s.
‘Remember The Time’ Quincy Jones was out of the frame by the time 1991’s ‘Dangerous’ came around, and it was producer of the moment (well, that moment anyway) Teddy Riley who brought swingbeat to the Jacko sound. The story was the song was about Debbie Rowe, the nurse Jackson married in 1996, but who knows what the blazes was going on there?
‘The Girl Is Mine’ Paul McCartney brings a classic smattering of Macca cheese to what at the time seemed an almost inconceivable coupling of two of the biggest stars in the world. “Michael, we’re not going to fight about this, OK?” McCartney promises, shortly before Jackson outbid him for the publishing rights to The Beatles’ catalogue and everything went a bit sour.
‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ Siedah Garrett, who sings uncredited joint lead on this first single from ‘Bad’ and co-wrote ‘Man In The Mirror’, ended up replacing N’Dea Davenport in Acid Jazz funkateers Brand New Heavies, which just goes to show there are second lives in this game and still no one knows who you are.
‘Scream’ A duet with wee sis Janet, ‘Scream’ heralded the ‘HIStory’ greatest hits album (also promoted by that massive statue floating down the Thames) and kicks out against press intrusion. You’ve got to think that launching giant statues of yourself down famous waterways is exactly the sort of thing that’s going to excite the interest of the papers. Schoolboy error.
‘Dirty Diana’ Extraordinarily, Jackson had to fend off speculation that this ‘Bad’ track was about Diana Ross or even the Princess of Wales, both close, personal friends of the singer. The truth seems rather more prosaic – it’s a tale of a cloying groupie, in the mould of ‘Billie Jean’ (also not about Billie Holiday or something).
‘Stranger In Moscow’ Rod Temperton has said he thinks this is Jackson’s best song – quite the accolade from the writer of ‘Off The Wall’, ‘Thriller’ and ‘Rock With You’, and probably quite wrong. Even so, as an anthem to paranoia (actually written in Moscow while Jackson was on the road) it chimed creepily with the increasingly beleaguered singer’s public profile at the time.
‘Beat It’ The rock move that established Jackson as crossover artiste par excellence, at a point when it was still necessary to effect the switch. When he was asked why he turned to Van Halen’s Eddie Van Halen to provide the riff, Jackson said, “Eddie was a great choice, because he’s brilliant,” which is the kind of logic you can’t refute.
‘Smooth Criminal’ Now, did you know that “Annie, are you OK?” is a phrase used in CPR course techniques to address the dummy you’re about to resuscitate? Jackson obviously paid attention. Later covered by Alien Ant Farm, of course, to heinous or wonderful effect, depending on your perspective.
‘Off The Wall’ The title track from Jackson’s astonishing quantum leap album bears an extraordinary resemblance to Heatwave’s 1977 disco classic ‘Boogie Nights’ – which becomes a little more ordinary when you realise Rod Temperton wrote both. That’s Louis ‘Thunder-Thumbs’ Johnson slapping the bass.
‘Leave Me Alone’ Like ‘Scream’, ‘Leave Me Alone’ is another track pointedly attacking the press for picking over every detail of ‘Wacko Jacko”s life and making a few up to boot. The video sends up both Jackson and us lazy journalists; a rare occasion of an album bonus track becoming a single after the fact. Well, he’d released everything else off ‘Bad’.
‘Heal The World’ This rather more understated ‘Earth Song’ prototype gave its name to a Jackson-led foundation for the protection of children – which took on a grim irony when accusations against the singer began to emerge. The song itself is a near-facsimile of USA For Africa’s ‘We Are The World’, but that’s OK because Jackson co-wrote that one with Lionel Richie.
‘Love Never Felt So Good’ A track that makes the exhumed odds and sods 2014 album ‘XSCAPE’ seem almost worthwhile. Co-written with Paul Anka – the chap who penned ‘My Way’ – it actually turned up on a Johnny Mathis album in the mid-80s, while Jackson’s version began as a stripped-back doo-wop number. Now it’s got Justin Timberlake warbling all over it.
‘Show You The Way To Go’ Amazingly, The Jacksons’/Jackson 5’s only UK No.1 single, and even then the definitive version was Dannii Minogue’s. Probably. At this point (1977) they were under the aegis of legendary songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, easing the band’s transition to proper autonomous artists, post-Motown.
‘Blame It On The Boogie’ “I’ve heard the other [Mick Jackson’s] version and it’s OK,” said Jackson in 1978, “but it just hasn’t got the groove like ours has. He only put out his version when he’d heard ours, which wasn’t a very nice thing to do because the record company had promised us that wouldn’t happen.” Seems a bit unfair, seeing as Mick wrote the thing.
‘Say Say Say’ Jacko and Macca’s second duet, a year on from ‘The Girl Is Mine’, peaked at a lowly 10 here before dropping down the chart. That was before Noel Edmonds’ Late Late Breakfast Show screened the lengthy, mini-movie video, hoiking the single up into the top 3. Jackson always knew how to harness the power of visuals.
‘She’s Out Of My Life’ One of Jackson’s own favourites from ‘Off The Wall’. “Every time I had to sing it, I broke out in tears almost!” He revealed in 1979. “It’s such a pretty song and Quincy really captured it.”
‘Can You Feel It?’ While clearly an awesome funk-pop shot of ecstasy in its own right (“‘Can You Feel It?’,” asked Jackson in 1981, “Now what’s that about if it isn’t about love?”), ‘Can You Feel It?’ is seared into the global psyche through its technicolour, mind-altering video effects from early CGI agency Robert Abel and Associates.
‘Who’s Lovin’ You’ From Jackson 5 debut album ‘Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5’, ‘Who’s Lovin’ You’ is a Smokey Robinson song that’s been covered by legends all the way from The Temptations to, erm, Terence Trent D’Arby. As for Michael, according to Rolling Stone’s Arnold Brodsky back in the day, he filled the song with “delightful improvisations”.
‘Ben’ And how better to round it all off than with a song about a rat? The theme song to the 1972 horror film of the same name, it’s an incongruously tender track that scored a Golden Globe for the then-14-year-old Jackson and gave him his first solo US No.1. It could’ve all been so different – ‘Ben’ was originally offered to Donny Osmond.