Released on January 2, 1983, ‘Billie Jean’ was the song that soundtracked Michael Jackson’s morphing from the cutesy child star of the Jackson 5 into a fully-fledged adult artist, in charge of his own destiny.
Sure, ‘Off The Wall’ had brilliantly bridged his musical transition from precocious boy-bander to spunky teenager (via the serious funk of ‘Don’t Stop ‘till You Get Enough’ and the adult broken-hearted angst of ‘She’s Out Of My Life’) but ‘Billie Jean’ suggested there was something much more grown up lurking inside of Jackson.=
This more mature tone had a lot to do with the subject matter Jackson was singing about. And while the darker side of fame would later become a lyrical theme, on ‘Billie Jean’ it was a shock to hear the previously care-free Jackson sound so broken and raw. This was a brand new Jackson.
Following a childhood spent in the spotlight and on tour, the track was inspired by a real life fan encounter that ended badly. Theresa Gonsalves was a Jackson obsessive who, one day, got too close. One day while Jackson was sunning himself by the pool, Gonsalves scaled the wall of the Jackson house and jumped down to where he was lounging. She confronted the singer with news that he was the father to one of her twins.
It was bizarre indeed and the sensitive Jackson was not only shaken but it inspired him to put pen to paper. Jackson sounded genuinely haunted and hunted on the record, his vocal performance displaying a mix of nervousness, paranoia and fear. According to legend, it took no more than one take for Jackson to lay down the vocal.
If the inspirational spark that powered his lyrics came relatively painlessly, the exact opposite could be said of the music. Laboured over for months, Jackson was determined to prove to producer Quincy Jones that ‘Billie Jean’ was up to the rest of ‘Thriller’’s standard. Initially at least, Jones felt the song fit in with the rest of the record. In fact he thought it was “too weak” to be one of the albums nine songs.
There were also arguments about the introduction of the track which Jones felt was too laboured. He said:
The intro to ‘Billie Jean’ was so long you could shave during it. I said we had to get to the melody sooner, but Michael said that was what made him want to dance, it was the song’s “jelly”. And when Michael Jackson says something makes him want to dance, you don’t argue, so he won.
Jackson’s perfectionist streak also reared its head on the rest of the musical track. He spent weeks recording the distinctive bass line after numerous attempts to record the guitar solo (played by David Williams) failed, Jones ended up using the version on the demo. The post-recording of the song was no better – the song was mixed 91 times by engineer Bruce Swedien before Jackson was satisfied.
But it was all worth it. The long intro allowed him to make full use of the “jelly”, showcasing his new “moonwalk” dance as he performed the track during a show stealing turn at the Motown 25 show (this performance also saw him debut his distinctive white glove). It was also something that propelled the track on to MTV’s playlist and in the process broke the music channel’s unwritten rule of “no black acts” on the the playlist.
The track was released on January 2nd and hit Number One in the UK and US. It won two Grammys and became Jackson’s trademark track. After his death, the song re-entered the charts. It remains a startling fusion of distinctive story-telling over an expertly crafted musical landscape, and still has the power to thrill after all these years.
Did You Know?
* The 7 digit code on the vinyl of the single was believed to Jackson’s home phone number. It wasn’t, but that didn’t stop hundreds of fans giving nuisance calls to an unsuspecting household.
* ‘Billie Jean’ had an ‘answer song’ – ‘Superstar’ by Lydia Murdock. Musically the track copied the drum pattern and the synth line of ‘Billie Jean’. Lyrically Murdock took on the role of spurned lover Billie Jean (the chorus went: “I’m Billie Jean/ I’m mad as hell).
* The song has been covered many times including Chris Cornell and Ian Brown.