Five years ago, on a Thursday night at Glastonbury, I got a call from my editor at The Times, for whom I worked at the time. He informed me that he was in a taxi and the radio speaker had just imparted unconfirmed reports that Michael Jackson had suffered a fatal heart attack. It was 10.45pm and I'd had far too much "Spicey Cider". I didn't bother calling The Times. The first edition had already gone to press and everyone would be pulling together everything they had to run a substantial story in the final edition. I sobered up immediately and legged it back to our caravan and started writing something, anything, because I knew that something, anything on Michael Jackson's death would be needed immediately. The following morning, I was awoken by another call from my editor's senior editor telling me that the following day's paper would come with a special pull-out tribute supplement, which would be going to press at various intervals throughout the day. I was to file a 1400 word musical overview of Michael Jackson's life and I had approximately 90 minutes to write it. For the first ten minutes, I sat in the caravan panicking. Then, to calm myself down and find a way to make the blank screen in front of me a bit less terrifying, I tried to get a wi-fi signal and managed to do so just long enough to watch some footage of The Jackson 5 doing I Want You Back. Next thing I knew, I had 1400 words. I have no memory of writing any of it. I've just read it back for the first time in five years. To my relief, I think I agree with most of it.
The footage is grainy old colour stock, replayed a million times on every programme ever made about Michael Jackson’s life. By rights, it should have lost its power to startle a long time ago. If anything though, it intensifies with the passing of time. Taken from a networked TV special called Goin’ Back To Indiana, it’s the Jackson 5 singing I Want You Back. For a second, resist your natural inclination to look at the Michael Jackson singing the lead vocal – and look at his brothers, executing dance moves with good natured precision. Remove Michael from the equation and what you have is a pop song – a great pop song, but no more remarkable than hundreds of other ubiquitous soul perennials from the era. But, of course, you can’t avert your gaze from the 12 year-old in the middle. When we hear Michael Jackson singing, “Oh baby give me one more chance,” we don’t make allowances for the fact that we’re listening to a child. For the first half of his life at least, Michael Jackson was the music – accessing emotions through melodies that he couldn’t possibly have experienced at first hand.
At times, his ability to do so could leave you laughing at the incongrous intensity of your own reaction. Rockin’ Robin and ABC were classic bubblegum from the Motown production line but listen to the It’s Christmas In Motown compilation album from 1972 and – among the usual seasonal fare – Jackson’s version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town seems to come from another place entirely, placed equidistantly between excitement and a fear of what Santa Claus might do when he finally gets there. We can only speculate about the things in Jackson’s background that made a young child funnel such complex emotions into music that often fell short of them. He spoke of gazing out the studio window longingly as other children played – bound over by his father to keep to the demands of a hectic release schedule. That he was unhappy with his arrangement was reflected in his first professional move as an adult. Having befriended Quincy Jones when the two worked on the soundtrack to The Wiz, Jackson saw in the feted producer a musical escape from the iron lung that his father and Motown head Berry Gordy had created for him.
The resulting album, 1979’s Off The Wall, was the first time the full extent of Jackson’s talents was showcased to the world. Without the benefit of foresight, the iconic gatefold sleeve image of Jackson in his suit and white socks (the white socks came at his insistence) suggested that whatever travails he had experienced in his childhood, he had fossilized them into a single source of artistic fuel. Better still, he appeared to have found, in Jones, a father figure better able to utilize his abilities than Joe Jackson or Berry Gordy. Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough and Rock With You were dramatic updates of the Jackson that America thought it knew. Consciously or otherwise, Rock With You and Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough were songs about escape – using the dancefloor as their focus – delivered with a sense of relief that, thirty years on, sounds peculiarly moving. It was this sense of dormant possibilities waiting to be seized that Justin Timberlake seized upon when he used Off The Wall as the sonic template of his own solo career. This was the first time Jackson sounded carefree, like a man who – for the first time in his life – had control of both the horizonal and the vertical.
Twenty million sales were really the half of it. In the early 80s, you didn’t just listen to Michael Jackson. You wanted to be like him. The three years that elapsed between Off The Wall and his next move saw his stock raised further. Despite his elevated status, he and Jones continued to take risks. The first preview of material from Thriller – a TV premiere of the video to Billie Jean – ratcheted expectations even higher. Now, his dancing and his singing (complete with the gulps and grunts that would in time reduce him to self-parody) merged to create an arresting synergy. In the studio, Jones and Jackson had argued about the intro to the song – the producer insisting that the build-up prior to the vocal would stop radio stations from playing the song. Jackson argued that it was the intro that helped make the song. As Jones conceded many years later, Jackson was absolutely right. A further stroke of genius was the lyric of the song itself. A hint of paternity dispute (the song was actually about an obsessive fan) seemed to lay to waste any last vestige of Jackson the child star.
Thriller was aspirational. If Michael hadn’t seduced a girl in his life, it didn’t detract from the sentiment of say The Lady In My Life or Human Nature because neither – in all probability – had most of the people who dropped the needle on them whilst getting ready to go out on a Friday night. You suspect that if a 21st century teenager listened to Thriller’s soppier moments, they would probably be tickled by the quaintness of their sentiments. Ditto Paul McCartney and Jackson as two stags locking antlers on The Girl Is Mine. All these years later, the concluding superstar trade-off – Macca: “She told me that I’m her forever lover, you know” – seems to have accrued a whiff of camp about it.
That Jackson wrote that and the other two best songs on Thriller – Beat It and Wanna Be Starting Something – also sealed his status as a young pop god. It wasn’t just that those songs were good. There’s an otherness about them that remains intact to this day: the faux-voodoo chant seemingly designed to scare away the bullies described in the latter song; and, on Beat It, the brittle, brutal production which Quincy Jones apparently half-inched from The Knack’s My Sharona. Further proof that genius steals comes with a title track whose blinding synth intro was grafted on after Jones heard the freshly-minted 1999 by the then-unknown Prince. Everything that Jackson did seemed unpredictable and, as a result, exciting. The 14 minute video to Thriller retailed for a whopping £20 – but that still didn’t stop it becoming one of the best-selling music videos of all time – in the process pushing sales of the album itself to a world-record 53 million.
With the benefit of hindsight, its easy to see how the arc of Jackson’s life – away from childhood and back into it again reached its outermost point with Thriller. The boy who would wake up to see his father standing at the foot of his bed with a knife, because he wanted to “toughen” him up, was beginning to rear his head, proclaiming his toughness at every point. The title track of 1987’s Bad stretched credulity. Even before years reconstructive surgery conferred several layers of irony upon it, Man In The Mirror was a platitudinous self-help dirge that played to absolutely none of Jackson’s strengths. Elsewhere though several other songs on Bad represented a final rallying of Jackson’s songwriting abilities. Smooth Criminal was a taut uptight panic attack set to a sublime industrial-grade funk.
By the time he began to refer to himself as the King of Pop, there was little empirical contemporary evidence to back up the claims. As a child, Jackson had been able to take relatively lacklustre material and use his voice to inject it with heartrending urgency. On his final three albums, Dangerous, HIStory and Invincible, his increasingly self-parodic hics and grunts were spoiling perfectly good songs such as Blood On The Dancefloor and Scream. It’s only in these years that we’ve begun to piece together the dichotomy that informs everything we knew about Michael Jackson. As a child, his anguished world-weary tones were anything but childlike. But in the final years of his creative life, his obsession with the innocence of childhood conferred an increasing eeriness upon his music. For a while though, as the 70s turned into the 80s, and he believed himself strong enough to overcome his demons, he was the quintessential pop star.