Thursday, September 6, 2012

FULL ARTICLE: Rolling Stone Australia (Issue 731) October 2012

Michael Jackson: The Rise Before The Fall

In 1986, Michael Jackson presented his then manager Frank Dileo and accountant John Branca with a mission statement telling the two men that he desired for his "whole career to be the greatest show on earth". To help guide these members of the Jackson inner circle toward this destination, he handed the pair an autobiography of PT. Barnum, a book the performer had read numerous times. Born in 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut, Barnum was the Godfather of the public spectacle writ large. He was both a scam artist and the originator of The Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus, a traveling spectacle on a scale sufficient to still draw thousands of people to New York's Madison Square Garden each April. Of his own ambition to be remembered as the ultimate show-business impresario, Barnum - a man known as "the prince of humbugs" - is quoted saying, "I am a showman by profession...and all the gilding will make nothing else of me."

"This [book] is my bible, and I want it to be yours," Jackson told Dileo & Branca.

Had Michael Jackson spoken these words prior to releasing his fifth solo album, 1979's Off The Wall, the logic of his desire would be as clear as the tone of his singing voice. A child star with the Jackson 5, over the course of four solo albums (the first of which Got To Be There, was recorded when Jackson was just 13) the performer had gradually been stearing himself away from the perception that his fame was rooted in his role as the cute kid in a family band ruled by a tyrannical and abusive father. This pursuit, though, had yielded only the pale and frail shoots of promise. His fourth solo album, 1975's Forever, Michael, had peaked at a mere 101 on the US Billboard Album Chart and had failed to register on a chart anywhere else in the world.

Off The Wall would change all that. Soaring in the slipstream of the number one single "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough", the album was a hit in the fullest sense of the term. Someone asked to guess the point in Jackson's career when he and his team engaged in a P.T. Barnum-inspired, image-changing think tank could be forgiven for assuming it was prior to the release of Off The Wall.

But even success would be eclipsed by the shadow of it's successor, 1982's Thriller. A perfect storm of an album, the nine-song set was launched into the stratosphere by the unquestionable brilliance of singles such as "Billie Jean", "Beat It" & "Thriller". The last was bolstered with an extended video clip created by Trading Places director John Landis - a clip Jackson's label Epic, initially resisted, believing the parent album to have run it's commercial course - not to mention production at the hands of Quincy Jones that even today lends the work of freshness and vitality.

The result was that the man whose face adorned the cover of Thriller became without question the world's most recognizable pop star. This in itself was a monumental achievement. For if the 1970s were the decade that saw the rise of the rock group (with acts such as Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac & Pink Floyd filling stadia in the US, Europe & beyond), the 80s were a period that belonged to the solo superstar, with songwriters such as Billy Joel & Steve Winwood rising to international prominence in a heavily stylised fashion. The decade also saw the emergence of performers who understood that the stage they aspire to dominate was no longer merely a place of song. Artists such as Madonna and Prince were savvy to the emergence of the cult of the celebrity, of multimedia presentation, and a required sense of both omnipotence and mystique.

Compared to Michael Jackson, however, the 1980s were a period when even Madonna dined below the salt. As if to support this notion, in 1985 Jackson co-wrote "We Are The Wold" with Lionel Ritchie, a single released to raise funds to combat famine in Ethiopia, and which featured contributions from among others, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross, Willie Nelson and Cyndi Lauper. Prior to the recording of the single that would out its initial print run of 800,000 copies in just three days, producer Quincy Jones placed a call to Jackson and Richie saying, "My dear brothers, we have 46 stars coming in six weeks and we need a damn song."

The truth was that Michael Jackson required more than just one "damn song". He needed to compile an album's worth of new material. Unlike today, the 80s were not a period that saw artists take 3,4 or 5 years between LPs. A cultural colossus he may have been, but as the middle of the decade nudged toward the top of the hour, the artist was wanting for the one thing that had provided him with the blocks on which to build his enormous public profile: music. What's more, as with time, music critics and cultural commentators wait for no man. As the US magazine Spine noted in 1985, "[Jackson was] facing the most powerful backlash in the history of popular music".

The situation was this. Michael Jackson was the biggest star in the world. He had put his name to the best-selling album in history, a record that even at the time had sold 38.5 million copies, 30 years after its release would reside in the homes of an astounding 110 million people. But the time had arrived for the world to discover what Jackson had in mind for an encore.

Steve Stevens was in bed at home in Manhattan when the phone rang. By his own admission the guitarist had enjoyed "a late night" and was enjoying a late sleep just as much. Known as the wingman for Billy Idol - another solo superstar at the time - as well as one of the finest players of the era, the Brooklyn-born musician answered the phone, and a voice fogged with the bass of broken sleep, spoke into the receiver. The man on the other end of the line announced himself as Quincy Jones. In response to this, Stevens "proceeded to hang up" assuming "that someone was fucking with [him]". Moments later, the caller rang back, informing his listener that were the line to go dead a second time it would not ring a third.

Jones, the producer of Off The Wall & Thriller, was in the market for a lead guitarist to play on a song titled "Dirty Diana", a track on Jackson's forthcoming album, Bad. The producer was friends with Ted Templeman, the man who had not only manned the controls for Van Halen's body of work (in fact Eddie Van Halen himself had supplied the sumptuously excessive guitar solo featured on "Beat It"), but who was also Steven's A&R man at Warner Brothers. Jones was calling to invite Stevens to contribute his considerable talents to the most eagerly awaited album of the decade. Unsurprisingly, the guitarist agreed; surprisingly, though, his acquiescence came with a condition: Jackson's presence was required in the studio.

"I had done some session work in the past and I assumed that the artist would be in the studio," recalls the musician. "But it turns out that this isn't the case. It'd be me, the producer and the engineer. And I though, "Well, Im not cut out for that kind of thing. Im not into assembly line-type work'...[But then] I was told, 'Of course Michael will be in the studio, it's his fucking album!"

The scene that greeted Stevens upon his arrival at Westlake Studios in Los Angeles in April 1987 both surprised and delighted him. The guitarist admits to being "a little nervous" regarding the session, but these nerves were put at ease by the atmosphere in the room. For a man whose life was increasingly becoming shrouded in the smoke and mirrors of a deeply odd cult of personality, the sight that greeted the New York axeman could not have been more normal or convivial. The only people present were the artist, the producer and the engineer; the style of guitar solo was explained to the musician by Jackson himself, and after Stevens had laid down his track in adherence to these guidelines, he was then invited to improvise his own take. The process of capturing lightning in a bottle took less than four hours. During this time, Jackson would quiz his guest on the subject of hard rock, with questions such as did Stevens know Motley Crue, and if so, what were they like?

"It couldnt have been nicer," recalls the guitarist. "It couldn't have been cooler. It was all about the music."

But if Stevens' memories of his time with Jackson are coloured by a working environment that was both enjoyable and efficient, at other times the making of Bad was a more complicated process. Pre-production work on the album began in 1985, two years before the finished item was finally released. During this period, there was many a slip between cup and lip. Jackson had intended that his seventh studio release would feature collaborations with such artists as Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Barbara Streisand and Run DMC, none of whose voices made it on the album. The time between Thriller and Bad had also seen the emergence of another African-American sensation, Prince. Jackson viewed the Minneapolis-born artist's 1984 album Purple Rain as being Bad's main competitor, and desired his forthcoming work to be edgier and darker than Thriller. Plans were even laid for Prince to appear on the record's title track, and for a video to feature a competitive showdown between the two artists. Prince declined this offer feeling that the denouement of the clip would cast him as the inferior performer.

"As Jackson planned it," wrote J.Randy Taraborrelli in his biography Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, "he and Prince would square off against one another [in the video] taking turns vocalising and dancing, in order to determine once and for all who was 'Bad'."

Along with the numerous planned and aborted collaborations, the relationship between Quincy Jones and Jackson also came under strain. Jones was credited as sole producer on both Off The Wall and Thriller, while for Bad this role was shared with Jackson himself. The performer also had insanely high expectations for his forthcoming release. He taped a note on to a mirror that read simply "100 million", this being the sales figure he wanted the new album to attain. The proposed tally was more than twice that achieved by Thriller. As the ground was prepared for the release of Bad, Rolling Stone reported that Jackson had compiled no few than 66 songs and planned to release 33 of these tracks in the form of a triple album, an idea nixed by Jones. That said, the 11 tracks that comprise Bad were subjected to an obsessive attention to detail. In pursuit of creating sounds that, according to Jackson, "the ear hadn't heard", the album's 48 mins and 16 seconds were layered with 800 multi-track overdubs. To say the least, the LPs birth was not without its complications.

"There was much stress," recalls session guitarist David Williams, who played on the album, as quoted in Joseph Vogel's Man In The Music, the Creative Life and Work Of Michael Jackson. "I was doing the exact same part at least five times on each song."

As reported in the same book, Jackson himself admitted that "[Quincy and I] disagreed on some things. There was a lot of tension because we felt we were competing with ourselves. It's very hard to create something when you feel like you're in competition with yourself."

Creativity, though, finds its release from energies both positive and negative. In the case of Bad, these energies were not wasted and in fact could be heard on every note of every track. Clearly this was a creation worth the candle. A sophisticated and seamless mixture of modern rhythm and blues, pop, dance and rock, Jackson, Jones and a cast of no fewer than 21 musicians and studio technicians had created a set that catered to the tastes of mainstream America with an uncommonly high regard for artistic detail and which featured numerous creative peaks. Once such peak was the blockbusting hit single "The Way You Make Me Feel", the beat of which was actually suggested to Jackson by his mother, and which keyboardist Greg Phillinganes recalls with fondness saying, "I remember how much fun I had laying down those off-beat parts...and watching the expression on Michael's face - he'd have that big grin that meant you had it." Elsewhere, Bad's unforgettable title track - the second single release from its parent album - showcased not only Jaxkson's musicality (the songs writing credit belongs soley to Jackson) but, as with the video for Thriller, the artist was once again able to prove to watching eyes that his sense of presentation was of sufficient dimension to grace even the largest canvas. In this case the splash came with a 17 min music video directed by Martin Scorsese, the finest filmmaker of his generation. The clip featured a largely unseen prelude which saw Jackson in a confrontation with Wesley Snipes. Film director Allen Hughes - who along with his brother Albert, has co-directed such pictures as From Hell and The Book of Eli - once told MTV News that Jackson's performance in the sequence was the work "of an incredible actor".

With the sessions for Bad finally wrapped and the set ready for release, Jackson described his state of mind to Ebony magazine as being one of "jubilation". The album met its public on the final day of August, 1987. Immediately, the LP became airborne in a manner that suggested it had been launched from Cape Canaveral. The 11 song creation entered the US Billboard Top 200 at number one, holding this position for 6 weeks while outselling every other LP in the Top 40 combined. In the UK, Bad sold half a million copies in its first five days of release, while elsewhere the set reached the summit of album charts in no few than 25 countries, including Canada, Japan & New Zealand. In Australia the LP missed the top spot by just one place.

In terms of the critical reception afforded the work, Rolling Stone writer Davitt Stigerson opined, "Even without a milestone recording like "Billie Jean", Bad is still a better record than Thriller." New York Times critic Jon Pareles described the set as "a gleaming, high-tech dance record thats just a little bit eccentric at the edges". Also on America's east coast, the notice published in The Washington Post, written by Richard Harrington, was of the opinion that Bad was "immaculately produced" and featured "some scintillating vocal performances from Jackson", before wisely adding, "Splashy though its prime-time introduction may be, the album begs to be judged by its music, not by its sales figures."

Today the release of Bad demands to be considered in the context of its time. The 80s was the period that saw the emergence of the cult of celebrity, with Michael Jackson both subject and progenitor. Given this, it is hardly surprising that many commentators lacked the wit, or humanity, to separate the art from the artist. One reviewer seethed that Michael Jackson image on the album's frontage featured "a face as plastic as the album it covers", pronouncing, "Wacko Jacko steps back into the limelight even more girlie than before." This kind of poison seeped into public consciousness rendering the artist a polarising presence. In a 1988 Rolling Stone poll, Jackson was voted "Worst Male Singer", while the CD on which he had most recently sung occupied the number one spot as "Worst Album".

It became less a case of the man in the mirror than the man in the media. as first hand contact with journalists grew increasingly rare, excluded publications and their gossip columnists filled this vacuum with bizarre speculations and often outright falsehoods. While a wild story was occasionally true - for example, Steve Stevens recalls Bubbles, the performers pet chimpanzee, being in attendance for the "Dirty Diana" video shoot - many reports were based on smoke without fire concocted by Jackson's inner circle. One story that appeared during this time was the "news" that Jackson spent his nights sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber capable of extending his life expectancy to 150 years. This was a piece of fiction concocted by Frank Dileo and leaked to the American tabloid National Enquirer. In no time, the allegation was common currency from Alaska to Adelaide. The subject of this nonsense was delighted by the story's shockwaves saying, "It's like I can tell the press anything about me and they'll buy it."

One man who over the years was afforded privileged access to Michael Jackson was music journalist Ian "Molly" Meldrum, who during the course of his long and notable career interviewed the American artist on no fewer than 11 occasions. As Meldrum himself says, "I watched his meteoric rise, and I watched him as he became bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger." Speaking to Rolling Stone for this feature, the man famous for his cowboy hat reports that "with [Jackson] becoming so big he was forced to change within himself. He was dealing with his shyness. And basically the interviews, through the Off The Wall album, then Thriller, and then Bad, were becoming more and more controlled [with the interviewer being required to submit questions in advance]. And that was very strange. It was like he had this glass wall around him. I can understand that though, because he was one of the biggest stars in the world."

Meldrum observes that by having his people exert this level of control, Jackson was able to give "the impression that...he was very fragile, which he probably wasn't".

This observation is not just perceptive but almost certainly correct. Jackson was adoring of what P.T. Barnum described as "glittering appearances". He believed this technique to be about "rhythm and timing", adding that the media and its wider audience are "waiting, theyre waiting". He believed these delays to be a crucial element in the creation of his public persona, saying, "If you remain mysterious, people will be more interested." Such was his belief in his own and his inner-circle's mastery of such manoeuvres that he allowed himself a rare moment of hubris when he stated,"We can actually control the press".

In the years to come, Jackson would learn in the hardest way the lesson that this assertion was entirely wrong.

The Bad World Tour hit the road on the 12th of September 1987 with its first public performance taking place at Tokyo's Korakuen Stadium, followed by two further nights at the 42,000 seat venue. Sponsored by Pepsi, the caravan would feature 123 concerts over two legs, would be witnessed by 4.4 million people and would gross $US125 million. At the time, the extravaganza would be recognised by the Guinness Book Of World Records as setting the standard for the tour seen by the largest number of people, as well as being the highest grossing excursion in musical history. The final song of the last show was performed at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena on January 27th 1989.

The tour reached Australia in November of 1987 and consisted of five concerts: one performance at Melbourne's Olympic Park Stadium, two nights at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre (where on one evening the headliner was joined onstage by Stevie Wonder), plus a pair of concerts at the Parramatta Stadium on the outskirts of Sydney. Despite Jackson being on album number seven, his appearance at the Olympic Park Stadium on the 13th of November was the first time the entertainer had moonwalked on Antipodean soil.

In 1987, Denis Handlin was the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director for CBS Records Australia, the parent company of Epic Records, the label to which Michael Jackson was contracted. Contacted by Rolling Stone for this feature, Handlin - whose current position is Australia, New Zealand and Asia's Chairman and CEO for Sony Music Entertainment - recalls the country being gripped by "an amazing buzz" as "Michael-mania hit town".

"[The] tour was simply incredible at all levels," he reports. "The show, the production, his dancing, the amazing music and of course, Michael Jackson himself, the brilliant performer...His focus was about the fans and producing the best concert experience for them. Behind the scenes, what we all saw was that Michael was a perfectionist. He would practice and rehearse over many hours, sometimes straight after a show [in order] to make sure the [next] concert was always going to be a great experience."

The Australian leg of the Bad World Tour was promoted by Kevin Jacobsen's company, Jacobsen Entertainment. Then the country's leading concert promoter. Jacobsen can justifiably claim to be the key component in bringing Jackson to the place those in the northern hemisphere though of as "the land down under". The entrepreneur traveled to LA to frame and finesse the details for the five concerts. Once the deal was finalised and announced to the Australia public, the concerts were sold out in less than three weeks. This timespan may not sound particularly impressive in the age of the Internet, but Jackson's tour took place back when people queued at venues for tickets, when credit cards were not the omnipotent force they are today, when tickets were also only available in selected outlets such as record shops, and when advertising opportunities were limited (for example, at the time, Australia had just one FM radio station).

As the tours promoter felt it was "[his] job" to see each of the five performances his efforts had facilitated. But if this was his job, it was one that did not feel like work. Now aged 75, the Sydney-born impresario remembers the shows as being "sensational". the work of an artist who "defined rock and roll music, beautiful music". The listener can still hear the wonder in his voice as Jacobsen recalls the sheer scale of the production, how Jackson would "suddenly appear above the audience in the middle of the crowd".

"I promoted 3 of his Australia tours," he says (before rather touchingly using the present tense), "and I have no doubt Michael Jackson is one of the great performers of all time"

For his part, Jacobsen may not have moved heaven, but he did literally move earth for the 2 concerts at the Parramatta Stadium. The reason Jackson was booked into a rather obscure venue situated deep in the suburban sprawl of Greater Western Sydney, some 23 kilometers from the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, was because Jacobsen was unable to book the artist in either the Sydney Cricket Ground or the adjacent Sydney Football Stadium. By default, Parramatta became the location for two Jackson concerts. Taking stock of the stadium's design, Jacobsen decided that the best place to locate the stage was at one the grounds far ends, a space occupied by a sizable grass hill. The promoter remembers bringing in "huge tractors and earth movers [in order] to move the earth and level this section of the stadium".

"We then built the stage where the hill had stood" he recalls. "But after the 2 shows we had to put the earth back and rebuild the hill and replant the grass and make sure it was watered everyday. If we hadnt put it back just as it was, then I was going to be in big trouble!

A few years later on a subsequent Jackson tour of Australia organised by Jacbosen Entertainment, the promoter found himself having breakfast with the entertainer in Melbourne the morning after a show in that city. Jackson arrived at the table, shook Jacobsen's hand and opened the conversation with the words, "I tell everybody how my Australian promoter moved a mountain for my show."

A quarter of a century on from the release of Michael Jackson's seventh studio album, estimates as to the final sales figures tallied by the release stand as high as 45 million (although for some reason a precise number is frustratingly difficult to pin down). The release spawned an astonishing nine singles, five which reached the summit of the US Billboard Singles Chart. The subsequent 18 month cycle of promotion and touring was a time however that saw the "glittering appearances" of Team Jackson's media management turn into a monster beyond their control. The singer was particularly wounded by the endless reports and speculation reading his taste for, or even addiction to cosmetic surgery. This was also the period when the artist morphed from Michael Jackson to
Wacko Jacko", a phrase repeated with such frequency that his carefully managed image of mystique was transformed into one of madness, and in some cases even public repulsion.

Yet despite this, everyone interviewed for this feature has only the fondest memories of Jackson. Steve Stevens describes the video shoot for "Dirty Diana" as being "magical", the guitarists voice tinged with delight as he recalls the singer impersonating David Lee Roth between takes. Denis Handlin opines that Jackson was "the ultimate professional to work with," and not only that but a superstar was "always incredibly polite". The artist even hosted a cruise around Sydney Harbour for "key staff" from his record label to celebrate Bad's success in Australia. Kevin Jacobsen remembers a man who was "very professional", a person who was "very respectful, well mannered and humble".

Naturally the people who worked with Jackson in the period between 1987 & 1989 had no idea that really this was as good as it was going to get and that with time events were to take a dreadful and terminal turn. But Steven Stevens does recall an incident that is on one level innocuous but which in another sense provides a distinct portent of the years to come. In March 1988, Michael Jackson played a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Stevens was invited to appear onstage with Jackson for the song "Dirty Diana". The guitarist felt honoured by the invitation and touched that an extra row of seats was installed in the grand arena in order that members of his family could witness the performance. Come the evening of the show, Stevens was provided with a lingering and troubling memory.

"When I did that show, I could see how isolated he was becoming," admits the guitarist. "I didnt see him until I was onstage. The minute he finished the show, he was scuttled off into a van and then he was gone. At this time, Quincy [Jones] wasnt around, and I think that Quincy was almost like a father figure who kept things light and who had a way of putting people at ease. With Quincy not around, I gegan to see a different side. And that side showed me how isolated he was. I realised that he was really cut off, that he was really isolated. It made me really sad. Its never a good thing when somebodys that cut off"

Clearly, the way things eventually played out, it was not. Despite the music, the spectacle and the magic of the period, that night in New York Michael Jackson climbed into a van embarked on a long dark journey to a tragic and ultimately doomed destination.

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