Tuesday, 25 September 2012

DIGITAL WORDS / When Michael Was Bad

I wrote about the new demos available on Bad 25 for Rock's Back Pages. 
Find the original post HERE

Monday 18th September marked the 25th anniversary of the release of Michael Jackson’s Bad.
You may not have known or noticed, since the music press at large seem to have ignored the song and dance Michael Jackson’s estate are laying on for the occasion. In fact, David Aaron seems to have been the only music journalist who felt compelled to write about and reassess Bad in the September issue of Clash.
Alternatively you may just not care; after a quick discussion at RBP HQ this week, the general consensus was that it was an overproduced album by an artist creatively frozen by a debilitating obsession with topping his already superlative achievements. And that’s pretty much the conclusion music history has resigned Bad to as well.
The Estate of Michael Jackson, though, are determined to rewrite said history. The re-issue of Bad, entitled Bad 25, is being marketed as the album that represents “Michael Jackson’s creative coming of age as a solo artist.” If you resist the knee-jerk reaction of immediately thinking of Thriller (or even Off the Wall) as Michael’s defining moment of artistic maturity, they’ve actually got a point. Bad was the album that saw him take the reins: he co-produced the entire record, wrote nine out of its eleven songs, it spawned five number one singles, took him on a world tour that saw him perform in front of around 4.5 million people, and currently has sales of 35 million. Not Bad at all.
If you don’t believe me then you should give the Bad 25 deluxe box set a whirl. As well as a remastered copy of Bad, you’ll find a live CD and DVD of Michael Jackson’s July 16, 1988 gig at Wembley Stadium, which is a serious gem. As any Michael Jackson fan will manically tell you, this is a big deal. There have been nothing but low quality bootlegs and YouTube videos of this tour available until now. I’ve watched this DVD and listened to the CD numerous times already.
I was yet to be born at the time of the Bad tour and have always refused to watch substandard footage of it, so I’m relishing finally getting to see Michael Jackson at his unequivocal best. A further treat Bad 25 offers is a selection of previously unreleased demo recordings that Michael made at his Hayvenhurst home studio.
Some of the bonus material provided will already be well known to those who have the 2001 re-release of Bad; ‘Streetwalker’ is a slick production which sounds like a done and dusted track that if it were not for the resemblances it shares with ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ would surely have been a shoe in for inclusion on the original album release. There is also ‘Fly Away’, an airy fairy wisp of a ballad that sounds like something Michael could have distractedly sang whilst tying his shoes or making a sandwich (if he actually did either of those things, of course). Plus there’s a Spanish version of ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ and the further addition of a French take too which, fact fans, is not merely a translation of the original but actually uses entirely different lyrics that add up to a song titled ‘I Don’t Want The End Of Us’.
There are also a few remixes of the album’s title track and ‘Speed Demon’ by the likes of Nero and Afrojack which don’t bare thinking about, let alone listening to (trust me, I’ve tried). The five truly exclusive demos that have now been let loose, which were all at varying stages of completion, present an assortment of compositions that give an insight into Jackson’s song writing and recording process. Here’s a rundown of what you can expect from the demos in question:

‘Don’t Be Messin’ Round’ – This sounds like the bare bones of a track, framed by a basic, stepping piano riff with a gentle yet driven groove which has an air of ‘Dancing In The Street’ about it. It’s a tale reminiscent of ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ with Jackson trying to woo an obstinate woman whom instructs him to “keep your mind on dancing, there won’t be no romancing or messing around with me.” Bad luck. The funk breakdown that fades the track out is a short but welcome glimpse of an uninhibited Jackson.
‘I’m So Blue’ – On the surface, this is nothing more than a pleasant, syrupy ditty but the lyrics, now with hindsight on our side, are an exposé of Jackson’s troubles with loneliness. He tells of how he sings to “stop myself from feeling blue” but he’s been “singing for so very long.” The lyrics are simple but affective (“I’m so sad and lonely, tell me what will I do”) and are given a warm vocal delivery. It’s a track that’s not too far removed, in both tone and sentiment, from the 1978 Jacksons’ number ‘That’s What You Get (For Being Polite)’.
‘Song Groove’ (AKA ‘Abortion Papers’) –The narrative of the song tells of a girl who is raised by her father, a man of the church, and knows her Bible well but needs to have an abortion. This is clearly controversial material, especially when Michael sings of “Signing your name against the word of God,” but Jackson knew this was an extremely sensitive issue as he provided a note with the demo stating that his intention is not to “offend girls who have gotten abortions or bring back guilt trips.” This wasn’t the first time Michael handed out family planning advice though; I beseech you to cast your mind back to the pragmatism he preaches on ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’’ of “If you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby.” Musically the track is made up of the synthetic industrial beats that largely characterise Bad as a whole.
‘Free’ – The title pretty much gives this one away. It’s a mid-tempo number on which Jackson wishes for the freedom of the wind and birds. His voice is conserved during the verses but is spread like melted, golden butter over the sugary chorus. Hang on until the end to hear Jackson let out a chuckle and an admonition of someone in the studio being “so silly.”
‘Price Of Fame’ – Once again, the title makes it rather clear what we’re getting here. This complaint of fame and celebrity is a close thematic and sonic cousin of ‘Leave Me Alone’, with added hints of Billie Jean-esque paranoia. When he reaches lyrics about his father telling him of the price he will pay for his fame and that Michael is not to complain about it, it almost seems to pain Michael to sing the line, “My father never lies” as he is trying to convince himself, rather than us, of his father’s moral integrity.
‘Al Capone’ – Despite the linear notes claiming just how extraordinary it is to think that ‘Smooth Criminal’ was birthed from this demo I’m not sure how anyone could listen to this track and not hear ‘Smooth Criminal’ emerging from it. It’s centred on a crime and a helpless female victim (who would later become Annie) and sees Michael spitting out vocals which mirror a persistent bass riff before launching into a breathy falsetto chorus, therefore it’s just like ‘Smooth Criminal’ but enjoyable and fascinating nonetheless.
Written for Rock's Back Pages

No comments:

Post a Comment