It beggars belief that today will make it two years since Michael Jackson passed. It’s no less shocking even after all this time.
Once in a while I’ll get a hankering to listen to one of the three classic albums he made with Quincy Jones between the late 1970s and late ’80s. Recently it was the turn of Bad: an album I’ve dubbed in the past as Michael’s best ‘pop’ album. And it is unabashedly pop.
Having shown signs on Thriller of moving away from the pure funk/soul rhythms of Off the Wall, with Bad Jackson and Jones threw themselves wholeheartedly into the more commercial, synthesised sounds that characterised that particular decade.
There was a noticeable absence of the sweet soul contributions from Brit maestro Rod Temperton with whom Quincy and Michael had made such beautiful music before. No doubt many saw this as selling out to a degree but if they were going to soften their sound, my goodness, Bad was the way to go about it.
Released on August 31, 1987 through Epic/CBS Records, I first heard the record in its entirety one summer back in the late 1980’s. I’d pleaded with mum to get me a copy for my seventh birthday. At that time mother dearest had doggedly refused to embrace the CD revolution. A world-wide best seller, unfortunately the only cassette copy of Bad she could obtain had had the inlay card stolen. I sorely missed the artwork.
It took me several listens to realise ‘Just Good Friends’ was a duet with Stevie Wonder and thanks to MJ’s freakish counter-tenor it was only on seeing the promo for ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ that I discovered he was joined by a female vocalist, legend in her own right Siedah Garratt. Undeterred by an absence of album info, my little sister and I passed several weeks of our summer holiday memorising the lyrics and shaking our culos to the sumptuous tunes Bad had to offer.
Admittedly, the best part of 25 years later some of the production hasn’t aged all that well. There isn’t that timeless quality of MJ’s previous two efforts. Nevertheless, when it works, it does so very well. And let’s not forget that Bad is a non-stop joyride of fantastically written pop tunes, not least the title track itself. On the 20th anniversary re-issue of the record, Quincy Jones discusses his personal highlights from that time. He mentions how the album appealed to his love of orchestration.
On the ‘Bad’ single you can hear this in full effect. There’s actually very little going on melodically in the arrangement itself. Besides the presence of ominous synth strings-most of these bass-y instruments like the double and cello- and a brief organ solo, a good deal of the track’s soundscape is comprised of what Jones describes as ‘white noise’; layered percussive noises and bursts of sound that add texture rather than melody. That leaves Michael’s verses and hook to carry the tune and how. ‘Bad’ is a brilliant pop composition from its infectious rhythm right down to the lyrics ‘…you’re throwing stones to hide your hands’.
It’s the kind of ‘hear it once and you’ll be singing it all day and in decades to come’ affair that is woefully missing from most mainstream ‘hits’ today. That’s what made it such a huge smash back in the autumn of 1987. I had just turned six and the long awaited comeback single by the incomparable ‘King of Pop’ was ruling the airwaves and playgrounds all over. Kids loved the immediacy of the chorus…every adlib- ‘You know it, shah- mo’!’- is indelibly etched in the brain.
As an adult I have a soft spot for the BGVs ‘I’m bad…really, really bad’… All right, it’s not Keats but for the purposes of an addictive pop song they serve perfectly well. The only way ‘Bad’ could get any better is if Prince had agreed to duet with Michael as was originally planned. One can only wonder wistfully what a great moment in modern music history that would have been.
The accompanying Martin Scorsese-directed short film was a bizarre showdown between MJ and a young Wesley Snipes. Jones speaks of Michael needing a harder image, hence all the skin tight black gear, complete with numerous zips and buckles. In reality the look comes across as more rent boy than gangster; the effete contemporary dance moves don’t help the cause either. Nonetheless it is an iconic clip and it whet the public’s appetite for what was to come.
‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ is probably my least favourite moment on Bad. The video – in which MJ screams at a sweet young thing for initially refusing his overtures – is in some ways even less plausible than ‘Bad.’
As a song it doesn’t mesmerise me quite like the rest. Still, I can’t deny it’s another good pop tune. It’s a testament to the quality of Michael’s follow up to the stratospherically successful Thriller, that nine of its 11 tracks were singles. How many artists can boast of an album that consistent?
It took watching Michael’s Moonwalker film for me to really appreciate ‘Speed Demon’ – one of the two non-singles. In the film MJ is chased by crazed fans and adopts a number of guises to hide from them. This predatory storyline suits the underlying darkness of the track. Jackson’s dancing capers with a stop-motion animated rabbit at the end of his escapade don’t negate the sinister feel of the chord progression.
‘Liberian Girl’ is the ultimate Bad highlight for me. It’s one of the album’s most enduring numbers too, having been sampled by the likes of MC Lyte and Jennifer Lopez. An atmospheric ballad of epic proportions, Jones points out how MJ’s lyrics paint the romantic scene with cinematic precision. To my mind, it’s all about the harmonies. Michael creates this irresistibly gorgeous wall of sound on the bridge and chorus. Even whilst listening to it on my trusty Discman out in public I can’t help but wail on the climactic ‘I love you Liberian G-iiiirr-lll’ (or ‘Nigerian G-iiiirr-lll’ if I’m feeling vaguely patriotic) *pause*-no homo.
With MJ off on tour duties again the mis-en-abyme style video-within-a-video included cameos from some of the big TV, film and music celebrities of the day, the man himself putting in a special appearance at the very end. The ‘Liberian Girl’ promo is a lesson in the fickle nature of fame. Many of the stars featured then are all but obscure now.
‘Just Good Friends’ is Bad’s answer to Thrillers’ ‘The Girl is Mine’ with Paul McCartney, once again featuring a singer-songwriting legend, Stevie Wonder. The only other album track not to be released as a single, it couldn’t have been down to lack of quality. Production-wise probably less melodically austere than some of the preceding tracks, it’s a fun, catchy tune about love-rivals angling for the affections of a capricious young woman. There are lots of lush harmonies on this one too. It was great to see the two titans finally doing a song together.
“Just Good Friends”:
‘Another Part of Me’ is a funky concession to Michael’s earlier R&B efforts. It was one of the many singles that were released when Michael was on the eponymous Bad tour and thus it didn’t get a memorable video; just MJ doing his thing live. It’s a shame because perhaps for this reason, the song gets overlooked for the great pop anthem it is. That and it being linked to a joke about Jackson’s many nose alterations but I digress. ‘…Part of Me’ is certainly miles better than the somewhat pedestrian alternative ‘Streetwalker’ that almost made it onto the album in its stead.
‘Man in The Mirror,’ penned by Garrett and featuring Andrae Crouch’s gospel choir, shows off Michael’s skills as a master interpreter. He delivers this song-of-good-intentions with the conviction of one who wrote it. It must be a songwriter’s dream to hear your own work take on a life you never knew it could have.
MJ’s musicality might not have been as sophisticated or academic as a Prince or a Stevie but it’s undeniable nonetheless. He carved out a whole distinctive vocal niche for himself with his phrasing. You can hear in the yelps and mouth-simulated percussion that he fully understood the concept of his voice being another instrument in the mix, like any self-respecting jazz vocalist would. Take bonus track ‘Leave Me Alone’ for instance. Yet again Jackson assaults the senses with an extremely likeable melody and fiendishly good, canon-structured harmonies.
He also knew how to perform a song; he understood theatricality, as Jones pointed out. On ‘Dirty Diana’ Jackson doesn’t just rely on Stevie Steven’s haunting guitar riff or the sombre strings to elicit the menace of the song’s lyrics about an especially persistent, home-wrecking groupie. He whimpers, he pleads… he yells defiantly, ‘Let me be!’ I’ll admit there’s something sort of sexy about MJ in that clip, tearing off his flimsy white shirt to reveal his pigeon-chest and all. Sex appeal isn’t readily associated with post-Thriller Michael but he displays a bit of swagger on ‘Dirty Diana’.
‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ is replete with all the self-centred melodrama of puppy love… ‘…At your call I hear harps and angels sing’… Hyper-emotional twaddle but Michael and Siedah get away with it…just. It was the ’80s after all; the decade in which the power ballad truly came into its own.
If one single-and video-epitomises MJ as the consummate entertainer it’s album finale ‘Smooth Criminal.’ It has that instantaneous draw that defines most of ‘Bad’. That famously staccato-ed (yet again) eerie, bass line ridden by Michael’s wonderfully sung but poorly-articulated lyrics (and we loved Michael for his gabbling) never grow old. The ‘Annie, are you okay?’ refrain is so compelling that for a while as a kid I thought that was the track’s name.
I remember when the Al-Capone style video premiered on BBC2. As was often the case when Michael Jackson videos were first shown on terrestrial TV, the kids in my school went ape for it the next day. The promo’s dance routine remains in my book, Michael’s best…yes even better than ‘Thriller’ or ‘Remember the Time’.
It closes a chapter on an era which saw Michael at his creative peak. His subsequent releases, rarely, if ever captured the dizzying heights of his collaborations with Quincy Jones. Certainly, Jackson made some great songs in the ”90s but not with the consistency of the preceding decade.
I often find myself contemplating how different things would have turned out if Michael had retired after Bad, when he was, for many people at the top of his game. How much sweeter it could have been if those were the lasting memories of Jackson’s career rather than the mixed material and sordid rumours that riddled his later years.