Friday, 25 June 2010

Never Can Say Goodbye: Michael Jackson One Year On

Just a little warning, this isn’t anything more than me wanting to put down on paper how Michael Jackson influenced me, made me think about things, brought music into my life. It is not supposed to be any sort of well researched biography - there are plenty of those around, and one or two of them well written and quite informative actually! 
I can tell you exactly where I was 365 days ago today. I could even narrow it down to within a few centimeters as I was in this very same spot (ironically both physically and mentally, but thats another story). I was sat here chatting to my girlfriend when on the twitter stream came up some breaking news of Michael Jackson being hospitalized having suffered a heart attack. We carried on chatting, talk now moved on to just one topic and we watched the reports and rumors kept streaming through in disbelief. 
The gossip sites were going crazy with rumors but there just seemed to be a lack of credibility about it all, it did not seem believable - it’s Michael Jackson, your heroes don’t die, they live on forever. They are meant to still be banging out the old hits until you are old enough to know better like the Stones, living off their former bands glory like McCartney, being a recluse like the blonde one from ABBA, maybe even start spreading whispers of a come back with a modern ueber-cool producer of the day like Neil Diamond but they don’t go and die. But actually now I’ve written that list, and I read it through again, Michael had already done all of that. In fact he had done most of it by about 1987.
In some ways I feel that I was born, and so came to his music, too late to truly appreciate how ground breaking it was at the time. I missed out on all the Motown classics, the Jacksons and the teenage solo albums and Off The Wall. I guess I really missed out on the cultural shockwave that Thriller and the videos to those tracks must have been at the time so I don’t think it would be fair to use hindsight and knowledge gained to talk impartially on just how good all that music is. It must have been around 1985 or ’86 when I first consciously took notice of Michael’s music. Of the mega stars of the 1980’s, Michael, Prince and Madonna, there was only one in our house. My dad has only ever had about three tapes in his car. Thriller was the one we wanted all the time. I didn’t know it at the time of course but those car journeys were the start of my musical journey - everything I have been into since can be traced through Michael, everything that influenced him to everything he influenced after him. 
From the opening stabs of duff-duff-duff here comes the funk, we are going on a journey and you wanna be startin’ something? Too right! What a start to an album. It is clearly the biggest selling album of all-time for a reason. The reason isn’t some clever marketing brainwash to tell everyone to buy it for a fashion. It is because it is the best 40 minutes of hit followed by even bigger and better hit ever. I mean Beat It into Billie Jean into Human Nature into PYT - most artists don’t have that many good tracks in a career. Michael had them all on side two. I even love the corny chatty bit at the end of The Girl Is Mine! Even as a kid though, I always, and still do, wondered how The Lady In My Life made it on as the last track? But I kind of like Michael the flawed genius and anyway the thing good about that track was that it meant I was only a few minutes away from the start of the tape again.
That tape became a right of passage or a ritual for our family. When my older brother got his first car, my dad left Thriller in there. When that car went to the great scrapheap in the sky, the only thing he had to make 101% sure he took out was that tape. The evening I picked up my first car, dad gave me the tape. I purposely drove around long enough to listen to the whole album. 
I think I must have got the Bad tape for my 6th birthday in 1988, there is no way my uncle would have been the sort of person to buy a record on release date, plus as a 5 year old I must have wanted to know all the singles first so given that it came out in August ’87, I think it must have already been just over a year old when I got my copy. Now this wasn’t like the family’s Thriller tape - that was a proper official release version, Bad was a taped copy off my uncle’s lp but I didn’t mind. Just like Thriller, Bad was and still is the sort of album you just put on and listen straight through and then start it again, there just aren’t really any weak tracks. Again, it was the b-side of the lp where all my favourite section of the album is; Another Part Of Me, Man In The Mirror, I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, Dirty Diana and Smooth Criminal. I remember constantly rewinding the tape trying to catch the lyrics to Smooth Criminal. Listening to it again now it isn’t hard at all and I know we have since had super fast rappers like Twista and every juke track out at the moment uses sped up r’n’b vocals, but back then, I just couldn’t believe how fast the verses were.
I remember when we went to see Moonwalker and again I have just had to check the release date because I’m sure we went to see it in the summer holidays yet it was released in October 1988 - it must have either still been on 9 months later or had a re-release for the summer. I must have been the biggest fan at the moment - and the most annoying kid about it. I can still remember to this day me and my brothers were given a choice of a treat day out during the holidays, they wanted to go swimming and I wanted to see Michael Jackson. God only knows how despite being out voted, we ended up going to the pictures - my mind must have blocked out whatever fuss I kicked up! Well despite the fact it had no plot, only the briefest snippets of what were (with hindsight) his best work with the Jackson 5 and some pretty dreadful acting, I loved it. I wanted to dance to Speed Demon with a 6 foot rabbit, I wanted to hear him pay himself the royalties for covering Beatles songs and I really wanted to be able to defy gravity and lean over THAT far!
Then it all went quiet. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s meant new and weird sounds from Chicago, Detroit and Manchester coming via my brothers bedroom. Anonymous, slightly illicit records just seemed to complete opposite of the high production values and mini movies of Michael Jackson. My tastes changed and yet word of comeback still brought levels of hysteria and excitement that something special was coming.
I vividly remember the first time I saw the video to Black Or White on TV. Or more specifically the first two times I saw it as the very first time was on prime time and it stopped at what I think is generally accepted as the standard video edit version these days, after all the faces change on the final chorus. I felt a little underwhelmed by both the song and the video in all honesty - after all I had been waiting four years for this moment and this wasn’t to be my Thriller moment. I soon saw the full version where he smashes up a car and dances on top of it, I think my brother must have taped it but I can’t think now which channel would have shown it, we certainly didn’t have MTV then. Anyway, the dancing told me he still had it.
Yet Dangerous followed on where Black Or White had left me, unimpressed. There were some decent tracks there but nothing even then I felt was up to his exceptionally high (and clearly unrealistic) standards. Then there was the fact that almost every track on the album seemed to be a released as a single. I must have been feeling a little cynical at the time but I just couldn’t believe that one, he needed the money to release every track or two, that he thought all of them tracks were strong enough.
Although I now thought was making the first weak records of his career, if I had dug a little deeper, I would have seen that actually he did have his ear to the ground, utilizing the producers I was now idolizing to remix his back catalogue - Masters At Work, Brothers In Rhythm and Roger Sanchez to name but a few - on the b-sides to singles for the HIStory album.
I don’t really want to speak too much about all the controversies about his private life that began emerging around this time. It did nothing to diminish his crown as the King of Pop in my eyes as it has nothing to do with his music and that is all I love him for - the music. I admired him as a philanthropist and charity worker, I worried about him as a person, his state of mind but the love was never questioned, it was all about the music.
So musically at least, he went quiet again and off my radar. Then as a teenager I began working backwards, checking all the old records as my favourite djs and producers name checked Off The Wall as their most influential record of all time. At the same time bootleg remixes and records based almost entirely on samples of his tracks started floating around. It seemed that momentum was again leading up to something big - rumors abound of working with the most in demand producers of the day, The Neptunes. It all seemed so plausible - they had transformed Justin Timberlake from boy band nobody to the coolest guy in the world by basically ripping off every Michael trick in the book - in fact his best record, Rock Your Body, had been written for Michael. 
As it tuned out, he went for what I felt was a safer option, using Teddy Riley again as on the  Dangerous work. I actually like a lot of Invincible, You Rock My Word and Butterflies are the obvious classics and although it was never likely to be the next Thriller, it is certainly a lot more listenable than a lot of other big budget r’n’b stars make of their albums.
From what I have seen of the rehearsals for the This Is It shows, it looked as he was back on form. I guess that was one of the big reasons it seemed so unbelievable he was gone - he looked better than he had done for a number of years, he was moving better than any 18 year old Pop Idol wannabe and his voice sounded strong. He looked fighting fit. 
I have spent the past few days listening to a lot of Michael’s stuff from across the years to try to find some inspiration to maybe find some unique twist on the conversations and debates that have run throughout his career and intensified over the past 12 months. If you like popular music you will find a Michael at least one track for you; soul, disco, ballads, rock, jazz, house, check, check, check. I think the legacy will unfortunately always be tainted with the controversy but ultimately in the way that, say, Elvis will forever be caricatured in the lost-it Vegas years but no-one in the right mind ever listens to anything but the ’57 rock’n’roll hits up to the ’68 comeback special classics, I guess Michael will always be seen as the guy in the red outfit from Thriller or something from (his own piss-take) Leave Me Alone video but the voice, the music will live on.

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