Who’s Bad? – Michael Jackson’s Classic Album At 25

His most imaginative album continues to charm

Behind closed doors in his home studio, twenty-seven year-old Michael Jackson began meticulously working on ‘Bad’ – the follow-up to the biggest-selling album of all time, ‘Thriller’. It was 1985, and three years had passed since the ‘Thriller’ phenomenon bore signature tracks such as ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Beat It’ and its title track. Its worldwide appeal had elevated Jackson to stratospheric heights. In the early- to mid-Eighties, he was the biggest star in the world; no question. Alone, he had rescued the music industry from a premature death.

Therefore, expectations for his next album were fiercely unrelenting. Anticipation was at fever pitch. Fans, critics and the music industry alike were wondering how Jackson could match, never mind surpass, his own success. Within his family’s LA home, ‘Thriller’ – and its success – was having telling effects on Michael Jackson; it had become his Frankenstein. At fifty million sales (at the time) it was a rampant monster. Its success continued to devour him; its shadow engulfed him. How could he possibly emerge from its intimidating shadow?

Increasing the pressure was the fact that embedded into his psyche, via his father and Motown training, was the idealism of perfection and the drive to become better than the last performance or record. He had taped a message to his mirror stating his sales target for what would become ‘Bad’, which said, “100 million”, thus materializing his ideology. Of course, after his death it became evident that Jackson used these notes (many were found pinned around his final home) as mantras and goals that energized him towards artistic and commercial perfection.

With commercial targets set, Jackson attempted to step out of the shadows of ‘Thriller’, and continued to work on ‘Bad’ alongside a series of trusted musicians, such as producers Matt Forger and Bill Bottrell, at his Hayvenhurst home-studio. Beatboxing, singing and humming was Jackson’s usual method of articulating and orchestrating ideas to musicians, who would subsequently lay down tracks. Seclusion at his home allowed him creative freedom to manipulate ideas – Jackson, who was reportedly disappointed with only co-producer recognition on certain ‘Thriller’ tracks, was beginning to grow artistically; he had a clear vision for ‘Bad’ that he wanted to pursue before entering the studio with legendary producer Quincy Jones. Already an entertainment veteran of twenty years, Jackson only needed to look at the creative control garnered by less-experienced acts such as Prince to exemplify the creative independence he craved.  

Armed with a treasure trove of highly-produced demos, work began alongside Jones. Jackson’s creative vision was evolving and his songwriting prowess competed with songs brought to the production table by Quincy. Subsequently, nine of Jackson’s self-penned tracks made the final track listing. According to sources, and Jackson himself, conflicts rose between Jones and Jackson regarding track selection and album themes, yet friendly competition between songwriter Rod Temperton (‘Rock With You’, ‘Thriller’) and Jackson was common practice during ‘Off The Wall’ and ‘Thriller’ sessions years earlier. This time it had elevated to another level: Jackson’s artistic sensibilities were establishing themselves; his desire to be the executor of all artistic decisions was taking shape. Reportedly, at one point he returned to the studio after-hours to change some of Jones’ production (notably it would be their last studio collaboration). At this point in time though, Jackson’s songwriting output was prolific; producing close to a hundred songs for one album was his penchant. They were his babies, conceived, as he would put it, “in the hands of the heavens”; he wasn’t going to let them die in the cutting room vaults, or allow them to be changed without the final say. He nurtured them until finally, during August 1987, they made the final cut and ‘Bad’ was released to the world.

Words by David Aaron

The full version of this ifeature appears in the September 2012 issue of Clash Magazine. Find out more about the issue.

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