Review: Michael Jackson, “BAD 25″
By The Second Disc, on 09 Sep 18, 2012
Those words would likely have sounded like pure hubris had they emerged from any singer other than Michael Jackson. He threw the gauntlet down not just to his fellow musicians, but to himself, with the 1982 smash Thriller. Still recognized today as the best-selling album of all time, Thriller spawned seven Top 10 singles, received eight Grammy Awards, and elevated the one-time child star to the rarefied status of an international icon of music, dance, fashion and culture. Rather than instantly capitalizing on his success with a follow-up, though, Jackson waited roughly five years before releasing his next solo musical statement: 1987’s Bad. Despite the swagger of those lyrics from its title track, it was inevitable that for many, Bad would fail to reach the same high artistic standards as its predecessor, even as it broke one record after another. It was similarly inevitable that, in 2012, Bad would be revisited in an anniversary edition, allowing it to stand on its own, out of the shadow of Thriller. Today, Jackson has been gone for more than three years, and not a day goes by without some family controversy filling the newspapers. But Michael Jackson’s most significant legacy is now, and has always been, in the joyous, liberated, boundary-breaking music he created, and that’s what is celebrated on BAD 25, from Epic Records and Legacy Recordings, available as a standard CD, 3-CD/1-DVD box set (88725 40095 2), Target-exclusive 2 -CD/1-DVD set and vinyl LP.
The third and final collaboration between Jackson and producer Quincy Jones, Bad marked Jackson’s ascendancy to near-complete creative control. It heralded the end of another era, too, as Jackson’s final album designed to the constraints of standard LP length; his future projects would become more sprawling and some would argue, less focused. Bad, however, was tightly packed with wall-to-wall hits and has sold over 30 million copies to date. It yielded five Billboard Hot 100 number ones, the first album to do so. (Katy Perry repeated the feat in 2010 with her Teenage Dream.) A sixth single hit the Top 10 and a seventh made the Top 20. Out of six Grammy nominations, Bad picked up two of the trophies. BAD 25 generously expands the story of this landmark album by looking to the past (unreleased demos, live footage on DVD, the first-ever official audio document of a Jackson concert on CD) and the present (remixes of Bad tracks by current hip-hop stars). In its box set form, it’s doubtless the most lavish anniversary release accorded any of Jackson’s solo albums. Does it succeed in bringing a new dimension to one of the most familiar recordings of all time? Hit the jump!
At Motown, the precociously-talented standout member and lead singer of The Jackson 5 received his musical education. He lent his voice to songs both original and second-hand by writers like Berry Gordy’s Corporation, Clifton Davis, Leon Ware, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Thom Bell, Carole King, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, even Jerome Kern, Michel Legrand and Stephen Schwartz – in other words, the very best. 1979’s Epic solo debut Off the Wall featured two solo compositions by Michael, and one co-write with Louis Johnson, among tracks by Wonder, Rod Temperton, Paul McCartney, Carole Bayer Sager and David Foster. For Thriller, four of the nine songs were MJ originals. With Bad, the artist penned nine out of eleven songs, making it his most personal work yet. And the voice of Michael Jackson, songwriter, proved as distinct as that of Michael Jackson, singer.
Jackson primarily addressed familiar themes on Bad, whether in his own songs or in the two supplied by others. Most often, the album is concerned with matters of the heart: the expression of love in “Liberian Girl” and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” of lust in “The Way You Make Me Feel,” confusion in Graham Lyle and Terry Britten’s “Just Good Friends,” of anger directed at duplicitous ladies in “Dirty Diana” and “Leave Me Alone” (the song which appeared on the original CD edition of Bad but not the original vinyl, and has since become a standard part of the album proper). But he embraced a message of hope, unity and empathy in “Another Part of Me” and Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard’s “The Man in the Mirror.” He even offered a tantalizingly darker tale in the edgy, dangerous “Smooth Criminal,” with its feverish cries of “Annie, are you okay?” All of his compositions show a skill for simplicity and directness, often two of the most difficult qualities to attain.
His knack for finding the right words to express universal sentiments was matched by his growing skill as a composer, producer and arranger. With Jones’ sure hand and experience, he expanded his sonic palette on Bad. Like Thriller, it touched on R&B, pop, dance, soul and MOR/AC, and even more so than that album and its famous, guitar-driven single “Beat It,” Bad added rock to the mix. Jackson, whether vocally, compositionally or choreographically, was a sponge, soaking up the numerous influences around him and personalizing them all. Bad’s energy level hardly flags from start to finish, with glistening production, stunning rhythms, impeccable harmonies and abundance of hooks. Brimming with creativity, Bad may have been the last time Jackson was truly setting the trends, not chasing them.
After the one-two punch of “Bad” and “The Way You Make Me Feel,” the album has its least memorable stretch with “Speed Demon,” “Liberian Girl,” and “Just Good Friends.” That latter duet with Jackson’s friend Stevie Wonder is one of the most “dated” tracks on the LP, loathsome though that word is. Its busy drums threaten to overtake the song and it plays like an updated version of “The Girl is Mine,” the goofy Paul McCartney duet from Thriller. But even these “lesser” songs aren’t without merit. “Speed Demon” can be taken literally, and was reportedly inspired by Jackson’s altercation with a police officer who gave him a speeding ticket. But it could be interpreted autobiographically: “And nothin’ gonna stop me, ain’t no stop-and-go/I’m speedin’ on the midway/I gotta really burn this road!” (It’s even hard not to think of the Jackson 5’s Motown hit “The Love You Save” when Jackson quotes the aphorism “The life you save may be your own” in his lyrics!) Bad pulsates with an unstoppable drive and a hunger that’s unusual for an artist who has already reached superstar status. Until the final years of his life, however, Jackson clearly felt the need to nourish that hunger through his art.
The strongest songs on Bad have hardly aged. “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” an immaculate, infectious throwback of pop-soul perfection, is gorgeously and subtly arranged, with Siedah Garrett’s smooth duet vocals blending beautifully with Jackson’s own. The sleek, insistent “Smooth Criminal” and “Dirty Diana” show Jackson just as easily moving into rock territory as he mastered R&B with the ebullient “The Way You Make Me Feel.” And Jackson’s generosity of spirit is still evident on the gospel-flecked “The Man in the Mirror” and “Another Part of Me.” The latter originally was introduced by Jackson in Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas’ short film Captain EO at EPCOT Center and Disneyland in 1986 as Jackson spread peace and the gospel of embracing one’s inner beauty throughout the cosmos. If they’re both so earnest as to earn tags like “saccharine” or “sentimental,” that core innocence was long an innate part of Jackson’s persona. Bad is, of course, awash with then-cutting edge technology in its keyboards and drums, but the stellar musicianship and elegant, organic production keep it from ever sounding like a relic. (The players are too many to name, but mention must be made of Jerry Hey’s punchy horns, Greg Phillinganes’ intricate synthesizers and Paulinho da Costa’s taut percussion, all key ingredients of the album’s sound.)
Disc 1, the “original” Bad album, actually features the amended version overseen by Jackson after the album’s initial release. There are variances on “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Dirty Diana” and “Smooth Criminal” which range from the minor (boosted vocals and an ad-lib ending on the remixed “The Way…”) to the relatively major (the cut spoken intro of “I Just Can’t Stop…”, horns omitted from all but two choruses of “Bad”). Fans have been clamoring for a restoration of the original album mixes, and not without good reason. But it’s understandable that Jackson’s estate would opt to use the album version which the ever-restless Jackson presumably approved in his lifetime. That said, the original album versions of those five songs would have made essential listening as bonus tracks. Ironically, the spoken intro version of “I Just Can’t Stop…” was included on the BAD 25 single released in anticipation of this set.
The crown jewels of BAD 25 can be found on the set’s second disc, which is included in both the box set and the standard 2-CD edition. These are the six previously unreleased recordings by Jackson, none of which have been altered from their original production. Three more demos first appeared on 2001’s Bad reissue, and those have thankfully been carried over to BAD 25, although you will have to hold onto that 2001 disc if you’re interested in its otherwise-orphaned spoken word interview segments.
As the demos are all free of the kind of overdubs and modern production that marred the posthumous 2010 release Michael, these are prime examples of Jackson at the peak of his writing and performing powers, not to mention production. Although the tracks were in various states of completion, these demos are more fully produced than some artists’ finished efforts. They have seemingly been selected to showcase all facets of the artist, and succeed mightily in that regard.
The best of the six “new” songs may well be “I’m So Blue,” also one of the most fully “produced.” Jackson softly croons this sweet ballad over airy keyboards, punctuating the breezy melody with background vocals and a Stevie Wonder-esque harmonica (“They told me, you should sing a song, happy when you’re feelin’ blue/I’ve been singing for so very long/Still cryin’, tell me what should I do”). Its soft, wordless chorus is of the kind only Jackson could imbue with soul. Upon one listen, it’s clear that “I’m So Blue” is one of those songs that can be both new and familiar at the same time, and it’s a prime candidate for a cover recording. Wouldn’t Wonder himself be a perfect choice…? Nearly as good is “Free,” also from the gentler side of Jackson: “Free, free like the wind blow/To fly away, just like the sparrow/The feel of letting my hair blow/Just take my time wherever I go…” It’s a theme that clearly resonated for Jackson more so with every passing year, but it’s handled in such an appealing way here –via a beautiful melody and loose, carefree, youthful arrangement that would have fit snugly on Off the Wall.
On the other end of the spectrum from “I’m So Blue” is “Abortion Papers,” in which Jackson attempted (perhaps never to his own satisfaction) to tell a story about a girl raised in a religious home confronting the issue of abortion. His empathy prevented him from leaping into a still-explosive political fray, and he employs a heavy electronic rhythm to act as counterpoint to the even-handed lyrical story. Horns, piano, strings and Michael’s trademark, high-pitched squeals would all have figured into a completed version, based on the demo, and though it’s all sensitively handled, perhaps Jackson sensed that the song would have been analyzed and over-analyzed, especially when ironically set to such an eminently danceable track.
“Price of Fame” more explicitly addresses the same recurrent theme of the effect of celebrity on Jackson’s adulthood. The song alternates rueful cries with a forceful delivery a la “Billie Jean,” which the melody of the verses almost resembles: “Father always told me you won’t live a quiet life/If you’re reaching for fortune and fame…So don’t you ever complain, you pay the price of fame.” For Jackson, there must have been no truer words.
A window into Jackson’s process is revealed on “Al Capone,” an embryonic version of “Smooth Criminal.” Jackson was enough of a craftsman to recognize which individual parts of a song might work and which ones could be transformed or improved, and so the resulting “Smooth Criminal” is a very different song than “Al Capone.” But the seeds of a future classic are already there, and the growled vocal is light years away from “I’m So Blue” and “Free.” Similarly, Jackson toiled on “Don’t Be Messin’ ‘Round” for a long period of time. Though he would likely have embellished this song further, its beguiling groove still captivates even in this raw, unvarnished version.
“Streetwalker” and “Fly Away” have been imported from the previous CD edition. Elements of the former morphed into “Dangerous,” and it was a serious contender for the final album line-up, with Jackson offering a confident vocal and even some street-corner-style harmonies. “Fly Away” is another graceful ballad from the Bad era.
Spanish and French versions with Siedah Garrett of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” (the Spanish version was also on the 2001 Bad reissue) plus three 2012 remixes round out the second disc. The foreign-language duets are delightful curiosities, but the remixes by Afrojack (two versions of “Bad” – one dub mix, and one featuring Pitbull in DJ Buddha’s edit) and Nero (“Speed Demon”) are superfluous. Though they speak to the continued relevance of Jackson’s music, he doesn’t need “updating” with rap and hip-hop elements to stay current. It’s not that these tracks are without merit, but they would be better-suited to a newly-curated release aimed at their target audience, not on an archival project such as this.
Of course, there’s much more that didn’t see release, including outtakes, demos and most especially, single versions. Though many vinyl singles and cassettes are pictured in the booklet, non e of the unique mixes and edits has been included on BAD 25. With numerous versions extant, these 12-inch mixes and single edits would also make a fine stand-alone compilation; it’s possible that the producers here felt that their inclusion would prove too repetitive for the general audience BAD 25 hopes to reach.
The final component of the BAD 25 box is a CD/DVD set dedicated to Jackson’s July 16, 1988 performance at London’s Wembley Stadium. The DVD portion has also been released as a stand-alone offering. The concert, staged in front of Prince Charles, Princess Diana and over 72,000 fans, was one of seven sold-out nights Jackson spent at the venue, and the electricity there is palpable. (He’s introduced in the video footage as “the reclusive superstar” even at that point in his career.) Though derived from Jackson’s personal archival VHS, the sound was recorded to multi-tracks, and has been mixed into (very subtle) 5.1 surround for this release. The picture quality is clearly that of a videocassette, but it doesn’t detract from a stunning performance, and the camera work is generally strong with well-chosen angles.
Within moments of opening with “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” Jackson is posing, gyrating, spinning, kicking, stomping and slithering with a sleek fleetness of foot that whips the audience into a frenzied state. He’s both graceful and sexually charged, and he is the production. By today’s standards, the Bad tour (Jackson’s first solo world tour and only North American solo tour) wasn’t a production at all, save some costume changes, pyrotechnics and a couple of set pieces. The lithe Jackson, with a crack band, backup singers and dance corps, provides more pyrotechnics than the periodic blasts of smoke and fire. Musical director Greg Phillinganes replicates the sound of the LPs from which the songs are drawn (including, of course, Bad, but stretching back to the Jackson 5 days for a medley) and is keenly attuned to Jackson. (A lengthy band showcase is intact on the DVD but omitted from the CD due to time constraints.)
While the singer appears to be lip-synching to a handful of the songs, his performance is, largely, overwhelming and frequently playful. The audience delights at a steamy “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” with the young Sheryl Crow, and even punctuates the quiet “She’s Out of My Life” with screams when Jackson approaches the audience. The remarkably well-sequenced concert shows Jackson as an utterly comfortable presence, smiling and taking the stage with ease. There’s very little patter as he prefers to concentrate on his angular, Bob Fosse-in-the-future choreographic moves and unstoppable anthems. By the time he dons his famous glove and launches into that mesmerizing moonwalk on “Billie Jean,” it seems that Jackson can’t possibly give any more. But he does, dancing with a chorus line of kids in the closing “Bad” and literally dropping to the floor for the encore of “Man in the Mirror.”
BAD 25, the box set, is housed in a magnetic flip-top box, and contains two well-designed booklets, one for the main two CDs and one dedicated to the Wembley CD and DVD. The main booklet offers a staggering amount of photographs, two essays from John Branca and John McClain of the Jackson estate, credits, and brief track-by-track notes for the “new” songs. The latter booklet contains Jackson’s tour itinerary plus more remarks from Branca and McClain plus more photos and full credits. The four discs are stored in two digipaks, and a sticker and foldout poster have also been included. Brian “Big Bass” Gardner at Bernie Grundman Mastering has remastered the two main CDs with the iPod generation in mind, and Joe Palmaccio has handled the Wembley CD. Finally, mention should be made of the Target-exclusive edition, which features the standard 2-CD set (main album and outtakes/remixes) plus a DVD of all nine original Bad-era short films, including extended edits of “Smooth Criminal” and “Speed Demon” from Jackson’s Moonwalker movie.
When somebody asks, “Who’s bad?,” there’s still only one answer. Like Elvis, Frank, Sammy, Dino and those other departed icons for whom only one name is required, the music of Michael will continue to be packaged and repackaged as future generations come to discover why the man made such a mark. BAD 25 may not be a complete account of the music related to Bad, but it’s an intelligently-selected, well-designed celebration of the album and the performances and recordings that surrounded it.