Michael Jackson’s monster smash

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Quincy Jones Vincent did it in two takes – I’m telling you, it was so difficult [technically, to talk over the music track]… it was fabulous, man.

Bruce Cannon (sound effects) I was an assistant editor on the film E.T. Following that, Steven Spielberg and Kathy Kennedy had me help out on a record they were doing with Michael Jackson called ‘The E.T. Storybook Record’, which was produced by Quincy Jones, and Bruce Swedien was like his mixer. It was Michael narrating – I’m only laughing because he was very emotionally involved when he was performing, reading the lines – at times he almost breaks into tears telling parts of the E.T. story.

Following that, Quincy called me and said he was doing this Michael Jackson record and he needed sounds for the Thriller song. I went to as many sound editors as I could and listened, found – what was it? – a creaking door, thunder, feet walking on wooden planks, winds, howling dogs, all that. These were really good editors and I think they recorded some of the effects themselves. Things like the lightning may have come from old Hollywood movies – we’ll never know which movies – but the best sound-effects editors do go out in the desert and find a coyote, so I have a feeling that was a real howl…

Quincy Jones The Girl is Mine was fun: Paul was in Tucson and we had to go down there and work with him for two or three days, which was fun, and rehearsing the song, and finding things to make them tailor-made for him, like the verse at the end and the rap that they had, fighting over the same girl.

David Paich (keyboards) Working with Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson on a duet, The Girl is Mine: that was a very magical night. Even though I wished it had been a better piece of material, it was great working with those two people…

In between takes there is me, [guitarist] Lukather, [drummer] Jeff Porcaro, and we’re jamming… with Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, singing all these Stevie Wonder songs. Linda is about two inches away, snapping all these photographs of me and everybody else in the room.

Quincy Jones [Beat It] was really key to this record, with its power, with everything it has, because I said at the time, ‘I need a song like [The Knack’s 1979 hit] My Sharona – we need a black version.’ That’s a strong rock ‘n’ roll thing there – that has the power of everything else [Jackson] writes. And he says, ‘I got something here but I don’t have any voices on it.’ It was just what we needed. I decided to call Eddie Van Halen, and I didn’t know him, to come play the solo on Beat It.

Eddie Van Halen (guitar soloist) Everybody [from his band, Van Halen] was out of town and I figured, ‘Who’s gonna know if I play on this kid’s record?’

Steve Lukather (guitars/bass) Quincy Jones [said Beat It] was way too heavy and to tone it down – it’s Michael’s record, not Led Zeppelin’s. So I went back in and re-recorded it. Basically, me and [drummer] Jeff Porcaro remade that record to Michael’s vocals, Eddie’s solo and Michael playing two and four on a drum case. We spent a lot of time messing around with that song and to be honest, when we heard it I was like, ‘This is rock ‘n’ roll? I don’t think so.’

Quincy Jones Toto, whom I just adored – [writer/keyboard player Steve] Pocaro, all those guys, Lukather – they sent over two songs they thought might be right for Michael and we left the tape on and forgot to take it off, the tape with the first two songs – which were OK but we were not impressed, you know?

And all of a sudden, at the end, there was all this silence and then [sings the melody to Human Nature]: ‘Why, why, da-dum dah dah da-dum dah dah, why, why…’ Just a dummy lyric and a very skeletal thing and I get goosebumps talking about it. I said, ‘This is where we wanna go ‘cos it’s got such a wonderful flavour.’

Brian Banks You gotta remember the time and place. The record business was in the dumps right then. I remember one night, when they were looking at a bunch of proofs, large blow-ups of the [eventual image for the vinyl] centrefold, spread out on the console, and I was just there in the background doing my thing while Quincy was talking. ‘Off the Wall’, I think it sold something like eight million records, and I remember Quincy saying – I’m paraphrasing here – ‘the record business is not what it was a couple of years ago, and if we get six million out of [‘Thriller’], I’m gonna declare that a success.’ And what’d they do, 53 million or something? It was in that context that it did 53 million…

The Girl is Mine trailed the ‘Thriller’ album in 1982, and reached Number 2. It was followed by two Number 1 singles with great videos in 1983, Billie Jean and Beat It. Three more singles followed, each stalling lower down the charts (‘Thriller’ was the first album to spawn seven Top 10 hits; only Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ and Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’ have managed the same feat since), and without their own videos. Then Michael Jackson had an idea…

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