May 09


FT + Popular/145 comments • 14,002 views

#516, 5th March 1983

Michael Jackson came to the title “King of Pop” in the style of a medieval ruler, carving out his realm piece by piece across a hard year of campaigning. He won some of his new subjects when he performed this song as part of a Motown anniversary special: others when he formed common cause with Eddie Van Halen or Paul McCartney. His fiefdom suddenly extended across my school playground with the release of the “Thriller” video and its body popping zombies. Through it all the album and its spin-offs sold, and sold, and sold. “Billie Jean”, its Wikipedia page claims, has now topped 800,000 sales as a digital download, a format invented close to 20 years after its release.

What few mentioned was how strange Thriller was, how odd and sincere and childlike in some places, and how nightmarish in others. Half the record is heartbreakingly tender, the other half hard-edged and horribly tight-wound. Jackson’s stuck in the middle, and the pain is thunder: uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

“Billie Jean” itself is the album’s darkest moment, where the goblin babble pressing in on Jackson during “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” goes fully internal and the barely-together bundle of tics that became Jackson’s star persona steps into the spotlight. Jackson’s one-take vocal is a long shudder – the gollum-gulp on “her schemes and plans”, the betrayed moan of “his eyes were like mine” – and the real craziness happens on its fringes. That contradictory “do think twice!”/”don’t think twice!” collision; the constant “ooh”, “oh”, and “no!” echoes; the clucks and gasps; and especially the madman’s comic book laugh punctuating the track, that eerily deliberate “hee hee hee”.

And of course this near-meltdown is the album’s most grippingly commercial moment too. Jackson’s claustrophobic performance is boxed in by stalking bass and arid drums, underlined by clawing and skittering guitars, counterpointed by those sensuous flushes of strings. A song about the fatal irresistibility of a dancer really does need to be irresistible on the dancefloor: at a hundred million weddings and discos since, “Billie Jean” has proved its mettle in that respect. But when you follow Jackson’s performance down and in, none of that matters – “Billie Jean” is a disquieting, troubled record.



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  1. 31
    Steve Mannion on 18 May 2009 #

    I would like to have seen more pop stars make claims based more on chess pieces as equivalent to Jacko’s King. Outhere Brothers as cavorting knights, PSBs as the dutiful bishops and PJ & Duncan as yer canny rooks.

  2. 32
    Steve Mannion on 18 May 2009 #

    As for ‘Wanna Be Startin Something’, I only recently heard the excellent ‘Soul Makossa’ for the first time I’m ashamed to say.

  3. 33
    Conrad on 18 May 2009 #

    loved the ‘mash-up’ (can you call it that in 1983? can you call it that in 2009 come to think), or was it two actual re-recordings (probably the latter) brought to us by Clubhouse in the Summer of 83 (Billie Jean vs Steely Dan’s Do It Again).

  4. 34
    Conrad on 18 May 2009 #

    I like that “Fish Rising” keeps cropping up in the unlikeliest of places.

    Shame MJ didn’t enlist Steve Hillage for axe duties on ‘Beat It’, now that would have been startin’ something

  5. 35
    koganbot on 18 May 2009 #

    Isn’t this only problematic in theory tho? It’s never stopped people having as a good a time to this as any song.

    I agree. Michael pours forth his dilemmas but he doesn’t endeavor to make you feel them. Whereas groups like the Stones and Public Enemy want to hurt you and trip you up, and bank on your getting off on it.

  6. 36
    Kat but logged out innit on 18 May 2009 #

    I think I’d give Thriller a 10 and this an 8. And not just because I can play the bassline to the former for the entire song in the right key without my hand cramping up. Obviously the video for Thriller had a massive impression on me from an early stage but I could only ever remember the light-up dancefloor from BJ (later viewings: ‘who is the detective dude? Why has he disappeared? WHAT WHAT I DON’T REMEMBER THIS’ etc). I prefer Jackson’s vocal on Thriller as well (night creatures calling etc) but that doesn’t mean Billie isn’t a cracking record – just not Jackson’s best. And definitely not his best #1.

  7. 37
    Steve Mannion on 18 May 2009 #

    Surely it IS his best #1, looking at the alternatives. I’m not sure what you have in mind as superior.

  8. 38
    Tom on 18 May 2009 #

    And we won’t be finding out either ;)

  9. 39
    wichitalineman on 18 May 2009 #

    Re 30: Well, that’s his nickname, it wasn’t my opinion. But I’ll resist rising to the bait, I will…

    This could be one for Lord Sukrat – is MJ calling himself King of Pop in the spirit of King Oliver and Duke Ellington?

    As for Queen Aretha, it’s a sad reaction but you can kind of understand. Tina Turner?! A bit like The Hollies being introduced as the Fab Four.

    Re 31: Or types of penguin? Elvis as King, MJ as Emperor, Adam Ant as Macaroni… not sure who’d be Erect Crested.

  10. 40
    Steve Mannion on 18 May 2009 #

    Baltimora as chocolatey biscuit-based snack

  11. 41

    “erect crested” would be the once and future king: wattie from the exploited

    i think james brown’s playful and disorientating flood of absurd self-proclaimed titles (Minister of New New Super Heavy Funk) absolutely fits into the king oliver/count basie mode — brown always insisted* jazz was a component of his music, and it was riding high when he was a kid — as noted above, MJ is very self-consciously JB’s successor in a lot of ways; brown is like the school MJ studied at

  12. 42

    i forget what the apostrophe was for, something deep no doubt

  13. 43
    Tracer Hand on 18 May 2009 #

    We will be playing the original demo of Billie Jean on Lollards, this Saturday (the 23rd) – you can hear MJ kind of making up the words!

  14. 44
    Matthew K on 19 May 2009 #

    Brilliant review, made it new for me again. But dear god – this is an ELEVEN in terms of pop genius and chart history.

  15. 45
    Doctor Casino on 19 May 2009 #

    Good song, probably great song, but have never really felt a personal love for it myself. You definitely [i]can[/i] dance to it but somehow I’m not drawn to – whereas “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” for example is just utterly irresistible on all levels – that would be a 9 or 10 from me depending on my mood. “PYT” would be way up there also.

  16. 46
    Doctor Casino on 19 May 2009 #

    Good song, probably great song, but have never really felt a personal love for it myself. You definitely can dance to it but somehow I’m not drawn to – whereas “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” for example is just utterly irresistible on all levels – that would be a 9 or 10 from me depending on my mood. “PYT” would be way up there also.

  17. 47
    Snif on 19 May 2009 #

    Steve at #31 – do you think anyone’s likely to declare themselves as pawns?

  18. 48
    Steve Mannion on 19 May 2009 #

    uh, MiniPops?

  19. 49
    Rob K on 19 May 2009 #

    Woah Tom, I’m amazed you’ve not given this a ten, I thought it was a given! I’m in complete agreement though. The thing that marks this song down for me is the voice. Not the tics, the inflections or the mannerisms that MJ came to rely on, but the voice itself.

    Blunty speaking, it’s not very good! Paper thin, reedy, produced-to-the-max-at-all-times and weak as piss. And that was in 1982, imagine what the paying public at the O2 are going to get? As it goes, mainly miming, just as they did in the BAD tour in the late eighties.

    Still, it’s a tune and a half, and is a terrific representation of Jackson as the all conquering mega-star, before he disappeared down the road of exaggeration, self parody and then artistic death. Shame. 9.

  20. 50
    H. on 19 May 2009 #

    I may have remembered this wrong, but my feeling is that at this time he wasn’t yet thought of as weird, at least not by the general public. The Wacko Jacko thing came a few years later. Which makes tying in the song’s creepiness with the Jackson public persona a bit retrospective…

  21. 51
    mike on 19 May 2009 #

    Hmm. Objectively a classic, but I have to line up behind those who have admitted to never feeling the love. In particular, I agree with Billy Smart at #21: “There’s some level of empathetic human engagement that I can’t find in there.” / “I just feel that something got lost between 1979 and 1982. An instinctive gaiety of spirit, perhaps.”

    As for its alleged dancefloor classic status: 1983 was the year I started going clubbing a lot, and this never got played at any of the clubs that I was going to, in Nottingham or in London or in Berlin.

    Off The Wall had been so fantastic, as well. “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” was just about the first record I ever danced to in a disco, on its first week in the Top 40. “Off The Wall” reminds me of the day we came into the London department store for a Sunday stock check, again when the song had just charted. Somebody had brought in a radio, and this came on, and all the shopgirls on our floor cheered, stopped work, and started dancing behind the counters, their faces pictures of bliss. (It’s a scene which has never left me.) And “Rock With You” is just perfect in every way.

    But Thriller? I remember it getting a sniffy dismissal in the NME in December 1982, and I remember sniffily dismissing it myself: as an ungainly stab at being all things to all men, which had snuffed out its soul in the process.

    And then, more gradually than you’d think, the album wormed its way into ubiquity, over a period of some fifteen months or so… and the very fact of its ubiquity couldn’t help but change your own relationship with it. The whole world – really, the WHOLE WORLD – seemed to fall in love with Jackson, and there was something thrilling just in that fact itself. Pop was becoming newly globalised, and maybe “Billie Jean” marked the first staging post in the “Big Is Best” path that would eventually lead to Live Aid.

    So I learnt to appreciate “Billie Jean”, even if I could never quite love it. “Human Nature” and “Wanna Be Starting Something” would be my picks from the album… which I never felt the need to buy, or even tape from a friend, as its everywhere-ness meant that there was simply no need. An 8 from me.

  22. 52
    Pete on 19 May 2009 #

    All thinking about Michael Jackson for me lives in opposition to anything off of Off The Wall – it being THE BIG FAMILY ALBUM (the only album we owned that everyone liked). I have no idea why we didn’t buy Thriller under the circumstances – though I think the zombie video and air of silliness around Vincent Price may have alienated pragmatic parents. As such I don’t really remember hearing Billie Jean much (no idea why) and have even subsequently remarked on how surprised I was that it was a number one.

    So this cultural blindness (deafness) continued way into my peripatetic DJ-ing career. I remember Carsmile suggesting it at a wedding we played and me pooh-poohing it, it just simply had not crossed my mind that it was dancefloor crack, and still in some ways surprises me now. I like to dance to it, but I equally like to laugh at the little bow tie and in many ways my lack of connection to it means I relate to it much like I relate to other second hand bits of culture (things that people told me were good before I realised myself): so it lives in a box with much of the work of Dickens and Taxi Driver!

    So an uninvolved seven from me.

  23. 53
    mike on 19 May 2009 #

    #50 – Agreed, the Wacko Jacko stuff didn’t start appearing until, ooh, late 1984 maybe? (Although those of us who had read Danny Baker’s brilliant and hilarious NME feature on The Jacksons a few years earlier were under no illusions at to MJ’s strangeness.) Similarly, “King of Pop” was an early 1990s invention as I recall.

    Incidentally, my ambivalence about Thriller hasn’t stopped me from buying a ticket to see MJ at the O2, on his second night of the run. It might well be awful, but it’s certainly not going to be boring.

  24. 54

    when was danny baker’s nme interview with him? he came across as quite strange in that — incredibly insecure and confused about boundaries, basically

    the fostering of the “wacko jacko” image came later, and — afaict — was a kind of media bafflescreen, which he partly cooked up himself, with his promo team, to ensure the right kind of publicity AND the right kind of non-intrusion (ie if you’re a well-known to be an eccentric, you give yourself a lot of latitude for behaviour towards the media: capricious reclusiveness taken to belong in the same bag as wanting to buy the elephant man’s skeleton* and sleeping in an oxygen tent)

    *the internet isn’t telling me the date of the would-be skeleton purchase — wikipedia makes it sound as if it was post-2003, but i think that’s just an extremely confusing story edit: it was mid-80s i’m convinced

    i recall swellsy at nme arguing that jackson had confused joseph (or john) merrick with john (or joe) mellers — ie that jackson actually wanted to buy joe strummer’s skeleton

  25. 55
    mike on 19 May 2009 #

    The Danny Baker NME feature was 1980, I think. Excerpts are here…

  26. 56
    Billy Smart on 19 May 2009 #

    Re #51: IIRC (don’t have my magazines to hand) the Danny Baker MJ interview was in 1981, around the time of the release of ‘Can You Feel It?’. The cover of that issus also includes perhaps my favourite ever NME strapline “DONCASTER WELCOMES FUTURISM” (coverage of Futurama festival)

    There was a second Danny Baker/ Michael Jackson interview in the summer of 1992. Oddly for such a genuine scoop, the NME put Ice T on the cover that week.

  27. 57

    the 80s being the 80s, there was a fair amount of discussion among music writers (off the page) that “thriller” (song and video) was a coded coming-out song (though i doubt i myself heard or had the discussion at the time: i was writing for nme by the very end of 83, but not hanging with the name-writers)

    the first critical discussion i recall of the weird extremism of some of his lyrics was koganbot writing in the early 90s in “why music sucks” about the song that alien ant farm covered (ie smooth criminal: “He Came Into Her Apartment/He Left The Bloodstains On The Carpet”)

  28. 58
    wichitalineman on 19 May 2009 #

    Pete at 52: “Air of silliness” is right. Most MJ lovers I know are a few years younger than me. Thriller, its video, and its Vincent Price narrative seemed somewhat unbecoming of a man in his mid twenties. How little we (allegedly) knew. I found the sobbing on She’s Out Of My Life pretty tawdry, but there was nothing “silly” about Off The Wall, it was as well-respected as anything Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye would have come out with around the same time. Both were fellow Motown alumni who were known to be a little odd, but would never have released something as daft as Thriller.*

    Re 57: I’m guessing the Smooth Criminal lyric comes from the same part of his barely-adult mind that gave us Beat It (anti-violence? It makes 80s gang culture sound like West Side Story) and Dirty Diana (or Dirty Miss Ross as she’d rather it was known). I don’t find this sinister or extreme, just a little sad.

    *though, respectively, in ’83 they were concocting a gruesome Bunny-embargoed 45 that MUST be a joke, and Masochistic Beauty, on which MG announces “it is my duty to spank your booty” in a voice pitched between Chris Eubank and Terry-Thomas. If they were trying to outweird each other, MJ came a distant third.

  29. 59
    Martin Skidmore on 19 May 2009 #

    I’m with Tom on the mark. This is also the subject of one of my all-time favourite remixes, by I think Bushwacka! – must remember to check at home tonight.

  30. 60
    mike on 19 May 2009 #

    #56 – That 1992 Baker/Jacko NME interview was a fantasy spoof though, surely?

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