Audacious talent clouded by a troubled life - Michael Jackson remembered 10 years after his death
- Credit: WireImage
Record shop owner Andrew Worsdale, who runs Holt Vinyl Vault, on Michael Jackson's life from talented teen to troubled icon
When I was growing up, my favourite record was Jonathan King's Everyone's Gone to The Moon. It was released four years ahead of the moon landings, and King's dark-edged but gentle ode to suburban alienation suited me perfectly, though of course I would hardly have expressed my feelings about the song in those terms when I was five.
I never forgot King's song, and when, 30 years later, I wrote my first pop novel with my best friend, drawing on 100 pop tunes to tell our story, King's visionary effort had to be there, right at the start. Like him, I'd passed through the weirdly alien environment of Cambridge University by then, so I felt I understood him better, although on TV his boastful manner still gave me the creeps, much like a certain disc jockey called James Savile.
We were of course to learn much more about these predatory men in the years to come, and also quite a bit that was unsavoury about another teenage idol of mine, one Michael Jackson from Gary, Indiana. With his four older brothers, Michael had first thrilled us with his rendition of Bobby Day's Rockin' Robin on Top of The Pops. Watch it again and marvel at how the pre-teen at the front carries the whole performance, singing live with his astonishing range and a verve that only perhaps a similarly-aged Stevie Wonder had displayed a decade before. Little did we know that those goofy dance moves were perfected at the risk of a severe beating from father Joe if anybody missed a step or a beat, or that Michael had to sleep in the same room as his brothers, as they "partied" with numerous young women after the show. Innocence, of course, was never something which Michael was permitted.
The Jackson 5 quickly became all about the lead singer, and the parallel solo career began. The high point for the band was Let Me Show You, one of the most glorious records of the decade, with Michael breaking free from his brothers' embrace at the end to turn a perfect pop song into, seemingly, a joyful jam session. It is a truly marvellous record. But business dictated that more money could be made by further prising away the lead singer, just as had happened with Diana Ross and The Supremes.
Michael, was now paired up by Epic Records with Quincy Jones, with a mission to boldly go where no man had gone before in the field of corporate entertainment. The results were initially astonishing: Michael might mumble rather disturbingly over an intriguing bass line for the opening seconds of the Off The Wall LP, but the "whoop" he delivers ahead of that astonishing, gravity-defying backing track on Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough is a moment of pop history to match Little Richard's "whop-bop-a-loo-bop" holler as he launched Tutti Frutti two decades before. With its astonishing rhythmic fluidity overlaid by Michael's swooning if indecipherable delivery, this is an incredibly propitious start to an adult career, especially as the song credit is Michael's own.
Quincy stayed on board for 1982's Thriller, and this time four of the nine songs are Michael's, with a little more (ahem) "help" from his friend Paul McCartney on one disastrous track, The Girl Is Mine. Compared to its predecessor, the other tunes are patchy at best. The title track, in particular, is a lame rehash of the previous album's title track, by the same songwriter, and with a signature so-called "rap" phoned in by Vincent Price that's a pale shadow of the same trick, performed with such relish an Alice Cooper's Black Widow seven years before. Michael sounds weirdly frantic on Beat It and Billie Jean which, despite the brooding brilliance of the backing track, is undermined by weird, if prophetic, vocal protestations that "the kid is not my son". Or maybe Michael was already getting his own back on Joe?
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It might have gone down in history as the biggest-seller of all time, but the album was a relative flop until megabucks were deployed to make THAT zombie video, as pop became increasingly cinematic in its scope amid the rise of MTV. This trend would continue with Bad, an album where the music really lived down to its title, and thereafter the albums became increasingly embarrassing.
Nobody cared, though, because MJ had donned a glove and a hat, and had learned to moonwalk. The biggest star on the planet eventually attempted to go all messianic with The Earth Song, screaming "What about us??!!" through the eye of a CGI hurricane, and Jarvis Cocker spoke for the thinking majority when he ridiculed the spectacle in front of the naughty boy-turned-messiah at The Brits.
Meanwhile, Michael's private life, if such a thing were ever possible in his case, descended into sham marriages, kids wrapped in or even named after blankets, and a theme park where it's alleged abuse was meted out to young boys by the star, who having been denied a teenhood seemingly devoured the teenhoods of his disciples. By the early part of this century, the biggest showbiz career the world had known lay close to collapse.
How could the empire be remonetised? Well, Prince had performed 21 nights in London in 2007, so now Michael was scheduled for 50, in a charade termed 'This Is It', launched with a bizarrely brief press conference. His pill-addled, retooled body couldn't take it, of course. Michael died during rehearsals, and all the negativity was cast off as fans desperately sought the self-same artefacts they'd been happy to send to landfill in the preceding years, and eBay went into meltdown. I know, because I was a small part of it.
Others who'd bought those million concert tickets were encouraged to accept a souvenir golden memento of the night that never happened, rather than seek a refund. Then the allegations started coming in posthumous earnest, and everyone felt tarnished all over again, and slightly foolish.