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Michael Jackson: The boy in the bubble

Released 30 years ago, Michael Jackson’s album Thriller was the beginning of his assault on the white pop world. It’s so dazzling it makes you forget what happened to Jackson next.

A still from John Landis's video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller".

There’s a video on YouTube of an eight-year-old autistic boy standing six inches away from the TV, mirroring every dance move to Michael Jackson’s song “Thriller” with academic precision. Most of the comments have been flagged as inappropriate. It’s a shame that the 30th anniversary of the release of the album of the same name comes in the midst of the current Jimmy Savile scandal, but it’s impossible to talk about Jackson without mentioning children because, like all great performers – Freddie Mercury, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift – he had a direct line to their brains; the magical ability to communicate on all levels that separates megastars from mere pop stars.

No one knew quite what to say when Jacko died in 2009 at the age of 50. Some said they “saw that coming”, which is also what they said about Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse. It seemed disingenuous – if anything, all three had been conveniently, temporarily forgotten like the mad woman in the attic. Perhaps the world is now ready to accept, all over again, that Jackson was the greatest pop star who ever lived. He broke the race barrier, redefined the pop video and forged a sound so pervasive that it can be heard in the songs of Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Nicky Minaj and a whole host of twenty somethings who were not even born during his glory years. Which brings us back to that kid in front of the TV. The record that achieved all these things was Thriller.

Just before its release in December 1982, Jackson did one of his last ever interviews, with Smash Hits magazine. At 25, six years before he moved into his Californian ranch, Neverland, he is already a prisoner in his own home. Disney is building a full-scale replica of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland in the house, he explains down the phone: “Animatronics – where the faces move, the figures move, the eyebrows move, and their eyes and their bodies, and they shoot. When you step in there’s going to be a whole war going on!”

He still lives with his mother, father and two of his sisters: “I’d die of loneliness if I moved out.” He speaks of his friendship with Mark Lester, the child star from the film Oliver! and his “phone friend” Adam Ant, whom he’s never met. He asks Smash Hits to “say hi” to his friends Paul and Linda McCartney. And he talks with awe about Katherine Hepburn, J M Barrie and Steven Spielberg. He recently gave the latter a book on Walt Disney “and he said it was the best present he had ever gotten”.

Ask him about music and you’re talking to an entirely different person. “I don’t think I do represent disco,” he says, politely but firmly. The Beatles were great, he concedes, but the songs of the Motown songwriting team of Holland- Dozier-Holland come close. And he can’t abide musicians trading off one hit for their whole careers – “no self-discipline . . .”

By the time Jackson signed his first solo record deal at the age of 17, in 1975, he’d already had a dozen years experience in show business. He was so sharp at the age of ten that the soul singer Joe Simon wondered if he might actually be a midget: “His father was a slick businessman, I had heard. It would’ve been just like him to pass a midget off as a child.” Jackson’s ability to make strong connections with people a lot older than himself – a process he reversed later on – was normal in the life of a child star and might shed light on his connection with the producer Quincy Jones, who worked on both Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller.
 
The pair first met when Jackson was ten, and again later when he was playing the Scarecrow in Sidney Lumet’s production of The Wiz. As with all historic collaborations, people argue over who brought the magic to the table. Jones gave Jackson a makeover: he advised him to sing a third lower for a more lustrous sound and hired a vocal coach to increase his range. He waded through dozens of songs to search for the ones with the “goosebumps”. But Jackson was already producing and arranging on Off the Wall and wrote four tracks for that album including “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough”, his first number one since the song about the pet rat (“Ben”). The English songwriter Rod Temperton, formerly of the band Heatwave, noticed Jackson’s innovative use of short, staccato melodies, so different from the structures that defined the disco songs of the 1970s.

Off the Wall won Jackson a host of awards – all the black ones. Billboard’s Top Black Artist and Top Black Album, a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. He was not at all happy; it should have been record of the year, he said. By the time he started work on Thriller, in the spring of 1982, it wasn’t just about making an album that was even better – it was about cracking the white market and the world.

The first track they laid down was “The Girl Is Mine”, in which he and phone-friend Paul McCartney fight over a lady. It’s the only song on the album that makes you cringe today but it’s a damn sight subtler than McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s “Ebony And Ivory”. Eddie Van Halen was drafted in for a very non disco guitar solo on “Beat It” (Jones had asked Jackson to write a “black ‘My Sharona’”). Jackson fought hard to keep the 29-second instrumental intro on “Billie Jean” because it “made him want to dance” – funny to think that Jones wanted to lose what became the song’s most celebrated feature, because he didn’t think it would work on the radio.

Then there was the title track – or rather, that wonderful, preposterous, camp, 14-minute “motion picture short” narrated by Vincent Price and directed by John “Werewolf” Landis. MTV, then in its infancy, had barely shown a black face until 1982 (CBS Records’ president Walter Yetnikoff had apparently threatened to boycott them, saying, “I’m going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact you don’t want to play music by a black guy”). Suddenly “Thriller” was being aired twice an hour to meet demand. A giant step in the history of race relations in music had been made but most of the world was too busy learning the dance routine to notice.

This was a vision informed as much by Broadway, Disney and MGM as by pop music – a product of Jackson’s own, strange, secluded dream world. No wonder Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, child stars themselves in Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club TV show, declared him their biggest influence when it wasn’t even fashionable to do so.

Music critics love to discourse on when an artist “lost it”, when things started to go wrong. Looking at Jackson’s life and work that way is a complete waste of time. He wasn’t “OK” when he made Thriller – he was building “Pirates Of the Caribbean” in his bedroom. In a 1979 interview he talks about feeling so lonely he walks the streets at night to try to find someone to talk to. On a Thriller documentary made at the time, John Landis says, innocently, that for Jackson the video was all about transformation: “He wanted to turn into a monster, I don’t know why. I told him it would be unpleasant!” The physical changes Jackson would undergo as a result of cosmetic surgery over the next few years were rather more time-consuming, painful and self-punishing.

One of the reasons Thriller still sounds so brilliant today is that what came next never enters your head. The record exists in a bubble – it remains a Technicolour, transformative experience that seems to come from a more distant age in entertainment, when the product mattered more than all the lives that went into it. You can watch any of those great Hollywood movies without thinking about Joan Crawford’s coat hangers, or Charlie Chaplin’s taste for teens, or the real-life madness of Vivien Leigh.

Those people were Jackson’s heroes and in a strange way he belonged with them. Smash Hits asked the 25-year-old who he would most like to meet in the world. “I wanted to meet Walt Disney but he died,” he replied. “I wanted to meet Charlie Chaplin but he died. There’s nobody that I would really want to meet.”

Kate Mossman is the NS’s pop critic