In late summer 1979, my friend Davitt Sigerson – then a writer on black music, later the chairman of Island Records in America – handed me an advance copy of Off the Wall and said it was going to make Michael Jackson a superstar.
The cover wasn’t promising: in his tux and afro, the winsome kid who had fronted the Jackson Five looked about as off-the-wall as a student on his way to a high-school prom. But one listen to “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough”, the album’s electrifyingly funky first track, was more than enough to suggest that Sigerson might have been right. An intoxicating mix of stabbing horns, ultra-syncopated Latin percussion and Jackson’s own feverish falsetto yelps, “Don’t Stop” propelled Seventies black dance music into a new dimension. The ultra-choreographed, X-Factor-dominated world we now live in surely started here.
Michael had always been the star in the Jackson Five, coyly knowing beyond his years and in total command of the stage. Who at the time knew the abusive regimen that lay behind his expert synchronisation and effortless grace? He and his brothers had always looked so darned happy. Even when Jackson reached puberty, his pint-sized frame stretching out into long, gangly limbs, he was magnetic.
Michael Jackson was not an innovator. He did not shape the course of African-American pop music in the way James Brown or Stevie Wonder or Sly Stone or Jimi Hendrix or Prince shaped it. What he possessed was a vision of what an African-American entertainer could be, taking Berry Gordy’s original conceit of crafting black pop for white teenagers, and making it global.
The producer Quincy Jones helped Jackson to pull the various strands of black pop together into one irresistible signature, using the cream of LA studio musicians and technicians to achieve it. Blending the vocal and melodic influences of Motown icons such as Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson with the smooth, late-Seventies pop-soul sensibility of Heatwave and the Brothers Johnson, Jackson and Jones co-piloted an album that offered something for everyone: the ecstatic propulsion of “Don’t Stop”, the creamy groove of “Rock With You”, or the snivelly abjection of “She’s Out of My Life”.
After the Matterhorn, Everest: Jackson had had a taste of superstardom and now felt compelled to better it. Thriller took the template of its predecessor and expanded it. Hiring the guitarist Eddie Van Halen to blare all over “Beat It” was as premeditated as enlisting Paul McCartney to simper beside Jackson on “The Girl is Mine”. But the dizzying energy of “Don’t Stop” suffused the manic “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”, and the whole of Off the Wall was decisively trumped by “Billie Jean”, a sinuously funky account of facing a paternity suit brought by a deranged groupie. The morning after Jackson performed the song at Motown’s 25th-anniversary show in March 1983, dancing for 47 million people with supernatural self-assurance, he was unarguably the biggest star on the planet. The video for the album’s title track made him the icon of MTV.
Then it all started to unravel as Jackson began to display all the pathologies and dysfunctions of the child star. For an essentially shy, frightened, immature and (as we later discovered) badly abused 24-year-old suddenly to discover that he was the most famous person on earth was bound to do strange things to his fragile mind. Bad (1987) wasn’t just bad, it was wholly untrue to his real musical impulses, as fake as his increasingly weird physical appearance and his daft Ruritanian outfits. At a time when Jackson’s closest black rival, Prince, was dazzling us with Parade and Sign ‘O’ the Times – and when Public Enemy and NWA were turning hip-hop into the real cutting edge of African-American street culture – Jackson was . . . er, a bit naff.
Actually, he’d always been naff but it hadn’t mattered while he was making music as fresh as “Billie Jean”. With Bad and its equally horrible successors Dangerous (1991), HIStory (1995) and Invincible (2001), he seemed to be second-guessing what the public wanted instead of listening to his own instincts. More to the point, he had lost touch with everything that had made him great. When Jarvis Cocker jumped onstage during Jackson’s performance of the hideously messianic “Earth Song” at the 1996 Brit Awards, miming the wafting of a fart in the audience’s direction, he was puncturing the balloon of a megalomania that made all but the most myopic fans cringe.
Any credibility Jackson had was now gone, and the desperate auto-coronation of “the King of Pop” – a specious term coined by Elizabeth Taylor, another chronically damaged child star – only made matters worse. The pubescent sleepovers at Neverland came as no great surprise.
Peter Pan a paedophile? Tell us something we hadn’t guessed long ago.
Ultimately, Jackson’s tragedy isn’t so extraordinary; it was merely played out on an unprecedented scale. No amount of fame and money was going to heal the psychic wounds of the little boy beaten by his father, Joe. Classic addiction patterns were evident from the moment the surgeons started chiselling away at Michael’s face. Anyone who watched those Martin Bashir interviews will recall the grotesque scene in which Jackson the shopaholic casually dropped $3.6m on a single shopping trip, mainly for vases. Then, finally, came the miserable predictability of his addiction to prescription drugs. Well, at least he didn’t die on a toilet seat.
Michael Jackson was not the first entertainer to be driven insane by fame and he won’t be the last – look at Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse and Eminem. But if there are no lessons learned from the pitiful last years of the King of Pop’s life, surely we are all culpable.
Barney Hoskyns is editorial director of Rock’s Backpages; http://rocksbackpages.com