Michael Jackson: The Making of ‘The King of Pop’
A rare look inside the reclusive superstar's Neverland ranch, and a report on one of the most expensive albums everJune 25, 2015
The Seven Dwarfs are singing. Their voices are floating out of speakers hidden among the trees and lush flora surrounding Michael Jackson’s mansion, in Neverland Valley — his 2700-acre, $22 million oasis in the Santa Ynez Valley, an hour north of Santa Barbara, California. “Michael’s very own Xanadu,” as his friend director John Landis puts it.
At Neverland Jackson has created a secluded and secure environment far from businessmen, attorneys, managers, music-television-channel VIPs and even members of his immediate family. Here he can stand in front of his house and the only sounds to hear are the birds in the oak and sycamore trees and, of course, the Seven Dwarfs. And if he chooses to gaze past the expansive lake that stretches out in front of his three-story Tudoresque country home, past the lush green lawns and neatly manicured flower beds, the bronze statues of young boys beating tambourines or playing toy accordions, he sees simply a peaceful hillside dotted with oaks.
In any direction, as far as the eye can see, lies Michael Jackson’s Magic Kingdom. “Sure he’s a little afraid of people,” says choreographer Vince Paterson. “When you have people that, from the time you’re a little kid, want you, they want pieces of you, they want your clothes, they want your hair — you’re going to get nervous around people.”
But here at Neverland, protected by armed guards that patrol the grounds around the clock, Jackson doesn’t have to be around people. And he never has to grow up.
Though Jackson is now a thirty-three-year-old man, his associates and friends say he still has the interests and enthusiasms of a child, and at Neverland he has created the ultimate child’s playground. “Being with Michael is like being in Santa’s workshop,” says Paterson.
Santa has been working overtime at Neverland. One can ride a turn-of-the-century C.P. Huntington amusement-park-style train that holds several dozen passengers. Hop on board and it will take you from the main house out past an Indian village (tepees, full-size replicas of Native Americans, a totem pole and campfire), a two-story fort (complete with hefty artillery that shoots water) and an amusement park (including a carousel with custom-made, hand-painted animals, a Ferris wheel, a three-story-high slide and a heart-stopping ride called the Zipper).
Continue on and you’ll see the $2 million-plus Neverland Cinema complex (where Cape Fear is playing tonight, according to signs posted at every stop along the train’s route). Walk in and feast your eyes on the candy counter, filled with every kind of popcorn and confection imaginable. On either side of the large main projection room you’ll find separate glassed-in viewing rooms, complete with beds for children who are ill.
Ride past the zoo, with its horses and zebra, buffalo and chimpanzees, ostriches and swans, deer and llamas. And the zonkey (a cross between a zebra and a donkey). And let’s not forget the three giraffes.
Or go boating in the lake. You can choose between a swan boat, a canoe and a red dinghy. Perhaps you’re up for playing some kind of electronic game. The rec building contains two floors of arcade games ranging from Sega’s Time Traveler hologram unit and Galaxy Force Version 2 to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and something called Ghosttown.
At night, Neverland looks like it has been sprinkled with a kind of high-tech fairy dust. Out by the amusement park, for instance, Jackson has had white lights installed up the trunk and on the branches of the oak trees. As these lights flash on and off, glittering trees appear to materialize before one’s eyes, only to vanish. A winding yellow-brick road (with recessed gold-colored lights) leads to the amusement park, which is lit against the black sky. Back at the house, the lake, the statues and the wood and stone buildings themselves look like set pieces from a fairy tale.
Amid this magical environment, Jackson will sometimes get in the outdoor Jacuzzi, remove a large piece of stone that conceals a TV and VCR and, sitting beneath the stars, watch one of the hundreds of videos that are stored in his tape library upstairs in the main house.
Jackson frequently has children over to play. According to his personal spokesperson, Bob Jones (who first worked with Jackson at Motown when the singer was a member of the Jackson 5), these regularly include “busloads” of underprivileged and terminally ill kids (such as the late Ryan White), as well as young personal friends of the superstar.
“When the children are here, sometimes they get so excited they just can’t go to sleep,” says Lee Tucker, who helped design Jackson’s movie theater and serves as his projectionist. “I’ll get a call at 2:00 a.m. sometimes: ‘Lee, can you show such-and-such movie?’ Neverland isn’t about kids going to sleep at a certain time. The kids really run the place when they’re here.”
Jackson is extremely fond of children. Those who know him believe that one reason he can relax with kids is that he truly believes they like him for himself, not because he’s a big star. As one associate observed, “If you’re under three feet tall, you can have complete access to Michael Jackson.”
Jackson’s house is exquisitely furnished. The main floor includes an oak-paneled library stocked with rare editions of classics by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and dozens of others. The spacious living room houses a Bo-sendorfer custom-made rosewood piano and numerous rare art pieces, among them a Raymond Bigot sculpture of a rooster and chickens. There is a roomy den with a Bouquet Canyon stone fireplace, a fully equipped professional kitchen and a spacious dining room with its own fireplace. Down a hall is Jackson’s bedroom, which is off limits to most visitors; it looks out onto a garden enclosed by a six-foot-high stone wall.
While the main floor would make an English lord feel right at home, the upstairs is, like the grounds of the estate, filled with the stuff that children dream about. There is a doll bedroom, a large room with a canopied bed that is crowded with dozens of dolls. Many more dolls, some with sad faces, some smiling, peer at you from every nook and cranny. A three-story, elaborately furnished doll house containing miniature figures sits on one side of the room. Wizard of Oz plates and jack-in-the-boxes, each featuring Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man or one of the other primary characters, have been placed on shelves. There is an old-fashioned typewriter with a piece of paper in it on which someone has typed: “And all we want for Christmas …” Sitting on an end table is Shirley Temple Black’s autobiography, Child Star.
Another room is jammed with children’s games and toys. There are coloring books and crayons, a gun that shoots soap bubbles. A table full of trucks and cars and spaceships. In front of a window stand life-size cutouts of Batman and the Joker. Simpsons characters are everywhere.
A narrow staircase leads up to the train room, half of which is filled with an elaborate Lionel set. In addition to the trains on the track, there are more in unopened boxes on the floor. Another part of the room is covered with race-car tracks. Standing against the walls are larger than life Bart Simpson cardboard cutouts and Roger Rabbitdisplays, along with an E.T. video display packed with copies of the tape. Peter Pan and Mickey Mouse and Bambi quilts lie on the floor. “The kids have slumber parties up here,” says one of Jackson’s employees as he takes me through the house.
Ironically, as Neverland becomes even more magical and dreamlike, Jackson himself can’t often enjoy it. For most of the three years he’s owned it, much of his time has been spent in Los Angeles sequestered in more than a half-dozen darkened recording studios. Now that the album is done, he’ll be busy for months, cranking out videos for the various songs on Dangerous. He also has plans to star in his first feature film, tentatively titled Midknight, for Sony’s Columbia Pictures and will hit the road to support Dangerous by the middle of 1992. Touring plans have not been formalized, but it’s clear that Jackson, in his drive to stay on top of the entertainment world, will want to take his time and make the show as spectacular as possible.
“The plan is for him to start work on his film,” says Bob Jones, who for the past three years has been working for the star’s own company MJJ Productions. “But with Michael you never know. That could certainly change. Since I’ve been here, Michael has been in complete control. He knows what works for him and for the public. He’s much more fixed in his ideas as to how he wants to do things.”
One thing is for sure, Jackson won’t be spending much time at Neverland lying by the pool. For as everyone in the world knows by now, the Michael Jackson show is, once again, open for business.
The King of Pop.” That’s how Fox, Black Entertainment Television (BET) and MTV, the American TV outlets that got the rights to première Jackson’s “Black or White” video, now refer to him. That was the deal. You want to get “Black or White” first, you dub Jackson “the King of Pop.”
It makes some kind of sense. Bruce is the Boss, Elvis is the King, Prince is, well, Prince. And Michael Jackson? Somehow Wacko Jacko, as the British tabloids have called him, doesn’t cut it. So if the world won’t crown him king, why, he’ll do it himself.
Which explains the November 11th, 1991, memo, typed on MTV Networks letterhead, that was circulated among the MTV staff the week before “Black or White” was first shown. The memo directed all on-air personnel to refer to Jackson as “the King of Pop” at least twice a week over the next two weeks. It also thanked staff members for their cooperation, adding that “Fox and BET are already doing this.” “The fact is that a lot of people have changed their names recently,” says Tom Freston, chairman and CEO of MTV Networks, in defense of the company’s actions. “M.C. Hammer is now Hammer, and Michael Jackson is ‘the King of Pop.’ Who are we to stand in front of the wheels of progress? Whatever they want to call themselves, we try and oblige.”
So MTV and the others dubbed him “the King of Pop” and showed his video, and the world went crazy. It’s estimated that half a billion people saw the première of “Black or White,” which quickly became MTV’s most requested video of the week. As a result of the overwhelming response, the network put the video into what Freston calls superheavy rotation. “No artist, including himself,” Freston says, “has ever gotten more plays per day.”
While “Black or White” has received more concentrated exposure than any other video, it does not have the kind of influential impact that “Thriller” had. “Thriller” clearly broke new ground: Its $1.2 million budget was more than had ever been spent on a video. By combining narrative, dramatic nonmusic sections and ambitious choreography, Jackson and director Landis set new standards for music videos. The “Thriller” video also helped Jackson sell as many as 1 million albums a week for the month following its initial airing.
In the days immediately following the première of “Black or White,” in newspapers large and small all over the world, millions more read about it and about the controversy that erupted over the video’s last four minutes, in which Jackson simulates masturbation, zips up his zipper, smashes in the windows of a car and throws a garbage can through a storefront window.
Entertainment Weekly devoted its cover story to “Michael Jackson’s Video Nightmare.” Even the Wall Street Journal saw fit to tell its readers about the Jackson brouhaha, noting that “the Jackson video wasn’t viewed as truly offensive to almost anybody of commercial importance to the singer.”
Jackson’s handlers immediately denied any suggestion that the controversy had been planned.
Certainly, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that media-savvy Michael Jackson, a star for more than twenty years, hero to both children and their grandparents, might have had an inkling that if he rubbed himself and smashed up windows, he would get a rise out of his fans. On the other hand, if he didn’t plan to create a controversy, it simply means that, yes, Jackson really is quite detached from reality, as many believe.
Yet whatever his intentions, and despite his statement (“It upsets me to think that ‘Black or White’ could influence any child or adult to destructive behavior, either sexual or violent…”), released the day after the video aired, those around Jackson, as well as at least one top Sony executive, seemed overjoyed at all the attention. “No story ever got this much play on the news but a war,” said one Jackson associate a few days after the première.
This latest controversy arrived in time to overshadow the attack Jackson had recently suffered from his brother Jermaine. In November, shortly after Jermaine’s latest album was released, and just as “Black or White” hit the airwaves, Jermaine’s song “Word to the Badd!!,” with lyrics different from those that appear on his album, was leaked to radio. This version was directed right at Jermaine’s superstar brother: “Reconstructed/Been abducted/Don’t know who you are…. Once you were made/You changed your shade/Was your color wrong.”
Jermaine quickly claimed he didn’t know how the song had gotten to radio. And although he said it was written as a way of personally dealing with frustration he felt when his brother didn’t return his calls for “eight or nine months,” the altered version was formally released on CD to radio and critics by the end of the month.
Jermaine refused to elaborate on the lyrics, saying only that “the overall message is to help mend our relationship.” He also said that Michael had “lost touch with reality” but that they had talked recently and that “I love my brother.”
But Teddy Riley — who coproduced half the songs on Dangerous and is also the leader of the New Jack Swing group Guy — says that, contrary to what Jermaine has said: “Michael does call his family. All this rumor about him not calling anybody, him not answering the calls come on. I’ve been there plenty of times when Michael was talking to his mom, and I’ve spoken to his mom and I’ve spoken to Janet. It’s a bunch of crap. That record [“Word to the Badd!!”] was a desperate attempt for fame.
“We anticipated a lot of people saying a lot of stuff about Michael,” says Riley. “Hammer going after Michael and Jermaine going after Michael. We anticipated that. That’s why we wrote songs like ‘Trippin’ [‘Why You Wanna Trip on Me’] and ‘Jam.’ We know that people are after him, people are talking about him. But we didn’t get too direct, we didn’t say anybody’s name. ‘Cause when you’re too direct, it gets boring.”
Despite Jermaine’s denials, it seems clear that the whole thing was calculated to borrow some thunder from Michael.
Certainly, Michael Jackson couldn’t have imagined kicking off this round of career activity with a bigger bang. And yet a question remains: No matter how much hype is generated, can Jackson ever surpass his previous sales records? In the headline of a story that ran the week before the “Black or White” video aired, the New York Times asked the question on every Jackson watcher’s mind: ‘Thriller’ — Can Michael Jackson Beat It?
That is the challenge that Jackson is up against. His biggest album, Thriller, sold over 40 million copies worldwide and 21 million in the U.S., while his last album, Bad, sold in excess of 20 million, with only 7 million selling in the U.S. Roughly two-thirds of Jackson’s audience is located outside North America. In countries such as England and Japan, Michael Jackson is a very hot item. Clearly, he hopes to regain his audience here. And yet Jackson’s own expectations seem impossible for any artist to achieve: He is hoping to sell 100 million copies of Dangerous. “If it sold 100 million, I don’t think he’d be totally satisfied,” says Bruce Swedien, one of the coproducers of the album. “But he’d hold still for that.”
“With Michael, as with any superstar, reality and fantasy are totally confused,” says John Landis. “It’s very difficult to remain sane. I think he’s doing the right thing by cutting himself off from the press, because the press tends to write what it wants anyway. But I tell you, I really like him a lot. He’s very smart; he’s a very nice man.”
So in the four years since Bad was released, Jackson has, in his own way, attempted to take complete control of his life. He stopped working with Quincy Jones, the man who produced or coproduced Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad. He fired his manager, Frank Dileo — a former Epic Records promotion man, who deserves much of the credit for keeping singles from Thriller and Bad at the top of the charts — and hired Sandy Gallin, who has worked with Dolly Parton and Neil Diamond, among others.
He also replaced his business manager and, more significantly, attorney, John Branca, who had not only handled numerous complex legal cases and acted as interim manager at various critical points in Jackson’s ascent but had also negotiated Jackson’s purchase of the Beatles song catalog, now worth more than $120 million, three times what Jackson paid for it. Finally, Jackson left home, moving into Neverland and, according to several sources, distancing himself from at least some members of his family.
Surprisingly, despite a fresh cabinet of advisers, Jackson’s new strategy for topping himself isn’t new at all. Instead, he seems to be repeating, with slight variations, what has worked for him in the past.
Yet things have changed since Thriller and Bad. While rap became a force to be reckoned with, hard rock once again captured the nation’s attention. Producers like L.A. Reid and BabyFace and Teddy Riley created New Jack Swing, the latest version of soul music. Stars like Madonna and Peter Gabriel, Hammer and R.E.M. have raised the stakes where video is concerned. And the Rolling Stones pulled off the biggest, most flamboyant tour of the decade.
As far as a new album went, Michael Jackson, the biggest star in the world, had to come up with something that looked and sounded new and fresh yet wouldn’t alienate his millions of fans, many of whom have decidedly conservative tastes.
Jackson’s solution was to create a mass-appeal album in which about half the songs mimic his previous work (“Heal the World” being an obvious rewrite of “We Are the World”; “Who Is It” copping his “Billie Jean” moves; “Black or White” recalling “State of Shock”). He also brought in Teddy Riley to whip up cutting-edge street beats to make the album sound more contemporary.
And then, to announce the new album in a style appropriate for “the King of Pop,” Jackson brought back his old friend John Landis for an encore. Landis had last worked with Jackson on the “Thriller” video in 1983. Although Landis says he doesn’t have exact figures, he estimates from his experience that “Black or White” may have cost as much as $7 million. (Dave Glew, president of Epic Records, the label Jackson is actually signed to, denies this figure but would not divulge the actual amount.) It also took about two months to shoot.
The weeks of filming found many celebrities dropping by the set, including Paul McCartney, Nancy Reagan, the O’Jays, Emmanuel Lewis and, naturally, Jackson’s latest friend, Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin, who is not only featured in “Black or White” but also appears on the cover of Dangerous.
“Michael’s really a celebrity magnet,” says Landis. Then, chuckling, he adds: “I remember looking over at one of these giant, seven-foot speakers Michael was having the song played through, and Nancy Reagan was standing right in front of it. All I had to yell was, ‘Playback,’ and that would have been it.”
“Black or White” became one of the most expensive one-song videos ever made because of, among other things, the cost of the cast and crew, which Landis says would read like “the credits to Ben-Hur,” and the extremely expensive “morphing” process used to transform men into women and Jackson into a panther.
And then there were the days when Landis and the crew were all set up on location, ready to begin filming, when Landis would get a call informing him that the star wouldn’t be showing up at all. “I was told, on one occasion,” says Landis, “that Michael Jackson was doing a commercial for Sony Television, Japan.”
Jackson also had his album to finish. “It was a difficult schedule,” says Vince Paterson, who will be directing a video for “Jam” should Sony go ahead with the song as a single. “There were days when we were put on hold while he worked on the album. The album had to take precedence. So the video got scrambled. And if Michael was in the studio for eighteen hours, there was no point in then bringing him out to the set and trying to shoot him. He would have been dead, he would have been exhausted, and we would have just had to reshoot it anyway.
“If you’ve got a sound stage and equipment and people, you have to pay everyone involved whether or not anything gets done,” says Paterson. “A lot of the expense was due to that. Bam! A couple hundred thousand dollars — gone!”
Landis says the video’s controversial four-minute ending was entirely Jackson’s idea.”He wanted it to be even more sexually explicit,” says Landis, adding that some of the dancing they shot was even more extreme. As for the negative reaction to that part of the video — which resulted in Jackson’s decision to cut out the entire ending — Landis says: “It wasn’t so much what Michael was doing but the juxtaposition of simulated masturbation with the violence. And of course, the fact that it was Michael. I don’t know that we discussed his intention. It was simply ‘I’d like to do this,’ and me giving him what he wanted.”
Earlier this year, Michael Jackson’s business advisers negotiated a new $65 million contract with Sony Music that gave him not only profit participation in his album’s earnings but also his own record company and the opportunity to make films for Sony’s Columbia Pictures. It is an unprecedented deal.
“The deal we made — and I don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss the details — we think is economic for us,” says Michael Schulhof, vice-chairman of Sony U.S.A. “If Michael continues to perform the way he has in the past, both he and we will do very well. He’s thirty-three years old. I don’t think anybody, including Michael himself, can predict how he is going to exercise that creativity. It may be in music, it may be in film, it may be in totally new areas of entertainment. The fact that the contract with him is unique reflects the fact that he is a unique talent.”
Jackson spent an estimated $10 million to record Dangerous. (Epic’s Glew denies this figure as well.) He used seven recording studios in the process. For over two years he had exclusive twenty-four-hour-a-day access to Record One studios, in Sherman Oaks, California. That studio alone, which contains two complete recording studios, is estimated to have cost $4000 a day. Then there were the three rooms at Larrabee Sound Studios, in Los Angeles, which Jackson also secured for about nine months. That added another $3000 to $4000 a day to the budget.
“Usually, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in any of the studios unless Michael was there,” says a source who worked on the album. “When they were at Larrabee, they still had Record One booked. It’s a little eccentric. Nobody makes records like that. It would be fun to be able to spend that kind of money, I’ll tell you.
“It’s just ’cause he has so much other stuff going on,” the source says. “Trying to help kids. Like if all of a sudden up in Sacramento someone shoots a bunch of kids, he has to go up there and spend time with them. There was a lot of that stuff going on every day. Every day he’d want to go do something else. There were a lot of distractions. Liz is getting married, and he goes and deals with that, but still the studios were booked.”
Says one artist manager: “I simply don’t understand how it’s possible to spend $10 million making an album. People have spent $2 million. But $10 million? That’s just beyond comprehension.” Jackson worked on the album off and on for nearly four years. “Michael started the day we finished Bad,” says Swedien. “The next day he was doing demos.”
Originally, the plan was for Jackson simply to record four new songs for a multi-CD greatest-hits package called Decade that was to have come out before Christmas 1989. Jackson began work on some new songs and came up with about half an album’s worth of strong material.
Jackson, in consultation with his associates and Sony Music executives, decided that the new songs he had written were strong enough that he should just make an entire album. The greatest-hits package was thus shelved.
Booked studios accounted for a mere fraction of the high costs. Jackson went on to record about sixty songs for Dangerous. In addition to working with Riley and Swedien, he cut tracks with several other producers: Bill Bottrell, Bryan Loren and L.A. Reid and BabyFace. Bottrell describes working with Jackson in near ecstatic terms: “Every time he sings or tells me about a new idea for a song, it’s … let me just say that there were plenty of extraordinary moments!”
According to Bottrell, “Black or White” developed from something originally recorded for Bad. “That piece of music, the beginning part that Slash plays on, was first recorded at Michael’s house,” Bottrell says. “Michael asked me to dig it out of the vault in August of 1989. He had in mind to use it as the intro to ‘Black or White.’ It took a long time before we got Slash on it.”
Bottrell paved the way for Jackson and Slash to work together. Although Slash is credited with playing on “Black or White,” he’s actually only on the introductory groove. Jackson wasn’t even there for the session when Slash recorded that bit. “He was disappointed,” says Bottrell. “He was frustrated that Michael wasn’t there.”
More than a year later, Slash got a call. It was from Jackson. He had a power ballad, “Give In to Me,” that he wanted Slash to solo on. “He sent me a tape of the song that had no guitars other than some slow picking,” says Slash. “I called him and sang over the phone what I wanted to do.”
Slash, however, didn’t have time to record the solo. “I was leaving for Africa,” he says. “Our schedules were not in sync. So they were going to blow me off, but Michael managed to work it out so we could do it when I came back from Africa. I got off the plane and drove to the studio.
“I basically went in and started to play it — that was it,” Slash says. “It was really spontaneous in that way. Michael just wanted whatever was in my style. He just wanted me to do that. No pressure. He was really in sync with me. I don’t come from this heavy-metal school of guitar playing. All the stuff that I do or dig is from the same place that Michael Jackson comes from. We may go in separate directions or be on different sides of the fence, but when it comes down to it, it all comes from the same shit.”
Working with Jackson in the studio can be tricky. A firm believer in the power of positive thinking (in Jackson’s office at Neverland are a batch of books by self-help guru Dr. Wayne Dyer, including The Sky’s the Limit and You’ll See It When You Believe It,) Jackson almost never comes out and says he doesn’t like something. “He doesn’t like to be negative,” says Bottrell. “He has his own indications, and you just learn what they are. Walking out of the room is one way.”
Jackson’s approach to coproducing songs is unusual. “He starts with an entire sound and song, musically,” says Bottrell. “Usually he doesn’t start with lyrics, but he hears the sound and the whole arrangement of the song in his head. I suppose there are exceptions, but this is generally the way it is. He fills in the lyrics later. He hums things. He can convey it with his voice like nobody. Not just singing the song’s lyrics, but he can convey a feeling in a drum part or a synthesizer part. He’s really good at conveying those things.”
While Jackson was happy with a good number of the songs he’d completed, he felt the dance grooves didn’t cut it. “Michael’s desire was to present something very street that the young people will be able to identify with,” says Swedien. “That was a conscious decision on his part.”
Enter Teddy Riley. Said to have been the brains behind Bobby Brown’s phenomenal “My Prerogative” (although production was credited to Riley’s former partner Gene Griffin), Riley was apparently suggested to Jackson by Eddie Murphy as the right producer for delivering the killer grooves.
“He wanted to work on grooves,” says Riley. “So I came in with ten grooves. He liked them all.”
“Teddy was very professional,” says Swedien. “No problems. He’d come in with a groove, we’d say it wasn’t exactly right, and there would be no complaining. He’d just go back and then come back in and blow us away with something like ‘Dangerous.’ ”
Jackson would listen to the music they were working on at window-breaking levels. Riley says they blew a speaker at one studio. “Michael likes to listen even louder than me,” says Riley. “His volume is past twelve. I’m maybe nine or ten. His volume is twelve-plus. Oh, man, he loves loud music. And he jams! Only way you know your music is right is if he’s dancing all over the studio. He starts going, ‘Yeah, whoa!’ ”
Once Jackson and Riley got into it, they just kept coming up with songs. “When the deadline came, he wanted to do more and more songs,” says Riley. “And his manager came in there and said, ‘Teddy, you and Michael, you’re not up to your sneaky stuff. Do not write another song.’ And then when Michael saw the commercial forDangerous, the David Lynch thing, we started working hard to get it finished.”
For the last two months of work on the album, Jackson and Swedien took rooms at a hotel four minutes from the studio. “We’d drive to the studio and work until we couldn’t work anymore,” says Swedien. “Then we’d drive back to the hotel, go to sleep and then go back in the morning and hit it again.”
One particular day, Swedien found Jackson crying in a room he used as his office at Record One. He was upset because the song he had been trying to sing was in the wrong key. “The day had come for Michael to put the lead on ‘Keep the Faith,’ ” says Swedien. “He sang the first and second verses, and then he disappeared. It was very unlike Michael. I found him standing in the corner of his office crying his eyes out. He was absolutely heartbroken, cut to the quick.
“I told him, ‘Michael, it’s not that big a deal,’ ” Swedien says. ” ‘I’ll just record it in the other key.’ We’d tried two keys and, unfortunately, picked the wrong one. He was really upset. I told him, ‘Michael, we’ve got to face this right now.’ I called the synth player and programmer. I felt we had to get the right key and get Michael to face it before it turned into something ugly.
“I thought we’d have a major, major problem,” continues Swedien. “I was visualizing headlines. I told him, ‘Pull yourself together, face this now.’ And it was late. I said, ‘We’re not going home until you’ve sung this all the way through. Then we’ll go home and be able to sleep and continue.’ That was scary. But he did it. He pulled himself together. We went in the studio, cut a whole new demo and recorded a scratch vocal all way through. A situation like that could have been a real block. We didn’t leave studio till dawn.”
The pressure to get the album done in time for a pre-Thanksgiving release was enormous. “He was under extreme pressure to deliver his album,” says John Landis. “He had the entire Rising Sun on his ass; they had to drag it out of him.”
The album was finally finished early in the morning on October 31st. “Michael said, ‘We bumped the pumpkin,’ ” says Swedien. “The last three days of the project, Michael and I got about four hours’ sleep.”
Upon its release on November 26th, Dangerous immediately began selling at a healthy clip — more than 70,000 copies a day. The album entered the Billboard charts at Number One, with sales for the first five days at about 350,000 copies in the U.S. (Sales figures for a full week were not tallied because of the Thanksgiving holiday.)
Critical response, however, was not as favorable. In the New York Times, Jon Pareles called Dangerous Jackson’s “least confident album since he became a solo star” and criticized the superstar for sounding “so eager to reclaim his popularity that he has ruled out taking chances.” The Los Angeles Times posed this question: “How dangerous can a man who literally wants to please everyone afford to be again?” and characterized the album as “a messy grab-bag of ideas and high-tech non sequiturs, with something for everyone from the man who has everything…. Relatively tame, and wildly unfocused, Dangerous is also mostly good, expertly made fun.”
Retailers believe the album should do very well. Tower Records president Russ Solomon says it was the No. 1 seller in most of his stores during the first week of release. “Out of the box, you can’t put it in the same league as Guns n’ Roses,” says Solomon. “But it’s selling pretty good. My own opinion is it will build over the next few months. Some records, like the Guns n’ Roses album, appeal to an audience that needs to buy it the minute it’s available. Others, like this one, appeal to a different crowd who won’t line up at midnight. It takes a bit of time. But Number One is Number One. It outsold the U2 album this week. Sony should have no problem selling the more than 4 million they initially shipped.”
Solomon notes that multiplatinum albums do not sell 10 million copies in the first month of release. “It takes time,” says Solomon. “If you’re lucky, you do that in a year. In the case of Thriller it took two years [to sell close to 20 million copies in the U.S.].”
Critics and retailers alike agree that Jackson has created an album with wide appeal — which is exactly what he intended. “Michael feels a tremendous responsibility to his audience,” says Bruce Swedien. “I think this piece of work is a good illustration of the fact that he feels this responsibility to provide the best possible music for the fans. That responsibility is at the foreground all the time with Michael.”
Jackson clearly has a lot riding on Dangerous. He hopes it will serve as a kind of pop rocket ship that will take him to unimagined levels of stardom and popular acclaim. Already, with the “Black or White” video, Jackson has put himself in the forefront of the public’s consciousness. The album’s success — and the series of singles that will be on the airwaves over the next year or so — will keep him there, setting the stage for the next aspect of his career: movie stardom. For Jackson wants to be a classic star, like his good friends Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn.
Yet times have changed since his cinematic role models achieved fame. Today’s stars are public figures whose private lives are open for discussion. And as Landis noted, Jackson, knowingly or unknowingly, has provided the public with a series of personal topics to discuss and debate, ranging from his sexuality to his face.
In trying to create a glamorous image for himself in the years since his first solo album as an adult, Off the Wall, was released in 1979, Jackson has literally remade his face before our very eyes. We have all been privy to each new change in the Jackson countenance. He has, of course, been criticized for trying to become white, for turning his back on his roots.
Teddy Riley says that during the Dangerous recording sessions, Jackson talked a lot about what he’d done to his face and skin. “I’m quite sure if Michael could have done it all over again, he would not have done that,” says Riley. “But there’s no turning back. Once you change your description, you can’t turn back. You can’t get your own face or your own skin back again. But he is still Michael Jackson; he is still the talented man that everybody grew up on.”
Indeed, that seems to be exactly what Jackson himself is trying to convey. All of the animals and angels, golden thrones and jeweled crowns, skeletons and fun-house rides that take up much of the cover of Dangerous appear to be a gigantic mask behind which the real Michael Jackson hides, through which the real Michael Jackson looks at the world.
There is one thing we know for certain about the real Michael Jackson: He is an extraordinarily talented man with a gift for creating music that people all over the world love. Jackson should put more faith in his talent.That, more than anything, accounts for his more than twenty years of stardom.
From The Archives Issue 621: January 9, 1992