Over the years we have all compared pictures of the full-cheeked, afro-haired 11-year old at the front of the Jackson 5 to the ghostly, scalpel-altered curiosity who came much later. During a pop career that lasted from four to 50, Michael Jackson’s music underwent an equally radical transformation.
Spinning and wailing in unison with his brothers in the early Seventies he was already unique, apart – the little boy who could sing of lost love in I Want You Back and drench this ecstatic melody in real soul. Motown, the ultimate singles label, watched the song become their fastest-seller ever in 1969 and a lifetime of records broken began.
A prototype boy band, in formation the Jackson brothers’ heights sloped down towards this precocious focal point in the centre, his preternaturally expressive voice earning comparisons to much older soul greats such as Sam Cooke and most obviously, fellow child star Stevie Wonder. His style would eventually leave his earlier traditional techniques behind, but he would never descend to singing in lower registers as he matured.
Motown quickly recognised young Michael’s cutesy individual appeal and launched him on a solo career concurrent with more Jackson 5 albums, during which he made hits of saccharine ballads such as Got To Be There and Ben. The latter, a soppy ode to a pet rat from a film theme, was an early hint towards the adult who would never be truly comfortable in the company of his peers.
It was his union with producer Quincy Jones, who he first met working on the soundtrack to the film The Wiz, that resulted in the 1979 album Off The Wall and the world’s introduction to Michael Jackson the grown man. His voice still reached extraordinary heights but without the showboating of his childhood, instead acting as one part of a perfect disco-pop whole that also included the whooshing strings of Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, the slinky bass of the title track and loose-limbed funk of Rock With You.
Released at the peak of disco, it demonstrated Jackson’s ability to take a current hot sound, bend it to his needs and simultaneously broaden its appeal. It also began a habit of blockbusting ballads with She’s Out Of My Life and featured the first of a handful of collaborations with Paul McCartney – the song Girlfriend, written by McCartney for Jackson but recorded by his Wings outfit first.
Off The Wall eventually sold 20 million copies, a huge hit but a trifling number in retrospect after the out-and-out phenomenon that came next.
Any mention of Thriller is followed by a deluge of statistics – seven hit singles out of just nine tracks, a million copies sold per week for seven months solid in 1983, simply the biggest-selling album of all time, and all this during a music industry recession. With an impeccably crafted song for all tastes, from Beat It’s propulsive rock to the polished soul of Billie Jean, it fired Jackson way ahead of the competition into a stratosphere all his own.
Constructed with time-consuming perfectionism by most of the same people who created Off The Wall, Thriller moved away from the more obvious black sounds of soul and R&B towards a new kind of pop that crossed over to a wider audience in the biggest way imaginable. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s appearance on Beat It showed a clear ambition to convert white rock fans, a plan that fully succeeded.
The visual impact of his videos helped, the fledgling MTV channel giving wholehearted support to the title track’s 13-minute horror story. The jerkily dancing, red-jacketed zombie Jackson from that film was an unforgettable image, worth the USD500,000 investment in what was then the most expensive pop video ever.
Thriller took the video form to a hitherto unimagined level of creativity, something that Jackson would do again and again with promos such as Black Or White in 1991, in which he used pioneering morphing techniques to shape-shift into dozens of different people, and Scream, in 1995 again the most expensive video ever at USD7 million.
After Thriller he was possibly the most famous man on the planet, his single glove and moonwalk dance became recognisable to all and his personal life went under the microscope – first amusing tales of chimps and anti-ageing chambers, later much darker things. Thriller had already featured references to the nastier side of global fame, in Billie Jean’s tale of a delusional female stalker and the paranoid lyrics of Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’: “Someone’s always trying to start my baby crying/Talking, squealing, spying”.
It would never just be about the music again, despite the 1987 album Bad, his last with Jones, being an unqualified success by anyone else’s standards and spawning five US number one singles. His sound was becoming sleeker, more electronic, his vocal tics and whoops more pronounced. On the title track all the “ah”s and falsetto “woo-hoo”s take up almost as much space as the words. He was becoming a hitmaking machine, increasingly emphasising his alien qualities in groundbreaking videos and mammoth stage shows featuring ever more uncanny choreography.
He became a travelling spectacle on his first world tour, selling out seven nights at Wembley Stadium in 1988. Again, images of him in quasi-military gear, grabbing his crotch and flipping forwards onto tiptoes, or teetering at unnatural angles in a Twenties gangster suit during Smooth Criminal, became etched in pop history.
Dangerous arrived in 1991, his last album before child abuse allegations made it so much harder to disregard the surrounding circus and simply enjoy more shiny hits such as Black Or White without accompanying baggage. Quincy Jones was left behind in favour of hot young producer Teddy Riley, credited with inventing a fresh form of R&B he called New Jack Swing. Jackson made the sound his own on the smooth hit Remember The Time. Other songs had a harder edge, as with the aggressive, almost growled vocals and violent horn bursts of Jam. Another giant tour in support of the album saw him play five more nights at Wembley.
The next album, HIStory in 1995, would play safe and ensure high sales by being packaged together with a greatest hits collection. New songs such as Scream, Tabloid Junkie and They Don’t Care About Us were of more limited appeal on their own, being understandably more bleak and bitter than the party favourites of old. Jackson reached new levels of aggression on Scream, his first song to include the F-word.
Amid the self-pity, his travails were most directly referenced on the rock song D.S., its chorus line “Dom Sheldon is a cold man” believed to be a pseudonym for Tom Sneddon, the District Attorney who was in charge of investigating Jordan Chandler’s 1993 allegations.
Jackson managed to stop looking inwards to record epic environmental ballad Earth Song, his biggest hit in Britain despite his infamous peformance of the track at the 1996 Brit Awards. He seemed to portray himself as a Christ-like figure while singing: “What about elephants?/Have we lost their trust?” and was mocked by a stage invading Jarvis Cocker, who became a national hero as a result.
By this stage as a musician, he had lost the respect of those beyond his hardcore fanbase. The wider public was finding it ever harder to listen to his songs without hearing the taint of scandal. The HIStory tour was his final global trek, three more nights at Wembley in 1997 being the last London would see of him until his proposed 50 night stint at the O2 Arena was to start next month.
By the time the restrained, classy R&B of his final album, Invincible, arrived in 2001, Jackson the musician was of little interest in comparison to Jackson the controversy magnet. It was his first that could be classed as a flop, despite featuring slick groove You Rock My World and another beautiful ballad in Butterflies, written by London soul duo Floetry. The singer was busy fighting with his record company boss Tommy Mottola over the rights to his music, and as a result Invincible was not promoted with Jackson’s usual almighty fanfare.
In the end, his music career petered out just as it was about to get going again. His residency at the O2 was his chance to bring his classic songs to the forefront once more where they belong. Whatever else he did, his incredible catalogue of pop will always be up there with the very greatest.