Wednesday, 1 April 2009

1983 Michael Jackson: Billie Jean

After the oxygen tents, the plastic surgery, the monkeys and the inappropriate bedtime companions, it's very easy to view the latter day Michael Jackson as a one man freak show attraction in a third rate circus and nothing more; rarely has someone fallen from grace so far, so spectacularly and so publicly. But it wasn't always this way, no indeed - for those raised on Jackson as a media punch bag, hearing 'Billie Jean' for the first time will come as a smart slap in the face, like being shown a photograph of Angela Lansbury circa 1945 after a diet of nothing but 'Murder She Wrote'.

Based on a real life event of a fan claiming Jackson as the father of her twins, 'Billie Jean' opens with a kick, snare and hit hat drum beat pulse before building into a snake of a bassline that unravels out of the disc like voodoo. Keyboards and guitars gradually add to the brew before Jackson's one take lead vocal gasps out start the tale of the single mother dancing in the round and then we're off headlong into an unstoppably sleek, funky groove that's drum tight yet jangles like a frayed nerve.

Quincy Jones' celebrated production is hard as brass (a fledgling MTV regarded it as sufficiently 'rock' enough to air it on heavy rotation), as polished as chrome and powered by steam - every multitracked yelp and squeal slots perfectly into place and to add or remove a single vocal hiccup or musical motif and interlude would crack the surface to see the track suffer and become something less than the majestic work it is.

Never mechanical or music by rote, 'Billie Jean''s organic sound is shot through with a soul worthy of the finest Stax or Motown (there's more than a hint of Marvin Gaye's classic 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine' in its structure, though Jackson is hearing his bad news first hand), and it's a soul fuelled by the dark, almost psychotic pulp fiction theme of the lyrics, a freaky scenario that is in turn complimented by flashing and descending violin flourishes that give nod to Bernard Hermann's score for 'Psycho'. And all the while Louis Johnson's hypnotic bassline constantly wraps itself around the mix like a tentacle that reaches out to grab and drag the listener onto the dancefloor. Because if ever a song was built for dancing, it's this one.

A great many music careers and songs owe a debt to the blueprint set out in 'Billie Jean'. It's hard to imagine virtually the whole of the modern day 'R&B' scene existing without it mapping the way or a start. Unfortunately, Jackson himself returned to the well many, many times and by churning out Xerox after Xerox, the original design was copied into nothing and what was once fresh soon got very, very stale as his own career imploded into self parody. Best remember him this way.

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