Peter Feely talks to the masterminds responsible for creating Michael Jackson’s greatest-selling records.
Despite his death in 2009, Michael Jackson’s popularity endures. On Monday December 30, Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour by Cirque du Soleil will arrive here, offering yet another chance for fans of the King of Pop to enjoy his music. Jackson’s most successful albums, 1979’s Off the Wall, 1987’s Bad and the biggest-selling record of all time, 1982’s Thriller are now considered as classics within their genre. But, aside from Jackson’s vocal and dance performances and ground breaking videos, the team behind the singer were equally as influential on the music’s domination of the market.
The three main engineers, writers and producers of Jackson’s three best albums were in Dubai late September to take part in a discussion on their success. Quincy Jones, now 80, British songwriter Rod Temperton, aged 66, and Swedish audio engineer Bruce Swedien, aged 79, worked together on the records and became known as the ’80s dream team.
Quincy Jones, today the most famous of the three, described the first time he worked with Michael on the 1978 movie The Wiz. He recalls Michael mispronouncing Socrates and when Quincy corrected him he immediately realised Jackson’s insatiable appetite to better himself. ‘He looked like a deer in the headlights. On the film, I saw Michael learn everybody’s songs, every word of dialogue they had – he didn’t miss a thing – he was so on it.’
According to Jackson himself in his 1988 autobiography Moonwalker, he asked Quincy specifically to move his music away from the material he produced with The Jackson Five. Jones instantly dismisses this, snapping: ‘Michael didn’t tell me nothing. He was very cooperative and would just do his thing. He wrote just two-and-a-half songs on the first album [Off the Wall].’
One of the elements to Jackson’s success is the songs themselves. Temperton, from UK seaside town Cleethorpes, is responsible for some of the singer’s greatest hits, including ‘Off the Wall’ and ‘Starlight’, (which would later become Thriller), offers a fascinating insight into his methods. ‘I did no real homework apart from listening to The Jackson Five’s records. But I decided I’d write two or three tunes in order to give Quincy and Michael a choice when I took them to LA. When I listened to the records, the one thing I noticed straight away about Michael’s timbre was that he always sat on top of the beat and really pushed it along and gave it an electric energy. So I figured that for the main song I would write for him I would try to write a strong [metro] nome which had a lot of short lyrics in it, allowing him to drive that beat along. The other thing that I noticed about Michael, which was a paradox, was that he had very strong harmonies so I decided that I would work with a lot of those harmony bits for the songs.’
Temperton goes on to explain that in order for the songs to have the correct impact, they must be something which the artists can relate to. In Jackson’s case he recalls his thinking behind the track ‘Off the Wall.’
‘With all of the artists, I have to try to understand them so that they can sing the songs from the heart. When I met Michael, we talked about his love of movies and Hollywood and when I came up with that lyric, it was a phrase that was used in New York a lot at the time. What I made of the meaning of the lyric was he was a little bit off-centre – and when you look at Michael, there was a little bit of eccentricity there that gave him an amazing energy. So I thought it was a fun idea to write a song with the lyric, ‘Off the Wall’.’
One of the inescapable attributes of Jackson’s music is the highly polished production. Swedish sound engineer Bruce Swedien was largely responsible for the pop icon’s definitive sound.
He explains that he and Jones referred to this as ‘the Acusonic Recording Process, adding: ‘Some guy from Japan came on a plane to California wanting to buy an Acusonic recording processor. We used it to describe the way that I worked with sounds. It means ‘accurate science’.
This process encapsulated Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien’s ability and willingness to experiment with sound. Swedien recalls one of the tricks he used with Jackson. ‘Michael would sing close to the mic, then we’d have him move back a little further. What that does is create a sonic energy with the sound, which means that when you combine those tracks it’s magic and you can stagger them and have one right, one left and one in the middle.’
Yet it’s Jones who sums up the successful formula behind Jackson’s songs. ‘A great song can make a singer a star but a bad song even the greatest singers cannot save.’
Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour by Cirque Du Soleil runs from December 30-January 14 at Dubai World Trade Centre, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 366 2289). Dhs295-2,295.