In the summer of 1986, Thriller hung around Michael Jackson’s neck like a mammoth, neon albatross; a 25-million-copies-sold albatross to be exact. Indeed, it is now well documented that the biggest pop star to ever moonwalk across the planet wanted to bury music’s most commercially/culturally successful album of all time (now 42 million and climbing in America alone). To achieve this ridiculous coup, Jackson envisioned a follow-up work that was bolder, more musically groundbreaking, and grander in epic songwriting scale.
When the dust settled months after its much-anticipated August 31, 1987 release, Jackson’s Bad album did not meet the late Gloved-One’s over-the-top ambitions of quadrupling his previous landmark 1982 statement in sales. But it did something much more impressive. The no. 1 Billboard album displayed a genius talent who grew exponentially as a songsmith, producer, and vocalist. Unlike previous releases, 1979’s glorious Off The Wall and the monster that is Thriller, this time Jackson ran the show, leaving all-world producer Quincy Jones to settle on backseat driver duties.
Which is why Tuesday’s release of BAD 25—a deluxe package featuring three discs that includes a remastered version of the original album; remixes by electronic music visionaries Afrojack and Nero; unreleased songs; and the first ever commercial DVD of the 1988 Wembley Stadium concert from Jackson’s record-breaking Bad tour—is an intriguing set. Let the music historians and insiders dwell on how Bad “failed” to meet the record industries’ (and MJ’s) grandiose sales expectations. Brush aside Bad’s impressive U.S. numbers of more than 20 million copies off the shelves. And set aside its movie-quality barrage of award-winning music videos. It’s all about the songs, which includes five no. 1 singles. “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Man In The Mirror,” “Liberian Girl”…this is greatness, y’all.
To discuss BAD 25, VIBE caught up with members of Jackson’s Bad-era band including acclaimed keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, guitarist Jon Clark, and choreographer Vince Patterson. From what it was like to work with a hungry Jackson in the recording studio during the making of Bad and their time on the record-breaking madness of the Bad tour to the one person Jackson viewed as his true competition, this is a Q&A that shows why MJ remains a transcendent figure nearly three years after his death. Bad, indeed.—Keith Murphy (@Murphdogg29)
VIBE: For Michael, there was a lot to live up to with the release of Bad. By now we’ve all heard the stories about how he was intent on destroying the record sales of Thriller. But Michael was also intent on raising the bar artistically with Bad from the album to the tour. Can you talk about his mindset going into that era, album and tour?
Greg Phillinganes: He simply wanted to top Thriller.
He was aiming for 100 million copies, so says the legend, correct?
Greg: Yes, but there’s a fine line between having a goal and being unrealistic [laughs]. Thriller broke all the records. It became this massive iconic success that it is today. But Michael was driven [during those Bad album sessions]. By this time he had way more songwriting and production input in the music. It was still up to Quincy [Jones] to keep everything solid and make sure we didn’t lose touch with reality.
Was there any moment during those Bad studio sessions that you thought, this is surreal…I’m playing for Michael Jackson!
Greg: All the time. I remember making “The Way You Make Me Feel” in the studio. Michael would stand right next to me when I would do my [keyboard] part. He would just groove and bob his head and snap his fingers.
That had to be intimidating, right?
Greg: Well, the thing is Michael was very much into the character of not only each song, but each part of the song. Sometimes you don’t realize how brilliant he was. I know it’s now funny for me to say that, but you actually forget Michael’s sheer brilliance in not only dancing, but in his songwriting and singing. My God, he was great! You could to see the extent of his influences: Fred Astaire, James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr…everybody.
Patterson: From a dancing aspect, Michael always wanted to raise the bar. He was never a choreographer except for his own movements. But he still knew what he wanted from the [other dancers]. I was involved in videos for “Beat It,” “Thriller,” and all of the ones off the Bad CD, including “Smooth Criminal” and “The Way You Make Me Feel.” And you know Michael did really evolve.
He was also a serial perfectionist, right?
Vince: [Laughs] Yes! I’ll give you an example from the “Smooth Criminal” [video shoot]. There’s this one dance phrase that repeats itself in the video. I gave it to Michael and he stood in front of the mirror for four hours doing just the same count again and again and again! I kept coming over and saying, “Michael come on…you can take a break.” And Michael told me, “No, Vincent…I want to do this ‘til it’s perfect.” Michael was a taskmaster on himself.