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” . 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.
And that inhuman drive carried over to the actual Bad concerts?
Jon Clark: True. My job on the tour was to play the guitar parts that you heard on the Bad album. I knew all the guys that played on his albums like Paul Jackson and David Williams. I can tell you what Michael gave me as a guy coming in as support for my role as the guitar player on that tour. It was life changing for me. Michael told me one thing when we first met…he said, “You know, guitars make me dance.” What do you say to that [laughs]?
You just play your ass off…
Jon: [Laughs] Yes…that’s exactly what you do! We were all watching the Bad concert movie the other day. You notice that the speed and pace of the show was just amazing. I looked back at Greg, who was Michael’s music director, and I said, “I can’t believe we were doing that show at this fast of a tempo.” But at the same time, not one note or one groove or one space in the music changed. The spirit of the songs never changed because Michael set the tempo.
There are many readers who may be too young to remember. But could you describe just how mammoth the Bad tour was during that time?
Jon: It’s important to note that at the time the Bad tour was the biggest production ever. We were in London and someone said that this was the biggest tour they had ever seen…bigger than U2, bigger than everyone. And I just remember during the “Billie Jean” section there was a special light that was developed just for Michael’s tour. It was made just for him to do his thing on “Billie Jean”.
Vince: That was spectacular. But you know what was even more spectacular? Watching Michael dance from behind! But this is what also blew me away, Keith. In terms of that time we thought the Bad tour was huge. And it was. We thought what we were actually constructing on the stage was huge, but looking back at it in comparison to what happens today this was basically a very simple, simple show.
Vince: There were no set changes or costume changes. The only time Michael left the stage is when he graciously left the stage and gave those amazing musicians the chance to really show the world what they could do. But this was a very simple tour. It was about the musicians, the music, the dancing and Michael’s performance. That’s what blew me away.
Greg: The true bigness of the Bad tour was the size of the actual set. We were building sets in the stadium as opposed to the arenas. We had several bags of airplane regulation landing lights [laughs]. They would blind the hell out of you when they first turned on. But Michael’s favorite toy was the cherry picker. It was the extended ladder with an arm that moved out, so he was able to dangle off of it over the crowd.
Jon: Dangerously dangle off it [laughs].
Greg: Right…the fans loved it, but it scared the hell out of the insurance guy [laughs].
As groundbreaking as the Bad tour was musically the instruments that were being used on the Bad album were groundbreaking as well. The keyboard work was state-of-the-art from the Synclavier to the Synth Axxe. How cutting edge was the actual work on the Bad album?
Greg: It was very cutting edge. The Synclavier had just become the major player in synthesizers. We carried two full-blown units. And they were not cheap.
How much of a task was it to transfer the sounds on Bad to an actual live format? I could imagine how daunting it would be to bring songs like “Bad” or “Smooth Criminal” to a live setting given the technical work it took to record those tracks.
Greg: I had already made those sounds on the Bad album. I created them in the studio, so I totally had an advantage. But the new technology really helped everyone on the Bad tour when it came to creating the support tracks…the things we couldn’t actually play from the album. The Synth Axxe was part of that [arsenal]. We were able to maximize the strengths of everyone in the band. One of our band members, Chris [Currell], was really brought on as a programmer. He wasn’t really into performing, but man, we dressed him up. Chris ended up looking like one of the members of KISS [laughs]. He ended up making a solo out of playing samples!
Jon: That freaked me out, Greg. It was actually brilliant.
Greg: Yeah…the guys was playing a freaking solo with nothing but samples on the Synclavier. And he was doing it in time. He wore it out every night.
Jon: I was subbing for people like Ray Parker Jr. and Paul Jackson Jr. That was my gig. So I learned a lot from these guys. When the Bad tour came around I kind of had an idea of what I needed to do. It wasn’t a George Michael gig, it wasn’t a James Brown gig…it was a Michael Jackson gig.
And a Michael Jackson gig is a whole different ballgame, right?
Jon: It really was. But here’s the thing. David Williams was Michael’s favorite guitar player. And it’s impossible to play like this guy, but I knew what he was doing. For me, as a musician, I knew what I needed to do programming wise. I spent many, many, many hours getting it right; all the hours spent programming guitar sounds for me and Jennifer [Batten] for that tour. So I got it right away.
But as with most Michael Jackson productions, choreography was just as important as the music. Vince, did you have a tougher road recreating some of Michael’s music videos, especially from the Bad album?
Vince: A lot went into that. The tour started in Japan, and once they decided they were going to go around the world I was pulled in. I sat with Mike and Greg and talked about changing the order of some of the songs around and what pieces would go in it. But because it was Michael and everything was movement related, everybody was dancing. I don’t care if they were standing behind keyboards or playing drums. I wanted to make sure that everybody had something to do movement wise. It was more than just re-creating the videos.
You guys were playing stadiums that held 70,000 plus people. Did you ever look out onto that massive crush of people, shit your pants and say, “This is insane”?
Jon: Kind of…I did…yes [laughs].
Vince: I forgot how it looked when Michael threw his hat out in the audience and when there was that quick shot of these people I thought, “Oh, my God…they are gonna rip each other’s arms off!”
Jon: I never shit my pants when I looked out into the crowd [laughs]. But I will tell you that you will never know what it feels like to see 70,000 people swaying while you are playing “Man In The Mirror.”
Greg: It’s like watching the movie Saving Private Ryan. When they are storming the beach and there’s not a word spoken, you just hear bullets and screams. My first experience on the Bad tour in Tokyo when those airplane lights opened, it was like Saving Private Ryan. You didn’t hear anything…you just saw. I saw Michael’s eyes looking at me and he came over. It was just a surreal moment. I can’t express it to you. It was all in slow motion.
Michael was really known as the ultimate competitor. He looked at other artists in terms of what they did musically and performance wise and wanted to top them. During the Bad era who was the one person that Mike looked at and said, “Oh, I have to raise my game to another level”?
Jon: That had to be Prince [laughs]. During the Thriller and Bad eras, it what just those two guys—Michael and Prince. And they both knew it. Everyone has read about that infamous summit that Quincy put together. Only Quincy could bring Michael and Prince together in one house and try to convince them to do “Bad.” But Prince [decided not to be a part] of the song. You could see the friendly rivalry between those two, even on their tours and in their videos. Michael would tend to hone in on some of things Prince was doing. They were both amazing and brilliant.
Imagine those conversations…
Greg: Crazy. But the craziest thing is at the Wembley shows I personally set out to make a statement. During the band solos I would play tunes from artists that I would find out were in the audience. So I had heard Prince was at the show. So I did a whole separate section of “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night” by Prince. I’m talking about the groove, the breakdown and everything! We stepped down to the front of the stage and got the audience to clap on the four. We wore that shit out [laughs]. And I still don’t know if Prince was really in the audience. But the bad news is that session will not be included in this DVD because Prince decided not to give us the rights. And I wish he would change his mind.
Jon: And you know what, it was just an homage to him.
Greg: And that’s the irony…
Vince: There was a mantra that Michael had always said for as long as I’ve ever known him. He would pull you aside and say, “We gotta do something that the world has never seen before. I want to give something to the people out there that loves us that they’ve never seen before.” That was Michael’s goal…to constantly break the boundaries. And that goes for anything he was doing whether it was an album, a live tour or a short film. That’s why Michael was so competitive. That was his drive.
Looking back at Michael Jackson’s Bad album, what is the overall legacy of that work?>
Greg: Bad showed off his solo artistry because Michael was more involved production wise and songwriting wise. Yes, he worked with Quincy…but it was not quite as much as Off The Wall and Thriller. You saw the transition of Michael becoming more of a solo force behind the scenes and away from the Jacksons. By the time he went into Dangerous, Quincy was no longer there. Michael started bringing in different producers to express his musical ideas. I think Bad is the most definitive expression of Michael’s craft.