First Drafts: Michael Jackson – ‘Billie Jean’
The most celebrated song by the most famous man in musical history had a pretty shoddy start.
The ‘Billie Jean’ demo is fascinating because you can hear the bones of the song, musically speaking, but lyrically, MJ is nowhere near where he should be.
“More kick and stuff in the phones, I need it,” he orders the engineer as that familiar bassline creeps in. “More bottom and kick in the phones,” he repeats, before tentatively beginning to sing.
You can hear him literally figuring out the song’s melody as he goes, ad-libbing some truly terrible lyrics, such as: “Where we go, on the winds, in the wild”, “She told me I was a lonely man, and I felt sad”, and – best/worst of all – “and I sit, in a cup, on a ride”, which is clearly a reference to the Alice In Wonderland tea cup ride at Disneyland, a nice early pointer to his later obsession with theme parks. The melody is basically a looser version of what he ultimately arrived at, and it is amazing how certain tossed-off phrases, such as “be careful what you do”, became the support beams around which he built the finished version’s rather dark story.
The chorus is lyrically complete in this demo – it’s interesting how the false paternity thread is there from the beginning, showing he at least had the song’s concept in mind. Luckily, he didn’t keep the tea cup ride section in, or this could have been used as further evidence against him in later years…
Jackson famously composed the music for this song in his head while driving down the freeway, and was so absorbed in it that he hadn’t noticed his car was on fire. A passing motorist informed him of this little fact, and saved Jackson’s life – and that of the song.
Jackson didn’t play any instruments, and the way he composed was incredible, writing each musical part by humming, singing or beatboxing. He demonstrated how he did this in the otherwise horrible Martin Bashir documentary about his life, and again in a court case where he had to defend himself from a plagiarism charge.
Also unheard of for a pop single at the time was the 29-second musical intro, which producer Quincy Jones wanted to cut. Jackson fought this, as Jones recalled. “He said: ‘But that’s the jelly! That’s what makes me want to dance.’ And when Michael Jackson tells you, ‘That’s what makes me want to dance,’ well, the rest of us just have to shut up.”
Can’t really argue with that now, can you?