Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones: Whose Bad?

Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones

Nearly thirty years after its release, Michael Jackson’s Bad continues to be debated among music critics and fans of the “King of Pop.” By any measure it stands as one of the most successful pop music recordings of the modern era. Yet, Bad has long lived in the shadow of its predecessor.

Thriller, the best-selling album of all time and Jackson’s creative and commercial peak, made the stakes for Bad impossibly high. Jackson had to sustain the pop idol hysteria unleashed by Thriller and prove the album’s success was no fluke. Bad had to put to rest any questions about Jackson’s artistic bona fides as a songwriter and solo artist. Jackson also had to restore his image following the Jacksons’ problem-plagued Victory tour. With the so much riding on the album, every choice made regarding Bad carried the weight of a nuclear strike.

The release of Bad 25 in 2012 provided listeners with an opportunity to examine Bad in terms of what was left off the album. From that vantage point it’s clear that while Bad is unquestionably the product of Jackson’s creative genius, much of the credit for shaping it into the solid album it became goes to Quincy Jones, a master producer whose golden ears harnessed Jackson’s instincts into hits.

The Price of Fame

With the Victory tour completed in December 1984, Jackson spent early 1985 cleaning up at the the Grammys, co-creating “We are the World,” and filming Disney’s Captain EO. Afterwards, Jackson headed to “the laboratory” — his home studio at Hayvenhurst in Encino, California. There, Jackson wrote and recorded demos with producer Bill Bottrell and arranger John Barnes, giving him a measure of artistic control over his work he had long desired. He wrote 62 songs and recorded dozens of demos through 1986 and at one point envisioned Bad as a triple album.

At the same time, there was a tremendous amount of pressure from Epic/CBS and the whole entertainment industry for Jackson to get on with following up the aging Thriller. Jackson also placed a great deal of pressure on himself. His stated goal (written on his bathroom mirror) was to sell 100 million copies of the album. Reaching that goal required hits and that’s where Quincy Jones came in. Jones’ judicious song selection, sequencing and unifying touch were essential in achieving Jackson’s creative and commercial vision for Bad.

By August 1986, Jackson was sending demos over to Jones at Westlake Audio in Los Angeles for review, re-recording and overdubs. Sessions with Jackson at Westlake got serious in January 1987. “When you get a song you feel you like, you put it down with a rhythm section to get it on its feet, and then you hear Michael sing a couple of takes on it, maybe with a couple of background lines to see how it holds up, so you can see what it might be and you’re not just wasting your time” Jones told Mix in 2007.

Jones focused on quality instead of quantity and convinced Jackson to abandon the triple album concept. “Every album has extra songs that didn’t make it to the album. There’s a little bit of advice I like to use all the time on an album: we went through 800 songs to get to Thriller and we ended up with nine, finally. They must have been very impressive to us,” Jones told Music Week in 2010. “When you get to nine, the producer has to, in his mind, pick and be very honest and say, ‘These four in relationship to the nine are the weakest of the entire nine.’ It takes a lot of truth to do that. You have to bury the ego…”

Demos on Bad 25 like “Don’t Be Messin’ Around,” and “I’m So Blue” illustrate Jones’ point. “Don’t Be Messin’ Around” has a light bouncy beat that recalls both “Dancin’ in the Streets” and Thriller’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” but doesn’t have the buoyancy of Bad’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” “Song Groove (AKA Abortion Papers)” could have been a sequel to “Billie Jean” but its controversial subject matter can’t substitute for the haunting tone of its predecessor and makes “Dirty Diana” a stronger choice.

Many of the demos like “Free” and “the Price of Fame” find Jackson longing for respite from his post-Thriller world. “Price of Fame,” which was planned for use in a 1987 Pepsi commercial, has a groove reminiscent of “Billie Jean” with Jackson’s most personal lyrics to date (“I want a face no one can recognize,” “My joy has turned to pain,” “I feel the pressure setting in, I’m living just to win,” “ ‘Just sign your name on the dotted line, you’ll be fine’ — that always bothers me,” “My father always told me/You won’t live a quiet life/If you’re reaching for fortune and fame…Father never lies, my father never lies/My father never lies”). The lyrics may have been too personal to make it onto the album and makes “Leave Me Alone” a milder proxy for Jackson’s inner turmoil.

Bad 25 also includes previously released material from the Bad sessions like “Streetwalker,” and “Fly Away”. The former finds Jackson on familiar terrain exploring street life but the song lacks a hook. “Fly Away” may be the strongest and most complete of the songs left off of Bad, but pales in comparison to ballads like “Liberian Girl” that did make the cut.

Several songs Jackson recorded for Bad remain unreleased: “Bad Company,” “Broken Chair,” “Buffalo Bill,” “Crack Kills,” “Get Back on Me,” “The Hunt,” “Tomboy,” “What You Do to Me.” One song, “Cheater,” was released on 2004’s The Ultimate Collection.

The Man in the Mirror

With so many Jackson compositions to choose from, it’s telling that among the last songs to be recorded for Bad was “Man in the Mirror,” a song Jackson did not write. By this time, two years after demo sessions began, Jones was anxious for an indisputable hit to complete the album. Bad was finished in July 1987 at a cost of $2 million. The album sold 35 million copies worldwide (8 million in the United States alone) and yielded five number one singles — numbers most acts today would kill to have.

Still, Bad would be Jones’ final project with Jackson. Some say it was a clean break as Bad was the third in a three album contract between the two. Others contend that Jackson wanted more creative control and artistic recognition. After Bad peaked, David Geffen began advising Jackson in preparation for upcoming contract negotiations with Sony. Geffen reportedly engineered the departure of Jackson’s attorney (John Branca) his manager (Frank DiLeo) and ultimately, Jones. According to Jones, “Key members of Michael’s entourage, including his attorney, were whispering in his ear that I’d been getting too much credit.”

Jones was also unfairly blamed for Bad’s inability to surpass Thriller’s sales and accolades (Jackson would leave the Grammys empty-handed in 1988). “He thought I was getting too old for the business because Bad didn’t sell 100 million,” Jones told the Financial Times in 2012. “I said, ‘Michael, you can’t get used to 50, 60 million albums, come on man. You can’t tell me that 30 million is a bomb!’” Jackson disagreed and “told his manager that I was losing it,” Jones said to the New York Times in 2012. In any case, Jones didn’t want to spend another three years working on one album. “I ain’t gonna sit around in the studio three years to make an album with Michael.” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1995. “Too long. Too long. Bad was too long for me.”

None of Jackson’s post-Jones albums would match the success of Bad. While much of this has to do with the controversies that enveloped Jackson up until his death in 2009, these albums also lack the discipline and cohesion of Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad. Jones downplayed his integral role in these albums saying “That’s nothing to do with any one person. That’s the combination of the two of us.” However, Dangerous, History, Blood on the Dance Floor and Invincible had multiple producers and that may have contributed to their shortcomings. (Jackson’s posthumous releases, Michael and Xscape, also had multiple producers).

“An album should always be in the hand of one person,” Jones said in 2010. Yet, Jackson’s post-Jones work was in the hand of one person: Michael Jackson.

Eddie Santiago is the author of Sly: the Lives of Sylvester Stewart and Sly Stone. For contact information, visit EddieSantiagoAuthor.com.