The Michael Jackson of the mid-‘80s can lay claim to having a problem that no one in the world had ever run into at that point: how do you follow up the biggest selling album of all time?
After all, Jackson’s 1979 “debut” album Off the Wall was a bona fide classic, and established Jackson as a full-bore pop icon in his own right following his many years with The Jackson 5. Yet 1982’s Thriller was a game-changer in every single possible sense of the word. From his iconic Moonwalking, innovative music videos, and something-for-everyone accessibility and appeal, Thriller was not as much an album as it was a cultural event of the highest order. It was so powerful and omnipresent, people actually forget that it won the Album of the Year Grammy in 1984. It was the album that pushed Jackson into the rarest of superstar echelons, so when it came to recording a follow-up, not only was the world waiting with baited breath, but Jackson and producing partner Quincy Jones ran into the difficult problem of having to figure out exactly how to top the biggest album ever.
The end result, of course, was Bad, and looking back on it 25 years after its initial release with this multi-disc special edition released by Sony Legacy (entitled, simply, Bad 25), we are reaffirmed in everything we’ve always known about this disc: it is a dynamite sequel that exemplifies everything about the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy of success. It dares little, sounds like a carbon copy of its predecessor, but still manages to deliver some of those knock-out moments that Jackson became known for. It may not be perfect, but there’s still a lot to love here.
During the album’s creation, Jackson decided to take a greater control of his vision, having written only four of Thriller‘s nine songs (those four—“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”, “The Girl is Mine”, “Beat It”, and “Billie Jean”—all placed in the Top 5, the latter two becoming #1’s). Thus, go-to Jackson songwriter Rod Temperton (“Rock With You”, “Thriller”) was jettisoned as Jackson took on the lion’s share of the songwriting duties, writing nine of the album’s 11 tracks (only the Stevie Wonder duet “Just Good Friends” and “Man in the Mirror” were outsourced). All of this was done because Bad was ultimately meant to be a more personal project for Jackson, although its commercial intentions were never in doubt. Amazingly, 10 of the album’s 11 songs were released as singles (“Just Goods Friends” being the odd one out), and five of them topped the charts—an astonishing record.
Yet Thriller had already moved on from Off the Wall‘s disco leanings to embrace a modern sound that was rooted in funk, soul, and traditional pop. It was broadly appealing and highly marketable, but Bad rarely ventures outside of the Thriller palette (only when Dangerous was released did Jackson start to actually update his sound to be more contemporary). Just listen to the title track: solid keyboard grounding, immaculately detailed backing vocals, a large amount of lyrical braggadocio—this could very well have fit on Thriller without anyone noticing.
In truth, Jackson’s legacy has become so intrinsically sewn into our pop culture consciousness that we rarely sit back to objectively look at how his songs stack up when separated from their visually-stunning counterparts. While “Thriller” is arguably the signature song for Jackson, the funky tune—as fun as it is—is not one of the greater songs in Jackson’s cannon: it’s more style than substance, flashy and fun but free of the lite emotional gravitas that “Beat It” or even “Rock With You” possessed. The song exists almost solely for its music video, which is and always will be considered one of the greatest of all time if not the greatest of all time. You can’t hear the song without immediately thinking of its promo clip, and much of the fun nostalgia laced with the song stems from exactly that: its music video.
The only other time this comes up in Jackson’s canon is once again with a title track: “Bad”. The song is lyrically tough yet musically very soft, and it exists less a defiant statement of badassery than it does as a fun promotional tool. Heck, even the song’s structure hews remarkably close to that of “Thriller”, the chorus’ for both sitting on a higher key than the verses, both popping with bright horns (although virtually every modern pressing of Bad opts for the single mix, which oddly doesn’t feature as many horns as the original album version). Although the video is still responsible for roughly 80% of all black leather jacket sales in the U.S. in 1988 (at least according to this statistic that I just made up), detractors did have a valid point when noting that Jackson himself was succumbing to a bit of sequelitis with this release.
That being said, there is nothing wrong with delivering more of what the people want, and when Bad hits its target, it can be nothing short of thrilling. Just listen to “The Way You Make Me Feel”, a song which carries on the same good-time vibes of “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” but possesses a certain freewheeling looseness that both of those tightly regimented songs were missing (although it tends to get lost in the conversation of his more iconic works, it could be argued that “The Way You Make Me Feel” is one of the strongest singles he ever released). Although the reaffirming “Man in the Mirror” addresses many of the worlds ills in its verses, that spectacularly uplifting chorus truly makes it feel like you can be part of the cure, resulting in a track proves to be fulfillingly anthemic without ever fully tiling over into pretentiousness. It’s a tough balancing act, but this song manages to pull it off in spades.
The parts when Bad truly comes alive, however, are the times when Jackson pushes himself outside his comfort zone, taking true risks with his sound, which—in this case—means going darker, edgier. “Dirty Diana” is a perfect example of this, one-upping his riotous Eddie Van Halen collaboration with “Beat It” by delivering a true-blooded hard rock song, full of moody synths and feisty electric guitar solos (courtesy of Billy Idol’s go-to axe-man Steve Stevens). It’s also a song that goes back to the philosophy that some fans share about Jackson: he writes best when he writes paranoid. This song, about a persistent groupie, has Jackson giving us one of his darkest-ever character studies, but it’s the album’s closing tune, “Leave Me Alone”, that proves to be one his all-time greats. Although not initially included in Bad‘s official vinyl track listing (something that was changed upon each subsequent release of the album, which is actually a very welcome move as it proves to be a more fitting closer than “Smooth Criminal”), this rant about the pressures of fame and dealing with paparazzi sounds unlike anything else Jackson had recorded to this point: the popping guitar sounds had been heard before, but this song wasn’t exactly a dance song, not exactly a pop number, and the multi-tiered chorus assuredly wasn’t rock either. It’s a bit of an introverted tale, but also one of the rare times where Jackson actually lashes out at someone, and it’s fascinating to see this side of his personality. (Also, his singing in tandem with the wheezing synths on the bridge? Delightful.)
When you the whole album into consideration, however, there are still some notably weak portions, and the worst offenders are on the album’s A-side. “Speed Demon” is one of Jackson’s rare misfires, as a song about angry driving can only do so much (also, who knew that the word “demon” only had one syllable in it?). “Liberian Girl”, which follows, aims for the exotic, but its ethereal synth backdrop unfortunately deadens any impact Jackson was going for (the song’s multi-tracked vocals on the chorus being the song’s only real takeaway). Additionally, although there’s nothing inherently wrong with “Another Part of Me” by itself, the synth backings here have noticeably shown their age, moreso than most Jackson recordings. While a majority of his songs have transcended their era, “Another Part of Me” unfortunately just feels trapped in it.
Yet Bad 25 is a very, very smart re-release. Although Bad itself had been remastered as recently as 2001, the first disc of this four-disc set is simply the original album—nothing else. It’s very wise to leave things by itself, as the album is best absorbed without any additional ephemera (or, like the 2001 re-releases, elongated audio interviews with the behind-the-scenes crew tacked on at the end). The biggest takeaway for fans, though, is the second disc, featuring “bonus tracks, demos, and remixes”, and save for both a Spanish and French version of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” (which exist as curiosities for collectors and nothing more), it is uniformly excellent. As the brief and to-the-point liner notes explain, the songs selected here are genuine Bad-era tunes, as songs that were recorded during this era and later reworked for subsequent LPs was deliberately left off. Thus, there are some top-notch tunes to be found, ranging from the funky, fun strut of “Streetwalker” (which could have easily stood on its own in the album proper) to the fascinating “Al Capone”, which was later reworked into what we know today as “Smooth Criminal”. Some of these rarities are experiments that overlapped with thematic material already on the album (see “Price of Fame”, which is a solid anti-media rant, although “Leave Me Alone” was just a bit more effective), some are some nice mid-tempo ballads that still carry an Off the Wall-styled 70s pop vibe (“Free”), and some are songs that are so good they could’ve easily been not only worked onto the album, but also have been great singles (as is the case with the feel-good “Don’t Be Messin’ ‘Round”, which was released as a specialty B-side as part of the marketing run-up to this album).
Perhaps the most notable/controversial entry is a synth-driven tune called “Song Groove (A/K/A Abortion Papers)”. The liners mention how Michael wasn’t afraid to tackle some more “big picture” issues with his music (“Black or White”, “Earth Song”), and “Abortion Papers” is no exception. The song’s chorus never really came together (somehow screaming out “those abortion pa-pers!” just never really seemed to have much of a place in ‘80s pop radio), but it’s still presented here as a fully-formed track, pretty much ready to go on a purely musical front. It is an utterly fascinating discovery and a real treat for patient fans who’ve already waded through choppier waters like The Ultimate Collection and Michael to get to the King of Pop’s real unreleased treasures.
Less intriguing are the remixes included, which, unlike the numerous guest-star atrocities that marred the Thriller: 25th Anniversary Edition release, are more “serviceable” than “an affront to good taste”. Afrojack has two remixes of “Bad” here, obviously trying to make the song sound like it belongs on modern-day radio (one of them, with two guest verses from Pitbull, is just outright trash), while noted dance maestros Nero do the best they can giving “Speed Demon” new life, which is a challenge given the noted history of the song. While the group certainly does “get” the staccato nature of the music, and although they try to fashion something all club-ready for 2012 listeners, it ends up sounding more like a Nero song with MJ’s vocals than it does a genuine Michael Jackson remix (this is a problem that dates all the way back to Blood on the Dance Floor: it is just really hard to reinterpret MJ).
The last two discs of this massive collection cover Jackson’s 1988 run of shows at Wembley during the height of his Bad World Tour, British royals happily in attendance. As the liners point out, this was Jackson’s first-ever solo world tour, and is a fascinating document, given the only other commercially available document of his live performance abilities is for the gaudier but less-exciting Dangerous World Tour. Here, Jackson is at the peak of his powers, absolutely bursting with energy. Extended dance breaks are added into the songs, his backing quartet of dancers are extremely precise, and yes, that’s 80s Sheryl Crow coming out to duet with him on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”. Some oddities are thrown into the mix (the second song is “This Place Hotel”), and there are occasional get-ups that are, in a word, unnecessary (wait until you see guitarist Jennifer Batten get into something I refer to as “the neon nightmare”). Yet the show is remarkably fun, and relatively fast-paced. There are multiple costume changes throughout, with Jackson wearing whatever jacket is appropriate for the song he’s singing (a letterman jacket for “Thriller”, a white coat and fedora for “Smooth Criminal”, that signature black leather for “Bad”). At first, he and his dancers could not be tighter. They exude energy, and perhaps what’s most remarkable is how Jackson is able to still sing/sustain notes while doing his numerous laser-precise moves. By the time he starts Moonwalking during “Billie Jean” (and let there be no mistake: this is as spectacular and smooth as he has ever executed the move), the already-nuts crowd simply goes into overdrive. By the time he reaches “Thriller”, however, he starts to lose some of that exact precision, obviously exhausted for having been onstage for nearly an hour without as much as a water break.
What ultimately kills the momentum of the Wembley show (and what is mercifully excised from the audio CD version of it) is the “band groove” following “Thriller”. Although Jackson has hired numerous talents to help make his musical vision complete—and yes, they all very much do deserve their solos (especially drummer Ricky Lawson, who interrupts his furious kick-drum pounding half-way through to put some sunglasses on)—but at a full 14 minutes, it is extremely hard to regain the momentum generated in the show’s first half. The DVD itself is relatively light on extras (holding out for two bonus performances done at different times & locations), and the visual quality—as the liners point out—leaves a bit to be desired, as the recording of this concert was on a VHS tape from Michael’s personal collection. It’s obvious a lot of effort has gone into the remastering (the audio, thankfully, was multi-channel when filmed), but there’s a very good reason why you will not see a Blu-ray version of this performance anytime soon.
In short, Bad 25 is a fantastic package for any serious pop fan or even casual Michael Jackson connoisseur. The album still carries the same flaws that have dogged it ever since its release in 1987, but the moments that work—and the numerous, delightful revelations derived by the onslaught of bonus material here—only help enhance our understanding of the King of Pop, and allow us to enjoy the music all the more, definitively answering the question one and for all: “Who’s bad?”
// Notes from the Road
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