Dave Bidini: At 30, Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean is still a beauty queen
1. Wikipedia tells us that Quincy Jones didn’t like it, at least not at first. Too obvious, maybe. Too unprogressively pop, and not nearly as epic or “artistic” in scope compared to PYT or Beat It, or Wanna Be Startin’ Something, with its indefatigable land-sea outro; an album side on its own. Eventually, Michael won the argument. Maybe it was the bass line or maybe it was the vocal take or or maybe it was the idea for the video: “You see, I do this thing with my feet and torso.” Either way, there was something about how the song impacted whomever happened to be sitting in the mixing room, the recording chamber, the studio A desk at Westlake, or the massive live floor, 800 square feet of it. “Michael Jackson stood where? Here? Right here??” A neck bob. A leg fly. A belly shimmy. All at once. Damned, man, you can’t fake the charge. You can’t. It was on the proposed album sequence, culled from over 60 compositions. First song, side two. Alright. Maybe. “You sure, Smelly?” No, Quincy wasn’t sure. He called Michael “Smelly.” So did everybody else, after “Smelly Jelly,” Michael’s shorthand for groove. It was a good name, a funny name. It stuck.
2. Michael was told to speak with a high voice; a trill; a warble. It protects the throat chamber. It keeps the larynx and the voice box from rising. You don’t want that. You don’t want to put too much pressure there. You want the voice to float; to sit right so there’s room for the notes, the noises, the whoops, the ohhhhs, the oooooas, the ahhhhhhhs, the shhhzhshhs, the zrrrrrrrs; room for them to pass through swiftly and neatly. He was told to do this in interviews. At dinner. With your publicist or when you’re arguing over album tracks. Problem was, Michael was a natural baritone. A low voice like his dad, Joe. True. Dude was down here. Here. Arguing with Quincy was tough that way. Could Peter Pan hold the day? No one knew. “Spin it again. Again. Let’s see how it feels now. OK? One more time.”
3. Listen to the bass drum: Leon Chancler’s. Right there. A sonic pastry. Not like the beginning of Highway to Hell, which was more of a leather boot to the flank hollow of a passenger door; and not like the beginning of The Ocean, which was more of a heavy weight lowered into a deep pool; and not like Ian Hunter’s Just Another Night, which was a pint glass slammed on a wet oak bar. Instead, let’s say we shadow it in sneaky digital reverb? There’s lots of drum pedal in there. A single bounce on the trampoline. Get the listener up; only not so high. Leave some headroom; some space to travel into. “There. OK?” Now, the snare. Smaller than the kick drum. The hi-hat is your neck. The snare is your soul. But your ass is the bass drum. Someone said that. Someone in the room. Everyone believed him. Smelly. He laughed low, too.
4. From mixer Bruce Swedien, who wore a swooshing white moustache and window-pane shirts with silver buttons. Quincy called him “Svensk.” White dude. Totally white. It didn’t matter. Not there. Not with Michael at the helm. Svensk told the internet: “Quincy gave me the nickname. It meant “Swedish Man” in Swedish, and when Q gives you a nickname, you are truly honoured. I recorded the drums with as tight and powerful a drum sound as I could come up with. I put the drum set on my plywood drum platform. Also at this time, I had a special kick drum cover made that covers the whole front of the kick drum. There’s a slot with a zipper in it that the mic fits through. When the kick drum mic is in my drum cover, I zip the opening tightly shut around the mic. And then I record it.”
5. OK, time for the Bass Man: Louis Johnson, one of the Brothers’ Johnson, who played tipped forwards on a stool. Cool in the pocket, but lively. Less Robbie Shakespeare; more James Jamerson. Beard and moustache, playing with his thumb, its crown as tough as burlap, thumping his Music Man Stingray, a guitar that Leo Fender made especially to support his distinctive pop and slap. It was a pure walking line, but not in the conventional sense. Instead, if the bass drum rooted you like cement, the bass pulled you up and carried you forward, still heavy at the heels. The low sloopy line was the goo inside the pastry. Blueberry, maybe. Spilling over the lips and down the chin. Sweet, not saccharine. Pick it up on your way home after a bad day. “This one’s for me, baby.” It came on the radio. Air bass in the front seat at rush hour, which, let’s face it, kids, almost never happens.
6. “You sure you wanna write about this? You don’t have to, you know? People will talk. They’ll talk about this song and no one will listen to it like they ain’t thinking.” In the end, it didn’t matter. Michael tried to sell Quincy on it, but the producer wanted every step to be right, and that included measuring a lyrical component that saw Peter Pan victimized — or not victimized — by a sweet young thing, and white, too, if her name suggested anything. Still, some songs curve past all of this (history shows that everyone wondered what the song was about, but no one cared). After a moment, the synth started on the off-beat; the song’s first cross-rhythm. “She was more like a beauty queen on a movie screen.” And then: “Would we dance on the floor in the round?” With this sticky vocal hook, the drums jumped the beat on a snare hit that sounded like a kid taking the last few steps of the staircase at once, surprised to find the floor. From there, the listener in his or her stocking’ed feet slid to meet the pre-chorus: “People always told me…” You could tell that something good was coming next.
7. More Bruce Swedien, hands tented on the mixing desk holding court with his audience: “Quincy says that the lyric that Michael wrote is highly personal. I’m sure that’s true. Michael told us it was about a girl, that climbed over the wall at his house, and was lounging out there by the swimming pool. She was laying out there, near the pool; lounging; hangin’ out with shades on; her bathing suit on. One morning she just showed up! Kind of like a stalker, almost. She had accused Michael of being the father of ONE of her twins. Is that possible? I don’t think so.”
8. In a recent documentary by Spike Lee about the making of Bad, Michael Jackson’s keyboard player talks about how the singer had the most percussive fingersnaps, and if you listen to that record as well as Thriller, they constantly pepper the mix. On Billie Jean, they come early in the chorus along with the snare’s pah-dap shot on the down beat, a West African drumming motif on a record that has many. The snaps are barely there, but you miss them when the song returns to the verse. The mix is a mastery of small changing shades: an “eeeeeehhhh” here; a handclap there; a quick highhat figure that disappears as soon as it arrives. The song is like a short verdant drive. The primary colours are the same, but every now and then: a bird, a signpost, a child’s voice; the scenery morphing in small ways to make what is good even better. “The kid is not my son.” Or “the chid is not my son.”
What the hell’s a “chid?”
9. Maybe Quincy Jones didn’t like the fact that the last 2:05 of a 4:53 song is simply the chorus out; recycled until it fades with the band purring hard. Structurally, the song is half a song. There’s no bridge and there’s hardly a solo save for the repeated Freddie Stewart guitar figure played close to the neck to get that whippy funky sound, cast in barely enough digital delay to make it circa now, not circa then. There’s a descending string run — violins, mostly — that quotes TSOP and Philly Soul, Hot Chocolate and Thelma Houston, coming after the last chord in the chorus’s sequence. In the chorus-out, a galaxy of singing fills the space, every part of the sonic tableau coloured with Michael doing this and Michael doing this, a trick that he — and everyone else— learned from Marvin Gaye. There are lots of “no, no, nos” and “uhhhs” and “you know you said it’s!” and a myriad of “breathless stutters,” which is how they said Stevie Wonder used to sing. Five minutes flies across the earbuds. One person calls it “gently funky,” another calls it “sweetly poppish,” and another calls it “fast-footed and sleek.” It’s lightweight and soul and bubblegum with a tinge of Afro-beat and a shade of Sing A Simple Song. You can hate Michael Jackson, sure. But even the devil moves to this song when no one is looking.
10. They mixed Billie Jean 91 times. At least that’s the legend. They poured over it and poured over it maybe to the point where Quincy Jones got to say, “There. It’s unmixable.” Or, more likely, he wanted to find a way to make it work. One more thought from Svensk. He also told the Internet: “I called MJ, Quincy and Rod [Templeton] into the control room and played mix two for them. They loved it! They were all dancing and carrying on like crazy. Then Michael slipped out of the control room, turned around and motioned to me to follow him. There, he whispered, ‘Please Bruce, it’s perfect, but turn the bass up just a tiny bit, and do one more mix.’ I said to him, ‘OK, Smelly, no problem.’ I went back into the control room to add Michael’s tiny bit of bass to my mix. Quincy pulled me into the corner and said ‘Please Svensk, add a little garlic salt to the snare and the kick. Just a squirt.’ So I went back into the control room and did that. Just a little squirt. Before I knew it, I was up to mix 20 on the song.”
“This went on for about a week. Before I knew it, I was on to mix 91. My half-inch tapes were stacked almost to the ceiling. I’d do a few mixes, we’d listen and then I’d do a few more. Finally, we thought we had a really ‘hot’ mix. I played mix 91 and everybody smiled. But Quincy had one of those funny looks on his face. He said ‘Just for the fun of it, can we listen to one of your earlier mixes?’ My heart jumped because I knew that my earlier mixes were dynamite. Then Quincy said, ‘Let’s hear mix number 2.’ Of course, IT WAS SLAMMIN’! EVERYONE IN THE STUDIO WAS GROOVIN’ AND DANCIN’ and HAPPY, and actin’ IGNORANT! And that’s the real story of how ‘Billie Jean’ was made.”