How Bad Was ‘Bad’?

Posted September 30, 2012 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

In celebration of its 25th anniversary, HiFi digs below the surface to discover what excatly makes the follow-up to Michael Jackson’s Thriller so good

Without question, Michael Jackson‘s Thriller raised the bar. Hell, it broke the bar and added a few stories. After the dust settled, Thriller rose as a mountainous skyscraper in the world of record sales – selling close to 110 million copies worldwide. It was the new thing to marvel at. It dumbfounded the MTV generation, as most generally regulated r&b artists struggled in the new age of pop to get exposure. Because of Jackson’s breakthrough, Lionel Richie, Tina Turner and the Pointer Sisters had a chance at music video fame. On paper, Thriller – riding high on Off the Wall‘s successes, even borrowing some of its formula – broke ground in solidifying Jackson’s bond with producer Quincy Jones and expanding his audience into the realms of rock (“Billie Jean,” “Beat It”), adult contemporary (“Human Nature”) and post-disco (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”). No longer was Jackson just king in his familiar r&b territory. His reign at the 1984 Grammys –amassing a record-shattering eight Grammys – made him the undisputable king across all formats. An international superstar was born. With all the fame and attention now focused on the newly-crowned king of pop, MJ wound up turning into a very different person: Paranoiac, ultra-shy and apparently semi-destructive.

It took a whopping five years for a follow-up. Despite public perception, Jackson remained busy on the next album, while also taking care of his obligations to satisfy his fellow siblings with a reunion album and tour (Victory). Meanwhile, Motown was invading their vaults for lost tapes and anything salvageable that had Jackson’s voice on it. In 1984, a full album was unveiled of rarities, which included a highly overdubbed remix of a forgotten 1973 track called “Farewell My Summer Love.” Prematurely, MJ fans bought the single thinking it was something fresh, sending it to the Top 40 in June 1984. It wasn’t enough to satisfy the anxious. The Jacksons’ duet with Mick Jagger on “State of Shock” did better, so did “Torture.” But the public wanted another Thriller. There was no mistake about it. But how in God’s name do you follow that?

“Quincy and I decided that this album should be as close to perfect as humanly possible,” Jackson said. “A perfectionist has to take his time. He can’t let it go before he’s satisfied. When it’s as perfect as you can make it, you put it out there. That’s the difference between a number 30 record and a number one record that stays number one for weeks.”

Jackson’s follow-up ended up becoming Bad, Jackson’s seventh studio album and his third solo project released on Epic. Unlike Off the Wall and Thriller, the work for this project proved to be cumbersome on Jackson, thanks to the insurmountable pressures and demands now set by Thriller. “I feel jubilated,” Jackson said, when asked how he felt when the album was completed by Jet/Ebony Showcase. “After working on it so long, it’s so much work. A lot of people are so used to seeing the outcome. They never see the side of the work you go through to produce the outcome.

And the public never quite understood all the work that went into Bad’s original ten-track set (“Leave Me Alone” was added later). Preliminary developments started in the fall of 1986, while recording took place in January the following year, which lasted well into the late summer. It is reported that Jackson wrote sixty songs for the album. At the request of Quincy Jones, the better songs were selected and the sixty were trimmed down to thirty. Finally, the thirty was slashed into a favorable ten. No wonder when asked how long the creative process was to construct Bad, Jackson had no real answer. “I don’t even remember,” Jackson said. “I don’t count the hours. Every song is different. Sometimes it comes quickly, sometimes it happens slowly. No one can quite say what the creative process is ‘cause I have nothing to do with it almost. It’s created in space; It’s God’s work, not mine.”

The pressure was definitely on for Jackson to try topping Thriller. But instead of reduplicating Thriller from top to bottom for his highly-anticipated follow-up, Jackson created a polar opposite – an album that was the antithesis of Thriller, dressed with loud ego romps, rebellious outcries and an invasion of synths and drum machines.

Bad was Jackson’s grown-up album. Much like Control was a wake-up call to Janet’s parents and those who only remember her as Penny on Good Times, Bad showcased a Michael now willing to wear his adulthood, regardless of how messy the independence appeared to the average onlooker. Aboard Bad, Jackson approached a more evolved street pop sound that focused on drum-programmed beats, sophisticated vocal harmonies and mid-80’s synth patches. His crossover vocals, which mixed a high-range tenor and an awkwardly whiny falsetto using Stevie Wonder altitude, got sharper around the edges. The sexy yelps, quivering whispers and hiccups became more spontaneous and daring. By and large, Jackson didn’t sound like anything that came before him. Off the Wall and Thriller were mere introductions to the new Jackson, but Bad clearly became the ebodiment of the adult Michael, and would ultimately represent the totality of Jackson’s future works.

Technology proved to be a gratifying advantage in the revolving world of Jackson, as he exercised newly-inhabited control behind the boards while enforcing bigger ideas. The most obvious trait that differentiates Thriller from Bad is sonic direction. Quincy was Optimum Prime in the production seat with Michael learning from the leader. On Bad, Jackson steps up his co-production game, almost overshadowing much of Jones’s signature moves. Jones had brilliantly forged his excellent jazz perfections with pop’s evolutions in the late ‘70’s, taking the Brothers Johnson duo and Patti Austin’s irreplaceable background vocals with him on almost every session. His posse’ eventually mushroomed into an army of perfectionism, bearing a hint of Steely Dan-ism. The Who’s Who list defined Jones’s layouts: Greg Phillinganes’s piano work created the mood; Wah Wah Watson’s guitar guaranteed endless funk, the ever-busy Paulinho de Costa provided tribal percussion; Toto’s David Paich and Steve & Jeff Porcaro proved to be music industry saviors; Rod Temperton was now handing over the best of Heatwave’s castaways. And Jerry Hey’s horn arrangements always soared with EWF gravitas, evidenced on “Burn This Disco Out” and “Workin’ Day and Night.” By the time 1987’s Bad rolled around, Jones had left that world of live instrumentation for a simpler, more tech-heavy environment.

Almost immediately, Bad was praised for its singles’ domination. One by one, each of Bad’s released singles charmed the MJ-hungry fan base and helped cultivate Jackson’s international legend. Regardless if the songs seemed inferior to the content highlighting Thriller, they each prevailed in their purpose. Nine of the eleven songs were released as singles; one a promotional tool (“Leave Me Alone”), the other being released overseas. Five of the album’s songs were Number One hits in the U.S. – a feat that Thriller hadn’t accomplished. To add to Bad’s legacy, all five of those singles hit the number one spot within the span of ten months.

Clearly, Bad is a singles-dominated album: a careful reminder of Motown’s assembly line pop and a shining example of just how the Top 40 acts of today came to be. Rihanna, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Lady Gaga – most recently, Enrique Iglesias, Maroon 5 and P!nk, seem to be apprentices of the Bad workshop. Although their album sales aren’t scratching the surface of what Jackson achieved, mostly all of their singles dominate the top tier of radio formats and prove to be popular in the digital download department. They are also catchy, bubblegummy with a twinge of Tang that appeals to youngsters. That’s probably the second obvious trait that differentiates Bad from Thriller: Its instant gratification towards younger audiences.

Listen to “Dirty Diana,” where the paranoiac darkness rumbles like a Pink Floyd track, and watch Jackson wail alongside the bad-ass guitar riffs of Billy Idol’s Steve Stevens. Or imagine the adrenaline-rushed lyrics of “Speed Demon” coming to life (“Mind is like a compass/I’m stoppin’ at nothin’”). Or listen to “Smooth Criminal,” where he almost inaudibly raps about a fantasy about Annie and her startling confrontation with a bad boy. The song, birth out of an unreleased track named “Al Capone” (now heard on the deluxe edition of Bad 25), bore the funky agility of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” but carried a celebration of danger. In the music video, Jackson plays the part, but dresses up in 1930’s Mafia-styled suaveness, reliving the Fred Astaire dance sequence in 1953’s The Band Wagon. In the Martin Scorsese-directed short film of the album’s title track, Jackson continued his walk on the wild side of danger as he assumed the role of a street thug dressed in leather and totally surrounded by urban grit: graffiti, subway scenes, West Side Story influences. Maybe this was the kid in Jackson, since he refuses to grow up according to our standards, but he clearly wanted to mess around with the storytelling of rebellion for this album. “It is quite different from anything I’ve ever recorded or ever written,” Jackson says of Bad. “It’s a bold statement to say, but…don’t take it seriously. It’s like saying you’re cool, you’re alright, you’re tough. I’m not saying I’m like criminally bad. Of course that’s how people would take it. It’s a bold statement to make.”

But it was “Leave Me Alone” and the highly-talked about concept video with Jackson and his pet chimpanzee Bubbles that has long been identified with Bad’s public image. The song was meant to raise the volume on Jackson’s frustrations with the relentless paparazzi adding more myth to Jackson’s god-like fame. Music critic Robert Christgau later remarked that the song was the “closest thing to genius.” Still labeled a smart, unevenly effective publicity stunt, “Leave Me Alone” would’ve been better if it was closer to Jesus and not genius. The paparazzi, the rumors, the Wacko Jacko stigma and the endless stories in the tabloids followed Jackson all the way to his untimely death.

But not everything assembled on Bad seemed dangerous. Jackson did crank out MLK theology (“if you wanna make the world a better place/Take a look at yourself and make the change”) on the moving gospel-tinged Siedah Garrett/Glen Barrett tune, “Man in the Mirror.” Inside, Jackson takes up the holy cloth of a Pentecostal revivalist as he ad-libs “that man, that man” over and over again with Holy Ghost fire. Other works like the endearing duet with Garrett on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” and the Motown-feely “The Way You Make Me Feel” allowed him to come across as being uncannily romantic.  These moments seem to be a bit erroneous when compared with Jackson’ street wear, but it is a sigh of relief to those hoping to spot a moral compass – especially for Katherine, his devoted Jehovah’s Witness mom.

Twenty five years later, Bad doesn’t bear the critical glow of Thriller, nor does it encapsulate the importance or regal-ness of Off the Wall. At the time of its release, hip hop heads started to view Jackson as a sale-out and felt the newly-crowned supernova was too big for his britches, despite them knowing that r&b radio had an obligation to support the dance-funk of “Bad,” “Another Part of Me” and “The Way You Make Me Feel.” But as years marched on, Bad became symbolic for being a nearly-dated ‘80’s period piece and lost some of its muscle over time; it simply didn’t age with the durability of Thriller and Off the Wall.

But nostalgia for Eighties delights is at a peak now: Everything synonymous to the Eighties is now being sampled, reworked, revamped or revived in today’s pop culture. The forever-young Duran Duran are still hungry like the wolf, Journey hasn’t stop believing, Van Halen and Bon Jovi are parading as the modern-day Beatles and just about every facet of post-disco, including New Wave, Madonna-esque synth pop, glam rock is making a comeback. And Bad possibly one of the late Eighties’ proudest pageantries of funk, pop and rock, still has a lot to brag about. Critics have universally appraised the work, almost giving it a reverential halo like Thriller. In 1987, Davitt Sigerson wrote in Rolling Stone that even without a milestone recording like “Billie Jean,” Bad is still a better record than Thriller. He added: “The filler – “Speed Demon,” “Dirty Diana,” arguably “Liberian Girl” – is Michael’s filler, which makes it richer, sexier, better than Thriller’s forgettables. In the New York Times, Jon Pareles commented that Bad was a “well-made, catchy dance record by an enigmatic pop star.” Generations later, Bad is still doing more than holding up; it’s slowly re-posturing itself. With new mixes by Afrojack and Nero documenting the 25th anniversary box set of Bad, much like’s work framed the new content on Thriller’s 25th, it’s clearly obvious that the former outpaces the latter. Los Angeles Times’ Randall Roberts writes, “These are terrible commercial house tracks – especially Afrojack’s ‘Bad’ remix featuring Pitbull – and are an insult to MJ’s memory not because they rework his music, but because they do it so ungracefully.”

Probably Spike Lee should be hailed as chief ambassador to Bad and not the unimaginative remixes tucked inside Bad 25. The famed film director is currently showcasing a newly-released documentary exploring all the details of Bad at the major film festivals. “It was the follow-up to the greatest-selling albums of all time,” Lee tells MTV News. “A lot of people slept on it.” Thriller sold 110 million worldwide. Bad has only sold 30 million.

Twenty years later, Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream tied Jackson’s previous record of Bad for having five number-one singles to come from one album. No artist or album since Bad has ever broken that record.

September 28, 2012


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine



    Your review just made me go buy this on Amazon. Thank you!



    To say nothing of post-“Thriller” Michael Jackson, as of 2012, the David Lee Roth of era Van Halen (pre-1985) is criminally under-appreciated, critically.

    To lump the only vital sounding rock and roll of the 1980s — next to pre-1984 Springsteen and some early ’80s punk/new wave — next to Bon Jovi is offensive. It’s like comparing Little Richard to Pat Boone.

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