Matt Forger speaks: The secrets of BAD 25

(version française)

 

Listening to Michael Jackson’s music is always some kind of a unique experience. Not only because the vocals and the music are good, but also because his songs are really like a tapestry with so many layers that you always find yourself discovering new details each time you listen to them. With BAD 25, the Estate of MJ and Sony shed light on several unreleased tracks from the BAD sessions. Of course, there are still more songs from that era to discover, but the tracks that are released this year give an interesting and genuine glimpse of Jackson’s often underestimated creative process.

This time around, BAD 25 delivers the goods: all the unreleased tracks on it are presented unenhanced or overdubbed, as explains sound engineer and longtime MJ collaborator Matt Forger: “It was decided that anything that was going to be included in the release and presented to the public had to be exactly at that stage of production that existed in 1987. No additional recording, no additional elements… I was very happy to hear that the direction was ‘we can only use the elements that were recorded up to 1987. It must be the work of this period’.” 

Forger worked with Jackson for his studio albums (from Thriller down to HIStory) and also assisted him in the production of other projects such as Captain E.O., plus the opening soundtrack for the Jacksons’ 1984 Victory Tour. In the 2000’s, he worked on the 2001 Special Edition series and the 2004 Ultimate Collection box set. Forger was also part of the team that developed the Thriller 25 project in late 2007. So, quite logically, he has found himself involved in the making of the BAD 25 release: “I was asked by Sony and the Estate to participate in this because this was work that very much I was involved in during the recording of many of these songs. (…) I’m the person who has been called many times as a consultant, to help them when they have questions about older material from the archives, or when someone need to understand a particular point.”

Digging into the MJ archives is, of course, one of the best jobs in the world. But the way the songs and tapes have been handled demand expertise that very few people have. Forger was there when it all happened, so he is able to track things that papers and notes may have overlooked. “When I review notes or tape boxes, all these memories come back to me. I can remember the situation that the song was recorded in, who were the participants and the musicians, and some of the particular things that we did like the style and the sound of the recording or the equipment that we used. All of this information is just from my memory bank, because I was there working with Michael Jackson at that time. “

It of course shows how comprehensive and full of surprises Jackson’s works in the studio can be. What has to be kept in mind is that since the Off the Wall album (1979), Michael Jackson gradually had taken control over his music and all aspects of his career. The pinnacle of this process took place during the BAD era. As the final and last episode of the trilogy he started with Quincy Jones in the very late 70’s, the album was also an important transition for Jackson, who would head to new directions and collaborations in the early 90’s when he released Dangerous. And, on many occasions, BAD 25 hints at these changes to come.

Michael Jackson entered the music world as probably the last true Motowner of his generation. After a record-breaking career with his brothers, The Jackson 5 and The Jacksons, he stepped into adulthood with a collection of songs that not only proved he had made the hard transition from childhood, but also generated tracks that since then have become instant club classics. On BAD, he showed that he could still make it in clubs, but also leant to other styles and genre. The global image of the album is a dramatic evolution of the tough image he developed in the Beat It short film (1983). Songs like Man in the Mirror also shows he comes with a message, and that the music is always a matter of sound, but also of melody and lyrics.

On BAD, Jackson penned 9 of the 11 tracks presented to the public. As Quincy Jones puts it in the 2001 bonus interviews of the first re-release of BAD, his songs “are always somehow autobiographical”.  So, somewhere down the road there may be a thin line between I Just Can’t Stop Loving You and Dirty Diana: here is a fascinating definition of love and hate that he also developed in further works.

BAD is known for the 11 tracks that made it on the album. But it is also known for being a project with some 60 plus tracks to have been considered. Some of them have Jackson’s vocals on it, at different stage of productions. Some of them are just instrumental tracks and song ideas that were not eventually developed any further. BAD 25 humbly focuses on the BAD sessions with a series of 6 unreleased tracks that document Jackson’s creative process. So, as a little bit more than 10% of the recorded material has been presented to the public, these unfinished and yet sometimes experimental works give an idea of how the sounds were crafted.

 

 

 

Don’t Be Messin’ ‘Round

(Recorded by Brent Averill and Bruce Swedien)

Don’ Be Messin’ ‘Round was released this June as the flip side of the re-issued single, I Just Can’t Stop Loving You. It definitely sounds like a raw sketch Jackson throws on the soundboard, just to see how the different elements meld and eventually match. With light pop accents and a definite Bossa Nova influence, Don’t Be Messin’ ‘Round is also reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing. Jackson often cited Wonder as one of his masters and major influence in music. On many occasions, he also praised some of his works. In 2003, he gave a special interview to Brett Ratner for Interview (published in early 2004) and talked about Wonder’s 1973 Innervisions album (which includes Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing): “Hearing this music made me say to myself, ‘I can do this, and I think I can do this on an international level’ ».

Michael first recorded the song with sound engineer Brent Averill in the early 80’s. “This is one of the songs that was recorded very early, potentially for the Thriller album”, explains Matt Forger. “For whatever reason, it was not developed any further at this point in time. Michael brought it back and we did more work on it in the period of the BAD album.  Some additional recording was done at that time with Bruce Swedien at Westlake.  I did some additional work and mixes at that time for evaluation for Michael. “

The version released for BAD 25 is an attempt to give the best representation of the 1987 version of the track, the one that was left in the studio at that time: “Many of the elements that were worked on in the BAD era were some of the very basic elements from these earlier demos. Selected elements were transferred and then additional work was recorded for the BAD album. And then it was decided it wasn’t to be included on the album, and at that point no additional work was done. And for BAD 25 I had to go back to many multi track tapes because the elements of the recording were on different tapes: some were recorded at Westlake, and some at Hayvenhurst and I had to make sure that all these representative elements could be assembled in a single version, and a single mix of the song”.

Forger also confirms that other versions of the song were done later that were more refined than the earlier recordings. Don’t Be Messin’ ‘Round, an unfinished song that is now presented to the public as is and on purpose, shows Jackson’s spontaneity at his best: “I understood what the feeling of the song should be. What is interesting in the song is that you can hear Michael giving directions like “bridge” or “guitar” and he actually sings the parts himself. That was of course a work in progress session”.

Emotion is something that has always been very important in Jackson’s songs. In the 2004 The One documentary, Jill Scott explains she realized the importance of such emotional input in his work: “but it’s the choices that he makes when singing a song, he emotes. That’s a gift”. So even when he sings random lyrics on demos, one can feel he is looking for the best spots and moments in the melody to introduce genuine and heartfelt emotion. “Michael was experimenting and testing elements and styles”, says Forger. “He would evaluate the best way to approach. But emotion is the thing that is very much at the forefront”.

 

 

 

I’m So Blue

(Recorded by Matt Forger and Bill Bottrell)

Quite surprisingly, depression is a theme Michael Jackson showcased very early on in his career as a songwriter when he released Blues Away on the Jacksons’ 1976 eponymous album. At 17, he already was into quite mature themes that he would develop on later works. I’m So Blue is about a love story with a sad ending, and Michael singing his loneliness out.

The ballad is wrapped with sweet arrangements. The intro riffs instantly sets up the stage and the mood of the track. The chords are grooving and mellowing down, and Jackson’s voice in the first lines reflects the sadness of the story.

The bridge section of the song has this great harmonica solo, or actually an instrument that sounds like a harmonica: “That was in fact a synthesizer harmonica”, reveals Forger. “And that was actually John Barnes. He is a very talented keyboard musician. And he could play many instruments like horns and brasses. So he could understand how a musician who plays the actual instrument and how the notes had to be attacked and that is one of the things he was very versatile and very talented at”.

I’m So Blue is included on BAD 25 as a demo recording. Its sophistication of some of its polished arrangements actually put the song in another category. What most artists would consider finalized recordings, Michael Jackson would call them demos.

 

 

 

Song Groove (AKA Abortion Papers)

(Recorded by Brian Malouf and Gary O)

In Song Groove, Michael Jackson addresses a social issue that still fuel debates today. This is a theme that has been developed by many Pop artists before. And quite unexpectedly, Jackson wrote a song on the subject, trying not to offend women who may face such situation.

The title of the song, Song Groove, is followed by another title: Abortion Papers. It sounds as if the two titles hardly match: in a way, how can a title like Song Groove be used for a song about abortion? One of Jackson’s abilities was to craft uptempo and catchy songs with deep and dark themes. Billie Jean may be the best example, as it tells the story of a woman who claims to have Jackson’s child. In Abortion Papers, Jackson also uses an uptempo musical theme to spread his message. The story of this double title reflects Jackson’s way of working on song ideas: “When we did the research there were two tapes and each tape is a multi track analog tape saying Song Groove”, recalls Forger. “But we didn’t realize that Abortion Papers was recorded in two halves. Half of the song was one tape, half of the song was another tape. And while listening I said “this tape is half of another tape that we have”. And then we did more research and we found another tape and we had to put the two halves together to get the complete recording”.

So it takes people like Matt Forger to fully understand what is in the archives. Some songs had working titles that changed in the process. On BAD, The Way You Make Me Feel very first title was Hot Fever. This working song title surfaced only once, on a rare 2001 US Promo CD of the Special Edition of BAD.

Musically, Song Groove hints at sound textures and designs that would be developed on Dangerous: the subdued yet tensed atmosphere, the machine and metallic sounds: they are already there. “In Song Groove there is an aggressive quality of the music that he was developing and writing”, says Forger. “This was the time when, at Quincy’s encouragements Michael wrote all the songs of the Bad album, as much as he could. I worked with Michael along with Bill Bottrell, John Barnes and Chris Currell. We were working with him at Hayvenhurst studios that Michael called the Laboratory. My job was to work with Michael and to get all these song ideas that Michael was working on and developing: his production style, his writing style, his arrangement style. Everything about that was Michael developing this, which was fascinating for me to be able to observe. Much of these styles you can hear in the songs included in BAD 25 are developed in later albums”.

 

 

 

Free

(Recorded by Bill Bottrell)

Once again, Stevie Wonder’s influence is highly palpable in this song. From the aforementioned 1976 Blues Away down to later works such as Beautiful Girl (released on the 2004 Ultimate Collection box set), Jackson’s self penned ballads often bear signature harmonies inspired by Wonder. Free also sounds fresh like some of the Jacksons’ late 70’s work as a group.  Jackson’s love for sweet melodies may have been the source of mockery over the years, but like French composer and one of Celine Dion’s collaborators, Jean Jacques Goldman, told RTL radio in 2009: “He is a great composer. We Are the World may sound easy stuff, but it takes some talent to come with such a melody. He is a musician and an arranger.”

Free is Jackson the balladeer at his best: soulful, happy and so into the moment. “This is one of my favorite songs here because you can hear Michael’s emotion, and his spirit, you can hear his happiness and his joy”, confirms Forger. “And this is the feeling that we had in the studio. The atmosphere in the studio would always be exciting. He would be happy and enjoy so much the work. When you hear Michael’s voice it makes you smile and feel so good that you can feel the joy. Anytime I hear the song Free, it makes me feel so good inside”.

 

 

 

Price of Fame

(Recorded by Bill Bottrell and Matt Forger)

Here is a song that has a long history in the MJ fan community. Price of Fame was scheduled to be the main theme of a Pepsi campaign. The song was not released and was eventually replaced by a special version of BAD with new Pepsi lyrics. Matt Forger remembers: “there was a special version of The Price of Fame with different lyrics for Pepsi. I don’t think a lot of people ever heard it. But this is the original version of The Price of Fame on BAD 25, and it was recorded at Hayvenhurst”.

As it sounds like a sequel to Billie Jean and a prequel to Who Is It, Price of Fame also has its own identity and originality. It is built around a smooth Ska / Reggae beat, one of Jackson’s scarce incursion into this genre (he also recorded background vocals for Joe King Carrasco’s 1982 Don’t Let A Woman (Make a Fool out of You)).

The lyrics perfectly reflect the state of mind Jackson may have been in as soon Thriller reached heights that to this day remain untouchable:  “This is Michael talking about very personal experiences”, explains Forger. “It is about the kind of things that happened in his life especially after the success of Thriller. His popularity was so extreme that he was not able to go out in public at all without attention”.

 

 

 

Al Capone

(Recorded by Matt Forger and Bill Bottrell)

Another song title known for years by MJ fans and experts. Described as the very early demo or incarnation of what was to become Smooth Criminal, Al Capone reflects Jackson’s love for storytelling. Of course, cinema and films had a huge impact on his work and his vision as an artist. Starting with the epic video to Can You Feel It (The Triumph, 1981), Jackson always pushed the limits to innovate and present pieces of music with a strong cinematographic edge. The song was recorded at Hayvenhurst and Matt Forger remembers the original angle of the track: “Al Capone was written around an actual historical figure. It sets the groundwork for the song that became Smooth Criminal. Michael used many of the same themes and similar ideas to create Smooth Criminal”.

As Al Capone was about a historical figure, Jackson refined his vision and opted for another totally different story: “In Smooth Criminal he wrote a story and made it unique. It was not about a historical figure like Al Capone. He made his own story and this was something new and fresh in his vision”.

Just like ideas and elements from Streetwalker were reworked to create the very first version of the song Dangerous, Al Capone and Smooth Criminal were crafted with the same kind of elements. And actually, both songs seem to be derived from another song that Jackson recorded earlier and that has been widely talked about by MJ music fans: “Chicago 1945 was done prior to Al Capone”, explains Matt Forger. “It spoke about an era in time, about what was happening at that time in Chicago, that year. It was almost as if you were reading the newspapers at that time. It was a song that maybe Michael used as the idea for Al Capone, and Al Capone was the idea for Smooth Criminal. So maybe there were some similarities but this is a different song. Al Capone was a definite new approach and Smooth Criminal was much more refined”.

 

 

 

Je ne veux pas la fin de nous

Leaked on the internet in 2001, Je Ne Veux Pas La Fin De Nous is Jackson’s sole attempt to sing in French. He chose to adapt his song I Just Can’t Stop Loving You in Spanish and French to reach out to new audiences. Other singers also went in that direction, and quite simply the goal was to enhance their image in specific markets.

As the Spanish version, Todo Mi Amor Eres Tu, was co-written by Ruben Blades (Jackson would also work with him on the Spanish version of his all-star internet 2003 single What More Can I Give), the French one was penned by Belgian writer Christine Decroix, one former Quincy Jones protégée. Decroix remembers the track was recorded quite in a rush, shortly before Jackson left for Japan to kick off the BAD Tour. It took her like a night to write the lyrics and she was in the studio with him to coach him and give him directions so that he could get the right accent.

The mix of the song presented on BAD 25 is the final one that was done in 1987: “This is not a new mix”, confirms Matt Forger. “The mix existed at that time. I only knew there were a Spanish version and a French one.  There was a lot of research and an interest to release the song. I was told to mix it for BAD 25. However the people I worked with and I said we have to research this completely and we knew something was done in 1987. My entire philosophy is: every time I could find a very good mix representative of what the song should be and the way Michael would want the song from that era, my choice is: that’s the one that should be used. We did a lot of research and we found the mix and we were so happy we were able to find it. It was so authentic”.

 

During the BAD sessions, Michael Jackson considered many songs that finally were discarded. Songwriter Rod Temperton, who was part of the A-Team behind Off the Wall and Thriller, submitted a few songs for BAD, one of them being Groove of Midnight. This song was eventually recorded by Siedah Garrett and was released on her debut album KISS of Life on Qwest Records (1988). “Rod Temperton had some songs”, remembers Matt Forger. “Quincy asked him to have songs ready. Groove of Midnight is one of these songs. However we searched and we could not find a version with Michael’s vocals. It wasn’t a song that they considered for the BAD album eventually”.

BAD was the final collaboration between Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones. Both artists would part ways after the release of the album. Jones stepped away from the music business and dived into the multimedia age, most notably with the launch of his acclaimed urban publication: Vibe Magazine. Jackson stepped into the 90’s by acknowledging Hip Hop culture as he worked with New Jack Swing mogul Teddy Riley, and crafted ever more ambitious works as a songwriter, arranger and producer. A lot has been said about Michael’s and Quincy’s respective and actual role and responsibility in the success of the music they made together. Matt Forger feels debates may have gone a little bit too far: “I’ve read all these discussions about Quincy and Michael on the internet. They fight and argue about Quincy’s or Michael’s actual involvement in the production of the music. One of these things we see now 25 years later is the amazing work Michael did. Quincy encouraged Michael as a songwriter, arranger and producer. There were some differences of opinion like when Quincy told about Streetwalker versus Another Part of Me in the 2001 Special Edition interviews, and of course these things happen”.

During the We Are the World sessions, Quincy had a sign at the entrance of the studio, stating: “check your ego at the door”. What should be remembered about records like BAD is that when such songs were released to the public, the word “album” had a meaning and the concept was to develop great imagery around songs. This is something that may have been altered or gradually overlooked throughout the years. It is no coincidence that 9 of the 11 songs were released as singles and were widely acclaimed. These were the days when albums would not be about fillers but, and just like how Thriller was geared, a collection of songs that could all be considered for single release. With BAD, Michael Jackson reached new heights that very people of his age ever dared and managed to reach. And 25 years later, the music and the vision are reaching out to a new generation: BAD 25 is topping the charts worldwide. As he tried to surpass Thriller, Michael Jackson actually delivered an album that eventually can also be played as a collection of his biggest hits that reflect his fantasies, vision of life, and also spread a very strong message in the anthem Man In The Mirror: “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make change”. This is what the “BAD days” were all about.

 

Richard Lecocq, author of Michael Jackson: KING

Additional editing by Chris Cadman and Craig Halstead, authors of Michael Jackson: For the Record

Version française