For the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, Getintothis’ Shaun Ponsonby revisits the first album he ever heard and suggests that it signalled the end of the King of Pop’s reign.
Picture it; this writer is just about three years old. I am told I would always ask to watch Top of the Pops because I used to like the music. I remember nothing of the broadcasts today, of course. Apart from one – the premier of Michael Jackson’s Black Or White. It is the earliest fully formed memory I have. I remember what I saw, I remember what I heard and I remember what I felt.
But first, we need to rewind.
There is no point in going through the history of Michael Jackson. Everyone knows it. By the time the 90s hit, you can quite easily say he was the biggest star in the world. Thriller, the biggest selling album of all time, has shifted at least 65 million copies (some estimates go way over 100 million), and the follow up, Bad, went on to sell between 30 and 45 million.
But there was a change in the air. He and his long-time producer, jazz legend Quincy Jones, had come to loggerheads several times during the recording of Bad. Jackson’s confidence was growing as a producer and disagreed with some of Jones’ methods. Larry Williams, a musician in the sessions, has said “There was definite friction there. Michael was very eager to prove he could produce, as well as sing and dance.”
For his own part, Jackson said in his autobiography Moonwalk, published in 1988; “We fight. We disagreed on some things. If we struggle at all, it’s about new stuff, the latest technology. I’ll say, ‘Quincy, you know, music changes all the time’. I want the latest drums sounds that people are doing. I want to go beyond the latest things.”
Jones wanted Michael to incorporate hip-hop into his sound; “I remember when we were doing Bad I had [Run] DMC in the studio because I could see what was coming with hip-hop,” he said. “And [Michael] was telling [Michael’s manager] Frank DiLeo, ‘I think Quincy’s losing it and doesn’t understand the market anymore. He doesn’t know that rap is dead’.”
Just to be clear, this is right before NWA and It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, so it comes across like 54 year old Jones looking more aware of what was happening than 28 year old Jackson.
The Jackson/Run DMC collaboration, supposedly titled Crack Kills, never happened. Instead, Bad went down the Thriller route of having a hugely disappointing superstar duet. Where Thriller gave us the turgid The Girl Is Mine with Paul McCartney, Bad had Just Good Friends with Stevie Wonder, arguably one of the biggest non-songs in history.
At the end of the day, it seems Jackson was clearly on a different page to Jones. They would never work together again.
In the same year that Jackson wrapped up his Bad World Tour, his baby sister Janet became a bona fide, world conquering superstar when she released the masterpiece Rhythm Nation 1814 and undertook her own record breaking tour. Michael would take a leaf out of Janet’s book and follow a similar sound for his follow-up to Bad.
It was Janet, along with her producers and former Prince proteges Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who pioneered New Jack Swing on Rhythm Nation and her previous album, 1986’s Control. Michael reportedly wanted to work with Jam and Lewis on his new album, but they declined out of loyalty to Janet – with whom they were on a roll at the time. The sound had similar influences to hip-hop, but was much smoother around the edges, and a pretty perfect way for Jackson to contemporise himself for a young black audience.
As Jam and Lewis declined, Jackson instead tracked down Teddy Riley of the NJS outfit Guy. At the time, Riley was also working with Heavy D, Big Daddy Kane and Bobby Brown (in fact, he has a co-writing credit on My Prerogative). Riley would helm the majority of the album.
There is definitely a different atmosphere on Dangerous. When Jackson was working with Quincy Jones, it felt like there was a push and pull between the two of them. We quoted Jackson above, saying that he was always pushing for more modern sounds. Jones, on the other hand, would pull back to a more traditional sound. Somewhere in the middle, the two met and created music that each subsequent generation has turned to. For the most part, these records don’t sound like they were necessarily released in [insert year]. They sound like they could have been released at any point in the last 40 years.
Where Quincy had major pedigree, having worked with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr, Little Richard and Sinatra, on Dangerous, you have guys who grew up with Michael Jackson as their idol.
I still have the original vinyl copy of the record. Simply looking at the LP compared to the CD is interesting. In 1991, we are well into the CD era, and yet the album cover looks horribly compact on the CD. The LP, on the other hand, reveals a hugely detailed work of art. Similarly, the layout and running order of the album makes much more sense as a double vinyl than it does a single CD.
The first disc of the vinyl is mainly dedicated to Riley’s New Jack Swing songs, beginning with Jam. As an opener, Jam grabs your attention immediately. It does sound somewhat different to what Jackson had recorded before, but it hasn’t lost any of his appeal.
Lyrically, the song might sound simple enough on the surface, but they point to some kind of deeper meaning; “I have to find my peace cause no one seems to let me be/False prophets cry of doom, what are the possibilities?/I told my brother there’ll be problems, times and tears for fears/But we must live each day like it’s the last/Go with it, go with it, JAM!” Jackson often stated that he was only at one on stage, so it appears he was referencing how he himself finds his own inner peace.
In 1991, the most surprising moment of Jam must have been when the rap starts. Ironically, having rejected Quincy Jones’ idea of a Run DMC collaboration, Jackson and Riley drafted in Heavy D – who had previously worked with Riley’s group Guy and Janet the previous year – to perform a rap verse in the song.
As much as the album starts with a bang, there are a few tracks in the following few numbers that don’t quite match up to it. Why You Wanna Trip On Me? is a funky enough track, but Jackson’s regular “Boo-hoo the media makes fun of me” lyric kind of ruins it a bit. Especially seeing as this was pre-you-know-what. He is therefore logically referring to stories like his purchase of the Elephant Man’s bones and the picture of him supposedly sleeping in an oxygen chamber – all stories he planted himself.
Like all of Jackson’s post-Quincy albums, Dangerous does suffer a little for being too long. Songs such as Can’t Let Her Get Away and She Drives Me Wild aren’t bad songs, but had they turned up as b-sides, it probably would have been better for the flow of the record. We’re anticipating some of the more ardent Jackson fans screaming “BUT MICHAEL DIDN’T BELIEVE IN B-SIDES!!!!” through a sea of angry tears right around now, so let us say; we are aware of this, even though b-sides aren’t like Santa Claus or Jesus and therefore not a thing to question belief in, but we are expressing the opinion that they may have been better served in this capacity, regardless of how he felt about it. They do get swallowed up by some of the album’s grander moments.
Remember The Time is one of those grander moments. This writer often refers to it as a New Jack Swing update of 1979’s Rock With You. The song just jams, and is probably the breeziest track on the album. Jackson never revealed who the song was written about, but brother Jermaine has stated; “…that song was, as Michael told me, written with Diana Ross in mind; the one great love that, as far as he was concerned, escaped him.”
Surprisingly, as one of the album’s major hits, Jackson never performed the song live. It was rehearsed for inclusion on the Dangerous World Tour, in a staging that recalled the Egyptian-themed video, but was pulled from the set. It’s a shame, really. It was much more interesting than the tired old Thriller routine.
He did perform the song (and when I say “perform”, I mean “sat in a chair and lip synched whilst pretending to have hurt his foot as a publicity stunt”) at the Soul Train Awards, during a period where he was much more visible on television than he had been in years. Aside from Soul Train there was also his first televised interview in over a decade with Oprah Winfrey, and his half time show at the 1993 Superbowl (which reinvented the Superbowl halftime performance, traditionally performed by cheesy acts like The Simpsons’ Hooray For Everything).
The centrepiece of Jackson’s Superbowl performance was the Dangerous track Heal The World, which closes the vinyl’s first disc on a bit of a damp squib. Though undoubtedly well-intentioned, the song is a bit of a We Are The World re-write, and We Are The World was awful the first time around. Jackson later said Heal The World was the song he was most proud of writing, for the life of us, we can’t understand why. Personally speaking, this is the kind of song that always left this writer rolling his eyes. It is all easy answers with a Disney soundtrack.
The first half of the album was, however, designed to have one more trick up its sleeve. And, boy, what a trick that would have been.
By the end of the 80s, it was clear that the MTV generation had selected their three idols; Jackson, Prince and Madonna. The latter two performed a duet on Madge’s Like a Prayer album (titled Love Song), and Prince played guitar on a few tracks on the rest of the album. Jackson had wanted Prince to join him on Bad’s title track, but he declined. On Dangerous, he set his sights on Madonna; the King and Queen of Pop together.
Madonna herself was probably at the apex of her career at the time. She had just vogued her way around the world on the iconic Blond Ambition Tour, all conical bras, catholic imagery, Mermen and simulated masturbation. She said; “He wanted to write a song with me and I was curious. He played me a bit of music, it was a very unfinished track and he said that he wanted to call the song In the Closet, and I said, ‘Really’?”
Given the position Madonna was in at the time, slap bang in between the Justify My Love furore and right before Erotica and the Sex book, it is probably not surprising that she didn’t want to just tease that kind of provocative title, but take it up a notch. Michael disagreed.
Madonna said in a 1991 interview; “The thing is, I’m not going to get together and do some stupid ballad or love duet – no one’s going to buy it, first of all. I said, ‘Look, Michael, if you want to do something with me, you have to be willing to go all the way or I’m not going to do it’.”
The song did appear on the album, albeit without Madonna. For some reason, the female vocals on the track were taken by Princess Stéphanie of Monaco. Interestingly, the video (which co-starred Naomi Campbell) was directed by regular Madonna collaborator Herb Ritts.
If the first half of Dangerous allowed Jackson to try reaching a young audience, the second half (helmed by Jackson, Bill Bottrell and Bruce Swedien) is more along the lines of what you would expect from him. Post-Thriller, most of Jackson’s albums followed a very similar formula, and there were a number of things that would always crop up. One of these would be a rock song with a currently famous guitar player. On Thriller, this had obviously been Eddie Van Halen on Beat It, and on Bad the slot was taken by Steve Stevens on Dirty Diana.
On Dangerous, it was the turn of Slash. Guns N Roses were at the height of their popularity, so it is no surprise that he invited Slash to play on Give In To Me. What is surprising, though, is how much more of an authentic rock song it is when compared to Beat It. Whereas that song feels like it was watered down for the mainstream audience (a fact that was confirmed by Toto, who played on the track), Give In To Me feels like it could have been performed by a band like Aerosmith at the time. In fact it has a bit of a feel of their classic ballad Dream On.
As much as Jackson occasionally stuck a little too rigidly to his tried and trusted formula, there were usually parts of his albums that would scream of the kind of creativity he was capable of. Who Is It? feels almost like a sequel to Billie Jean in some ways, but there is something much more sinister underlying it. This isn’t a song of mere lies, it is a song about out-and-out betrayal.
Will You Be There? is probably one of the most grandiose songs that Jackson ever wrote, beating even Man In The Mirror. Like that older hit, it is certainly gospel influenced, but this time also has a twist of classical to it. The opening of the song is a segment from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with the rest of the song following suite with its ambition.
In fact, the sheer scale of Will You Be There? dwarfs the following tracks a little. Keep The Faith (nothing to do with the Bon Jovi song, thank you very much) is more Man In The Mirror than the previous song, and Gone Too Soon – contrary to popular belief, actually a cover of a song Dionne Warwick had performed on a TV special, but never recorded – is a tribute to Ryan White, the teenager who passed away from AIDS in 1990. That he released the song when the AIDS epidemic was still in full swing, and during a time when there was still a lot of misunderstanding and stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS is something we have always found particularly commendable.
Jackson performed the song at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, where he pleaded; “It is my hope, President-elect Clinton, that you and your administration commit the resources needed to eliminate this awful disease that took my friend, and ended so many promising lives before their time.”
The album wraps up with the title track, and Teddy Riley returns to the producer’s chair. It adds to the cast of “dangerous” women who populated Jackson’s song, from Billie Jean to Dirty Diana. With this song, the album almost comes full circle.
But, of course, there needed to be a big single to kick off the album campaign, and Dangerous had one of Jackson’s biggest. Black Or White was actually born out of a sadly similar period in America as today. It was premiered mere months after the Rodney King riots, so no doubt a purposeful move on his part seeing as he appears to be actively attempting to reconnect with his black audience on the album.
The song itself…well, we all know it, don’t we? It’s got a Stones-y riff and goes through an unconventional middle section which culminates in a rap. It’s the 11-minute video – which reunited Jackson with Thriller director John Landis – that is the interesting part.
Michael Jackson didn’t just release records. No, when he released something, it was an event. It is hard to comprehend this now. The level of hysteria for a Beyonce surprise album release doesn’t even come close. If the government laid out the same campaign for their projects it would be considered the most obscene level of propaganda. Black or White received the expected treatment; the video was simulcast across four separate networks in America, and gave Fox their highest ever ratings up to that point.
The short film begins with a scene featuring Macauly Culkin and Norm from Cheers that seems inspired by Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It video (cos, like, why not?). Norm tells Culkin to turn his music down, before Culkin blasts his guitar at a Spinal Tap-level of absurd noise, causing Norm to fly away and land in Africa. Jackson then performs the song, whilst incorporating his own dancing style with that of the cultures with which he is performing at that given time.
Significantly, at the end of the video, Jackson leaves the studio in the guise of a black panther, before morphing into himself. For the next four minutes, he dances in sexually suggestive scenes and is seen smashing windows, destroying a car and causing a building to explode, before reverting back to the panther (and a short scene involving Homer and Bart Simpson, for some reason).
It may seem like small potatoes now, especially when compared to what Prince and Madonna had been up to. But that’s the thing. Prince and Madonna had carved themselves out as provocative performers. Michael Jackson was as family friendly and non-threatening as they came. So, what else? Massive backlash.
Bizarrely, Siskel and Ebert – America’s most valued movie critics – locked horns on the video, a format they never usually reviewed. Roger Ebert said; “Overall, the whole experience for me was of Michael Jackson, so caught up in his own fantasies, that he really has no idea how his images of sex and urban vandalism play to an ordinary American audience. He doesn’t see any connection between this video and real life. Little by little, year by year, Michael Jackson is becoming the Howard Hughes of pop music”.
Gene Siskel disagreed; “What he could be saying, which I don’t think people give him any credit for at all, is that he is against this…animalistic violence. It is not trendy for a guy to say that…He’s doing one of two things; he’s either criticising it, or he is endorsing it.”
Jackson later clarified the latter half of the video by superimposing racist graffiti on the car he smashed, thus confirming Siskel’s suspicions. Though, we can’t exactly say that Ebert didn’t have a fair point in the larger question of Michael Jackson’s life.
Of course, as a toddler in November 1991, this all went right over this writer’s head. All I saw was a series of images that appealed to me, and a song to match.
The promotional campaign lasted until November 1993. Two years is a long time when you are a toddler. There are two things I can remember about those years; Power Rangers and Michael Jackson. Pretty much all of my earliest memories are soundtracked by the singles from Dangerous. Situations I don’t want to get into meant we had no TV access when Remember The Time came out, so I don’t remember that showing up on Top of the Pops. I do remember where I was when In The Closet was premiered, though. And Heal The World. And Give In To Me. I remember Normski showing Who Is It? on BBC 2. In retrospect, during what I somehow sensed was an unstable time for me and my family, I was able to escape it quite innocently through the constant flow of MJ-ness.
I specifically remember the broadcast of a full live show from Bucharest, Romania. The DVD that has since been released of the show is very different to the crappy VHS copy we taped from the TV. Jackson being Jackson, he had to make sure that there were more scenes of people screaming at him (from obviously different shows), and it spoils the flow.
I wasn’t allowed to stay up to watch it. My parents probably even didn’t, I remember it was on late at night. I watched the recording of original broadcast to death as a kid (which was taped on a stormy night with an analogue antenna, so was barely watchable by today’s HD standards, where we act like the end of the world if there isn’t a high quality video on YouTube). At the time I was mesmerised. The songs, the dancing, the tricks, the effects. As time has gone by, I have been less impressed by it. The band kinda suck, and some of the lip synching is puzzling. I can understand it when he was doing a routine like Smooth Criminal, but Heal The World? And yet, on some viewings, I go right back to being that meserised five year old kid.
This is representative of my relationship with Michael Jackson in general. No matter how many issues I find with his work, his music, his persona, his performances, the man, I still can’t stop loving him. Once something owns your childhood, it owns you for life.
The Dangerous World Tour ended prematurely in Mexico. That August, a search warrant was issued to search Jackson’s home following those accusations. The events took their toll on Jackson, who became addicted to pain medication and found treatment.
He returned in 1995 with the rather pretentiously titled HIStory: Past, Present and Future – Book 1. Of all Jackson’s albums, this is probably the one that sticks to his trusted formula least. There is much more experimentation, and his lyrical obsessions are mainly angry, venomous attacks on his accusers, the legal system and the media.
The album was split over two discs, the first being a Greatest Hits set, the second being new material. This only highlights the shift in tone. Many die hard Jackson fans seem to point to HIStory as Jackson’s finest hour, but this writer has always viewed it as a bit of a mess. It isn’t exactly the Michael Jackson that people had come to love, and whether you liked the new, angry Michael Jackson is in the eye of the beholder.
With that in mind, it could be argued that Dangerous was the last time that we really witnessed Michael Jackson – the King of Pop. It is the last time we saw the Michael Jackson that captivated the world in the 1980s, the innocence and pop perfection that appealed to all age groups, all genders and all races. It was his last truly great moment, somewhat lost between the success of the 80s and the scandal of the 90s, despite selling over 30 million copies. It should probably be treasured a little more than it is.
- Buyer’s Club host a Prince vs Michael Jackson club night on Boxing Day. Tickets are available from Skiddle.