The Motown Years (1968-1975)

There have been so many words written already about Michael Jackson. So far most of what I have read has been focusing on just how talented he was as a vocalist/composer. I expected to read many pieces where his music was given second place to the problems (or rumours) he had in his life but maybe I have just been lucky and have managed to avoid looking at too many negative reflections on his life. It’s good that for the most part people are focusing on the positive contribution this unique artist made to music.

I was as shocked as anyone to hear the news on Friday 26th June that he had passed away the previous day. I received a phone call early that morning to tell me the sad news. I then felt I had to ring a friend of mine who is in his 30s and who has been a Jackson fan since he was a boy. I woke him with the call, thinking he already knew but I just wanted to talk to him; I felt I had to make sure he was okay about it. It was a strange feeling really; why should I think a friend in his 30s would be that upset about a pop starpassing away? I knew he was a big fan, bought his albums and saw him in concert but even so looking back it was an odd thing for me to do. “Jackson has gone then,” I said. “Gone, gone where?” he replied. “Haven’t you heard?” I said surprised, “He passed away yesterday”. There was a silence of about 30 seconds then “Stop fucking about this time of the morning. That’s not funny”. I explained it was true so I had to wait until he turned the news on so he could confirm it. We spoke very few words and I let him go to hear and read all the details himself.

Later that morning I had my 21 year old son ring me from work (something he never does) to tell me the news. My 91 year old mother made the same call to me and my 70 year old mother-in-law also mentioned it in her phone call. That was beside the calls from friends. The point I am making here is was there ever (Elvis included) another pop / rock star whose life, music and death has touched so many generations? It seems everyone knew of Michael Jackson, which was something that I had forgotten. Apart from maybe Madonna, Jackson is probably the last pop star who is going to attract that much attention on passing away.

As much as it can’t be denied that Jackson made some brilliant records from ‘Off The Wall’ onwards, for me his early Motown sides will always be his best. A run of singles with the Jackson 5 that began in the opening months of 1970 with ‘I Want You Back’ and ended that same year with the first Jackson 5 ballad, ‘I’ll Be There’ deserves to go down in the musical history books. The other two singles that year were ‘ABC’ and ‘ The Love You Save’ and without wishing to take any credit away from any of the other Jackson clan who sang or played on the songs, it was Michael’s vocals that we were all talking about. Michael was 12 years old when he sang those songs and although it was obvious they were being sung by a young boy there was so much emotion and passion in his vocals that it was almost unbelievable that those sounds were coming from the little figure we saw dancing about on our TV screens. He was this small bundle of energy with a voice like we had never heard before.

It could be argued that anyone could make those early Motown songs into hit records. They were written by the cream of Motown’s writers and also produced by ‘The Corporation’ who had no difficulty in capturing the sound and feeling of the early 70s. But it was Michael’s voice that really made those singles so exciting. Motown, as ever, were astute, and realised this. It’s telling that although 1971 began with a single that really deserved more chart action than it received, ‘Mama’s Pearl’ which really was as good as any of the previous years four excellent 45s, that the only other Jackson 5 song to trouble the charts in ’71 was ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ which although since covered by the likes of Isaac Hayes and Gloria Gaynor and despite Michael’s soulful vocals only reached number 33 in the U.K. charts, their lowest chart placing to date. Before the Jackson 5 troubled the U.K. top 10 again in November 1972 with ‘Looking Through The Windows’ Motown had released, and charted, no less than 4 solo Michael Jackson 45s all of which made the top ten. With the exception of a cover of the old Bobby Day song, ‘Rockin’ Robin’ which we could have done without, Michael proved that vocally he was in a class of one with the ballads ‘Got To Be There’ (which gave the doubters something to think about; possibly the most soulful vocal ever released by the young Michael) a cover of Bill Wither’s ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ and a love song to a rat ‘Ben’.

It wasn’t only with the singles that Michael and his brothers displayed their talents. Although both their first two albums, ‘Diana Ross Presents…’ and ‘ABC’ charted the ‘3rd Album’ and possibly their best album ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ failed to make any impression on the UK chart but contained some of their best work. Even on the ‘ABC’ album songs that should have been A-sides of singles were hidden away on the album or at best relegated to B-sides. ‘One More Chance’, ‘I Found That Girl’; all given impassioned vocals by Michael and his brothers. UB40 took the title track of the fourth Jackson 5 album ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ into the charts in 1987 but again two of the best songs remain hidden away and forgotten on that album, ‘Petals’ and ‘The Wall’.

After a few more chart entries including a superb version of Jackson Browne’s ‘Doctor My Eyes’ in 1973 the band and Michael dropped out of favour for a few years until returning with a new label, Epic, and further hits in 1977. A couple of years later and history repeated itself with Michael’s solo albums this time making him the most famous pop star in the world.

While it is for ‘Thriller’, ‘Off The Wall’ and ‘Bad’ that Jackson will be most remembered for those early Motown singles and certain album tracks are simply some of the sweetest, most brilliantly produced and sung pop music ever.

In the early 70s there were three pop idols most of the young girls loved. Michael, Donny Osmond and David Cassidy. Ask any 50 year old woman what their three idols from the 70s are doing today. I doubt if many will know what Osmond and Cassidy are up to today. Sadly they will all know what happened to the most talented of the three.

So for all the times the first few seconds of ‘I Want You Back’, ‘ABC’ and ‘The Love You Save’ have changed my day from a troubled one into feeling so glad to be alive I thank you Michael.


'The Wiz'(1978)

How do you mend a broken heart," sang Bee Gee Barry Gibb. I guess in Michael Jackson's case it was through relentless vocal performance and groundbreaking dance routines. Or maybe by constantly and desperately trying to rediscover the childhood he never touched.

Creating 'Neverland' and portraying the scarecrow in 'The Wiz' or just making wildly inventive dance videos that kept him in touch with tweens and teens may have put a salve on the wound. But, that wouldn't have made him forget the two- room house which sheltered seven in the smoke-stacks of Gary, Indiana or the bewilderment of an abusive father.

But, what made Michael Jackson an enigmatic performer was that he really couldn't hide the mask he tried so hard to construct through artificial means. He felt deeply and this was clearly conveyed through his animated choreography, silken voice and luminous eyes.

The news of Michael Jackson’s sudden demise grieved fans world-wide. And though, it’s tearful to hear about a personal loved one’s passing, it’s almost surreal when a well-loved celebrity like Jackson disappears. That is because it will take some time before you fully begin to realise that he’s gone.

You will still be able to see his Youtube videos and listen to Itunes and for a while feel he is still with you – giving a dazzling performance to infectious dance music. Perhaps you’ll remain ensconsced in a dream-state – a state of denial, but, eventually, the grief will find you.

The child-performer and man of a multitude of talents will perform no more, leaving in his wake fans that would have stood in pouring rain to see the fifty promised London shows for his come-back. 'Neverland' sadly will become 'Nevermore'.

Jackson’s performance as the scarecrow in 'The Wiz' could be interpreted as a bi-polar prism. At the worst, the role could be viewed as a psychotic plea for help with Jackson regressing to a primal state – a state where he can barely initiate survival mechanisms – awaiting a random stranger’s assistance in a harsh, cruel unpredictable forest. The audience viewers become “voyeurs” shamefully witnessing his vulnerable skeletal form.
At best, however, Jackson takes a holiday from the sinister persona to which he is usually associated. He’s the happy-go-lucky boy he never got to be. Hop-scotching through a field of poppies and a yellow-brick-road arm-in-arm with beautiful under-aged jail-bait. It’s impossible to guess his motivations at this point, but we have to admire his ability to transgress when the judgemental eyes of the world are in constant pursuit. And, imagine the dichotomy this headline would address: “King of Pop Stuffed With Straw.”

You will cherish the brief video moments that before you fully took for granted. His recorded and televised works will now represent a fragment of a man’s life and work. You may begin to review his life in reverse order mixing up important dates and times because he won’t be there in the headlines to rightfully inform you otherwise.

But, if you’re a believer – a true fan – you’ll keep his spirit alive. You’ll use time as a healer and time as a way of documenting those Michael Jackson inspired emotions and events that moved and transformed you.

The young Michael Jackson began life on a teetering foundation. But in the end, he righted wrongs. He gave Sir Paul back his royalties. He left a volume of memorable work for his fans. He defined a ground-breaking genre. This was the house that Jackson built and it shall not foreclose.


'Thriller' (1983)

It has been a strange day already when the news of Michael Jackson’s death starts to break. Earlier that evening I have received a text from Anthony Strutt, another of our writers, to tell me that Sky Saxon, whom he interviewed for Pennyblackmusic in April, has died. I have spent the evening at my girlfriend’s, and as I about to head for home it is announced on the ten ‘o’ clock news that ‘Charlie’s Angels’ star Farrah Fawcett, after a hard-fought three year battle against cancer, has too also gone.

When I get back at about 11.15 p.m., I turn on my computer and the internet, planning to do a couple of hours work. The internet is set to the BBC home page, and I catch the headline that Michael Jackson has been rushed to hospital. “Oh, yeah! What’s he done?” Bust his toe?” I think cynically, knowing the media’s predilection for taking anything to do with Jackson, twisting it out of all recognisable shape and hyping it up beyond what it’s worth.

Yet something makes me return to that page, which has been up-dated, a few minutes later and I see that it looks more serious than I originally thought, that several reliable entertainment websites are already reporting Jackson as dead. I phone my girlfriend, who is the real Jackson fan out of the two of us, the one who has bought the CDs and albums. She has her television on, and as I start to tell her that things are looking bad, the programme that she is watching is stopped, it cuts to footage outside the LA hospital to which Jackson has been rushed and the announcement is made that he has died of suspected heart failure.

We sit and watch, me on my computer, my girlfriend on her television, in dumbfounded near silence. When we finally put the phone down, I leave BBC News 24 on and reflect on this oddest of days which has seen already the deaths of a 60’s icon, a 70’s icon and now possibly the biggest star of the 80’s. His death is sad, a shock, yet, as the night progresses into the early hours and the stories begin already to be regurgitated about how strange he was, and will get worse in the days to come from a greedy media and its celebrity-obsessed audience wanting its last cut of flesh, it too starts to feel horribly inevitable.

Like most people, I can’t remember when I first became aware of ‘Thriller’. It wasn’t though upon its initial release in late 1982, and can’t, in a year which saw me leave school and start at university and still largely buying singles, all that I could really afford at the time, have been until mid or late 1983. ‘Off the Wall’, Jackson’s previous 1979 disco album, sold well, eventually going to gross 20,000,000 copies, but what is often forgotten that few people initially expected rock crossover ‘Thriller’, the biggest-selling album of all time with eventually between 47 million and 109 million copies sold, to do so well.

The first single off the album, October 1982’s somewhat lightweight ‘The Girl is Mine’, a bantering duet with Paul McCartney, only reached No. 8 in the UK charts and was seen in many quarters as being sappy and weak. It was only when the sleek funk of ‘Billie Jean’, a track which producer Quincy Jones ironically thought not strong enough to go on the album, was released in the first week of 1983 and began to ride up the charts, eventually getting to No.1 both in the UK and the US in the same week that ‘Thriller’ really began to take off.

There would be another five singles off it between February 1983 and January 1984-‘Beat It’, ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, ’Human Nature’, ‘P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)’ and finally ‘Thriller’ itself-and in fact only two tracks from it, ‘Baby Be Mine’ and ‘The Lady in My Life’, would remain as album tracks.

Even ‘Thriller’, Jackson’s greatest triumph, however, reveals growing nervousness with and disenchantment and alienation from the world at large. ‘Billie Jean’, one of the four songs that he wrote on the album, was about a mentally ill fan who wrote to Jackson in 1981, claiming that he was the father of one of her twins. Fourth single ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ , another Jackson composition, was an early attack on the gossips and the media, who were already hounding him and publishing untrue allegations about him. ‘Thriller’, despite its video, tongue-in-cheek humour, guest appearance from veteran horror actor Vincent “The Rapper” Price and all its ghouls, werewolves and zombies, was paranoically darker-themed and about being attacked by an unnamed bogey man.

Of course, it would all get much worse. At some point in the mid to late 80’s Jackson began to be known by the particularly vicious nickname of “Wacko Jacko” by much of the media. Increasingly inventive stories about skin grafts, hyperbolic oxygen tents and Jackson wanting to pay a million for the bones of “the Elephant Man” were published, some perpetuated it was later revealed by Jackson’s own publicists for promotional reasons.

One can’t really blame this damaged man-child, the unhappy boy who had been pushed onto the stage from the age of five by his abusive father and lost a childhood, for retreating increasingly into the fantasy world of ‘Neverland’ and wanting to hang out with children, a llama and Bubbles the chimp. They probably seemed more trustworthy than many of the adults he was in contact with.

In the early 90s what had been until then simply bullying became more sinister with the twin allegations of child abuse. Jackson was undoubtedly naive and immature, but whether he was anything else looks unlikely.
The last fifteen years of his years were spent in freefall and extended public meltdown. One can only hope that now that Jackson has gone, days before he was due to make what should have been his final comeback, he has found some kind of peace at last.


'Moonwalker' (1988)

Even if you were a child when it was released at the tail end of the eighties you would probably have realised that ‘Moonwalker’ was not a great movie. It is confused, rambling, without any direction, at times highly disturbing, unforgivably egotistical, over populated with simpering children and totally, utterly bonkers. But the music … the music is out of this world.

If you haven’t got it by now: it is pure Michael Jackson. Almost more than his timeless albums, ‘Moonwalker’ presents a truer picture of what his family, his friends, his fans and his own neurosis had turned him into at this point in his life.

A collection of videos and live footage, strung together in places (but more often not) by a tenuous storyline written by Jackson, culminating in our hero saving the world from evil drugs pushers, ‘Moonwalker’ is, as it bills itself, “A movie… like no other.”

The following are notes of the movie, taken while watching. Everything listed below actually occurs.

1 min: A pair of spangled socks walk across the stage. They begin to emit stars. Oh, the stars have changed into candles being held aloft at a stadium.

2 min: People are being crushed to death and collapsing as Jackson sings ‘Man in the Mirror’ then images flash up of Martin Luther King, Ghandi, John Lennon and John F. Kennedy, before MJ assumes the Christ pose.

6 min: A voice over reminds us that his success “is an American Dream come true” before we cut far too quickly through the real Jackson 5 classics. MJ still looks black and Jesus Christ could he sing.

10 min: He is starting to look white at this point, wait, he’s back to black. “All the children of the world, can you feel it?” asks Jackson. More songs.

16 min: Still not one line of actual dialogue. Eat your heart out ‘There Will Be Blood’.

17 min: A small child is singing “Your butt is mine” as a group of pre-teens perfectly mimic the moves from ‘Bad’.

18 min: The child accidentally hits himself in the balls. He looks in pain.

20 min: Post song, we’re in a film studio now, looking at the child Jackson, as he’s told his monkey Bubbles is waiting in his trailer wearing a Prince t-shirt. Child Jackson is not impressed to learn of the Prince t-shirt.

21 min: A cartoon grandmother and her grandson appear on a studio tour as child-Jackson enters a cloud of smoke and emerges as … fully grown Michael Jackson!

22 min: Oh dear, they’ve spotted Jackson and are giving chase. Pursued into a wardrobe he dons a clay-motion biker rabbit outfit and makes his escape on a pushbike.

25 min: Oh no! He’s given the game away by busting MJ dance moves in his rabbit outfit, but the pushbike has turned into a Harley so he should make good his escape from Granny, who is in pursuit. Music for ‘Speed Demon’ starts up and a chase scene ensues until Granny and her gang of paparazzi run into a giant cop, literally. Jackson removes the rabbit suit. The rabbit suit comes to life has a dance off with Jackson. Still no plot.

34 min: We’ve skipped a few intermediate stages, but MJ is now in a space ship with a llama, pursed by two dogs in their own space ship. 'Leave Me Alone' is playing.

35 min: Here comes the story written by Jackson. A shot of the stars and Moon pans down to a cityscape where three children scamper across the rooftops, on their way to spy on Jackson, who is leaving his house.

36 min: An army of stormtroopers are shooting at Jackson with assault rifles.

37 min: A young girl, one of the three rooftop spies, is having a flashback. Jackson is playing in the park with the three and the Dulux dog is there too.

39 min: The dog has run off. While attempting to find it Jackson and the girl wander into a cave which is home to Jo Pesci who is eating peanuts and talking about heroin, coke, smack, speed. “Stop those kids from praying in school first. … I want every kid in this world to take drugs because of me,” he rants.

42 min: Oh no! Pesci has spotted Jackson in his cave-lair. We cut back to the stormtroopers shooting up Jackson’s house. Pesci appears and realises Jackson has escaped.

46 min: “I want this one messy,” shouts Pesci to his troops before trapping MJ in an alley. But Jackson turns into a car and half drives / half flies out of the alley.

50 min: Jackson-the-car appears and turns back into MJ. He enters the a decrepit building which transforms into a bustling 30s speakeasy

52 min: The Smooth Criminal video has just started.

60 min: There is still not a better music video. But it is over now and Pesci’s goons have kidnapped the roof girl. Jackson tells the other two he will rescue her. “You’ll see what I can do,” he promises ominously. “You’ll see.”

61 min: Oh dear. Jackson has been trapped by Jo Pesci. It doesn’t look good for him.

63 min; “I just want to get everybody high man,” says our villain as he prepares to inject smack into the kidnapped girl.

64 min: Using his sonic voice attack Jackson breaks spotlights and turns into a giant metal robot to defeat Pesci and his storm troopers

68 min: Jackson has now turned into a plane, but what’s this? Jo Pesci has a giant Death Star-esque cannon. He’s shot him down!

70 min: Wait! Just as Pesci is about to shoot the children the Jacko-plane reappears and shoots him to death with a massive laser.

72 min: Jackson flies away into space as the children cry at his departure.

73 min: To stirring music, Jackson emerges through smoke to return to the children, taking them back to the club they run in through the door.

75 min: The lost dog (remember him?) reappears as Jackson gets dressed and goes on stage. We’re back at a concert and Jackson is performing ‘Come Together’.

80 min: Ladysmith Black Mambazo are back in the 30s club singing ‘The Moon is Walking’ and the movie ends.

At the end of the day all this madness is entertaining. While it is still not a patch on the music, it is worth remembering that the two should not and cannot be totally separated when we discuss the late, and unquestionably great, Michael Jackson


The Live Performer (1996)

It’s the 7th September 1996 and I’m 16. Michael Jackson is playing a concert in my home city of Prague today. Everyone in the Czech Republic has been talking about it for months. It’s the 'History' tour and it is opening in Prague.

I’m sitting at home watching the coverage from Letana where the concert is taking place. I am so tempted to go. By this time we have also had the Rolling Stones playing Prague, but I was only ten…

My best friend Petra calls me on the phone and tells me that my cousin was just on TV. Not talking of course, just walking in front of the camera and claiming fame in his own way.

I can’t hold back any longer. “Do you want to go to Letsna and just absorb the atmosphere?” I ask Petra. And she says without hesitation, “Yes!”. As I leave my parents flat I grab 100 Czech Crowns (=£3.3) just in case we can get tickets to the show. Official tickets costs CZK 650 which is around £21.40. At the time that was a lot more than it is now though.

I meet Petra by the tram station right outside the huge open space which two days ago had fences put around it. You can just about see the back of the stage. Hundreds of people have already gone in, but double that amount are wandering around outside. Petra and I absorb the atmosphere.

We get lot of people passing us trying to sell tickets. Unfortunately they are all at around CZK 300 per ticket. I offer my CZK 100 for tickets for both Petra and I and they are not interested.

The atmosphere is great! People are wearing T-shirts with photos of Michael Jackson on it. Several groups of fans have found a nice comfortable spot on the grass beside by the road and are waiting for the concert to start. It's open spaced and you will be able to hear the music for miles.

Finally the concert starts. One of the touts that was so insulted by my CZK 100 is now rushing towards us and is now desperate for the money even if he has to give up two tickets. We are in! We rush towards the gate where a huge pushing fight is in progress. About 50 fans decided to try push their way through. It's not a violent row though. People are being shoved up against the barriers, but at the same time they are smiling. Eventually the security get things under control and some fans, who have fallen over, pick themselves up and walk away chatting.

We finally get in. The stage is huge and you can't get close to it by now. Some of the fans broke down the barriers as early as 10 am and have been guarding the best spot since then. By now the concert site is filled with 125,000 people.

As we get in, 'Smooth Criminal' is starting. That is one of the most memorable moments for me. Michael ina white jacket and white hat is literally floating across the stage with this most perfect dance moves and amazing sense of rhythm. I am stunned. The song has a style, is sexy and he is in the most perfect shape. I’m thinking, even though this is my first gig, that I will never see any other performer that is such a great dancer and singer and has such amazing rhythm in his body!

The other songs that we are treated too tonight include 'You are Not Alone', 'Black and White', 'Billie Jean' and the amazing 'Thriller'.

Another very memorable song is 'Heal the World'. Everybody sings along to the lyrics that have been played on radio so many times. People know every single word. All of ae sudden a huge tank rolls up on the stage and the music goes quieter. Personally, I find this a bit too sentimental especially when a group of children appears on the stage and surround the tank just like in the song's video clip. It does, however, make you shiver and the whole atmosphere of song is escalated against the starry sky. I know I will never forget this.

It’s thirteen years later. I now live in London and have a job in Hammersmith. I walk through the reception in the morning. I glance at the TV screen by the door, see its headline and read, 'Michael Jackson dies'. I heard he was taken to hospital the night before, but I couldn't imagine he would be gone and so fast.

I phone Petra that evening and we talk for over an hour. You can image how much it cost from London to Prague on the mobile. The History tour really has become history for us.

But maybe I’m being too sentimental? Well, let’s put ‘Thriller” on and let the legend live on…

'Dangerous' (1991) and 'History' (1995)

'Thriller' and 'Off the Wall' are justifiably regarded as Michael Jackson's most important and best albums. They hang together coherently as albums more than any of his other releases and, in the case of 'Thriller' nearly every track was a hit single.

Jackson had come from Motown's hit factory in which hit singles were prized, but he had picked up on the 1970s change within the label that had started with releases from Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Both of them had started making albums that conformed to the rock world's template of a single piece of work and by the time of 'Off the Wall' so had Jackson.

The singer's two 1990's albums, 'Dangerous' and 'History', may not be as consistent as the earlier records, but both are sleek, slinky and funky. With each of his albums Jackson had renewed his style, easily picking up the dominant musical style of the day and working it into his music. 'Off the Wall' is close to being a straight disco album, 'Thriller' melds rock and dance convincingly, while 1987's 'Bad' is on the road to being a straight rock record. Since then, though, Jackson's only release had been 'The Simpsons' 1990 single 'Do the Bartman', a song he'd co-written uncredited because it would have conflicted with the contract he'd recently signed with Epic (but which does include a sly tribute in the lyric: “If you can do the Bart, you're bad like Michael Jackson”).

Jackson had picked the young swing producer Teddy Riley to put his new album together, and as with previous releases it reflects the musical attitudes of the time. It's dancier than 'Bad' and in place of the guitar breaks are several guest appearances from rappers.

Opening track 'Jam' was an explosive beginning, with the sound of broken glass and an insistent, fast vocal line. Jackson's first angry reaction to the lurid press he was getting had been 'Leave Me Alone', from 1987's 'Bad', and 'Why You Wanna Trip on Me', in the same vein, is a request to the media to stop talking about him and concentrate on what he considered more important topics (“You got world hunger... so there's really no time to be tripping on me.”)

'Heal the World', similarly worthy, doesn't stand up to scrutiny, but the song that follows it is a true classic, perhaps better than anything on 'Bad'. 'Black or White' took the perspective of Jackson's new friend Macaulay Culkin, as a bratty kid trying to annoy his father by playing the loud new Michael Jackson tune. And loud it was – perhaps not by modern standards but for Jackson this is as close as it got to out-and-out rock. Is it a plea for racial harmony, an observation that we're all the same no matter our skin colour? It's a great song, whatever the message. The accompanying video, utilising the then-modish technique of computer-morphing one face into another, was also a big hit.

The two tracks that follow it, 'Who Is It?' and Give in to Me', were also superb. The first had a moody video directed by David Fincher while the latter brought in Guns 'n' Roses guitarist Slash to 'do a Van Halen'.
As with 'Bad', 'Dangerous' is loaded heavily with better songs at the back of the album. It's not a classic, by any means, but to dismiss it is a mistake.

'History', which came four years after Dangerous, was the coherent and consistent piece of work that Jackson had been trying to put together since Thriller, 13 years before. The problem is that it's coherently and consistently angry. The overriding emotion of 'History' is rage.

The album was released in 1995, a year after the father of a child called Jordan Chandler had accused the singer of sexual abuse. A year later Jackson and the Chandler family agreed an out-of-court settlement and a year after that the monumental 'History' appeared on the shelves. The first disc of the double album is a compilation of, largely, Jackson's post-'Off the Wall' greatest hits, while the second disc is all new material.

The hits don't need going over here – although some of the older ones do benefit from the remastering they received for the release. 'Scream', the first single from the album, gave a taste of what the rest of it was going to be like. A collaboration with Michael's sister Janet, and accompanied by the then-most expensive video ever made, the song is essentially one long scream of frustrated rage, at Chandler and his father, at Jackson's own father - who, he'd said, abused him – and at his sister La Toya, who had corroborated the allegations, charges she later retracted, saying she'd been blackmailed. Most of all it was rage at the media, which Jackson felt had betrayed him, almost universally – in his eyes – taking the side of the Chandlers against him.

Even the terrible pun of the title – spelt HIStory on the cover – was an attempt to push the message that this was Jackson's side of the story. Anyone with ears, though, would have picked that up from the opening lyrics: “I'm tired of injustice, tired of the schemes, kind of disgusted, so what does it mean?”

'They Don't Care About Us' pits Jackson and his fans against the media and those who wanted to hate him. Opening with children chanting the chorus “All I want to say is that they don't really care about us,” it is a catalogue of the calumnies perpetrated against Jackson by the people out to get him. While the anger of 'Scream' anger makes it a hard listen (the beat is distended and broken-up) 'They Don't Care About Us' is a far better song, with a pounding beat and soulful vocal line.

It's certainly a bits-and-pieces work – the three tracks that follow are duds, especially the plodding and bizarrely overplayed 'Earth Song'. One of the three, 'Stranger in Moscow', has some interesting lyrics about the KGB following Jackson around the Russian city, which seem to be a metaphor for his hounding by the US press, but its soppy melody isn't up to much.

The oddest part of the record is 'DS', a thinly disguised rant at California prosecutor Tom Sneddon. Disguising Sneddon's name slightly to avoid further legal tussles, Jackson accuses him of, among other things, being employed by the CIA, having a white supremacist agenda and pursing a vendetta (Sneddon, for his part, referred to Jackson as “Wacko Jacko” in public, fuelling Jackson's paranoia).

Money, on the other hand, appears to be directed at Jackson's accuser Jordan Chandler - “you would do anything for money” is the main lyric and gist of the song. It's a vicious piece of work, but as with 'DS' and the similarly enraged '2 Bad', the anger seems to have also inspired a creative renaissance – the beats are fat and fast, and the basslines danceable.

'Tabloid Junkie' is another strange fish – here Jackson takes the press on head-on, referring directly to the rumours that he slept in an oxygen tank, and others, with the chorus “Just because you read it in a magazine or see it on a TV screen don't mean it's factual.”

There's a considerable amount of schmaltz on 'History' – 'You Are Not Alone' is a main offender – and like 'Dangerous' it's very mixed, but the main problem is also the album's strongest point.

The best songs on 'History' are the angriest ones, but that anger makes them a hard listen. 'Histor'y is the coherent album Jackson had been searching for since 'Thriller', but its theme is “I am not a child molester”. Given that, it's a more catchy album than it deserves to be, but it's one that makes the listener's head ache if he or she listens too hard to the lyrics. The rage at his tormentors is what appears to have driven Michael Jackson to make his best music in over 10 years – this album is close to being a second career high.

By the time of his 2001 last album 'Invincible' six years later Jackson's creative spirit had been destroyed and the resulting album was a lifeless work. 'History' is worth listening – it's a shame that the forces behind its creation were ultimately the same ones that finished Michael Jackson off as a musician.


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