It’s January 1980, and I’m in California to collect interviews for a music documentary series which Capital Radio has commissioned me to write. Makin’ Waves – in the middle of what kind of night did I wake with that title in my head? – will cover the decade that’s just ended: from the break-up of the Beatles to synthpop and 2-Tone, via prog-rock, heavy metal, reggae, punk, disco, and, somewhere among its dozen hour-long episodes, the laid-back West Coast rock whose metropolis is the sun-kissed sprawl of Los Angeles. Having made trips like this before, for Radio 1, I know what to expect: fewer interviews than I’m hoping for and, undoubtedly, not as many big names as Capital is counting on. But the brief I’ve set myself is so broad that I’m ready to interview almost any of the active artists on every record company’s roster.
* * *
My outbound ticket had been London-Los Angeles, but I would be flying home from New York, and had a five-leg Travel America pass to get me from coast to coast, so, in theory, I would be able to visit most of America’s music centres. Neither time nor money was on my side, however, since the series was scheduled to start in March, and the budget benchmark for an hour’s airtime on commercial radio was always the cost of a presenter with a pile of records. I had pleaded my case to earn more than a rookie DJ on the graveyard shift, but I knew the only way I could extend a tight interviewing itinerary would be by a) eating into scripting time, b) working the extra days for nothing, and c) skimping on my expenses. In LA, where I planned to spend the best part of a fortnight, I was lucky. Rather than fork out for a hotel, I was able to stay with friends, my pal Ian McLagan, his wife Kim and her daughter Mandy having moved there in 1978.
I had a tape recorder, blank tapes, and an address book bristling with out-of-date phone numbers. What I didn’t have was a single appointment. In an era impatient for the arrival of e-mail or even the inefficient fax machine, spewing reams of made-to-fade thermal paper from wrong numbers onto the office carpet whenever you were out, the response to every phone call made before leaving London was, “Call just as soon as you hit town, John.”
So I’d spent my first days in LA making those calls, reciting names from my wish list, then waiting for the phone to ring. Where I waited – a house built artfully into a cliff, its supporting piles buried in the sand of Malibu beach – might sound idyllic; indeed it was idyllic, especially when compared to the room at the Ramada Inn on Sunset where I’d twiddled my thumbs on a previous trip, but I was nonetheless housebound. It took an indignant inquiry from Kim whether I didn’t think her capable of taking and passing on messages even to get me dipping a toe in the Pacific surf, still within shouting range, should a record company call.
During my vigil I practised operating the reel-to-reel Uher recorder. I looped ¼” tape, plugged in the microphone, watched the needles respond to my voice, then listened back to make sure the level I’d selected was suitable. I timed myself swapping spools, removing a full one from the right-hand spindle, replacing it with the empty reel from the left, and loading and lacing a new reel. This drill became as slick as a Ferrari pit-stop, but there was a point to it, beyond killing time. Each five-inch reel lasted twenty minutes, and I’d rarely talked to anyone for less. Sod’s law promised that the reel would run out while an ear-catching point, perhaps the interview’s only one, was being made, so the faster I could execute the change-over, the less chance that the golden train of thought would become uncoupled.
I left Kim in charge of the phone again while I shopped for groceries. Outside the supermarket I spotted Martin Sheen, handsome and beaming, in an open Jeep. From the kitchen window of the house on the beach, I’d already seen a bearded old man shuffling around next door, his age an illusion created by the cancer which would kill forty-nine-year-old Steve McQueen before the year’s end.
Each day the sun came up and began its slow slide across a sky unblemished by clouds. Kim took Mandy to school, then went back to bed to watch the morning soaps on TV. I made more phone calls, waited for more replies. Eventually the sun had teased me enough and ducked quickly behind a garish horizon. Time to admit office hours were over. My Alamo car had clocked up another day’s rent, but no meaningful mileage. Tomorrow it would be even more vital not to leave the phone in case I missed the call that told me Don Henley or David Crosby or Jackson Browne had okayed my interview request and expected me within the hour it would take me to drive in from North Malibu.
The wait seemed interminable, but it was only the third day when a call came from the Warner Records promotion office in Burbank. Bad news first: neither The Eagles nor Fleetwood Mac were talking – “not even to each other!” This leavening humour was lost on me, not least because Hotel California and Rumours had been the biggest albums of the decade. I held my breath for the good news.
There had been a provisional – and unexpected by me – yes from Van Morrison, whose 1973 concert at the Rainbow remained, notwithstanding all that had happened since, one of the musical highpoints of the decade. It would mean a trip to San Francisco, but I’d also put out feelers for Carlos Santana, who lived up there. Interviewing both would make the trip worthwhile, and the 400-mile flight would be cheap enough, I knew, to fund from my per diem, rather than squandering coupons that could get me to Memphis, Nashville or New Orleans. Despite my tight schedule, would I be willing to fly up there? You bet.
Alice Cooper had also said yes, so had Emmylou Harris, but Prince, whom I’d earmarked for the closing ‘Into The Eighties’ crystal ball episode on the emphatic evidence of his first single, ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’, had turned me down. I didn’t hide my disappointment.
“Did you explain what the interview was for?” I whined. “He’ll be singled out as someone to watch out for in the 1980s. On the most listened to music radio station in the UK,” I added, lying.
“Of course I did, John.” Like we were old friends, who both knew better than Prince. “It’s just that he’d rather let his music talk for itself.” Miffed as I was to be knocked back by a newcomer, I grudgingly admired the upstart’s attitude.
As if to compensate for the lack of Eagles or Fleetwood Mac members, more calls came in, more interviews were confirmed: recording artists, record producers, music industry movers and shakers. The remaining days of my limited stay would be busy. The handwriting in my diary shrank as I crammed in names, times and addresses, more often than not the home of the interviewee, because Mark Chapman was still eleven months away from murdering John Lennon and, besides, the word was that I was from the BBC, a misunderstanding that prompted no disabuse from me.
So, with three interviews lined up, I set off at 9.30 the next morning with my Uher and microphone, an optimistic dozen reels of tape, more questions than I needed to ask, and a well-thumbed Thomas Guide, the Los Angeles street bible. If three interviews sounds a less than arduous schedule, I’d already calculated, with Thomas’ help, that I would have clock up well over 100 miles by the time I returned to Malibu.
Poking the button on the car radio as I waited for a gap in the traffic on Pacific Coast Highway, I caught Cliff Richard halfway through ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’. I had never expected to hear a Cliff Richard hit on American radio, but ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’ was in the Top 10 and, what’s more, sounded as if it belonged there. Although I owned none of his records and my interest in his music had not outlived Oh Boy!, the audacious TV show that had ended more than twenty years before, I was genuinely delighted for him, imagining how proud he must feel to finally be a success in the country whose music had provided his original inspiration. (It was only when I was back in London, my Billboard Hot 100 book open on my desk, that I realised that he had had a US Top 10 hit with ‘Devil Woman’ as recently as 1976.)
My first interview was in Hollywood. If I hadn’t known already, I would have been in no doubt when I arrived, because Alice Cooper’s eyrie nestled below the famous HOLLYWOOD sign, whose renovation the singer had helped to fund. He greeted me himself – not a flunkey in sight – and, before leading me from the main building to the pool house, where he thought the interview would work best, showed me part of his autograph collection, each signature on a themed mount: Marilyn Monroe’s cushioned on red satin, supposedly snipped from the dress she wore in The Seven Year Itch; Bela Lugosi’s in a frame fashioned like a coffin, an appropriately ghoulish touch, not least because Alice himself looked ready for a role in a horror movie. His wizened appearance at the door had shocked me. A ponytail pulled taut enough to perform a facelift could not uncrimp the folds in his sagging skin, but it was his stooping posture that surprised me most. It could have been Igor leading me through the house.
But Alice answered my questions animatedly and entertainingly, explaining that it was the Pretty Things that had got him started, rather than the Beatles; that he regarded Kiss’s appropriation of his make-up and theatrics as a compliment; likened his stage shows to, successively, The Exorcist, a Salvador Dali painting, and the ‘Springtime For Hitler’ sequence in The Producers; insisted that the sanatorium where he was treated for alcohol abuse had been a writer’s dream; owned up to hating disco – he was not alone; Chic concerts had recently been disrupted by protesters waving ‘DISCO SUCKS’ placards – and had no time for politics, an aversion that had not blunted his enthusiasm for the unwitting comedy of the Jeremy Thorpe conspiracy trial, which had him giggling again six months after the disgraced Liberal leader’s unlikely acquittal. Alice’s ambition for the eighties? As ever, to make audiences’ ears bleed.
Norman Whitfield was late for our appointment at his Whitfield Records offices in the San Fernando Valley, north of the Hollywood Hills, and he kept me waiting longer while he met with the members of Rose Royce in a room separated from the waiting area by walls too thin to mute the boom of his big voice. Gwen Dickey, who had sung lead on ‘Car Wash’, ‘Wishing On A Star’ and ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’, had quit the group to go solo, and I could hear her marooned musicians pleading with Whitfield for a chance to show they could get along just as well without her. Evidently unimpressed by their arguments, he dumped them from his label, while I listened. As they exited past me, shoulders slumped, heading for obscurity, I was careful to avoid their eyes.
Four years previously, I had been kept waiting for another interview, in the lobby of All-Platinum Records in New York. I was preparing a documentary for Radio 1 on Women In Rock, which Marianne Faithful would voice with her leg in plaster from a sketchily explained fall, while her boyfriend shot up in a Broadcasting House basement loo. I wanted to ask Sylvia Robinson, a hit-maker as long ago as 1957 with Mickey & Sylvia’s ‘Love Is Strange’ and a solo million-seller in 1973 with ‘Pillow Talk’, what had made her want to run a record company.
While I waited, I overheard a planning meeting. I couldn’t miss it, these three hip black dudes sitting a few feet from me, getting boisterously excited about a new signing, a sixties R&B diva who was overdue a come-back. From what I picked up, All-Platinum was going to be her ticket back to the big time. Punctuated by laughter and the slap of high and low fives, it was nonetheless a predictable conversation about sourcing material and selecting musicians to play with her, and, as such, occupied only the periphery of my concentration as I scanned and re-scanned my notes, until I became aware that this apparently up-beat discussion masked a plot to scupper the woman’s career before she’d had a chance to revive it.
I felt myself redden with outrage as I heard what they had in mind. They would come up with names of musicians, bass players, for instance, and when they’d all agreed on one, they’d go through the laughing and hand-slapping routine, then one of them would let slip the truth.
Next it would be guitarists, same thing, they’d pick the ‘baddest’, and so it went on, until they’d come up with a backing band composed, without exception, of the worst musicians around. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Their scheme still had me seething as, a tad distracted, I interviewed Ms Robinson. I would have let her in on it, since it was her money the saboteurs would be spending, but since these people were her representatives, I couldn’t be certain that she wasn’t in on the plot. Music was a tough business, and Ms Robinson had been in too long not to have made enemies. Perhaps she was getting her own back on an old rival. So I suppressed my anger and politely, professionally, conducted my interview.
Determined not to let the incident go unreported, the next morning I called Nelson George, a Billboard journalist I was counting on to provide me with an overview of black music in the 1970s. Now I had a trade to offer him: in exchange for an unpaid interview for my series, I would tip him off about the All Platinum scam. I listened to his laughter, wondering if the whole world apart from me was part of this plot, then turned red again as he set me straight. How was I to know? This was 1976, after all, and, where I came from, bad meant bad. Not the best.
Having sacked his act, Norman Whitfield sent out for a sandwich, and joined me on a vinyl sofa that squealed in painful protest each time he shifted his enormous frame. The sandwich still unfinished, he proposed in a tone that precluded any outcome except unquestioning assent that I should start the interview, so some of his early answers were unbroadcastably indistinct. Muffled in a mouthful of chicken and mayonnaise on wholewheat, the old Motown motto “Competition breeds champions” lost much of its gladiatorial ring, notwithstanding the speaker giving me the hard eye, just in case he had left any room for doubting the validity of this belief.
Whitfield’s favourite words were innovator, innovative and innovation, each of which, with rare exceptions, he applied exclusively to himself. At Motown, where he had been a writer, arranger and producer from the company’s early days in Detroit, you had to be an innovator to reap the rewards; his had been a plentiful harvest. ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’ had been an innovative mix of soul and psychedelia with lyrics drawn from his own life experiences; it had taken his unique talent to express them so persuasively. The syn-drums he had recently plonked into the production of ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’ were proof that he still had the power to innovate, although, to my ears, the most obvious impact of the electronic percussion had been to burden an otherwise soulful ballad with studio gimmickry that made the record unlistenable after half a dozen hearings. Not that I shared this view with Norman.
En route back to Hollywood, I pulled over by a telephone booth on Ventura Boulevard. Kim sounded agitated when she answered, but only because a publicist had left a message that if I couldn’t call her back before three, not to bother. It was 2.45. I had enough coins to make the call, but not enough to then call Kim to warn her that I would be late.
Emmylou Harris lived off one of the canyons above Sunset in a mature, elegantly decorous cottage which smelled of cedar. Our interview was one of those tricky tête-à-têtes where the interviewee has been led to believe that the conversation will only cover topics pertinent to her current career, but the interviewer wants something more. Emmylou was gracious, patient and compellingly beautiful, which made my task trickier, but I needed an authoritative voice to talk about country rock, a fusion blueprinted by Gram Parsons in 1968 with the Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and whose now vilified apotheosis had arrived in the mid-seventies with the multi-million selling, but presently mute Eagles.
Politely, but firmly, Emmylou pointed out that she had only sung back-up on two of Gram’s albums, GP and Grievous Angel, that she hadn’t spent a great deal of time with him in Los Angeles, because she had been living in New York at the time and had a baby, that it was more than six years since his death, and, what’s more, like him she vehemently opposed the juxtaposition of the words ‘country’ and ‘rock’. So we talked about her own work with the Hot Band and the role of women in country music. It was good stuff, but it wasn’t really what I was after.
On another occasion, when the Eagles were talking and I had boned up for an interview with Don Henley, I would find myself, wide-eyed and momentarily speechless with surprise, in a room with Don Felder, who had a solo album to plug and no interest in discussing whatever bands he might once have been in. I had to inveigle him into giving me what I wanted by saying things like, “Making your own album must have been s-o-o-o much more rewarding than recording with the Eagles, who, as I understand it, weren’t always a whole lot of fun to work with,” prompting him to spend several minutes telling me he was not going to knock the Eagles because really they were just the greatest bunch of guys creatively you could ever choose to be with in a studio, blah, blah, blah, until his eyes narrowed and he refocused on the theme for the day. I would enjoy getting one over on the wrong Don, but I left Emmylou’s house embarrassed by my intent.
Instead of heading back to Malibu, I aimed my rental car north over the Hollywood Hills again towards the Valley. I would need to check the precise location in my Thomas Guide, but I knew the way to Encino, where my unforeseen – until that afternoon – fourth interview would take place. I had, of course, prepared no questions, but I knew a bar on Ventura, near Coldwater Canyon, called The Tail O’ The Cock, one of those places that was considered old for LA, having been there since the 1940s, when Clark Gable had reputedly knocked back whiskeys at the bar. I parked, locked the Uher in the boot, but took my notepad with me, so I could compose questions with a drink at my elbow. Once I’d written all I could think to ask, I raised the chunky glass, empty now apart from ice, and waved it at a waitress as a signal for a second Tanqueray and tonic, tore the page from the pad, and copied my questions neatly in large letters, so they would be easy to read with a glance.
It was dusk by the time I drove through the unguarded gates of 4641 Hayvenhurst Avenue. An alsation bounded up and bared his teeth, strings of saliva smearing the car window, paws skittering against the door. But barking dogs didn’t bother me, I knew it was when they switched to a growl that you were in trouble. This one barked a lot and bounced about in front of me, but I toughed it out until a woman I recognised as Shirley Brooks appeared under the porch light. Either she was nervous or knew more about the dog than I did, because she stayed where she was, beckoning from the lighted entrance, apparently ready to slam the door on the dog, and me too, no doubt, were it to turn its noisy attention to her. Shirley was a publicist for Epic Records, and we’d met before. As we shook hands, she told me I looked tired.
“Long day,” I explained, “but I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”
Permanently preoccupied throughout the short drive to Encino, in case I’d omitted a crucial question, I had been feeling drained and slightly drunk, but not any more. The dog, as much as anticipation for the interview, had seen to that. I waded through the shaggy ivory carpet, chandeliers twinkling on either side like lights in an elfin grotto, until, just as we were about to enter the next room, Shirley slowed, then stopped me with her arm.
“One thing,” she said, as if it was an insignificance she had overlooked and just remembered, “you don’t mind if his sister sits in on the interview, do you?”
Already aware of a distant figure on a marshmallow sofa, I shook my head readily.
“Of course not, Shirley,” I assured her with a smile. “What’s her name?”
“Janet,” I repeated.
“Oh, and one more thing…”
Shirley paused, to ensure she had my attention. Anticipating another trivial afterthought, I wasn’t ready for the bomb Shirley was about to drop.
“If you could direct your questions to Janet, she’ll put them to Michael.”
My mouth opened and I turned to query this extraordinary request, but the arm that had been barring my way was behind me now, launching me through a double doorway and down several carpeted steps into the presence of he-who-must-not-be-addressed-directly, while I struggled to convert a confused backward glance into a great-to-meet-you grin, and wondered whether I was permitted to say hello face to face or expected to channel my greeting via the kid sister too.
Michael Jackson stood up. I stuck out my hand and so did he. I held his flimsy fingers carefully, fearful that I might hurt him. He was stick thin, with fine skin and hairs that had never seen a razor sprouting feebly here and there on his cheeks and chin. He still had his own nose, brown skin and an afro, as Off The Wall’s cover shot confirms. The voice that welcomed me was tremulous. When I turned to say hullo to Janet, she grinned as if this might all be a game. Michael sat down again, and I perched on a hassock between brother and sister, separated by the glass top of a low table. Shirley Brooks had melted deep into the room, but not, I would have bet the programme budget on it, out of earshot. I un-slung the Uher from my shoulder, set it on the floor beside my seat, plugged in the microphone and fumbled with the controls. Then I leaned across the table, waving the microphone like a metal detector in front of me, unsure where to point it.
I found out later that I wasn’t the only interviewer who had been asked to go along with the wacky ritual of using thirteen-year-old Janet Jackson as a conduit for questions. While it was happening, I was too taken aback – and too concerned that a transgression of this ridiculous rule might bring the interview to an abrupt end – to ponder Michael’s motives, but I wondered about them afterwards. Could it have been that it was Whitey he didn’t want to be addressed directly by? It didn’t seem likely. Nothing Michael ever said or did suggested he was a racist. Indeed he would publicly berate his father Joe for a provocative comment on the colour of his white managers, adding, “One day I strongly expect every colour to live as one family,” as emphatic an anti-racist statement as the video he made for ‘Beat It’.
Was he acclimatising a treasured sibling, intent herself on musical stardom, to the irritating, but necessary attention of interviewers? Just possibly, but again unlikely. In the end I concluded that what Michael craved wherever and whenever it could be accomplished was the erection of a protective barrier between himself and the rest of the world, symbolised by his habitual wearing of dark glasses – and later, several notches more bizarrely, a mask – in public.
As long as he was the nabob of Neverland, he could justify his reclusion by claiming that owning a theme park and zoo meant never having to leave home. This hermetic lifestyle mirrored that of Elvis Presley, who had his own cinema and a TV room with one of several screens featuring a 24-hour feed from a CCTV camera mounted by the Graceland gates, so he could watch real people to-ing and fro-ing along the boulevard that bore his name. It was a dangerous isolation, which contributed to Elvis’s decline just as surely as the daily Demarol. When I met Michael, even though our verbal communication was indirect, we sat face to face, eye to eye, breathed the same air, pressed flesh on flesh. Our interlocutor apart, he was actually no odder than Norman Whitfield. It’s easy to conclude that what would change him was fame. Granted he had already been famous for ten years, but the eminence that awaited him in the eighties was of an entirely different magnitude.
For a sizeable stretch of the years that separated Muhammad Ali’s retirement from the ring – too many big fights too late – in December 1981 and Nelson Mandela’s release from Victor Verster Prison in February 1990, Michael Jackson must have woken each morning with a giggle. How else to treat being the most famous black man on the planet? He hadn’t achieved that status by thrilling the world with agility and sleight of hand and unprecedented speed allied to reckless bravery, then risking all he had won to assert his belief; nor had he languished in prison for 28 years, hoping to live, but prepared to die for his cherished ideal of a democratic, free and equal South African society. No, during those eight years of world domination the greatest danger Michael Jackson faced was during a shoot for a Pepsi TV commercial, when an exploding firework set light to his hair. But he did make the biggest-selling album of all time, a record whose sales have topped 40 million copies.
True, in achieving this Guinness-Book-Of record, he united black and white record buyers in greater numbers than any other recording artist, and even overcame apartheid of a kind when Thriller and its seven top ten hit singles were played on otherwise lilywhite American radio stations. But Jackson was an exception and, unlike Ali or Mandela, changed no rules.
As his fame spread across the globe, his behaviour became incrementally erratic. He dressed like a foppish despot, pampered himself with the gewgaws of a princeling, raised a drawbridge between himself and the outside world, eventually completing his metamorphosis into a chimp-hugging, fairground-owning, toddler-dangling, pigmentation-denying, cosmetic-surgery-junkie, underage-bed-sharing freak.
Did I miss media-shunning? That was one of the first symptoms of his unravelling. In the whole of 1982, he would grant just one interview, to Rolling Stone, and after that none – not one, just eleven years of total silence – until his vainglorious, self-defeating confessional with Martin Bashir in 2003. But in January 1980, with his Off The Wall album cresting the album charts and its sublime stand-out track, ‘Rock With You’, a No 1 single, he had agreed to be interviewed by me. Was it the weight of this honour that had me clearing my throat several times?
“Yes… so, er, I was going to… I mean, um,” I began, ever the polished professional, looking from one Jackson to the other, unsure whose eyes to settle on, “if we could sort of go back to er… to er, you know, when you got started… er, when the Jackson Five got started… um, I was going to ask Michael how… they… fitted in to the Motown set-up?”
“Michael, how did you fit into the Motown set-up?”
Thank you, Janet. Yes, that’s what I was trying to say.
A longer pause.
“Errrrrr…” Michael’s own hesitation was prolonged and curiously musical. If it had cropped up on a vocal track, his new producer Quincy Jones would, I’m sure, have kept it on the record for texture. “We were doing a show at the Regal Theatre in Chicago and it was like a talent show type of thing and we won, and Gladys Knight was there as well as a guy named Bobby Taylor, and they told Motown about us, and Motown was interested in seeing us audition for them…”
The version originally offered for public consumption was that Diana Ross had discovered the Jackson 5, so I was chuffed to hear Gladys Knight given due credit, especially as she was an infinitely superior singer to la Ross and her and the Pips’ ‘Didn’t You Know You’d Have To Cry Some Time?’ was one of my favourite records.
“…So we went to Berry Gordy’s mansion in Detroit – indoor pool – and all the Motown stars were there, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Marvelettes, the Miracles, and we auditioned and they loved it, and Diana Ross came over to us special after the concert we did for them and she kissed us all and said we were marvellous and she said she wanted to play a special part in our career and that’s how it started…”
Berry Gordy’s mansion made a big impression on Michael and his brothers, the indoor pool especially. It was by far the biggest house the Jacksons had ever been invited into. Their own place in Gary, Indiana, was one storey with two bedrooms, one for parents Joe and Katherine, the other for their nine kids. Signing to Motown split the family up, some of the boys moving in with Gordy, the rest with Diana Ross, until Joe bought the house on Hayvenhurst Avenue in 1971.
“…And we did our first single, ‘I Want You Back’, it was gold, as well as ‘ABC’, ‘The Love You Save’, ‘Never Can Say…’, on and on and on.”
A tinkerbell giggle.
“That’s how it started.”
And that’s how the interview continued: me pinging a question to Janet, she ponging it to Michael, he pinging it back to the microphone. I almost got used to the process.
“Motown was supposed to have been one big happy family. Was it still like that when the Jacksons were there?”
“Was Motown like a big family then, Michael?”
“Yes, that’s very true, they were. Everybody worked together. You’d be doing a session and Berry Gordy would just walk in and change things around and nobody would get mad. It was like the way Walt Disney would go from one studio to the other like a bee, you know, and pollen, just go from one place to another, just stimulating people, keeping them on the right track. Berry was wonderful with taking a song and leading it to the right direction, giving it the right flavours to make it a hit. He knew just what it takes and everybody can’t do that. He’s really something.”
That something, I reminded myself silently, was a heavy-handed patriarch who allowed his energy to be diverted by a hubristic desire to make Diana Ross a movie star and himself a Hollywood mogul.
Although no one close to the corporation was going to admit it, especially with my Uher running, Motown had been in trouble from the moment Lamont Dozier and the Holland brothers jumped ship in 1968. True, Norman Whitfield still had several masterpieces up his sleeve, notably a trio of chart-topping Temptations singles, whose apogee was the six-minute psychedelic soul symphony of ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’ in 1972, the same year Stevie Wonder came out with Talking Book and a year after Marvin Gaye’s magnificent, troubled What’s Going On. But with Holland-Dozier-Holland went Motown’s bread and butter – though that is altogether too mundane a meal to represent the rich and varied diet of black pop they served up time and time again through the mid-sixties. More than any other in-house team or individual, Smokey Robinson included, it was the records Brian, Eddie and Lamont wrote and produced for the Supremes and the Four Tops that propelled Motown, and with it black music, into pop’s mainstream.
However persuasively Motown’s mouthpieces might insist that the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland had not been lastingly hurtful, it was a fact. Mary Wells, Motown’s first major solo star went, the Supremes lost founder Florence Ballard and became, ominously, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and in spite of their continuing success, Wonder and Gaye, like their counterparts in white rock, were turning their attention to albums rather than singles. The label that Berry Gordy started in 1959 with the money he’d made writing crossover hits for Jackie Wilson had become the most profitable black-owned business in America, but by the end of the 1970s, the decade of my documentary, its boast of being ‘The Sound of Young America’ no longer rang true.
Even while the Temptations were hitting their peak, Motown’s status was under threat, not just as chart leaders, but in the black music marketplace as well. The sound that took its name from the Detroit ‘motor town’ of its birth was losing ground to the sweet soul of another industrial centre, Philadelphia. The Philly sound was smoother, slicker than Motown’s, and it earned a whole slew of hits for the Stylistics, the O’Jays, Motown refugees the Spinners, the Three Degrees, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. As with Motown, acts and material were often interchangeable. The crucial constants were in the back room: arranger-writer-producers Thom Bell and the hit-making partnership of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Confirmation that the city was hot, if wall-to-wall platinum discs in the Philadelphia International offices weren’t enough, came when David Bowie chose Sigma Sound Studio as the location to record his 1975 Young Americans album. So, when the Jacksons – Berry Gordy having used the law to reinforce Motown’s claim to the Jackson 5 name – moved to CBS in 1976, naturally their new record company put them into a studio with Philly kings Gamble and Huff.
“We came up with some pretty good songs with them – ‘Show You The Way To Go’, which was a big hit, as well as, um…”
Janet had to prompt Michael here, “‘Enjoy Yourself’.”
“‘Enjoy Yourself’ – thank you,” he giggled, as did his sister, but excused himself by adding, “so many songs. And, er, since we’d been in the studio so many years, something just told us that we should start doing our own thing, so we went in and we wrote the Destiny album, and that was double platinum.” The memory of this achievement released another cascade of giggles.
Sales statistics clearly counted with Michael. All he had to say about the wonderful ‘I Want You Back’ was that it went gold. Who else gave a damn how many copies it had sold? What mattered was that it was two minutes and forty seconds of pop-soul heaven. And Destiny? Double platinum. As if that made it better than ‘I Want You Back’, which it wasn’t. Come March 1984 CBS would host a party to celebrate Thriller’s inclusion in the Guinness Book Of Records as the biggest-selling album of all time, prompting Michael to admit that his entry in the book marked the first time in his career that he felt he had accomplished something. But if art were all about sales figures, then surely Vladimir Tretchikoff, painter of the blue-skinned ‘Chinese Girl’, would be revered as the No 1 artist of the 20th Century, rather than Pablo Picasso.
There was room in my head for these thoughts, because I was barely listening to Michael’s answers, which were consistently unilluminating. It quickly became clear that he had little understanding either of the history of black music or of his place in it. In almost every interview there are moments when things are said that allow you to put a tick against a list – there’s my opener, that’s the closing observation, more ticks for key points commented on between – but the second reel was already underway and, as yet, there had been none from Michael. Not a single killer quote. I wondered whether this would be my least revealing interview since quizzing QPR’s twinkle-toed wizard Stan Bowles for Time Out, when the one interesting thing I learned was that he’d skipped training that morning, not because he told me, but because a greasy breakfast plate had only lately been abandoned and half an inch of striped pyjama leg was showing between his jeans and carpet slippers.
Aware that I couldn’t expect insights, I knew nonetheless that I had what I had come for: the voice of Michael Jackson on tape. So I didn’t bother correcting Janet when my question about Destiny – “Apart from its commercial success, since the Jacksons had written and produced the album themselves, were they also pleased creatively with what the record?” – emerged from her mouth as, “D’you think your brothers could’ve done better?” In fact, it was what I should have asked him.
“I certainly did. I’m sure the brothers did too, because I’m never satisfied with anything ’cause I do believe deeply in perfection. I’m still not satisfied with a lot of things, and I like to stay that way, because if you’re satisfied with everything, you’re just going to stay at one level and the world will move ahead.” A thought that had him laughing again. “That’s not good either.”
The Destiny recording was the last time the Jacksons enjoyed Michael’s undivided attention. Even while they were on tour promoting the record, he was flying back to LA, as often as the schedule allowed, to work on tracks for Off The Wall. This was the first record for which he had been allowed to choose his producer, and he had picked Quincy Jones, whom he had got to know two years before during the filming of The Wiz, a Motown-produced remake of The Wizard Of Oz in which Michael played The Scarecrow and Diana Ross an absurdly over-aged Dorothy. Jones had been musical director. The film was a disaster, and ironically, in view of what happened subsequently, Jones made a hash of his brief, which was to inject the score with danceable music.
“I called Quincy up one day, I said, ‘Quincy, I’m ready to do a solo album, I’ve written the songs that I want to do, but I want a real good producer to work with me.’ I said, ‘I’m going to produce it too, but I want somebody to work with me.’ I said, ‘Can you recommend somebody?’ And I wasn’t trying to hint around at all” – Michael laughed at the notion – “I didn’t even think about him, and he said, ‘Smelly’ – he calls me Smelly (the nickname deriving from Michael’s aversion to the word ‘funky’) – he said, ‘Smelly, why don’t you let me do it?’ I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’”
Michael knew this story by heart. Just a month or so before, in conversation with Stephen Demorest, another interviewer who was asked to channel his questions through Janet, he had told it all but word for word: “Quincy calls me Smelly and he said, ‘Smelly, why don’t you let me do it?’ I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’”
Whatever Michael’s mounting problems, his voice, an instrument of rare beauty and expression, was not one of them. The purity of note, the timbre, was, I suppose, an accident of nature, but in order to express feelings, a singer has to be able to feel, to have felt. Yet Michael’s mollycoddled existence must have isolated him from a multitude of essential feelings. So from where did the experience come that imbued his beautiful voice? My question didn’t quite come out like that, especially after it had been paraphrased by Janet, but Michael got the gist of it.
“There is no real explanation. It’s nothing to do with personal experience. My singing is just – I’ll say it simple as possible – it’s just Godly really. It’s no real personal experience or anything that make it come across, just feeling and God, I’ll say, mainly God.”
Michael was twenty one at the time I talked to him, and he had been a star half his life. Ten years is a longer career than most in music. How did he see the next ten?
“I think secretly and privately, really deep within, there’s a destiny for me. I’ve had strong feelings for films, that something’s directing me in that way for motion pictures, musicals and drama, that whole thing, to choreograph the films as well, even get into writing the pictures and doing the music.”
The closest he has come to realising that destiny was the fourteen-minute werewolf video he created for Thriller, hardly a Hollywood career. He also recorded a narrative E.T. spin-off album, The E.T. Storybook, at Steven Speilberg’s invitation. The package included a poster of Michael with his arm round E.T.’s shoulder, the two most easily identifiable eighties icons side by side. But I didn’t know that at the time, so I couldn’t contradict him. Instead I asked him how he felt about his music being labelled disco.
“I hate labels, because it should be just music. Call it disco, call it anything, it’s music to me, it’s beautiful to the ear, and that’s what counts. It’s like you hear a bird chirping, you don’t say, ‘That’s a bluejay, this one is a crow.’ It’s a beautiful sound, that’s all that counts, and that is a ugly thing about men. They categorise too much, they get a little bit too racial about things, when it should all be together. That’s why you hear us talk about the peacock a lot, because the peacock is the only bird of all the bird family that integrates every colour into one, and that’s our main goal in music, is to integrate every race to one through music, and we’re doing that.”
On the sleeve of the Jacksons’ Triumph album, released later that year, Michael would write, “In all the bird family, the peacock is the only species that integrates all colors into one… We, like the peacock, try to integrate all races into one, through the love and power of music.” Evidently he wanted to try the image out on me before airing it to a wider public. Just as well that I nodded approvingly.
“When you go to our concerts, you see every race out there, and they’re all waving hands and they’re holding hands and they’re smiling. You see the kids out there dancing, as well as the grown-ups and the grandparents, all colours, that’s what’s great” – cue one last nervous giggle – “that’s what keep me going.”
The second reel of tape was about to spool off, so I told Janet that sounded like a good place to end, pressed stop, wound off the rest of the reel and stowed it carefully in the box from which I’d unwrapped it. Michael withdrew from me the moment the interview was over. He remained in the room, but he wasn’t there for me. Shirley Brooks showed me out without offering an explanation for her extraordinary precondition. The alsation had either been locked away or, knowing I was unafraid, couldn’t be arsed to come out and bark. When I keyed the ignition in my car, ‘Rock With You’ came on. I lowered the volume and drove west on Ventura Boulevard, then took Topanga Canyon to the coast, slowing where Topanga crested Mulholland Drive so I could look back at the Valley lights glittering all the way to the horizon.
My thoughts were a mixture of amusement and annoyance at the pantomime I’d allowed myself to take part in and disappointment that I hadn’t learned anything about Michael Jackson or Motown that I didn’t already know. I reminded myself that I hadn’t really expected to, and, as long as my Uher hadn’t let me down, I had his precious voice on tape. I could even hear the bit about the peacock in one of my programmes.
As I skirted the ocean, I turned off the radio and rolled down the passenger window, so I could hear the surf. The flames of a small bonfire burning on Zuma Beach reflected in the wet suits of surfers as skinny and angular as matchstick men. Night had fallen more than an hour ago. Surely they hadn’t been surfing in the dark? It was January, but in Southern California it was endless summer. This was the land mythologised in Brian Wilson’s early Beach Boys songs, and for some that dream was evidently still alive. Meanwhile a different dream, a dark, incursive nightmare, was disrupting the lives of other Californians.