In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Write a song like “My Sharona.” That was the assignment. Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson both wanted Jackson’s Thriller album to appeal to the widest audience possible. Jackson had flirted with disco on 1979’s Off The Wall, his previous album, and Jackson and Jones were worried that Thriller could get pulled into the anti-disco backlash that had wiped the genre out of the charts by 1982. So Quincy Jones told Michael Jackson to write a rock song. This was a bit of an issue, since Michael Jackson wasn’t remotely interested in rock music.
Quincy Jones could’ve presumably gotten any number of people to write a rock song for Michael Jackson. More than half of the songs on Thriller come from outside songwriters, and I’m willing to bet that the Knack’s Doug Fieger would’ve taken Jones’ call. But Jones wanted Jackson to write the song. The song that Jackson wrote wasn’t anything like “My Sharona.” Instead, Jackson came up with a sort of alternate-universe version of the genre, a rock song as written by a great musician who didn’t listen to rock songs.
In interviews after Thriller conquered the world, Jackson said that he wanted “Beat It” to be “the type of song that I would buy if I were to buy a rock song.” The implication here is that Jackson would not buy a rock song. “Beat It” has a big, nasty riff and a chest-puffed-out strut, and it’s also got that famous Eddie Van Halen guitar solo. Rock stations played “Beat It,” at least enough to get the single up to #14 on Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock chart. But “Beat It” still sounds more like a Michael Jackson song than anything else. Nobody was going to mistake this thing for 38 Special — or, for that matter, for “My Sharona.”
If “Beat It” recalls any previous chart-topper, it’s Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger,” another song that recognizes just how slick a heavy riff can be. “Beat It,” like “Eye Of The Tiger” before it, is more about beat and texture than arena-rock dynamics. Jackson and Jones played around with their big riff until it fit right alongside panting push-pull syncopation, elaborately rendered synth-tones, and cinematic sound effects. They made the song sound like a movie.
“Beat It” has one of the all-time great song intros: Seven ominous, echoing synth notes that sounded like gothic-cathedral bell clangs. Keyboardist Tom Bahler, who’d previously written Jackson’s Off The Wall ballad “She’s Out Of My Life,” played those notes on a fancy new digital synth called the Synclavier II, and he’d taken the notes directly from The Incredible Sounds Of Synclavier II, a demo record that had come out in 1981. Bahler later said that he wanted to change the notes, to come up with something original, but Jackson liked the way that intro sounded too much. Jackson was right. That intro is hard.
But where the intro is cold and unforgiving, “Beat It” does something almost subversive. In “Beat It,” Jackson wrote a tough-sounding song that’s specifically and intentionally about the value of not being tough. Jackson’s lyrics are directed at a kid who’s being chased out of town by a local gang. The kid wants to stand up to them, to fight back, and Jackson warns him, again and again, that he should just get out: “Don’t wanna see no blood, don’t be a macho man.” If the kid tries to fight back, Jackson knows exactly what’ll happen: “They’ll kick you, and they’ll beat you, and they’ll tell you it’s fair.” Jackson wants the kid to escape unscathed. He knows it’s not fair, and his message is that fairness doesn’t matter. Stay alive. Do what you can.
Jackson brings the same vocal paranoia that he’d brought to “Billie Jean,” the song that “Beat It” came close to replacing at #1. He makes his voice hard and percussive, throwing it against the track. Sometimes, the voice becomes part of the beat itself — the echoing “beat it” bit after the chorus, the tiny grunts and yips and breaths. On the outro, Jackson uses the hell out of the hee-hee yelp that would quickly become his trademark. But Jackson always stays delicate and vulnerable. He’s angry, but he’s also terrified — the same emotions that he showed on “Billie Jean.”
The “Beat It” guitar solo is a crucial part of the song’s legend and of its crossover appeal. At the time, Eddie Van Halen was pioneering the art of wheedly and baroque metal guitar pyrotechnics. Quincy Jones, who was friends with Van Halen’s producer, called Van Halen up and asked him to contribute. Van Halen thought it was a prank call at first, but he agreed readily enough. The rest of Van Halen’s band was out of town, so he figured he wouldn’t get any shit from them. At first, Van Halen was uncredited; he liked the idea that nobody would know it was him. Van Halen rearranged the song to put his solo right in the middle, and he did it all for free, as a favor to Jackson.
The solo is a short one, but it’s busy and vivid and violent and memorable. It rips right through the song. Soon enough, that solo started to launch urban legends of its own. That knocking sound just before the solo was, according to some, a drunk Van Halen bashing the studio door, demanding to be let in. It was really just Jackson banging on a drum case. A year later, after “Beat It” had won the Record Of The Year Grammy, Eddie Van Halen joined the Jacksons at one of the dates on their Victory tour and shredded his way through “Beat It.” (Van Halen will eventually appear in this column.)
But Van Halen is really only on “Beat It” for about 20 seconds. The person playing the riff is a previous Number Ones artist, Toto’s Steve Lukather. In fact, three members of Toto play on “Beat It”; keyboardist Steve Porcaro and drummer Jeff Porcaro are in there, too. “Beat It” is harder than any Toto song I could name, and you can’t really tell it’s them. But you can still tell that the musicians on “Beat It” are pros. Maybe that’s why I can’t get as excited about “Beat It” as I do about “Billie Jean.” There’s something just a little bit flat and mechanistic about that riff. The song never quite sounds as explosive and dangerous as it could’ve been if that riff had been just a little louder or more frenetic.
It almost seems ridiculous to talk about “Beat It” simply as a song, since the video is so important and iconic. It’s basically impossible not to think of the video when you hear the song. The “Beat It” video cost something on the level of $200,000, which made it, at the time, by far the biggest-budgeted music video in history. CBS Records refused to finance it, so Jackson paid for the video himself. Originally, “Billie Jean” director Steve Barron was going to direct it, but Barron’s idea was for “Beat It” to take place on a ship full of white slaves, with Michael Jackson as the slavemaster. Even in the coke-sozzled early MTV days, that wasn’t going to fly. Instead, Jackson brought in Bob Giraldi, who’d never directed a music video but who’d made a TV commercial that Jackson liked. A year later, Giraldi directed Jackson’s Pepsi commercials, including the one where Jackson’s hair caught on fire.
You shouldn’t need me to describe the “Beat It” video. It’s part of our shared folklore: These two extremely ’80s street gangs getting ready to fight, Jackson coming in to make the peace between them, everyone suddenly breaking out into a choreographed dance routine. Nobody had ever done a full, elaborate musical number as a video before, even though it seems like the most obvious thing in the world in retrospect. Choreographer Michael Peters, the guy with the mustache in the video, had already won a Tony for doing Dreamgirls on Broadway the previous year. Giraldi says that Jackson insisted on getting real LA gang members, Crips and Bloods, to appear in the video alongside the professional dancers who do the actual choreography, and that they all stopped scuffling with each other long enough to watch those dancers move.
Giraldi says that the knife fight in the “Beat It” video isn’t based on the one in West Side Story, that he’d heard about real knife fights like that while growing up in New Jersey. But Jackson was a huge fan of musicals, and he reportedly watched West Side Story all the time. I’ve always wondered about that knife fight. Like: How is that supposed to work? What if you’re the guy who ends up holding the knife in your left hand? Doesn’t that give the other guy an unfair advantage? Also, did Michael Peters, the choreographer, intentionally put a hand motion that looked like jerking off into the video for a song called “Beat It”?
The mere fact that I’m asking these questions should tell you that the “Beat It” video is the sort of thing you watch a million times, that sticks in your head. Jackson himself is spectacular n the video. He’s both fragile and intense, and he moves like light. Certain images of Jackson in the video — striking poses in the hallway, kicking his leg over the pool table, stepping in between the two gang leaders — immediately became part of MTV’s iconography. With “Billie Jean,” Jackson forced his way onto MTV. With “Beat It,” he absolutely conquered the network.
After “Beat It,” Jackson released four more Thriller tracks as singles. All of them made it into the top 10. None of them got as far as #1. But Jackson was at the peak of his culture-dominating powers. We will see a whole lot more of him in this column.
BONUS BEATS: In 1984, “Weird Al” Yankovic, with Jackson’s blessing, released his “Beat It” parody “Eat It.” Rich Derringer, singer of “Hang On Sloopy” and producer of “Frankenstein,” replicated the Eddie Van Halen guitar solo. With the minor masterpiece of a video, Yankovic did everything he could to copy and lampoon the “Beat It” video. (Bob Giraldi on “Eat It,” as quoted in Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s I Want My MTV: “I hated that ‘Weird Al’ video. It made fun of something serious and valuable to me. I felt it was a put-down.”) “Eat It” became a huge hit for Yankovic, peaking at #12 and carving out Yankovic’s place in popular culture. Here’s the “Eat It” video:
(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Beat It” soundtracking the moment in 1989’s Back To The Future Part II where Marty McFly walks into the futuristic-nostalgic Cafe ’80s:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Moby’s fun 1992 techno remix of “Beat It”:
(Moby’s highest-charting single, the 2000 Gwen Stefani collab “South Side,” peaked at #14.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Beat It” soundtracking the Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson supermodel walk-off in the basically-perfect 2001 film Zoolander:
(Walk-off judge David Bowie has already been in this column once, and he’ll be in the column again very soon.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Fall Out Boy’s 2008 cover of “Beat It,” with John Mayer doing the Eddie Van Halen shredding, peaked at #19. Here’s their video for it:
(Fall Out Boy’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race” peaked at #2. It’s a 4. John Mayer’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “Say,” peaked at #12.)