Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published May 19th 2020
You can't beat Jackson's music
Admission time: I am not a huge fan of Michael Jackson. I like some of his songs, think Thriller is a wonderful album, and think he is the only dancer of the modern era who holds a candle to the likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Donald O'Connor. And he took the music video and turned it into a genuine art form. But I did find a lot of the Jackson 5 stuff twee and found his later music over-bearing and occasionally preachy.
Still, there is no denying that, when he was on song, Michael Jackson was one of the finest pop artists of the late twentieth century.
I started to write this column a year ago to commemorate ten years since the passing of Michael Jackson, but the timing was not good, with the 2019 Finding Neverland documentary still fresh in everyone's mind and the idea of cancellation culture concerning the man rearing its head. So, fast forward twelve months and, while the allegations are still there, his music is being played a little more once again, and it is no longer considered tactless to appreciate his music. I ventured into social media to find out if this column would be considered poor taste. Truth be told, most respondents did not care. And so, I have returned to it.
What I will do, though, is start with my favourite Michael Jackson song. This is also, in my opinion, the single greatest music video ever. From 1982, 'Thriller'.
I'll start with the parodies, and two of the best-known parodies of Michael Jackson's work, both by that master of the musical parody – 'Weird Al' Yankovic.
First, it's 'Eat It' (1984), a parody of 'Beat It' (1982). Not only is the music a parody, but the video is pretty much spot on as well.
Then we hit 'Fat' (1988), a parody in both music and video again of 'Bad' (1987).
Next, let's jump to a medley. Sort of. This is the great a cappella/beat box group Pentatonix and their 2015 track 'The Evolution Of Michael Jackson' where they sing Michael Jackson songs in chronological order. It is really impressive.
The cover versions! There are a reasonably large number, to be honest. So I've picked only my favourites.
'Never Can Say Goodbye' is one of those songs that a cover has come to surpass the original. The original was done by the Jackson 5 in the early 1970s as a twee little song, but in 1974 Gloria Gaynor really took it over with her disco version. I dislike disco (in general). So, I am going to look at the version I enjoy, only because it does bring some good memories of Blue Light Discos – that done by the Communards (1987).
Imogen Heap is an artist that people are surprised I really enjoy. And when you listen to this piano and voice version of 'Thriller' (2009), you can hear her amazing voice and the song becomes an impassioned plea. Stunning.
While we're on very different versions, let's jump to Richard Cheese. Known for turning modern music into bossa nova or jazz forms, his style and takes on songs are unique. I own a few of his albums, and his take on 'Beat It' (2004) turns it into the sort of song you'd expect to hear in a smoky night-club crooned by a lounge singer… until the children's choir hits.
From jazz to… metal. Why not? Yngwie Malmsteen covered 'Beat It' as well (2009) with typical double-speed guitar playing and the lyrics bellowed with all the tuneful screaming of the best of them. I listen to Malmsteen for the guitar work, but here he delivers the whole package. What a version!
Back to a slowed down, stripped back version. On his Carry On album, Chris Cornell released a stunning version of 'Billie Jean'. I have also heard some live versions of this song with just Cornell and an acoustic guitar, but the album version is still very impressive. Cornell was taken from us too soon; if you are struggling, please reach out to someone.
Sometimes, though, we need to go back to the beginnings of rock and roll and play songs the way they should all be played. So we come to Dick Brave and the Backbeats' 2003 version of 'Black Or White'. No, seriously, if you've never heard any of the music by this band, do some deep diving on YouTube – you'll lose yourself for hours.
Let's go back to 'Billie Jean' and go back to some a cappella singing. Flying Pickets are the first band of this type I heard and they are fantastic, and this is no exception. It follows the original pretty closely, but with only the human voice. Wow.
'Can You Feel It?' is my favourite track by The Jacksons (or Jackson 5). Last year (and one of the songs that sparked this column in the first place) I was at the gym when this song came up on the playlist going through the speakers… but done by Hazell Dean (2013). A modern pop version, it's quite danceable, really. And is not bad to work out to.
I've used songs from Australia's Triple-J radio segment 'Like A Version' quite a few times in covers lists. The way artists interpret the songs of others is often quite stunning. So, back in 2018, I had not heard of Billie Eilish. Now, of course, she's everywhere, but back then, I had no idea. Then I heard this version of 'Bad' and was blown away. I've listened to her latest album and was unimpressed – where is the person who sings like this? This is the Billie Eilish I enjoy.
And I'll finish with possibly my favourite Michael Jackson cover version. Like some other songs I like, I do understand that enjoying this song means I am not allowed to call myself a rock critic, but I do not care. I like what I like and make no apologies for it. Except for Santa's Slay. I do apologise for liking that, but stand by it anyway. Anyway, the MJ cover version I enjoy most is 'Smooth Criminal' by Alien Ant Farm (2001). Taking that pop track and doing a straight forward cover in a rock music style is really well done. The original is certainly a song I like (and the dancing in the video is incredible), and the cover is a definite affectionate version.
There you have it. Michael Jackson covered and parodied. The man released some classic songs and made awesome videos, but he has left a legacy that is over-shadowed by allegations that are still hanging over everything. But the music is what it is, and music is my main focus.