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Off the Wall (1979)
Opening with the irresistible funk of ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,’ young Michael matured overnight into a slick, sophisticated R&B mover with an arresting pot pourri of dance floor perfection and the occasional gut wrenching lament.
Jackson’s feathery-timbred tenor slides smoothly into startling falsetto, his ultradramatic phrasing wringing every last drop of pathos from Tom Bahler’s ‘She’s Out of My Life;’ elsewhere Quincy Jones’s production touches several grooves, from jazzy South American to mainstream pop funk.
Clocking in at just over forty minutes, a timely reminder of the halcyon days of vinyl, ‘Off the Wall’ is melodic, fun, well written, and doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s not his best, but it comes damn close, and in view of what was to come, that speaks volumes.
Forty million sales and counting, Jackson’s long awaited follow up to ‘Off the Wall’ was a slick, entertaining, endearingly innocent forty-two-and-a-half-minute collection of pure pop music that produced seven Top Ten singles: ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, ‘The Girl Is Mine’, ‘Thriller’, ‘Beat It’, ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Human Nature’ and ‘P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing’). In its perfect encapsulation of the times, the material appealed to both the affluent album and cash strapped singles markets. Veering perilously close to a ‘Greatest Hits’ package, ‘Thriller’earned Jackson over 150 gold and platinum awards worldwide and a record seven Grammys. At the height of Michaelmania in 1984, Epic Records was selling in excess of 1 million Jackson records a week. ‘Thriller’ was the musical equivalent of the Hula-Hoop, an item that everybody had to own, and although I never numbered it amongst my own collection, I didn’t have to, radio overkill ensuring a hitherto unsurpassed familiarity with the material.
The album is full of special touches, from veteran actor Vincent Price’s campy introduction to “Thriller” to Eddie Van Halen’s raging hard-rock solo on ‘Beat It.’ Many of these ideas were Jackson’s own. Particularly innovative was the repeated vocal motif — “ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa” — that ends “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” “That’s based on an African riff from the Cameroon region,” says Jones. “Michael came up with it, and we added harmonies and made a whole thing out of it.”
The album sessions wrapped in November 1982, the initial acetate necessitating a further eight days of remix sessions. The effort was worth it, ‘Thriller’ remaining to this day, a hugely influential album for black musicians. “It inspired black artists not to look at themselves in a limited way,” says Quincy Jones. “Before Michael, those kinds of sales had never happened for a black artist. Michael did it. He did it for the first time.”
However, “Thriller” never sold 100 million units, as the following link testifies:
Firstly – the statistical good news: ‘Bad’ was Michael’s second biggest selling album with sales of over 32 million. At one point it ranked as the world second biggest selling album of all time, behind ‘Thriller,’ and was certainly the fastest selling album ever in the UK. For many years it was the biggest selling album in the UK, and spawned five number one singles in the USA alone.
Now the bad news : about half of it – when measured against Jackson’s output over the previous eight years – was rather mediocre. Compared to what was to come, it was a classic, which is more a condemnatory appraisal of his post Quincy output, then a rhapsodic eulogy for ‘Bad.’
And that was about it for me, as far as Michael was concerned. After seventeen seven years, I stopped listening to him. Hip hop backbeats, the inimitable high pitched yelps, insubstantial melody lines, nothing essentially to grab the discerning listener. The faithful, of course, still purchased in droves.
Michael Jackson – The magic, the madness, the whole story (J. Randy Taraborrelli) 2009
Taraborrelli, an old school friend of Jackson’s, first began attempting to disentangle the man from the myth in 1991 and the third reprint of his work appeared in the fall of 2009, shortly after the singer’s death.
This book is the fruit of over 30 years of research and hundreds of exclusive interviews with a remarkable level of access to the very closest circles of the Jackson family, including Michael himself. Cutting through tabloid rumours, J. Randy Taraborrelli traces the real story behind Michael Jackson, from his drilling as a child star through the blooming of his talent, to his ever-changing personal appearance and bizarre publicity stunts.
This major biography includes the behind-the-scenes story to many of the landmarks in Jackson’s life: his legal and commercial battles, his marriages to Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe, his passions and addictions,and his children. Objective and revealing, yet hardly forthright, the author displaying insufficient conviction to nail his sail to the mast over the Chandler case, this weighty tome nevertheless carries the hallmarks of all of Taraborrelli’s best-sellers, impeccable research, compelling narrative and detailed documentation. An essential starting point but not necessarily the last word.
Last update: 27/3/16
Michael Jackson had a reputation for being one of the world’s most recognisable, enduring, and talented performers yet his penchant for increasingly bizarre behaviour, questionable judgment around children, and surgically assisted facial features that moved beyond enhancement to disfigurement was very real.
His reputation, even today, remains under close scrutiny, both from his detractors and his loyal followers. Perhaps of infinitely more interest than the minutiae of his life, our relative position on how we perceive his memory, says so much about each and every one of us.
As an artist, he appeared to float across the stage as he sang, yet with the power and soulfulness of the great R&B singers. That was what enabled the Jackson 5 to ultimately rise above the clichéd costumes and the already anachronistic dance moves, to become a great band.
Jackson’s peak years were from 1979 to 1984, from the release of the ‘Off the Wall’ album, where he became a fully rounded solo artist, to the recording of ‘We are the World’ and the Pepsi commercial fire. Sandwiched in-between were the twin zeniths of his career with the release of the ‘Thriller’ album in 1982 and the “Motown 25” special the following year.
Consolidating the innovative blazing trail of all great artists, Jackson succeeded with ‘Thriller,’ in merging multiple pop genres into one. Sinatra had previously fused swing and jazz traditions with Tin Pan Alley whilst Presley had welded black and white music inextricably together. Most successfully of all, The Beatles had embraced rock, R&B, and classical music with English music hall traditions.
With “Billie Jean,” JMicheal fused funk with pop; with “Beat It,” he combined hard rock with Broadway, and with “Thriller,” particularly the video, he remarried pop with B-movies. It was an astonishing tour de force, eminently unique for its generation, and deservedly won a clutch of awards whilst achieving multi-platinum sales.
As always in life, the solo artist invariably takes all the plaudits for his work, yet in understanding the factors involved in making ‘Thriller’ such a monumental success, we are able to more easily comprehend why its successor ‘Bad’ only partially lived up to expectations and thereafter, why his subsequent output had by comparison, negligible impact.
By the time the ‘Thriller’ sessions started in April 1982, Jackson’s fifth solo record, ‘Off The Wall,’ had already done brisk business, becoming the first solo record to spawn four US top-10 singles and earning the singer his first Grammies for more than a decade. Jackson was back with the same production team comprised of legendary producer Quincy Jones, engineer Bruce Swedien and assistant engineer Ed Cherney.
Swedian was allowed the freedom to make microphone choices, favouring the Shure SM7 on most of Michael’s lead vocals — ‘Billie Jean,’ ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ etc and there was widespread acceptance within the singer’s inner circle about the decisions being taken.
Even more crucial was the engineer’s innovative use of technological advances in order to preserve the sonic possibilities of Jackson’s original musical vision. By synchronising multiple 24-track tape machines to access a practically limitless track count, Swedien was able to circumvent one of the deleterious side-effects of tape-based multitracking; namely the dulling of transients present on previously recorded tracks. As I discovered myself many years ago before the transition to digital recording, repeated playback of analogue tape during the overdubbing and production process would progressively dull the transients of previously recorded tracks.
Interviewed in 2009 by “Sound on Sound” magazine, Swedian noted that; “If you go back to the recordings I made with Michael, my big worry was that if those tapes got played repeatedly, the transient response would be minimised. I heard many recordings of the day that were very obviously done that way, and there were no transients left on those tapes. So what I would do would be to record the rhythm section on a 24-track tape, then take that tape and put it away and wouldn’t play it again until the final mix. And — holy cow — what a difference that made! It was just incredible.”
By using a SMPTE timecode track on each tape and then sync’ing the master rhythm-section tape to new reels, any number of ‘work tapes’ could be generated for the purposes of overdubbing, each furnished with a handful of submixed cue tracks from the master reel. “At the end of the tracking sessions, I could premix each of those tapes down to only a pair of tracks during the final mix, and that would give me a huge number of tracks to use.”
Much, but not all of these production values, contributed to Jackson’s commercial success, as the following statistics attest;
(1) Sales of 11 million singles in the UK.
(2) eight number one albums including releases with the Jackson Five .
(3) ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad’ are the eighth and ninth best-selling albums in the UK. Both sold more than 3.5 million. (4) World record for the most Top 40 hits in the UK Singles Chart in one year – 19 registered in 2006.
(5) seven UK number one singles:
1981: One Day In Your Life
1983: Billie Jean
1987: I Just Can’t Stop Loving You
1991: Black Or White
1995: You Are Not Alone
1995: Earth Song
1997: Blood on the Dancefloor
(6) 13 US No.1 singles — more than any other male artist in the Hot 100 era.
(7) Estimated 750 million worldwide record sales.
Jackson enjoyed an unprecedented high royalty rate of $2 per disc throughout the 90’s and his ‘Dangerous’ tour was on course to gross $200m when a civil lawsuit brought by the parents of his 13 year old sleepover pal Jordy Chandler changed everything. Suddently, his life was in freefall, retreating to Neverland, only venturing forth, it seemed, for more cosmetic surgery or skin whitening treatments. More importantly, he began living beyond his means if that were possible. Retail therapy on an imperial scale played its part, Martin Bashir’s 2003 television documentary recording a $6m binge in a solitary store, as did a $6.5m severance package for his ‘wife’ Debbie Rowe, in return for her renunciation of her conjugal rights to ‘their’ children Prince and Paris. One source with access to his accounts estimated Jackson’s spending at £1 billion between 1983 and 2003 with this astronomical figure balanced against $650m in earnings and collatorised loans.
Despite his ‘Invincible’ album posting sales of 13m + in 2001, an enviable return for most artists, Jackson was still living the ‘Thriller’ lifestyle with upwards of 90 employees on his payroll. In addition to his formalised loans, he also reportedly had unsecured personal debt of $36m.
In 2005, Jackson became involved with Sheikh Abdullah, an admirer seemingly aware of the singer’s serious financial difficulties.
The Sheikh began supporting Jackson after 2005 and even discussed the possibility of Jackson moving to Bahrain after his 2005 child sexual molestation trial. It was subsequently reported that he contributed $35,000 towards the Neverland Ranch’s utility bills and also gave the singer $1m in April 2005 after Jackson asked for the money through an assistant. He also settled jackson’s $2.2 million legal bill for his criminal trial.
Whatever the hospitality and felicitations, the sheikh was focused on a $7 million “pay-back” agreement designed to repay money he advanced to Jackson during his financial troubles. He was convinced that the pair had entered into a “combined rights agreement” under which the star woulkd be committed to a recording contract, an autobiography and a musical stage play. When they subsequently fell out, Jackson contested that there was no valid agreement and the sheikh’s case was based on “mistake, misrepresentation and undue influence.” They eventually ‘settled’ out of court.
This presumption on Jackson’s part, that the payments he received were “gifts” without any required musical reciprocation, was at best naive but perhaps disengenuous. He had previously displayed a hitherto unmasked element of ruthlessness in his business dealings via his acquisition of the Beatles song publishing catalogue Northern Songs in 1985. The story behind this acquisition is freely available on the net but I am more interested to explore the motivations behind the two principal protagonists. Firstly, to the ordinary layman, McCartney’s protestations over a musical ‘acquaintance/friend’ purchasing his publishing rights for the period 1963-1973 were always unlikely to engender much empathy. He was/is the ‘richest man in pop’ and owns a vast publishing catalogue himself. Nevertheless, he only publishes copyrights of writers who are no longer alive. As for the granting of licensing rights for specific advertising campaigns, he simply accedes, where appropriate, to the wishes of the deceased artist’s family; Helena Holly being, for example, more than comfortable with the revenue possibilities of Buddy’s music. One can also appreciate that the notion of paying millions of dollars to re-acquire songs freely inspired in the heady 60’s, must have been a particularly galling thought for the ex-Beatle. He therefore procrastinated, ably derailed by Yoko Ono’s business courtship of Jackson via his friendship with her son Sean Lennon. When the deal was done, Jackson was unrepentant and refused to renegotiate McCartney’s royalty rate; his hard boiled attitude focused on the ex-Beatle’s two previously aborted attempts to repurchase his own catalogue. Yet he had been the one to contact McCartney by phone on Christmas day 1981 with a view to ‘writing some hits’, a more than unusual time to make such an overture. It’s all ‘dog eat dog’ in business and Jackson was clearly indifferent to the resultant strained relations that would ensue with McCartney, yet their falling out all seemed so unecessary. As ever, one need look no further than money to find a culprit.
Michael was awash with it after ‘Thriller’ and Northern Songs undeniably represented a gold encrusted annuitised income stream, yet in both ‘absolute terms’ and as a ‘return on capital’ ($47.5m), the purchase was suspect. As a result of a quirk in American copyright law, from 1990 onwards, Ono began re-acquiring each year, a further 25% interest in Northern Songs without spending a further cent. Jackson’s initial 50% publishing stake in the catalogue only held for five years after his initial purchase and his entertainment lawyer, John Branca, may have overlooked this legal point throughout his initial negotiations on behalf of his client.
Lennon’s widow had familiarised herself with the contractual terms of the 1927 Songwriting Act. The legislation confers upon the heirs of a songwriter, all rights to his or her music once the original copyrights run out. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been sold to someone else during the intervening period. If the songwriter dies during the copyright term, then once this period runs out, the new owner loses the rights and they revert back to the heirs. As a result of Lennon’s assassination, it became immaterial that the rights to the songs were with Michael Jackson. Once the copyrights had to be renewed, Jackson lost Lennon’s portion as they reverted to Yoko Ono and her son, Sean. The Beatles songs were under 28-year copyright protection. Therefore, songs written in 1962 had to be renewed in 1990, and so on. When they were renewed, Lennon’s ownership, which had been sold to Jackson, began reverting to Yoko. Since Lennon was dead, he was no longer under Jackson’s agreement. McCartney, however, was still contractually tied, thus ensuring that half of his portion of royalties from the Beatles catalog, continued accruing to Jackson or following his death, Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Nevertheless, he must surely remain philosophical for after all, he has outlived both Lennon and Jackson.
His life has been so well documented, the very minutiae of his private affairs so heavily scrutinised, that I can add little more here, save for my own personal observations.
Jackson’s wife Lisa Marie Presley, was a devout scientologist. The singer was high on the church’s list of potential recruits, in part because of his immense wealth but also as a result of his previous commitment to the Jehovah’s Witness cause. Presley maintained the couple had been intimate during their short lived marriage, and despite widespread scepticism, the fact remains that there is now only one living perosn who knows. Confirmation of such intimacy would please Jackson’s devotees, united in their conviction of his innocence in the child molestation case, whereas his detractors would cite any platonic undertones to the union as evidence of his guilt. Most women would find it extremely uncomfortable to admit to any man’s physical disinterest in them, let alone a legally wedded wife; Lisa Marie’s recollections remaining therefore, at the very least, suspect.