The Story Behind Michael Jackson's Infectious, Newly Released Song
The demo of "Don't Be Messin' 'Round" is among dozens of unreleased tracks from the Bad sessions, and provides insight into King of Pop's songwriting and recording process.
It's been 25 years since Michael Jackson was in Westlake Studio in Los Angeles putting the finishing touches on his classic 1987 album, Bad. Today, a demo of a never-before-heard song from those sessions will finally get an audience when Sony's re-release of Bad's original lead single, "I Can't Just Stop Loving You," hits Wal-Mart shelves. The B-side, an infectious rhythm track called "Don't Be Messin' 'Round," provides a glimpse into Jackson's creative process—and to his incredible profligacy as a songwriter.
Don't Be Messin' 'Round (c) 2012 Legacy
Jackson would pull out the song again during both the 'Dangerous' and 'HIStory' sessions. Clearly, it was a song he liked. But it never found a home.A team of Jackson collaborators and caretakers—including estate heads, Sony VP John Doelp, producer Al Quaglieri (who oversaw the excellent 2004 box set, Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection) and recording engineer, Matt Forger—combed through the vaults to see what was viable for the Bad 25 release. The criteria used for identifying potential songs were simple: They had to be recorded during the Bad era (1985-1987), and they had to be developed enough to feel like a complete track.
The Michael Jackson estate and Sony Legacy are leaving Jackson's work raw and unembellished this time around, in contrast to the King of Pop's first posthumous album, 2010's controversial Michael. The tracks will thus be less polished but more authentic, organic and true to what Jackson left behind. Similar to the critically acclaimed 2009 documentary, This Is It, the goal is to provide an intimate glimpse of the artist in his element. The listener, in essence, is brought into the studio with Michael Jackson as he works out a variety of musical ideas in his follow-up to the best-selling album of all time.
"Don't Be Messin'" illustrates this concept well. In the track, we can hear Jackson giving instructions, vocally dictating instrumental parts, mapping out where to accent words or add percussion, scatting and ad-libbing many of the unfinished lyrics. "One of the main intentions is to show that these are works in progress," says Matt Forger, a sound engineer and longtime Jackson friend and collaborator. "To pull the curtain back. To actually see Michael in his natural work environment, how he directs, his sense of humor, his focus."
The finished product, then, is intentionally unfinished and spontaneous. "You can just hear him having fun," Forger says. "His spirit and emotion are totally there. He knew in demos he didn't have to be totally perfect in his execution. So he'd be loose. He'd throw in ad libs and dance or sing or pop his fingers or clap his hands. You just hear him enjoying himself."
Jackson first wrote and recorded "Don't Be Messin'" during the Thriller sessions with engineer Brent Averill. Around this time he was working on a variety of musical ideas, including demos of "P.Y.T." and "Billie Jean." "Don't Be Messin'" features Jackson himself playing piano ("He could do more than he ever really let people know," Forger says.) He also produced, arranged, and guided many of the instrumental parts, including the cinematic strings, Jonathan Maxey's piano part in the bridge, and David Williams funky guitar licks.
Ultimately, since "Don't Be Messin'" wasn't fully developed and so much other strong material was coming in for Thriller, Jackson decided to put the song on the back burner, having in mind to revisit it for his next album. "That was kind of how Michael developed ideas and songs," explains Forger. "He let the song unfold in its own time. Sometimes a song wasn't ready or didn't quite fit the character of an album or a project and it would stay in the vaults. And then at a certain point of time, he would pull it out again."
In this case, the track re-surfaced in 1986, during the early stages of the Bad sessions. Jackson worked on the song primarily with recording engineers Matt Forger and Bill Bottrell in the "laboratory," the nickname for his renovated home studio at Hayvenhurst. As was typical for Jackson rhythm tracks, the song was quite long (nearly eight minutes) in its early phases. "Michael loves a song to be long," Forger says. "He loves it to groove because he gets to dance to it—which is a big thing, because when Michael feels the music is making him dance it means the groove is in the pocket."
Jackson's grooves, however, were unusual in that they often lacked the predictable repetition of much dance music, surprising with strange beat patterns, textures and nuances. "Some of these long versions of ["Don't Be Messin'"] really sound very interesting because there's different things happening in different sections," Forger says. "It's really not like you're sitting there for eight minutes thinking it's terribly long, because things are happening within that length of time that make it feel like, 'Yeah, this is cool.' It's actually satisfying to listen to the rhythm."
Cutting the song down was often a brutal process for Jackson, especially the intros and outros. As with other songs on Thriller and Bad, though, Jackson tried to trim it down into the four-to-five minute range, which is where the new mix of "Don't Be Messin'" clocks in.
Jackson continued to work on "Don't Be Messin'" into late 1986, at both his home studio and at Westlake. However, once Quincy Jones came on board, the serious paring began and "Don't Be Messin'" was left on the cutting room floor. Jackson would pull out the song again during both the Dangerous sessions and HIStory sessions, updating its sound and adding new elements. Clearly, it was a song he liked. But ultimately it never found a home.
The version Matt Forger mixed was the last version Jackson worked on during the Bad sessions in 1986. Forger feels it is the purest, most emotionally satisfying version: "It's exactly how Michael dictated it at the time. It's precisely Michael saying, 'this is how it has to be.'"
The 1986 demo isn't a groundbreaking song. The vocal is only partial-strength, the lyrics aren't finished, and the production isn't close to what it would be had it been fully realized by Jackson and Quincy Jones. However, it is a solid addition to the growing list of quality Bad-era outtakes (a list that also includes "Streetwalker," "Fly Away," and "Cheater"). "It's such a catchy underlying melodic hook," Forger says. "And it has a rhythmic feel that syncopates in such an interesting fashion." In a 2009 interview legendary recording engineer Bruce Swedien cited the track as one of his favorite unreleased Jackson songs. "It's just beautiful," he said . "Oh my God, there's nothing like it."
Like much of his work, the track doesn't fit neatly into a single genre, fusing flavors of Latin, jazz, and pop. With its breezy Bossa Nova rhythm and layers of interwoven hooks, it is a song that easily gets stuck in the head and makes you want to move—yet it also rewards multiple listens with its sophisticated syncopation and complex rhythm arrangement ("Music is like tapestry," Jackson once said. "It's different layers, it's weaving in and out, and if you look at it in layers you understand it better.")
For Forger, working on the track triggered memories of a simpler time in Jackson's turbulent career: "It just brought all the feelings back of what it was like in that era. Michael was just this exuberant, happy person. He wanted to challenge the world and make wonderful, great music."
What was Forger's goal in resurrecting the track?
"Just to make it authentic. Something Michael would enjoy and be proud of. It's got his charm and energy. If people appreciate it and enjoy it for what it is then I'll feel great. All I want it to be is enjoyed for the simple thing that it is."
- Joseph Vogel is the author of Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson. He is a doctoral candidate and instructor in the Department of English at the University of Rochester.