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.
Jackson had a habit of writing and recording dozens of potential songs for each new project. This was especially the case for the Bad era, a prolific period in his career. At one point, he considered making Bad a triple-disc album given the amount of quality material. So it's fitting that later this fall, Sony Music and Jackson's estate will put out a full album of previously unreleased material from the Bad sessions. While the track list has not yet been finalized and will not be made public until closer to the September 18 release date, more than 20 new, unheard demos from the Bad sessions are currently being considered for the album. The songs being evaluated include a number of real gems and a few titles previously unknown to the most ardent Jackson aficionados.
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."