Abortion, Fame, and 'Bad': Listening to Michael Jackson's Unreleased Demos

The stories behind the tracks that will finally see the light of day for the album's 25th-anniversary rerelease

michael jackson 615 bad demos.jpg
MJJ / Sony Music

In late 1986, Michael Jackson was pacing in Westlake Audio's Studio D, singing to himself: "I feel so bad, I feel really bad, God music makes me feel good."

"At the time, we had no idea the name of the album was going to be called Bad," jokes assistant engineer, Russ Ragsdale.

It wasn't the only revelation for the crew at Westlake. It turned out in the interval between Thriller and the official start of the Bad sessions, Jackson had written some 60-70 new songs. Eleven ended up on the official album, leaving numerous great tracks on the cutting room floor in various stages.

Over the past couple of years, under the direction of Jackson's estate, a team has been carefully archiving and digitizing these demos. "Some tracks we found were very early recordings," says Jackson estate co-executor John Branca. "Some were actually so complete that any other artist but Michael Jackson might consider them finished tracks. Still others were in between." Of these, six demos were chosen for Disc 2 of the forthcoming Bad 25 box set (out September 18).

Recently I was given an exclusive listen to these never-before-heard demos. I was struck by how finished and enjoyable they are. These are not mere song fragments. While the production on a couple of them sounds a bit dated, all have great hooks and choruses. What makes them really special, though, is their authenticity. None have been given a modern makeover. What they offer is a more intimate picture of Jackson the recording artist, circa 1985-87. We hear his ideas, his warmth, his pain, his humor, and his energy. The best of the bunch, for me, is the gorgeous mid-tempo ballad, "I'm So Blue," though a case could easily be made for the edgy rhythm tracks, "Price of Fame" and "Al Capone." Each of these six demos (and two others that had been previously released) contains its own unique imprint—and most importantly, all are 100 percent real, unembellished Michael Jackson.

What follows is a track-by-track review with additional insights from recording engineer and longtime Jackson friend, Matt Forger:

"Don't Be Messin' 'Round"

I wrote an in-depth piece on the making of this infectious, Bossa Nova-styled rhythm track back in June when it was released as a B-side to Jackson's No. 1 hit ballad, "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." You can read that piece here. A fan favorite (and a song Jackson worked on many years and for which he had great affection), it is an appropriate opener to this collection. Some day it would be fascinating for listeners to hear the extended cuts (many of Jackson's songs and demos have longer versions which he often reluctantly trimmed down at Quincy Jones's bequest) as well as its later re-incarnations.

Matt Forger:"The thing I love about these demos is the rawness. Michael had the freedom to just get the expression out there without thinking, 'Oh, Quincy is going to be judging the vocal, or it has to be perfect.' It's just Michael going for it, experimenting, having fun."

Jackson wrote, "I have to do it in a way so I don't offend girls who have gotten abortions or bring back guilt trips so it has to be done carefully....I have to really think about it."

"I'm So Blue"

This is a simple but beautiful ballad about singing to keep the blues away. Its languid, wistful feel is augmented by a lush keyboard bed, airy strings and soulful harmonica. It conjures a warm, summer dusk as Jackson narrates a tale of lost love. "I've been singing for so very long," he laments. "Still I'm crying/ Tell me what should I do." The wordless chorus (sha da da da da da da) is a resigned sigh. Like the blues men of old, he takes refuge from his loneliness and sorrow in the music.

Matt Forger: "This was a song Michael worked on with me and Bill Bottrell. It was already mixed from that era. It's a mid-tempo, melancholy, rainy-day-by-the-fireplace kind of song. It's a bit reminiscent of Stevie Wonder—the harmonica, the tonality. Stevie was a big part of Michael's life. It's not unusual that you would see that influence in his work."

"Abortion Papers"

Jackson isn't the first recording artist to explore the controversial subject of abortion in song. It has also surfaced in the work of Neil Young, Madonna, Sinead O'Connor, and Lauryn Hill, among others. In "Abortion Papers," Jackson approaches the matter carefully (and ambiguously): rather than presenting a dogmatic political perspective, he personalizes it through the story of a conflicted girl raised in a deeply religious home and her Bible-admonishing father. In his notes for the track, Jackson wrote, "I have to do it in a way so I don't offend girls who have gotten abortions or bring back guilt trips so it has to be done carefully....I have to really think about it." Jackson narrates the track with a strong, passionate vocal. Ironically, the main drawback of the track is its catchiness. It feels a bit strange wanting to dance and sing along to a song about abortion, but that's exactly what the addictive groove inspires. Kudos to Jackson for attempting to tackle a sensitive issue in a thoughtful manner, though it appears even he wasn't quite sure about how it would play to listeners.

Presented by

Joseph Vogel is the author of Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson. His work has appeared in Slate, The Huffington Post, and PopMatters. He holds a Ph.D. in american literature and culture from the University of Rochester. 

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