How Michael Jackson Made 'Bad'

His retreat was in his art. From 1985 to 1987, away from the public eye, he was writing and recording prolifically. The Bad sessions would ultimately generate more than 60 songs in various states of completion. At one point he considered releasing it as a triple-disc album.

Jackson called his home studio at Hayvenhurst "the Laboratory." This is where the magic was created with a small group of musicians and engineers, including Matt Forger, John Barnes, Chris Currell, and Bill Bottrell (often referred to as the "B-Team"). It has now become the stuff of legend that Jackson wrote "100 million" on his bathroom mirror, the number of albums he expected Bad to sell. The figure was more than double the number of what Thriller had sold to that point. Such was the scope of Jackson's ambition.

However, it wasn't just commercial success he was after. Jackson wanted to innovate. He told collaborators he wanted to create sounds the ear had never heard. Exciting new synthesizers were coming on the scene at the time, including the Fairlight CMI and the Synclavier PSMT. "It really opened up another realm of creativity," recalls recording engineer Matt Forger. "The Fairlight had this light pen that could draw a waveform on the screen and allow you to modify the shape of it. The Synclavier was just an extension of that. Very often we would end up combining two synthesizer elements together to create a unique character. You could do that within the Synclavier, but you also had the ability in a very fine increment to adjust the attack of each sound character. And by doing that you could really tailor the sound. We were doing a lot of sampling and creating new sound characters and then creating a combination of sample sounds mixed with FM synthesis."

Jackson was fascinated with these new technologies and constantly on the lookout for fresh sounds. The opening sound character for "Dirty Diana," for example, was created by Denny Jaeger, a Synclavier expert and designer from the Bay Area. When Jackson heard about Jaeger and his library of new sound characters and soundscapes, he reached out and enlisted him for Bad. Jaeger's sounds ultimately appeared on both "Dirty Diana" and "Smooth Criminal." "Michael was always searching for something new," Forger says. "How much stuff could we invent ourselves or research and find? There was a whole lot of that going on. That was what the Laboratory was about."

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What makes the Bad album so timeless, however, is the way Jackson was able to compliment this technological innovation with more organic, soulful qualities. In "The Way You Make Me Feel," for example, the relentless steel-shuffling motion of the beat is juxtaposed with all kinds of natural, improvisational qualities that give the song its charm: the vocal ad libs, the finger snapping, the blues harmonies, the percussive grunts and gasps, the exclamations. Recording engineer Bruce Swedien speaks of how he left all of Jackson's vocal habits in as part of the "overall sonic picture." He didn't want to make the song "antiseptically clean" because it would lose its visceral effect.

In so many ways, Bad was Jackson's coming-of-age as an artist. Quincy Jones challenged him at the outset to write all the material and Jackson responded, writing nine of the 11 tracks that made the album and dozens more that were left off. "Study the greats," he wrote in one note to himself, "and become greater." He spoke of the "anatomy" of music, of dissecting its parts. He was also reading a great deal, including the work of Joseph Campbell. He wanted to understand what symbolism, myths, and motifs resonated over time and why.

By the time he brought demos to Westlake Studio to work on with Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien (the A-Team), most of the key elements of the songs were in place. Now it was a matter of details: small-brush coloring, polishing, augmenting, and to Jackson's chagrin, paring down. Assistant engineer Russ Ragsdale estimates that more than 800 multi-track tapes were made to create Bad, an extraordinary number. Synth stacks filled the tracking room, where Jackson often worked with synth programer John Barnes. Vocals were rerecorded until Jackson felt satisfied. Jackson, Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien continued to tweak and debate decisions until the final minute before the deadline.

Just as much attention went into the short films. In his notes following the Bad video, Jackson indicated that he still wasn't completely satisfied with the choreography. The moves had to be so internalized that there was no thinking whatsoever. He had to dissolve into the steps and the music until it became pure feeling.

Many people still don't realize the input Jackson had on every detail of his work, from choreography to lighting to costumes to story. While rehearsing for the short film for "Smooth Criminal," Jackson eloquently explained to director Colin Chivers and choreographer Vincent Paterson the tension and release he hoped to achieve in the bridge. "That's why we build it to a mountain and we bring it back down," he instructed. "Then at the top [mouths sounds effect] with the high strings. Something to just ride the emotion that we didn't put into it [mouths sound effect]. Just a horn or something, you know... To ride the feeling of it... I want the music to represent the way we feel... It's gotta dictate our emotion, our moods. We're expressing the way everybody feels. It's rebellion. You know what I mean? We're letting out what we always wanted to say to the world. Passion and anger and fire!"

Twenty-five years later, the results speak for themselves. Videos like "Bad" and "Smooth Criminal" are among the finest the medium has to offer. Songs like "Man in the Mirror," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Dirty Diana," and "Another Part of Me" remain staples in Jackson's vast catalog. Hearing the remastered album, included in the three-CD Bad25 set out September 18, is a reminder of its singular personality and pleasure. Listen to the propulsive bass lines, the layers of rhythm, the vocal experimentation, the cinematic narratives, the signature exclamations and invented vocabulary, the sheer vitality and joy. This is pop at its most dynamic, and it stands, along with the best work of Prince, as one of the best albums of the 1980s.

Bad is a portrait of the artist in peak form—bold, creative and confident. Now as then, "the whole world has to answer."

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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