When Eddie Van Halen received a call from Quincy Jones in 1982, he hung up on what he assumed was a prankster. After all, why would a producer who in a 30-year career had never touched rock music call on the guitarist of one of the brashest metal bands of the day? Let alone to seek help with a Michael Jackson album. The public’s strongest image of the singer was still as the cute frontboy of the Jackson Five, all bubblegum pop and Motown-monitored sweetness. His attempt to crack that mould, 1979’s Off the Wall, had been a soul and disco-heavy coming-of-age statement.
So Van Halen swore at Jones, who had to call back to assure him this wasn’t a joke: Jackson had penned a rock track and wanted a guitar solo. Still unconvinced, Van Halen drove to Westlake Studios the next day and, sure enough, found a song waiting for him. Jackson had recorded a demo at home — a cappella, but a precise preview of “Beat It” ’s harmonies and percussion, with an unmistakable rock beat.
According to Van Halen, he was given free rein and changed the middle section. On the final recording his blistering solo lasts just 32 seconds of the four-minute song; the instantly recognisable riff that runs throughout “Beat It” was conceived by Jackson and played by Steve Lukather of rock group Toto, who worked on the Thriller album along with his bandmates. So why the need for Van Halen?
In the early 1980s, US music radio — and charts — were heavily categorised. Jackson was upfront about his ambitions: he wanted Thriller to be the biggest-selling album of all time. To make that happen it was crucial to cross over to rock radio, Van Halen’s home turf. And there was a new barrier to break through: music television. While bands such as Van Halen were a regular feature, MTV played so few black artists that Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University, North Carolina, later claimed that at the time of Thriller’s release, the new network “was arguably the best example of cultural apartheid in the US”.
While its target audience was undeniably that of rock radio, MTV bosses denied claims of bias. Pragmatic factors also played a role in its narrow programming. Until 1984, franchise fees for laying cable were more costly in urban areas — with higher black populations — than in white-dominated suburbia. Moreover, cities were better served by broadcast towers, so demand for cable was limited. All the same, questions were being asked. Rick James had publicly accused the channel of racism when it failed to play “Superfreak”; and David Bowie challenged an MTV VJ in an interview, asking him: “Why are there practically no blacks on the network?”
Just six weeks before the release of “Beat It”, “Billie Jean” had been released with its own expensive video and reached number one. MTV, however, still wasn’t playing the song. The disputed story goes that CBS Records threatened to pull all its artists’ content from MTV unless Jackson was added to the station’s playlists (both label president Walter Yetnikoff and vice-president David Benjamin have taken credit for making the call). Whatever the truth of the situation, “Billie Jean” soon hit the MTV schedule, quickly followed by “Beat It” on heavy rotation.
Unable to feature Van Halen in the video — his record company wouldn’t permit it — director Bob Giraldi went for real-life edge. The video’s West Side Story-style knife fight, broken up by a peacemaking Jackson, is played out by dancers. But among the circle of onlookers and the pool players in the opening shots he cast members of rival LA gangs, the Bloods and the Crips. Tensions on the set ran high, Giraldi recalled.
The song, like its predecessor, hit the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100; its use in an anti-drink driving campaign brought Jackson to the White House lawn alongside Ronald Reagan, then US president. And in 1984, among the singer’s eight Grammy awards, included Best R&B Song for “Billie Jean” — but it was “Beat It” that won the genre-sweeping Record of the Year.
As with most of Jackson’s hits, serious covers have been few (although parody specialist “Weird Al” Yankovic won a Grammy for “Eat It”). Supergrass rattled through a light-headed version on their 2008 CD “Bad Blood”, and Amy Winehouse slurred an ill-judged TV duet with Charlotte Church. Fall Out Boy were more successful with their amped-up 2008 cover, for which John Mayer played the guitar solo, and the video was flooded with references to Jackson’s videos, dance moves and costumes. And in 2003 the crossover crossed back, when Metallica included the song in a medley performed at that year’s MTV Music Awards.
Listen to the podcast
For more in the series, and podcasts with clips, visit ft.com/life-of-a-song
Main photograph: Corbis