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'Black or White' 25 years on: The story behind the song, video and THAT premiere
Author: Mike Smallcombe()
14.11.2016
After recording Bad Michael Jackson made the decision to dispense with the services of Quincy Jones for his next project, even though the three albums the pair recorded together had sold over 70 million copies to date.

Making the Bad album was a stressful period for Michael; he was competing with himself in an attempt to make the album as successful as Thriller. His attorney, John Branca, attempted to take some pressure off by persuading him to release a two-disc greatest hits collection (with up to five new songs included) to follow Bad, rather than an album of entirely new material. The collection was to be titled Decade 1979–1989 and completed by August 1989, in preparation for a November release.

In the summer of 1989, after a few months of rest at Neverland, Michael returned to the studio to begin recording new material for Decade. Now Quincy was out of the picture, Michael began working with Bill Bottrell and Matt Forger, just as he had done at the beginning of the Bad sessions in 1985. Inspired by seeing the world, Michael had been writing songs while spending time at his ranch after the Bad Tour. Forger said Michael returned from his tour with certain impressions. “His social commentary kicked up a notch or two,” he said. “Most of the early songs we worked on were more socially conscious. His consciousness of the planet was much more to the forefront.” The most prominent of these were later titled ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ and ‘Earth Song’. Michael and Forger began working on these tracks in Westlake’s Studio C on Santa Monica Boulevard in June 1989.

While Forger was based at Westlake, Bottrell worked over at Ocean Way Recording, a short distance across Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard. Bottrell had recently finished working with Madonna on her album Like a Prayer, mixing and also helping to produce the title track. During their sessions, Michael would hum melodies and grooves and then leave the studio while Bottrell developed these ideas with drum machines and samplers. But none of the ideas they worked on at Ocean Way would develop much further, and after a short period Bottrell joined Forger at Westlake, taking over Studio D while Forger remained in Studio C. The pair worked together in both rooms and also operated independently. In July 1989, Bottrell brought in keyboardist Brad Buxer to join the team. Buxer had been in Stevie Wonder’s band for three years at that point and also worked with Smokey Robinson and The Temptations.

As soon as Bottrell moved to Westlake, he and Buxer began working with Michael on a song called ‘Black or White’, which Michael wrote in early 1989 in his ‘Giving Tree’ overlooking the lake at Neverland. Climbing trees was always one of Michael’s favourite pastime activities and often sparked creativity. "My favourite thing is to climb trees, go all the way up to the top of a tree and I look down on the branches,” he explained. “Whenever I do that, it inspires me for music.”

The first thing Michael did was hum the main riff of ‘Black or White’ to Bottrell, without specifying what instrument it would be played on. Bottrell then grabbed a Kramer American guitar and played to Michael’s singing. Michael also sang the rhythm before Bottrell put down a simple drum loop and added percussion.

Once Michael had filled out some lyrical ideas (the theme is about racial harmony) he performed a scratch vocal, as well as some background vocals. Bottrell loved them and strove to keep them as they were. “Of course, it had to please him or he would have never let me get away with that,” he said. Unusually for Michael, the scratch vocal remained untouched and ended up being used on the final version. The total length of the song at this stage was around a minute and a half, and there were still two big gaps in the middle to fill. Production of ‘Black or White’ would continue at other studios in Los Angeles later on.

In the summer of 1990, Michael finally decided to shelve the Decade project in favour of an album of new material, due to an avalanche of song ideas. “Michael simply wasn’t interested in old material, he wanted to keep creating,” Matt Forger said. “We just had too many new ideas.” Michael's business advisor, entertainment mogul David Geffen, was also said to have influenced the decision. The album was pencilled in for a January 1991 release.

By the now the team was recording at the Record One studio complex in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, where Michael and Bill Bottrell filled in the two large gaps that still existed in the middle of ‘Black or White’. Michael had the idea for a heavy guitar section, and Bottrell suggested they insert a rap.

Michael sang the riff to the heavy guitar section to Bottrell, who then hired his friend Tim Pierce, as he couldn’t play that kind of guitar. “Tim laid down some beautiful tracks with a Les Paul and a big Marshall, playing the chords that Michael had hummed to me – that’s a pretty unusual approach,” Bottrell said. “People will hire a guitar player and say ‘Well, here’s the chord. I want it to sound kinda like this’, and the guitarist will have to come up with the part. However, Michael hums every rhythm and note or chord, and he can do that so well. He describes the sound that the record will have by singing it to you… and we’re talking about heavy metal guitars here!”

Pierce recorded his parts for ‘Black or White’ at Record One in one day and also played on another track Michael and Bottrell worked on together, ‘Give In to Me’. “Firstly we did the bridge for ‘Black or White’, and Michael was present for that,” Pierce recalls. “He wanted a heavy metal guitar part and that’s what I brought in. After we finished that part, I then did my part on ‘Give In to Me’. It was just Bill and me… Michael had gone by then. Michael was really sweet, nice, and looked me in the eye whenever we spoke. I liked that. He looked good as well, like a real superstar. He was definitely a fourteen-year-old wrapped in a thirty-year-old body.”

The rap for ‘Black or White’ was now the only section left to record. “All the time I kept telling Michael that we had to have a rap, and he brought in rappers like LL Cool J who were performing on other songs,” Bottrell said. “Somehow, I didn’t have access to them for ‘Black or White’, and it was getting later and later and I wanted the song to be done. So, one day I wrote the rap – I woke up in the morning and, before my first cup of coffee, I began writing down what I was hearing, because the song had been in my head for about eight months by that time and it was an obsession to try and fill that last gap.”

Although Bottrell wasn’t a fan of white rap, he performed it himself and played it for Michael the next day. “He went ‘Ohhh, I love it Bill, I love it. That should be the one’. I kept saying ‘No, we’ve got to get a real rapper’, but as soon as he heard my performance he was committed to it and wouldn’t consider using anybody else. I was OK with it. I couldn’t really tell if it sounded good, but after the record came out I did get the impression that people accepted it as a viable rap.” In the credits, the rapper is named LTB. “LTB stood for ‘MC Leave It to Beaver’, an obvious reference to my cultural heritage,” Bottrell explained. “Lesson learned – never joke around with credits.”

Matt Forger helped to design the ‘Black or White’ intro, with Guns ’N’ Roses guitarist Slash playing guitar and Bottrell playing the dad. A young actor named Andres McKenzie was brought in to play the son. Many believed it was the voice of Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin, although he wasn’t involved until the video shoot.

Michael wasn’t present for the recording session, much to Slash’s disappointment. Bottrell himself was frustrated that the credits portrayed Slash as playing the main guitar section throughout the song. Slash only played the ‘intro’ section, whereas Bottrell played the whole song. “I was frustrated by the printed credits on the album for ‘Black or White’,” Bottrell admitted. “Because of the way it worked grammatically, most people thought Slash played guitar on the song. Bad luck for my legacy.”

FILMING THE 'BLACK OR WHITE' SHORT-FILM

In September 1991, at the same time as trying to finish his album, now called Dangerous, Michael began shooting his most ambitious and extravagant music video to date. The 11-minute video for the lead single, ‘Black or White’, cost $4 million to create, making it the second most expensive of all time, behind Madonna’s $5 million effort for ‘Express Yourself'.

‘Thriller’ director John Landis teamed up with Michael once more to work on the video. Landis was initially reluctant to work with Michael again, as he was still owed money for the ‘Thriller’ project, but eventually he was swayed. “Michael called, and he kept coming over to my house, pleading, ‘John, come on, come on’,” Landis recalls. “So finally I said, ‘All right. But I want to be paid weekly’.”

The video kept Michael out of the recording studio for many days over the course of more than a month. On some occasions, when Michael was due on set, he would be busy with other projects; once Landis was told that Michael was doing a commercial for Sony Television, Japan. Director Vince Paterson, who worked with Michael on the ‘Smooth Criminal’ video and choreographed ‘Black or White’, said it was difficult to shoot while the studio work was still ongoing. There were days when work on the video was put on hold so Michael could work on the album. “The album had to take precedence,” Paterson said. “So the video got scrambled. And if Michael was in the studio for eighteen hours, there was no point in then bringing him out to the set and trying to shoot him. He would have been dead, he would have been exhausted, and we would have just had to re-shoot it anyway.”

The huge budget reflected Michael’s desire for extravagance. The brief segment in which he dances with Native Americans in full tribal dress, filmed at Vasquez Rocks north of Los Angeles, took five days to rehearse. A freeway was re-created in Sun Valley for the scene in which he dances with a female partner in the middle of a busy road, and 50 stunt drivers were hired. The Red Square set was constructed on a Culver Studios sound stage. Michael’s friend, eleven-year-old child star Macaulay Culkin, also made a cameo appearance.

At the end of the song, several people of differing races and nationalities, including model Tyra Banks, dance as they morph into one another. The morphing technique had only been used previously in a handful of films, such as Terminator 2. “We’ve pushed this one step further than what has ever been done before,” Jamie Dixon of Pacific Data Images in Los Angeles, which created the visual effects, said. “Michael wanted to put just about everything in the whole universe in this thing.”

When the song finishes, Michael appears as a black panther before morphing into himself and dancing alone in a city back street. He then morphs back into the panther, before the video ends with a specially created scene from The Simpsons, in which Homer tells his son Bart, who is wearing a Michael Jackson t-shirt, to turn off the television.

THE VIDEO PREMIERE

The ‘Black or White’ single was released on November 11, 1991 and shot up to number one on the Billboard 100 in just three weeks, making it the fastest chart topper since The Beatles' 'Get Back" in 1969. It remained at the top of the chart for a total of seven weeks. In the UK, ‘Black or White’ became the first single by an American to go into the chart at number one since 1960, where it stayed for two weeks.

Three days after the single hit the shelves, the ‘Black or White’ video premiered simultaneously in 27 countries amidst unprecedented hype. Michael was so determined to get it right that it was still being edited the night before, nearly three months after shooting began. The networks, including Fox, MTV, Black Entertainment Television (BET) and VH1, had little time to review the product before broadcasting it during its prime time slots.

The response was extraordinary, with an estimated audience of 500 million worldwide, the highest ever for a music video. But the video’s four-minute ending, in which Michael morphs from a black panther into himself before dancing alone in a back street, created much controversy in the days following the premiere. In these dance scenes, Michael simulates masturbation, zips his pants up, destroys the windows of a car and throws a garbage can through a shop front. The networks were besieged with calls from angry parents, and media all over the world covered the controversy. Entertainment Weekly even devoted its cover story to ‘Michael Jackson’s Video Nightmare’.

Michael chose to cut the four-minute scene from subsequent broadcasts, and issued an apology. John Landis says the controversial ending was Michael’s idea. “He wanted it to be even more sexually explicit [than it was],” the director said. Despite the statement, those close to Michael and at least one top Sony executive seemed overjoyed at all the attention. "No story ever got this much play on the news but a war," one member of Michael’s team said a few days after the premiere.

Michael used his bargaining power to convince the networks to refer to him as the King of Pop on screen when premiering the video. By 1989, Michael was perhaps the biggest pop star the world had seen. But while Elvis Presley was dubbed ‘The King’ and Bruce Springsteen ‘The Boss’, Michael had no such nickname. He was desperate for his own moniker, so his publicist Bob Jones came up with ‘the King of Pop, Rock and Soul’. Both the New York Post and the Chicago Sun-Times first used the shortened name ‘King of Pop’ in articles in 1984.

Jones said he had written a speech for his namesake, Quincy, to read when presenting Michael with an award at the Black Radio Exclusive Awards in March 1989, referring to him as the King of Pop, Rock and Soul. But Quincy didn’t use the name, and it was left to Elizabeth Taylor to use in another speech at the Soul Train Awards a month later. Taylor said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the 1989 Heritage Award and Sammy Davis Jr. Award recipient and in my estimation, the true King of Pop, Rock and Soul, Mr Michael Jackson.”

Fast forward to late 1991, and the PR offensive to call Michael the King of Pop had truly started. Fox, MTV and BET received memos shortly before its premieres of ‘Black or White’ directing all on-air personnel to refer to Michael as the King of Pop at least twice a week over the next two weeks. “Michael loved the King of Pop name, just loved it,” his manager Sandy Gallin said. “He became obsessed with it. I found myself negotiating with several people about how many times they would mention the name King of Pop on all sorts of platforms. It was of prime importance to Michael.”

Once news of the memos leaked to Rolling Stone Michael received criticism for ‘self-proclaiming’ himself as the King of Pop, even though media out-lets had used the name before. Regardless, the public took to the name, and its origins soon became irrelevant.

In the days following the ‘Black or White’ premiere, Michael filmed a two-song performance (‘Black or White’ and another song from Dangerous, ‘Will You Be There’) inside Santa Monica’s Barker Hangar for MTV’s 10th Anniversary Special, which was aired later in the month. After filming was completed, producer Joel Gallen only had 24 hours to edit Michael’s performance. “Michael came into the edit room and sat with me for all twenty-four hours,” Gallen recalls. “There was a moment when he wanted a certain edit, and I said, ‘Michael, if we do it that way, your mic will be in your right hand in the first shot and then in your left the next’. And he said, ‘But the children will think it’s magic’.”
(source)


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