Michael Jackson: a magpie, not a genius.

I’m sitting in my regular coffee bar, reading the latest John Grisham. It’s about massively important issues – strip mining, public health and workers’ welfare.

But that doesn’t stop my brain becoming alert to the music playing in the background.

I can tell it’s Michael Jackson. But it’s also Horse With No Name – the America song that sounds like Neil Young, but Neil Young with glossy makeup and a permanent wave.

I never rated Michael Jackson except as a singer and performer. Ooh, I can hear the multiple intake of breath from here!

But let me ask you, seriously – without Motown’s Corporation (a quartet of writers formed by Berry Gordy to write Jackson 5 material), the Holland brothers, Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton where would Michael Jackson’s reputation be?

And that’s not to mention Don Black and Walter Scharf who wrote the wonderful Ben, which gave MJ his first solo number one.

It was album five of his solo career before MJ even got one of his own  songs on one of his own albums.

Off The Wall opens with Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. I’d hesitate to call it a song. It uses fives notes, in two repeated patterns, over two chords. That’s not a song; it’s a riff.

What Don’t Stop is, though, is a great track. And that’s down to Ben Wright’s thrilling strings and Quincy Jones’s arrangement and production. All those wonderful string and guitar riffs that stick in your head, the driving rhythm and the superb scoring for strings and brass.

Now before you get too far on your high horse and start sticking pins in my effigy, a little perspective.

Elvis Presley was 21 when he recorded Heartbreak Hotel, the same age Jackson was when he made Off The Wall. And, in a world where singers sang and producers produced, Elvis produced Heartbreak Hotel, as he did most of his records from there on. And he did it with musical giants such as Floyd Cramer and Chet Atkins in the room.

If you want to use phrases like ‘revolutionary’ and ‘ground-breaking’ (as have been used about MJ), let’s be sure we give them full meaning. What Elvis did with Hotel, and Blue Suede Shoes, and Teddy Bear, and Don’t Be Cruel, and Paralyzed – that was revolutionary. With only a couple of years studio experience under his belt, Elvis Presley turned the system and popular music on its head.

Mind you, I’ll grant you that Elvis never wrote a song that was worth a damn. So let’s look at another 21 year old and what he’d achieved by the age of consent.

Paul McCartney was born in 1942. Before his 22nd birthday he had recorded three albums with the Beatles, all but 13 of the songs written by him and John Lennon. They’d topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and – like Elvis before them – turned the music world upside down.

And every one of those chart toppers, and their B-sides, were written by McCartney and Lennon. In the next six years they wound up the gold standard to heights that have never been equalled, experimenting, pushing boundaries, testing their own abilities, testing their own sanity, and pushing everyone around them to previously unimagined heights of creativity and achievement.

Now – Michael Jackson.

Well, he’d been performing since he was six years old. He was an absurdly talented entertainer and right from the off – when he sang lead on I Want You Back at the age of 12 – you were clearly listening to a natural born singer.

He had his first solo release at the age of 13 and continued to make albums with his brothers.

But it’s eight years, five solo albums and 10 group albums before he gets to record one of his own songs.

You have to ask yourself: was MJ totally unambitious; or was he just a really slow learner?

Or was it the case, as I believe, that he just didn’t write terribly good songs?

Let’s not forget that his Motown stablemate, Stevie Wonder, was 15 when he cowrote his second international chart record, Uptight. He also co-wrote I Was Made To Love Her at the age of 17. Age 21, he wrote the entirety of his Where I’m Coming From album with Syreeta Wright. We know that Stevie had to fight all the way for artistic control with Motown. But he did fight, and he did win.

Go and listen to Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer. Did Michael Jackson ever in his life write such a gorgeous, technically accomplished song?

And he also never managed a ‘classic period’ such as Wonder’s, which started with Music Of My Mind (every song by Wonder, one co-write with Syreeta), continued with Talking Book and ended, arguably, seven years and six albums later with The Secret Life Of Plants. During this period, Wonder wrote, arranged and produced everything – with some help, but still …

Can anyone argue that Michael Jackson really ever did anything to match that? While you rage and fulminate, let’s talk about his dancing.

Fact: Michael Jackson was a great dancer. Really? If so, then what were Bill Robinson, Pearl Primus, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly? There aren’t the superlatives to cover the distance between MJ and their talent.

And, back to Elvis, who personally choreographed the iconic Jailhouse Rock sequence in the film of the same name. Look at that sequence again and tell me it wasn’t the prototype for every classic pop and rock posture.

MJ had about six moves, none of which he invented. Even ‘the moonwalk’ wasn’t his. Watch this clip if you don’t believe me. There’s Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, Cab Calloway, Bill Bailey and a bunch of others, some of whom you will recognise.

Maybe you’ve never seen some of these entertainers; but that doesn’t mean MJ hadn’t. He knew the move existed. He asked dancer Jeffrey Daniels to teach him how to do it.

So my point is, Michael Jackson was a great entertainer. But he was also vastly overrated as a musical artist, as a songwriter and as a dancer. He had a lot of help, and even by the time of Thriller he wasn’t able to fill an album with his own songs. Four songs out of the nine are by MJ. Thriller itself was written by Rod Temperton.

Thriller was released three years after Off The Wall; Bad came nearly five years after Thriller. That’s three albums in eight years. Stevie Wonder managed six classic albums in seven years, all self-written and co-produced.

Which brings me back to my coffee shop and this song that’s nagging in my head. Turns out it’s called A Place With No Name.

Horse With No Name/Place With No Name. I swear it’s even in the same key. By the stuff you leave on the shelf shall you be judged. It is beyond unoriginal, shamelessly filched and completely beneath a supposedly great artist.

And I find another song on the same album called Slave To The Rhythm. But it’s not the Grace Jones song. (I’m gonna write a song called Heartbreak Hotel – why not?!)

He was a magpie, Michael Jackson. He collected other people’s dance moves; other peoples riffs and song titles; he feathered his nest with great songwriters; and with Quincy Jones and, frequently, Rod Temperton. And only when this team had fed, raised and trained a new song was it allowed to leave the nest. At which point, MJ got all the credit.

So let’s celebrate a great entertainer and performer. But let’s cut down a little on the ‘genius’ side of things. And just to illustrate my point about how little of a ‘song’ there is in Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, have a look at this.

 

Cool? Or uncool? Oh, away with ye and get a life.

Do we really listen to certain music because we think the band or the singer is ‘cool’? I do hope not.

We certainly weren’t giving the matter any thought at as we luxuriated in the riches of 60s pop that rained down on us after the success of Love Me Do and Please Please Me.

The whole ‘were you Beatles or were you Stones’ question was a post-rationalisation by NME writers more interested in their own philosophical musings than the music itself.

I was 13 when I heard Love Me Do, 14 when Please Please Me was released three months later.

It was a momentous time for me. Between the release of those two records, just before my fourteenth birthday,  my mother had given my sister and I a carrier bag each – containing underwear and pyjamas – and told us to go to a friend’s house down the road.

And that was the last we saw of the house we had lived in for seven years with a stepfather who had beaten and bullied us. We had been, largely, cowed into submission.

But in my fourteenth year, I had grown five inches and with increased height had come physical strength. I used the height and the strength to fight back. Oddly, it was that – me fighting back – that made my mother decide it was time to go.

Three days later, pathetic carrier bags in hand – all we had left of our previous lives – we were back at my grandfather’s house, where we had lived for six years prior to this disastrous marriage.

Back to me sharing a bed with Uncle Jack; back to one tap, cold water only, in the scullery; back to the toilet out in the back yard; back to bare floorboards and such cold that ice would form on the inside of the windows.

Do you remember that winter? January 1963 was the coldest of the 20th century; the coldest recorded for 150 years. But I was comfortable with my background and the emergence of The Beatles – touted at first as working class lads from Liverpool – could not have been better timed.

These four guys were like me. If they could do it, so could I.

Love Me Do shone through the dross of pretty young Americans called Frankie and Bobby and Ricky.

Mind you, the name – Beatles; that sounded stupid. But, you know, we got used to it.

And then, as the snow took hold and yesterday’s Daily Sketch made do as toilet paper in the iced up backyard loo, Please Please Me came out like the sun.

But even that was eclipsed nine weeks later by the first album.

The Please Please Me album was a revelation. Now we began to realise – these guys are writing their own songs!

But they were also covering songs by people we’d never heard of.

There was the sophistication of Arthur Alexander’s Anna (my personal favourite), the sweet pop soul of Baby It’s You (part-written by Burt Bacharach), the throat-tearing excitement of Twist And Shout (a Motown classic before we knew about Motown).

And standing alongside these ‘professional songs’ were the McCartney-Lennon songs – every bit as good, making excuses to no-one.

And by the way, if you think I got that wrong, check out the back cover of the album sleeve. McCartney-Lennon was the order and stayed so until She Loves You (where it reverted to Lennon-McCartney, as it had been on Love Me Do).

We were now in a different world, and things started moving at a speed that only 14-year-olds could keep up with. In the middle of 1963, along came The Rolling Stones.

Their cover of Chuck Berry’s Come On didn’t sound like a cover (we barely knew who Chuck Berry was at the time; we found out pretty fast); Come On sounded like The Beatles on speed (we didn’t know what speed was……etc).

Which was not altogether a bad thing, because their follow up single was a Lennon-McCartney cover. Jagger and Richards were in the room and watched John and Paul ‘knock out’ I Wanna Be Your Man in 15 minutes. That, and a lot of pressure from their manager Andrew Loog Oldham, persuaded the two Stones they should give this songwriting lark a crack.

Their first attempt was As Tears Go By, a top 10 hit for Marianne Faithfull in June 1964. The Stones themselves took another seven months to ‘dare’ (according to Keith Richards) to release one of their own songs as a single. The Last Time made the top spot, and even cracked the US top 10 for them.

But look at the speed of all this. Between October 1962 and February 1965 – 29 months – the world had been stood on its head. Apart from The Beatles and The Stones, we had The Hollies, Billy J Kramer, Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Gerry & The Pacemakers.

Not to mention Bob Dylan.

I was studying Grade 7 piano. I refused to attend any more lessons. I told my mother I wanted a guitar. In early 1964, having learned to play three chords in three different keys, I formed my first band.

So do you think, honestly, we had time to sit around asking ourselves, “Is this cool?”

It just was. Bloody cool. And it kept getting cooler. We weren’t bothered whether The Stones were cooler than The Beatles; whether we should be listening to Sandie Shaw; whether Freddie & The Dreamers were just bloody embarrassing.

We understood quality though. We knew Dusty Springfield was a touch above. And we understood that sooner or later we would have to take Bob Dylan seriously. And that it was all over for Elvis.

But we also knew, and you can’t post-rationalise this, that The Beatles were the vanguard, the leaders and the high water mark.

They went from Beatles For Sale to Rubber Soul to Revolver in barely 18 months. They went from Love Me Do to Tomorrow Never Knows in three and a half years.

Now that is cool.

But it doesn’t take anything away from The Stones, who made live their arena. After following The Beatles down the road to psychedelia – a blind alley for The Stones – they put their heads back on straight, recorded Beggar’s Banquet and slowly established themselves as the world’s biggest concert draw. They also, during the next ten years, recorded seven albums replete with stadium anthems that have kept them going for another 40 years.

Which is also cool.

So – all I’m saying – don’t ask again. We didn’t have to take sides. It was all just bloody wonderful. And it still is.

And if you don’t believe me, believe this – Mick Jagger less than a year from his 70th birthday; The Stones celebrating 50 years, and still delivering.

From Dylan to The Sugababes: art and the production line

Did you ever imagine there would be song factories? Poor saps writing in teams and dreaming of getting one of their lines on a big hit, so they can share in the writing royalties?

Cold as this sounds, the results can be phenomenal. Xenomania, for instance, has produced 20 top 10 hits for Girls Aloud alone; others for Sugababes, Kylie Minogue and The Saturdays.

These factories model themselves on the old Motown concept, including having a house band ready to provide backing tracks for new material.

Motown, in turn, modelled itself on New York’s Brill Building, where songwriters like Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Carole King, Leiber & Stoller and Neil Diamond banged away at pianos all day turning out hit after hit.

Many of them turned out to be pop classics. The factory approach can work artistically as well as commercially.

At the other end of the spectrum, Bob Dylan would sit at a typewriter and hammer out words for hours on end. His ‘stream of consciousness’ was carefully crafted. Lennon and McCartney used to bunk off school and sit with their guitars, trading ideas. Less than a song a day was considered a wasted day.

Others, schooled in the art of composition, will go about it in a more formal way. My old music partner Pete Zorn can notate a song (write it down, to you and me) like the old composers. My son Noel taught himself composition and approaches it all with a Frank Zappa-like contempt for the factory approach. But he maintains a sense of wonder for the occasional dazzling pop record, the most recent of which was Happy, by Pharrell Williams.

There’s still room, though, for the old instinctive method. The pop star who lives in my house writes her own songs. She is also keenly sought out by producers who not only want some of her writing magic – which she can produce seemingly at will in the studio – they also want her voice on their tracks. She’s 16 and completely unschooled in music theory or technique.

It’s all a long cry from the notion of some tortured artist with a guitar, pouring his or her feelings onto the page – James Taylor say, or Joni Mitchell. That used to be my model. Sit at the piano until inspiration hit.

But if you open your mind, songs can come at you in surprising ways. This week’s example emerged from a very different process.

It started with an exhibition of paintings by the artist Veronique Maria.

I know nothing about visual art, so my response to paintings is visceral and subjective. Mondrian, Pollock and Rothko affect me in ways I don’t understand, but the feelings they provoke are deep and profound.

Veronique’s series of paintings under the heading Orogeny set me back on my heels, took my breath away. The exhibition walk-through included a video in which the artist explained the process that went on in her head as she created these works.

I was so struck by the poetic nature of her words that I asked if I could put them in a song. She didn’t hesitate to say yes. Not because she was flattered, nor even much cared, but simply, she said, “They’re out there” (the words) “so they’re no longer mine.” I found this an extraordinarily generous response.

The first two verses of this song, then, are Veronique’s words, pretty much as spoken in the video (link below).

The third verse is me marvelling at the way “she works paint on a canvas“. As you watch the video you will see new universes appear. “She surrenders to the unknown“, a state of mind I can only dream of.

As luck would have it, about two years before I was inspired by Veronique Maria, I had been doodling on the guitar and fallen on a rather lovely picking pattern, which I quickly recorded and then filed away.

I wrestled with Veronique’s words for some time, and then one day I found this forgotten guitar pattern tucked away on my computer and I instantly knew the two belonged together.

So that’s how this particular song came into being.

It’s fair to say that Veronique, having been so insouciant about her words being “out there” reacted quite differently when she heard them in this new context. She finds it, she says, “strange”, partly because she hadn’t expected me to quote her word for word. But also, oddly, she sees no connection between her work, her intentions, and my use of her words. Which, for me, makes it a more generous act on her part to let me go ahead.

Click here to see the interview and film that inspired this song. The film maker is Mark Birbeck.

At the beginning of 2014, Veronique put up a new video work, and threw out a challenge – which I took up – to write a soundtrack for it. So this week, you get two of my recordings for the price of one, and you get to look at two sides of Veronique Maria – the painter and the video artist.

I’ve never done anything like this before. The soundtrack piece is ‘ambient’. It follows the film, and works hard not to be intrusive, but at the same time attempts to be interesting enough to enhance your enjoyment of the film. You be the judge.

Watch the video here, particularly if you’re stressed. The combination of images and music is something like meditating.