“The Wiz” soundtrack was just the beginning for Jones, Swedien and Jackson. Jones had big plans for Jackson, and they did not involve maintaining his image as this sweet, innocent little boy.
“I think Quincy’s vision for Michael was to first of all, you know, if you listen to the Jackson 5 records, Michael is always this cute little kid who could really sing and everything,” says Swedien, “but Quincy wanted to make that cute little kid into a man because Off The Wall — even The Wiz, even “Ease On Down The Road” — was Michael’s coming-of-age statement. And it was Quincy’s desire to make that happen.”
The transformation was necessary, and Off The Wall, this wonderful mélange of athletic funk, smart pop and dreamy soul, with ballads awash in gorgeously arranged strings and clean disco, sent shockwaves through the music world.
Michael Jackson was a force to be reckoned with who took his work very seriously.
“I didn’t really know what to expect [of Off The Wall],” says Swedien, whose experiences with Jackson are collected in the new book “In The Studio with Michael Jackson.” “Although I had worked with Michael on ‘The Wiz,’ if you look at the song list of Off The Wall, it’s kind of interesting. If you consider, from songs like ‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough’ to ‘She’s Out Of My Life,’ for instance. Think of the range of emotions. And both Quincy and I realized when Michael sang ‘She’s Out of My Life,’ he had never experienced that emotion — only in his imagination. And I remember recording those vocals … after every vocal Michael would be in tears. And we didn’t do that many … well, we never did do many takes with Michael, but after ‘She’s Out Of My Life, the last take we did of that, he was sobbing and everything. He just left the studio, got in his car and went home.”
Chock full of hits, “Don’t Stop ’Till You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” were two of the biggest.
“Well, ‘Rock With You and ‘Don’t Stop …’ are quite different,” says Swedien. ‘Don’t Stop …’ is a Michael song and ‘Rock With You’ is a Rod Temperton song. And they are very, very different. But they’re equally powerful. And if you think of ‘Rock With You’ and the harmonies, holy cow … and the background. Michael sang every one of those harmonies. Every one. There’s no other voice on those recordings.”
As big as Off The Wall was — with its four Top Ten hits, including two #1s — nothing could have prepared them for the massive success of 1982’s Thriller, the biggest-selling album of all time.
“Well, we knew we had something pretty good,” says Swedien, who worked as the engineer on every Michael Jackson solo album. “But it’s hard to know … it was impossible to know it would be that good.”
By the time Thriller was released, three years had passed since Off The Wall. The world had no idea what Jackson had in store, as everything that was great about Off The Wall was injected with steroids. It rocked harder. The funk was meaner and tougher, and the ballads were even more sweeping.
But it didn’t come easy. Swedien recalls there being problems with the initial mastering.
“I do remember worrying about the mastering a lot because when we finished Thriller, it was actually quite long,” says Swedien. “And Michael is a nut about the sound that comes off the disc. And you can’t … the release, the major release medium of the time was the LP. And you can’t have that volume and put it on at that length or you’re going to … the length will control the amount of volume, and what we did was we ended up editing and cutting down the length of time on that first side so that we could put more level on the record.”
More level was exactly what was needed, but Michael was reluctant to change things.
“I’d been to Bernie Grundman’s to master Thriller. And I brought it back to Westlake Studio, and we were all there, including some of the label people to listen to it. And oh, the label people were just salivating over this thing and everything.”
Little did they know what was going on behind the scenes.
“I remember the first side, which had all the prime cuts on it, was 28 minutes,” says Swedien. “And you can’t do that, just can’t be done. You can’t have all that time on a record and still put the level on it to be competitive in the industry. And it was so noticeable … and this shows you how perceptive Michael is. While we were listening and the people from Epic were there and everything, by the time the first side was almost through, Michael snuck out of the studio and went across the hall to the other studio, which was empty at the time. And we didn’t know what was going on.
“So Quincy and I looked at each other, and we also snuck out and went over to the other studio, and there was Michael in the corner sobbing, in tears because the sound was not right. And all I could think to say was, ‘Okay, you guys, Quincy and Michael, I told you so.’ I’d been fighting these edits all along, trying to get them to cut down on the songs. So what happened was that Quincy said, ‘Okay, we’re going to go back in the studio for eight days. We’re going to cut these things down and get some level on this record.’”
And the rest is history. Thriller sold 40 million copies in its first run. Seven of its nine cuts reached the Top 10, including “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” and the title track. And, of course, Michael would take advantage of the potential of a brand-new medium, that being MTV, to grow his audience exponentially.
More hit albums would follow, including Thriller’s successor, Bad. So would tabloid scandals, tales of very odd behavior, physical changes and legal troubles, and his popularity waned.
The biggest symbol of that fall was when Nirvana’s Nevermind knocked Dangerous, Michael’s much-ballyhooed 1991 comeback album, off the top of the album charts in 1992.
All of it would leave Jackson a broken man, according to Gamble, who had known the Jacksons even before he began working with them, having hosted the young boys in his home in Philadelphia whenever the Jackson 5 played the City of Brotherly Love.
Jackson, of course, died in late June. Swedien, like many of Jackson’s closest friends and co-workers, chooses to remember a different Jackson.
“Not only a monumental talent, but he was such fun to be with and so polite and nice,” says Swedien. “The world doesn’t know the real Michael. That guy up on the screen there that they talk so bad about, I don’t know who that is. I’ve never met him.”