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Thriller vs Let’s Dance: The time Michael Jackson went head to head with David Bowie

There’s a brand new myth, sorry, theory, doing the rounds lately. Apparently, the song that was Number 1 on your 14th birthday is the one that defines your entire life. Why? I’m not entirely sure, but someone on the internet said it does, so hey, let’s roll with it.

What was the single topping the American Billboard Hot 100 on 26th June, 1983, four days before a certain Girls Aloud vocalist named Cheryl was born? Well, it was that Irene Cara post-disco soundtrack thing, Flashdance…What A Feeling. Of course, you don’t need me to remind you that Giorgio Moroder had produced better work.

What about in the country of my birth, the ‘United’ Kingdom? Well, that musical honour went to that limpid radio behemoth, the stalker’s very own “our tune”, Every Breath You Take by The Police, which was the year’s biggest seller in the US. Hmm, the bitter sting of tears indeed. It’s decent, but how about I put through a quick call Down Under to my newly adopted homeland, Australia, to see if they have anything better? I knew the Aussies wouldn’t let me down because reigning supreme on the incongruously titled Kent Music Report for a whopping six long weeks, from May through to July 1983, was Total Eclipse Of The Heart, by the queen of poodle perms, Bonnie Tyler.

Epic, dramatic, volcanic and lots of other words ending in ‘ic’ too, it also happened to be the fifth largest selling single in Britain that year, just behind a certain song called Let’s Dance.

I don’t mind telling you, I absolutely lurve its Wagnerian-like onslaught of sound and emotion, written and volcanically produced by Meatloaf’s mate Jim Steinman. One could almost call it an aria. 

But we’re tip-toeing around a little, as none of this would give you a clue as to who the real music kings and queens of that year were. In 1983, the biggest pop stars on the planet were two tall slim men who pioneered presenting pop music as spectacle: an Englishman and an American, both of ill-defined sexuality who had their first hits way back in the summer of ’69*.

I am of course talking about David Bowie and Michael Jackson, who would have turned 60 today.

1983 would be the year that would destroy both of them, though in very different ways. Let’s Dance, the Dame’s 15th studio album and the first under his megabucks new contract with EMI, was released that April.

Signing his life away with EMI America: Carlyle Hotel, NYC, 27 January 1983

Let’s Dance was such a roaring success that Bowie was second only to Michael Jackson on the hype front, but musically, he was about on par with the gloved one: somewhat treading water artistically but shifting units like never before through applied business theory. Both albums soon became the biggest of their careers.

Once the darling of the music intelligentsia, the pedestrian, lightweight Let’s Dance but fabulously funky gave the chameleonic showman huge hits – largely thanks to the rather obvious arrangements and production of Chic mastermind, Nile Rodgers – but in the process it utterly obliterated his creativity and credibility with the rock critics whose praise he so coveted. The Dame spent the rest of his career, in the words of one of his future employees, “trying to get it back.”

George Michael pretty much summed it up best, telling me in an interview in 2007, “I do like Let’s Dance but that kind of was the beginning of the end of the Bowie we knew, wasn’t it?”

With the benefit of hindsight, 1983 was almost certainly the beginning of the end of Michael Jackson. Thriller had been quietly sneaked out at the last week of November 1982 – a bizarre time of year to release anything other than a Christmas song or the obligatory Greatest Hits stocking filler – but after the success of Billie Jean and that appearance at Motown 25 were he debuted his version of the Moonwalk, the album exploded into the stratosphere, eventually becoming the world’s best-selling LP.

With more than a hint of mayhem, Jackson’s sanity started to ebb away.

Despite numerous lyrical protestations to the contrary, Bowie’s relationship with sanity could sometimes be a little tenuous. This most brilliantly schizophrenic of rock gods opted to junk his revered art-rock status, decided he wanted hits – big, surefire smashes that would get him heard on American radio, something that often eluded his previous work – and thanks to Rodgers by god he got them. I think you’ll know this one.

Let’s Dance in both short form and long-player status spent three weeks apiece atop the British chart (both ending the year-end charts as the fourth biggest-selling album and single of 1983), though it was the LP that kept Michael Jackson’s Thriller in its place at No.2 the entire time.

MJ was something of an occasional admirer of David’s, having attended one of Bowie’s famed Diamond Dogs shows in Los Angeles in 1974, accompanying his Jackson 5 brothers and Diana Ross. Nine years later, it couldn’t have escaped Michael’s notice that when Bowie staged a press conference at Claridges to announce Let’s Dance and the attendant Serious Moonlight tour, he let slip to the BBC that he was planning a little something that hadn’t been attempted before.

Bowie understood the power of music videos long before MTV existed.

Looking tanned and healthy (he’d just flown in from Sydney) he told Newsnight’s Robin Denselow that the promotional music video was “fast becoming the new school of filmmaking,” one that, thanks largely to MTV’s runaway success in the US, “puts its smack over in four minutes. It’s a magic world when you can create that little world and portray its environment and the characters in it.” Then he let slip his grand project that, naturally made the editorials the next day: “But now I want to go into something a little more ambitious, maybe something around 30 minutes… 25 minutes would do.”

In a radio phone-in a month later, The Dame expanded on his plans, making one of his trademark prescient predictions: “The idea of just trying to sell the song will be replaced with a far more open idea of what you can do, content-wise, with a video than just interpret the song.”

Little did he know, but Bowie had inadvertently done Michael Jackson a monumental favour. Historic even. The Serious Moonlight jolly took up the last eight months of ’83, giving him no opportunity to put his plan into practice. The Thin White Duke had to wait until his next album, 1984’s Tonight, before he could realise those electric dreams.

By that time, MJ had snatched Major Tom’s axe and broken that ground… nay, he absolutely smashed it. The film accompanying Thriller’s B movie of a title track, issued that November, was the first long-form music video: not exactly half an hour but a 14-minute extravaganza that was the most expensive music video ever made at the time, and one of the most talked about, iconic promos in music history.

He got a turned up nose: Super freak artwork by Butcher Billy

Bowie must have been pig sick. A restless, mercurial spirit, he revelled in his exalted status as pop’s most forward-looking artist. Never in his wildest nightmares did he ever imagine another mere pop singer would have the temerity and pioneering nous to beat him at his own game.

The short film Jazzin’ For Blue Jean was released 10 months later and went on to win a Grammy for Best Music Video, which, incredibly, proved to be the only competitive Grammy Award Bowie won during his lifetime.

It took until the death of The Dame for the Academy to realise the error of their ways, and David posthumously won four Grammies for his final album, 2016’s Blackstar.

There was something else Bowie said that had a profound effect on Jackson’s popularity. MTV had launched to great fanfare in August 1981, but by 1983 the cable channel was under fire for its lack of screen time for prominent black musicians’ videos. Prince’s dance anthem 1999 was notably absent, as was Rick James’ hit Super Freak, and Motown’s funk-soul brother responded by publicly called the channel “racist” in an interview with Rolling Stone.

MTV, thinking it was a ‘rock station’, even refused to play Michael Jackson at first, with the cinematic Billie Jean clip usually being reserved for a handful of late night graveyard slots when there were less white viewers to frighten.

Lest we forget this was a concept visual, expertly directed by Steve Barron (who’d go on to direct Bowie’s Underground in 1986) that cost considerably more than average, which at that time was in the $8,000 to $20,000 range. Estimates are that the label spent $60,000 to $75,000 on it. Here’s Barron, taken from his 2014 memoir Egg n Chips & Billie Jean: a Trip Through the Eighties.

A black blazered Steve Barron on the set of MJ’s Billie Jean, Hollywood, February 1983

“All I remember was that, about two weeks later, I heard that MTV weren’t going to play Bille Jean. They said it’s not their audience. And then I heard, and I’ve heard many stories, that CBS phoned MTV absolutely furious: ‘How can this massive hit pop record, with a massive video, and a great artist not be your audience. Who is your audience?’ They said they represented middle America. I don’t think white or black was ever used. MTV were in their early stage. They didn’t know who they were, didn’t know what they’d become, and they certainly didn’t know that Michael Jackson was going to become MTV. They were fighting against the thing that built them into the empire they became.’”

Susan Blond, then an executive at MJ’s American record label, Epic, picks up the story: “I brought this amazing video to MTV, and they said, basically, “This doesn’t fit onto our network.” I first met Michael when he was a kid, and he was obsessed with the Osmonds—they were getting more coverage because Michael was black. This had been a major thing with Michael—his whole life, he had been excluded from the media because he was black. 

“We’re a rock station, we don’t play black music” was the response Walter Yetnikoff, CBS Records President, remembers MTV’s co-founder Bob Pittman telling him, insisting the station would be sticking to his format philosophy: “You cant go too far into black music or country music or you’ll alienate your target audience, which is 85 per cent interested in rock.” The demographically and geographically defined cable viewers of the network were white males in the suburbs and rural areas. Shamone motherfucker then.

David Bowie was in a state of shock to learn from his collaborator Nile Rodgers that “white radio” and “white television” wasn’t particularly welcoming to “black music.” On 27 January 1983, VJ Mark Goodman had just about completed an on-air interview with Bowie at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, where just hours earlier the singer had signed his new record deal with EMI accompanied by a few close confidantes and the world’s press.

Suddenly, the presenter found the roles reversed. The Thin White Dame, who would see all three of his music promos – Let’s Dance, China Girl, Modern Love – on heavy rotation that year, peppered the startled Goodman with questions, confronting him over the channel’s refusal to play videos by black acts: “I’m just floored by the fact that there’s so few black artists featured on it,” the boy from Brixton told him. “Why is that?” 

The VJ, who merely introduced the clips and announced concert dates, explained: “We want to play artists that seem to be doing music that fits into what we want to play for MTV. The company is thinking in terms of narrowcasting.”

This subject of racial representation was a subject matter close to Bowie’s heart. He stood his ground, slightly earnestly but with the terrible politeness he could affect at the drop of a homburg. “There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos that I’m surprised aren’t used on MTV.”

Goodman, placed in the uncomfortable position of defending a format totally beyond his control, echoed the company’s demographic policy:

“We have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate, but also Poughkeepsie or the Midwest. Pick some town in the Midwest which would be scared to death by Prince, which we’re playing, or a string of other black faces, or black music. We have to play the music we think an entire country is going to like, and certainly were a rock ’n’ roll station now.”

The grilling got hotter. Bowie pressed on: “Don’t you think it’s a frightening predicament to be in?”

The intimidated VJ resorted to the predictable radio analogy, “Yeah, but less so here than in radio.” 

Quick as a flash, The Dame pounced on the reply: “Don’t say, ‘Well, it’s not me, it’s them. Is it not possible that it should be a conviction of the station and of other radio stations to be fair. Should it not be a challenge to try and make the media far more integrated?” 

Bowie’s choice of language and demeanour was an absolute masterclass in how to use privilege well. Being a white celebrity means that he didn’t have to shout to be heard. Being a white musician meant that he had an advantage when it came to remaining genuinely calm in these sorts of debates, because it’s not personal to him, and rather than treating that fact as a reason to abandon calmness, he treats it as an opportunity.

Finally, being white at all means he has a better chance of being perceived as calm. I don’t think a black person could have said all that, in precisely that tone, without being pejoratively accused of being “angry.” So, David just uses the power he has to pull an awkward fact into the light and sit with it until it becomes terribly uncomfortable, deftly walking the line of politeness without ever letting MTV off the hook. It’s beautiful, and worth learning from.

Leaving Bowie’s hotel suite, Goodman may have had second thoughts about meeting an idol. The presenter later said the exchange made him feel “like an idiot.” He recalled their meeting for the 2013 book VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave:

I said, “I have some tough questions for you, David — I hope you’re ready.” And he said, “Ha, great, because at the end I’d like to ask you some punishing questions as well.”

Bowie leaving the Carlyle Hotel on 27 January, 1983. Later that night he take some of the EMI execs to see Tina Turner‘s show at The Ritz, a deed which resulted in her being signed to their subsidiary Capitol

In all fairness, Goodman was in an impossible position. Had he agreed with the star it would become a matter of disloyalty. Status-wise he was no match for an international superstar who’s just signed one of the biggest recording contracts in history. Offending David Bowie was not the thing to do.

The heat was building on MTV’s corporate philosophy and narrow-minded narrowcasting. Bowie, who had an admirable history of frequent fights against injustice, had ripped and embarrassed the network publicly. In a subsequent interview with Penthouse magazine he made his point more explicit, blasting the channel and calling out their musical apartheid as “extraordinarily blatant.” CBS were said to be considering pulling all their artists’ videos. Reportedly, the television programme Entertainment Tonight was planning a segment on the inflammatory debate.

Belatedly, the Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards joined in the fray: “The first thing I said after I watched a bit of MTV, you’re lucky to see one black every two hours, if that. When you consider the contribution black people have made to American music, it’s disgraceful; it’s a little bit one sided.” MTV would take note of these observations. And guess what? The rhythm of the tide was turning, and within a month of Bowie’s divine intervention, Michael Jackson, Prince and other non-rock acts suddenly found themselves part of mainstream programming. 

Meanwhile CBS were gearing up to equal the success of  Off The Wall, MJ’s eight-million selling album from 1979. Produced by Quincy Jones over a prolonged period of time with some of Los Angeles’ top session people, the nine-cut Thriller contained a dire duet with Paul McCartney (The Girl Is Mine), Eddie Van Halen-picking high powered axe solos (Beat It), and a ghoulish Vincent Price narrative in the title song. Several Jackson biographers estimate the studio costs surpassed a whopping $500,000. CBS/Epic had a hefty commitment to the effort, going in.

Off The Wall had been a brilliantly successful multiplatinum crossover record, the biggest selling LP by a black artist to date. If Thriller was to parallel or transcend this, its singles had to reach not just the MTV audience but the AOR and MOR audience too, hence the collaborations with Macca and Van Halen. They needn’t have worried. Sales of the album continued to build throughout 1983, eclipsing Let’s Dance and soon surpassing every long-playing record ever released.

The incendiary fusion with axe monster Eddie Van Halen on Beat It certainly made an impression on David Bowie. In fact, in an interview a decade later he tried to take credit for its very existence, claiming that it was inspired by his use of blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan on Let’s Dance.

”If one compares what was happening at the time in the musical scene, [Let’s Dance] was, of its nature, a fairly innovative album to combine funk and raw blues rock guitar. It was, for instance, before Thriller, and I’m sure gave Michael a spark of an idea of putting lead guitar on a funk track for him. Which we know did frightfully well. Damn!”

Whereas Bowie had certainly been an influence in other areas, in this instance he was merely bullshitting, conveniently forgetting Beat It was first released on Thriller in November of 1982, when the recording of his own album had barely even begun. Thought it‘s certainly true that Let’s Dance is much closer in spirit to Thriller than the coiffured new wave of many of Bowie‘s children at the time. Both albums are giant pop hits combining white rock and black soul in a carefully crafted manner to reach the largest possible audience. The title itself of Let’s Dance points away from the artiness, cleverness, and darkness of Bowie’s 1970s work, largely because it was to appeal to the great big middle consensus of the 1980s; to offend no one and stir no controversy.

Still, both albums had their moments. I suppose the worst thing about Thriller is that, sparring cheesefests with the wacky thumbs aloft one aside, the 45s were by far the best that it had to offer. The so-called deep cuts were less thriller, more filler. Yes, all two of them. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh, but at least Thriller had two or three stone-cold classics: the derivative, but airtight Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, and, of course, that one about Billie Jean. I’ve always had a soft spot for that Pretty Young Thing too, though of course the subject matter now sounds decidedly dodgy in light of the allegations that were to follow.

We’ll touch on those and the tricky transition from Michael Jackson the entertainer to Wacko Jacko the megalomaniac monster in part two sometime after now.

Bowie, Bette Midler, MJ, Georganne LaPiere, her sister Cher & handsome man after a Serious Moonlight show at the Los Angeles Forum, August 1983. 35 years on, the tour will be commemorated with the release of its first live album in October as part of the Bowie box set Loving The Alien

Steve Pafford

*OK, technically, the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back was first released on 7 October 1969 in the US which makes it fall, but hey, allow me some artistic licence pur-lease

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