He didn’t play instruments, so he wrote every song by singing all the parts to tape. It’s mesmerizing.
This astonishing demo of “Beat It” is making its way around Tumblr thanks to the Michael Jackson fan blog Rhythm of the Tide.
“Beat It” Demo - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZeYw1bm53Y
It’s beautiful all on its own, but it’s also extremely valuable in how it gives us insight into how Jackson wrote and arranged so many hit songs on his own even though he was not particularly proficient at playing instruments.
Here’s Rob Hoffmann, a sound engineer who worked with Jackson, describing the singer’s process:
“One morning Michael came in with a new song he had written overnight. We called in a guitar player, and Michael sang every note of every chord to him. ‘Here’s the first chord first note, second note, third note. Here’s the second chord first note, second note, third note,’ etc., etc. We then witnessed him giving the most heartfelt and profound vocal performance, live in the control room through an SM57.
He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part. Steve Porcaro once told me he witnessed Michael doing that with the string section in the room. Had it all in his head, harmony and everything. Not just little eight bar loop ideas. he would actually sing the entire arrangement into a micro-cassette recorder complete with stops and fills.”
Here’s another a bit from a 2009 GQ profile about this unusual songwriting technique.
Michael has always made melodies in his head, little riffs and beats, but that isn’t the same…. Some of the things Michael hears in his head he exports to another instrument, to the piano (which he plays not well but passably) or to the bass. The melody and a few percussive elements remain with his vocal. The rest he assembles around it. He has his brothers and sisters with him. He conducts. His art will later depend on his ability to stay in touch with that childlike inner instrument, keeping near enough to himself to hear his own melodic promptings. If you’ve listened to toddlers making up songs, the things they invent are often bafflingly catchy and ingenious. They compose to biorhythms somehow.