Joe Stile | BASSic
Watch the throne
Published: Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 16, 2012 08:10
September saw the release of “Bad 25,” a 25th-anniversary edition of Michael Jackson’s classic album. The re-release included many demos that listeners can hear in their entirety for the first time, including Jackson’s “Al Capone.”
Song demos are a tricky thing to judge. They are meant to be a template for how the song will eventually sound and are not really made with the intention of ever being released as they are. This explains why on “Al Capone” Jackson’s vocals are sometimes hard to understand and also why the verses don’t smoothly transition into the chorus.
We can only guess if Jackson would have altered the instrumentation or added a verse if he had decided to continue with the track. It’s also hard to tell how close he was to finishing “Al Capone” — was the song something Jackson messed around with for a few hours in the studio before lunch? Or was it just barely left on the cutting room floor? Despite this uncertainty and the song’s incompleteness, numerous factors make “Al Capone” a compelling listen and a good conversation starter.
It’s immediately apparent that “Al Capone” was the blueprint for Jackson’s immortal “Smooth Criminal,” except Jackson sings the “Annie, are you okay?” line of “Smooth Criminal” as, “I should have told her, nobody should be treated this way” on the demo. He even uses the same gorgeous, infectious falsetto. Still, the lyrical alteration on “Criminal” is a vast improvement over the demo’s lyrics.
The repetition of “Are you okay?” makes it sound as if there is no possible way that Annie could actually be, well, okay. Jackson’s high-pitched inquiries about her well-being also hint that she must be badly injured. The repetition of the line implies that he isn’t getting an answer from her, which suggests that she is unconscious or unable to answer. Again, this lets the listener know that she is grave danger. While the “Should have told her” line is catchy, it doesn’t have that same kind of dramatic punch.
It’s unsurprising that Jackson would make such great improvements on the outlines left from the discarded “Al Capone” demo. Jackson was an absolute perfectionist. It is rumored that Jackson made literally hundreds of demos before finishing the 11 tracks that would make up “Bad” (1987). That kind of dedication and drive is something few people ever bring to their work. Jackson desperately wanted “Bad” to outsell his previous album, “Thriller” (1982), which was the top-selling album of all time. He considered “Bad” a commercial failure, even after it became the fifth best-selling album of all time. This proves just how big Jackson was and how much hype surrounded him, that he could feel let down even after selling tens of millions of records.
“Al Capone” has extremely aggressive verses that show how easily Jackson can not only command a track but also play a character. On the demo, he is supposed to be a tough guy going after a nefarious underworld figure. He quickly projects this machismo. Jackson was the King of Pop because he was one of the world’s greatest performers. This showmanship added immensely to his ability to insert drama and depth into whatever he was singing about.
Most people have conflicting feelings toward Michael Jackson when they examine the different aspects of his complex life. Personal preference aside, it’s hard to deny his greatness as an artist. “Al Capone” and the other recently released demos on “Bad 25” give a brief glimpse into his process and show off the man behind the curtain.
Joe Stile is a senior majoring in political science. He can be reached at Joseph.Stile@tufts.edu.