596. ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’, by Michael Jackson with Siedah Garrett

It would make a good pub quiz question: what was Michael Jackson’s only UK #1 single to be released from ‘Bad’…

I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, by Michael Jackson (his 3rd of seven #1s) with Siedah Garrett

2 weeks, from 9th – 23rd August 1987

For it wasn’t ‘Smooth Criminal’, ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, or the title track. It was this smoocher. And why was this the lead single from his first album in five years…? Who would listen and think, yes, this is the one to launch the most anticipated album of the year? Sure, whatever single they chose would probably have topped the charts; but that makes it all the more frustrating that the other, better songs missed out…

Anyway. We haven’t even got onto the music and I’ve made my feelings pretty clear. It’s not a terrible song, but it’s proper syrupy, glossy, eighties lite-soul. The intro, with its tinkly percussion, sounds like the love-theme from a Disney film. Like it should be sung by an animated teacup, or a doe-eyed princess; not the world’s biggest pop star. Whispers at morning, Our love is dawning… Heaven’s glad you came… And then there’s the fact that I can’t help feeling a bit icky hearing Jackson croon a love song, knowing what we know now… (The album version is even worse, opening as it does with MJ whispering I just wanna lay next to you for a while… and I just want to touch you…)

Much better were he whooping and squealing his way through ‘Bad’… Who’s bad? You Michael, we know that now. At least the chorus here has a bit of beef to it. My life ain’t worth living, If I can’t be with you… Boom… It doesn’t completely redeem the song, but it offers a glimpse as to why it was seen as a potential lead single.

It’s quite easy to miss the fact that this is a duet, as Siedah Garrett has a very similar voice to Jackson. Apparently he wanted Whitney Houston or Barbra Streisand, but both turned him down. Garrett was an interesting choice, as she had largely been a club singer and backing vocalist (though she did co-write ‘Man in the Mirror’) and her biggest hit prior to this had peaked at #45. Still, she sings it well, though I do think a duet is more effective with two more differing voices.

Compared to his last chart-topper, ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ feels like the beginning of MJ Part II. The vocal tics, breaths and whoops are much more pronounced, and his voice feels softer and higher (though that might just be because he’s signing such a syrupy ballad). Meanwhile, I never noticed before how white he looks on the ‘Bad’ album cover, compared to ‘Thriller’.

In the US, this made number one, along with the four following songs from ‘Bad’, a record that’s since been matched but never beaten. In total he released a ridiculous nine of the ten tracks from the album as singles, and while they’d give him six more UK Top 10s none of them would make it to the top. Next time we’ll meet Michael Jackson it will be with the lead single from his next album. He’ll have gone from ‘Bad’ to ‘Dangerous’, make of that what you will…

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548. ‘We Are the World’, by USA for Africa

You wait thirty-odd years for a charity single, and then two come along in the space of four months…

We Are the World, by USA for Africa

2 weeks, from 14th – 28th April 1985

Trust the Americans, eh? They see a successful, popular original and, rather than just accept it, they have to remake it… Is ‘We Are the World’ to pop music what ‘The Office’ was to sitcoms, or ‘Ringu’ to horror movies? And in true American fashion, everything here is bigger than anything found on ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’: bigger production, bigger stars, a bigger song (literally… it’s over seven minutes long…)

Bigger, yes. But is it better? Well, no. From the minute the syrupy, faux-grandiose intro kicks in, you know what this is going to be. Seven long minutes of earnest, self-indulgent, do-gooding cheese. As with Band Aid, I try to identify as many voices as I can. Lionel Richie gets things underway, I can hear Stevie Wonder, and Kenny Rogers, and Michael Jackson on the chorus (he and Richie were the Geldof and Ure here in writing this behemoth, while Quincy Jones was on production duties). I can hear Diana Ross, and Cindi Lauper (who really goes for it). And Bob Dylan – this is the only time he’ll be appearing on a #1 single – and in true Bob Dylan fashion he sings his lines like your uncle obliviously singing along to something on his headphones… It’s true we make a better day, Just you and me… (it’s my personal highlight of the entire song, to be honest…)

I’m quite embarrassed by the voices I didn’t recognise, for this makes Band Aid look like a primary school assembly. George Michael? Bananarama? Pfft. They were clearly going for current acts, to attract the kids. USA for Africa is a ‘Who’s Who’ of American popular music, including Tina Turner, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, all the Jacksons, Smokey Robinson, Bette Midler and Harry Belafonte (whose idea this whole thing was, after he’d seen the success of Band Aid) among many others. There was a sign above the studio asking these superstars to ‘check their egos at the door’, while Stevie Wonder joked that if the recording wasn’t finished in time he and the equally blind Ray Charles would be driving everyone home. And yet. None of these names, or this admirable attitude, manage to make this a particularly enjoyable listen…

For a start, what are they singing about? This was recorded for the same reason as Band Aid – to raise money for those starving through the famine in Ethiopia – but where ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ has so many memorable lines (for better or worse) this has very few. We are the world, We are the children… sticks with you, as does the soaring It’s a choice we’re making, We’re saving our own lives… (which is the best line, for me, musically). The rest just float past in a sea of glossy blandness. What they’re really missing, I think, is Status Quo…

Some people think charity records should get a free pass. That because they’re raising money they can be as crap as they want, and it’s our duty to buy them anyway. I disagree, and will not be holding back as I rip into charity singles on this countdown. Starting with this one. Just because it’s for a good cause doesn’t mean it shouldn’t try to be a good song. Plus, there’s always the uncomfortable sight of wildly rich recording artists – who could have donated a million dollars without blinking – caterwauling on about us all being a part of God’s great big family…

Still, despite it being a bloated fart of a record, ‘We Are the World’ actually ranks towards the higher end of the charity song scale. It was written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, after all. And, as someone who has lived in Asia for many years, I can confirm that this is a much more widely-known song than ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, largely thanks to the MJ-factor. Plus, this ‘We Are the World’ is for any time of year, not just Christmas… I was going to add that, unlike Band Aid, USA for Africa hadn’t been re-attempted. Except it turns out that it has been: in 2010, after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, featuring the likes of Justin Bieber and Kanye West, as well as Jackson’s original vocals. It made #2 in the US, but only #50 in the UK… There may well be a reason I’ve never knowingly heard it…

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516. ‘Billie Jean’, by Michael Jackson

In my last post, on Kajagoogoo’s ‘Too Shy’ I announced it as the eighties-est moment yet. (I also quite liked the intro.) And here we have a ginormous smash hit that is even more ‘eighties’, from the biggest album of the decade, by the biggest star of the decade. (With another pretty cool intro.)

Billie Jean, by Michael Jackson (his 2nd of seven solo #1s)

1 week, 27th February – 6th March 1983

We won’t come across many songs more famous than ‘Billie Jean’ on this countdown. Everyone knows it, has danced to it, has sang along to it. We’re familiar with every ‘hee’ and every ‘hoo’. But it’s the sort of ultra-ubiquitous song that you don’t – or I don’t, at least – stop to pay attention to anymore. And what stands out now is how much there is going on. In my head, ‘Billie Jean’ is that bass riff and Jackson’s voice. But there’s a lot more than that.

There are strings, finger-clicks, a guitar, and about ten different synth lines and effects. It doesn’t feel cluttered, though. Everything is in its right place, where and when it needs to be. Even the vocal ad-libs feel planned and thought-out beforehand. You could argue that music this well-produced can come across as soulless, and you might have a point. But that would be a harsh criticism of an almost perfect pop song.

Billie Jean is not my lover, She’s just a girl who claims that I am the one… It’s a grown-up topic for a former child star. Billie Jean was an amalgam of the groupies who had thrown themselves at his older brothers in the Jackson 5. But the kid is not my son… And the singer of this record sounds like a different person to the boy from his first #1, ‘One Day in Your Life’ – a false start if ever there was one. This is the moonwalking, ‘hee-hee’-ing MJ, who has been parodied ever since. It’s also the first sign of a troubled Michael Jackson, in the ominous lyrics and the paranoid vocals. Of the fact that being world-famous since the age of ten might have made him a little… odd.

Since it’s the 1980s, and this is Michael Jackson, we also have to take the famous music video into the equation. Like the song as a whole, it’s a video I could picture without ever having watched in its entirety. My main take-aways… Jackson still looks very young (he was only twenty-four), there are more cats than I remembered, and it actually looks pretty dated in its slow-motion sequences and its graphics. It suits the song well, though, which isn’t something you can always say about Jackson’s later videos, where it felt like he was just throwing money at them rather than trying to tell a story.

Famously, ‘Billie Jean’ was one of the first songs by a black artist to get played on MTV. But that was only after the president of CBS records threatened to pull all the label’s other acts from the channel. You could spend a day lost down the rabbit-hole of ‘Billie Jean’ trivia. Producer Quincy Jones, for example, didn’t think it was strong enough to even be an album track. My favourite factoid, though? That someone suggested the song be called ‘Not My Lover’, lest people thought Jackson was singing about tennis legend Billie Jean King.

As is so often the case with the biggest stars, the UK singles charts never really played fair when it came to MJ’s imperial phase. ‘Billie Jean’ got a solitary week on top of the charts. While almost all the other singles taken from ‘Thriller’ –famously there were seven from the one album – were Top 10 hits, he only has one further #1 in this decade. But, despite not being the biggest-selling, or longest-lasting, number one ‘Billie Jean’ will probably outlive us all. Deep into the 21st century it is still regularly voted as ‘Best Pop/Dance/Eighties Song Ever’, while in 2021 it became the first music video from the 1980s to reach a billion YouTube views.

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481. ‘One Day in Your Life’, by Michael Jackson

I wrote in the recap just gone that the eighties had officially begun, kicked off by none other than Shakin’ Stevens. But with all due respect to Shaky, up next we have perhaps the ultimate ‘80s pop icon.

One Day in Your Life, by Michael Jackson (his 1st of seven #1s)

2 weeks, 21st June – 5th July 1981

MJ has his first solo #1. But it’s not as simple as all that. ‘One Day in Your Life’ is hardly one of his signature tunes. In fact, it’s two years older than the chart-topper he managed with his brothers in 1977: ‘Show You the Way to Go’. The Michael Jackson of 1981 was coming off the success of ‘Off the Wall’, poised, only a year away from ‘Thriller’ and world domination. But here we are.

He was just sixteen when this was recorded, in 1974, and he still sounds very young, caught between the high-pitched little kid from ‘I Want You Back’ and the megastar that recorded ‘Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough’. And it’s nice to be reminded that Jackson could actually sing – there’s no sign here of the vocal tics and squeals that make up his later hits.

It’s a song about longing, and waiting. He’s waiting for the day when his ex wakes up and realises what she’s lost: One day in your life, You’ll remember a place, Someone touching your face… And it’s a glossy, beautifully produced, slow-dance number, a good companion to the Smokey Robinson record that it knocked off the top. Like ‘Being With You’, it’s a record that reveals itself slowly. I was underwhelmed and a little bored with it at first – and it does sound dated compared to what was in the charts at this time, and compared to what Jackson was recording – but it’s a really nice song. I can’t help hearing it in a female voice, though: Dionne Warwick maybe, or Dusty…

Just call my name, And I’ll be there… I wonder if that’s a deliberate allusion to his group’s earlier hit of the same name. There are similarities between this and ‘I’ll Be There’ (they’re both ballads, for a start): this is a grown-up sequel, more teenage angst than childish optimism. Why was ‘One Day in Your Life’ a hit six years after its recording, though? It was released as the lead single from a hits compilation, and perhaps a combination of his ‘Off the Wall’ hits and The Jacksons’ second wind with disco hits like ‘Can You Feel It’ and ‘Blame It On the Boogie’ helped. It was the year’s 6th biggest selling hit, but it feels almost forgotten now, overshadowed by his monster smashes from later in the decade.

My favourite fact about Michael Jackson’s chart-career is that he only ever reached #1 in odd-numbered years (all his solo #1s, his Jacksons’ #1, even ‘We Are the World’… ’77, ’81, ’83, ’85, ’87 and so on…) It’s probably fitting, as there have been few pop stars as ‘odd’ as Jackson. Listening to this song, it’s so easy to forget the more uncomfortable side of his legacy. Probably because the teenager singing on this record was, to all intents and purposes, a completely different person to the Wacko Jacko of Bubbles the chimp, Neverland, his ‘sleepovers’, and beyond…