I’m excited to let you know that the 2nd edition of Earth Song: Inside Michael Jackson’s Magnum Opus is now available at Amazon.com and other online retailers. Unlike Man in the Music, this book was published independently, meaning I had the freedom (and limitations) of not working with a traditional New York publisher. I won’t be doing much promo for it so I would appreciate if you helped spread the word. The story of “Earth Song” doesn’t offer any salacious commentary on plastic surgery, drugs, or sex, but it does offer a portrait of the artist in his element during a crucial time in his career (1988-1999). “Earth Song” meant a great deal to Michael. Hopefully the book makes a case for why it should matter to others as well.
Below I am offering some exclusive excerpts from the book. Enjoy!
When recording began on HIStory in January of 1994 at The Hit Factory in New York, Jackson was excited to finally get back to work on “Earth Song.” He felt confident it would find a home on the new record. The only questions were how to make it better and who to assist him in finalizing his vision.
As it turned out, Jackson was mostly satisfied with the demo he had worked out with Bottrell during the Dangerous sessions. The length, arrangement, and production remained almost exactly the same. Still, there were some crucial additions, most significantly in the climax of the song.
Jackson turned to renowned Canadian-born “hitmaker” David Foster to help finish the track. The winner of sixteen Grammy awards, Foster had worked with legends like Chicago, Barbara Streisand, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion (he had also worked briefly with Jackson in 1978 during the Off the Wall sessions). His specialty was the power ballad, though his work in this genre also gave him a reputation for affectation and hyper-glossy production. In 1985, Rolling Stone described him as the “master of…bombastic kitsch.” In production style, he was almost the exact opposite of Bill Bottrell. Jackson, however, knew what he needed and what skills Foster brought to the table. For Jackson, the role of a producer wasn’t to overtake the song; it was to help him achieve in very specific detail what he wanted. In the case of “Earth Song” he didn’t need an overhaul, just small brush strokes.
Foster brought in talented orchestrator Bill Ross to give the track a fuller, more powerful sound, most notably in the surging brass parts. “The orchestra added so much drama,” said assistant engineer, Rob Hoffman. “It made this beautiful song into an epic.”
Another important addition was Michael Thompson, a highly regarded session guitarist. Before Thompson, David Foster apparently offered the position to Eric Clapton, but either Clapton or Jackson (or both) passed on the idea. It is possible that Jackson remained concerned about Clapton’s racist past. Thompson, however (who had worked with David Foster and Quincy Jones), ended up being perfect for the job. His bluesy phrasings echo Jackson’s pained singing beautifully.
A new mix of “Earth Song” was completed at the Hit Factory in 1994. Most of Jackson’s engineers assumed at that point that the track was finished. Although Jackson was pleased with many of the improvements, however, he still wasn’t completely satisfied.
When recording moved back to Record One in Los Angeles in the spring of 1995, Jackson and his team focused in on the final details. Matt Forger estimated that around 40 multi-track tapes were used in total. “It crossed formats. It started on 24-track, switched to digital. The detail and work that went into it was staggering.”
Jackson turned to sonic magician, Bruce Swedien, to re-record parts of his lead vocal. To capture the immediacy and intensity Jackson wanted, Swedien recorded with a Neumann M-49 tube mike (instead of his usual SM7) and had him get “as close as physically possible to the microphone, thereby eliminating almost all early reflections… I used no windscreen. I placed him as close as he could possibly get to this incredible old mike.” The results were subtle but palpable. “The real goal of music recording is to preserve the physical energy of the music and the musical statement itself,” explains Swedien.
Jackson saved the final ad libs for the last weekend of recording as he expected “to kill his voice” in the process. He told assistant engineers, Eddie Delena and Rob Hoffman, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think any of us are going to sleep this weekend. There’s a lot to get done, and we have to go to Bernie [Grundman for mastering] on Monday morning.”
Over the next few days, Jackson and a small crew of engineers ate, slept, and breathed the music. “He stayed at the studio the entire time,” recalled Hoffman, “singing and mixing. I got to spend a couple quiet moments with him during that time. We talked about John Lennon one night as he was gearing up to sing the last vocal of the record—the huge ad libs at the end of ‘Earth Song.’ I told him the story of John singing ‘Twist and Shout’ while being sick, and though most people think he was screaming for effect, it was actually his voice giving out. He loved it, and then went in to sing his heart out.”
As was his custom, Jackson sang that night with all the lights out. From the control room, Bruce Swedien and his crew of assistant engineers couldn’t see anything. Yet what they heard roaring out of the darkness was astonishing: it was as if Jackson was channeling from the lungs of the earth—a pained, fierce, prophetic voice, giving utterance to the suffering of the world.
Those who witnessed it could feel the hair standing up on the back of their necks…
Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Vogel. All rights reserved.