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Michael Jackson - Beat It (1983)

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  • 80's Score80's Score80's Score 80's score: 2.94
  • Find this song on: Music Stack

“Beat It” is a song by American singer Michael Jackson from his sixth studio album, Thriller (1982). It was ...

“Beat It” is a song by American singer Michael Jackson from his sixth studio album, Thriller (1982). It was produced by Jackson and Quincy Jones. Quincy Jones encouraged Jackson to include a rock song on the album, though Jackson had never previously shown an interest in the genre. Jackson later said of “Beat It”, “I wanted to write a song, the type of song that I would buy if I were to buy a rock song… That is how I approached it and I wanted the children to really enjoy it—the school children as well as the college students.”

Following the successful Thriller singles “The Girl Is Mine” and “Billie Jean”, “Beat It” was released on February 14, 1983 as the album’s third single. “Beat It” peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, staying there for three weeks. It also charted at number one on the Billboard Hot Black Singles chart. Billboard ranked the song No. 5 for 1983. It is certified 5x Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). With over 7 million copies sold worldwide, it is one of the best-selling singles of all time. “Beat It” was a number one hit in Europe, reaching number one in Spain and the Netherlands. The single, along with its music video, helped propel Thriller into becoming the best-selling album of all time.

The song is also notable for its music video, which features Jackson bringing two gangsters together through the power of music and dance, and for Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo. The music video helped establish Jackson as an international pop icon. “Beat It” has been cited as one of the most successful, recognized, awarded and celebrated songs in the history of popular music; both the song and video had a large impact on pop culture.

“Beat It” received the 1984 Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, as well as two American Music Awards. It was inducted into the Music Video Producers Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone ranked “Beat It” number 344 on its list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. The song was also ranked number 81 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.

Production and composition

“Beat It” was composed by Michael Jackson for his Thriller album. Producer Quincy Jones had wanted to include a rock and roll song in the vein of the Knack’s “My Sharona”, though Jackson reportedly had never previously shown an interest in the genre. Jackson later said of “Beat It”, “I wanted to write a song, the type of song that I would buy if I were to buy a rock song… That is how I approached it and I wanted the children to really enjoy it—the school children as well as the college students.”

Upon hearing the first recorded vocals, Jones stated that it was exactly what he was looking for. The song begins with seven distinct synthesizer notes played on the Synclavier digital synthesizer, with Tom Bahler credited for the Synclavier performance on the song. The intro is taken note for note from a demo LP released the year before, called “The Incredible Sounds of Synclavier II” first published in 1981 by Denny Jaeger Creative Services, Inc and sold by New England Digital, makers of the Synclavier. The drums were played by Toto co-founder Jeff Porcaro.

Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo

Eddie Van Halen, lead guitarist of hard rock band Van Halen, was asked to add a guitar solo. When initially contacted by Jones, Van Halen thought he was receiving a prank call. Having established that the call was genuine, Van Halen used a Hartley-Thompson amplifier borrowed from guitarist Allan Holdsworth and recorded his guitar solo free of any charge. “I did it as a favor”, the musician later said. “I was a complete fool, according to the rest of the band, our manager and everyone else. I was not used. I knew what I was doing – I don’t do something unless I want to do it.” Van Halen recorded his contribution following Jones and Jackson arriving at the guitarist’s house with a “skeleton version” of the song. Fellow guitarist Steve Lukather recalled, “Initially, we rocked it out as Eddie had played a good solo—but Quincy thought it was too tough. So I had to reduce the distorted guitar sound and that is what was released.” Two versions of the solo were recorded.

Right before Van Halen’s guitar solo begins, a noise is heard that sounds like somebody knocking at a door. It is reported that the knock was a person walking into Eddie’s recording studio. Another story has claimed that the sound was simply the musician knocking on his own guitar. The sound, however, is that of Jackson knocking on a drum case, as he is credited in the album’s liner notes.

The engineers were shocked during the recording of Van Halen’s solo to discover that the sound of his guitar had caused the monitor speaker in the control room to catch fire, causing one to exclaim, “This must be really good!”

Release and reception

“The uncredited guitarist who whipped out the fluttering, squealing solo on this ode to macho cowardice was Eddie Van Halen. The aerodynamic metal flight pumped crossover fuel that would boost the success of Thriller — a gimmick Jackson would flog later with spots from Slash and Carlos Santana. Without the Van Halen precedent, there might have been no collaboration of Run-DMC and Aerosmith on the 1986 rap/rock version of ‘Walk This Way’.”

—Greg Burk, South Coast Today.

“Beat It” was released on February 14, 1983, following the successful chart performances of “The Girl Is Mine” and “Billie Jean”. Frank DiLeo, the vice president of Epic Records, convinced Jackson to release “Beat It” while “Billie Jean” was heading towards number one. Dileo, who later became Jackson’s manager, correctly predicted that both singles would remain in the Top 10 at the same time. “Billie Jean” remained atop the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks, before being toppled by “Come On Eileen”, which stayed at No. 1 for a single week, before Jackson reclaimed the position with “Beat It”.

“Billie Jean” and “Beat It” occupied Top 5 positions at the same time, a feat matched by very few artists. The single remained at the top of the Hot 100 for a total of three weeks. The song also charted at No. 1 on the US R&B singles chart and No. 14 on the Billboard Top Tracks chart in the US. Billboard ranked it at the No. 5 song for 1983. “Beat It” also claimed the top spot in Spain and The Netherlands, reached No. 3 in the UK and the Top 20 in Austria, Norway, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland.

In a Rolling Stone review, Christopher Connelly describes “Beat It” as the best song on Thriller, adding that it “ain’t no disco AOR track”. He notes of the “nifty dance song”, “Jackson’s voice soars all over the melody, Eddie Van Halen checks in with a blistering guitar solo, you could build a convention center on the backbeat”. AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine states that the song is both “tough” and “scared”. Robert Christgau claimed that the song has Eddie Van Halen “wielding his might in the service of antimacho”. Slant Magazine observed that the song was an “uncharacteristic dalliance with the rock idiom”. The track also won praise from Jackson biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, who stated that the song was “rambunctious”.

“Beat It” has been recognized with several awards. At the 1984 Grammy Awards, the song earned Jackson two of a record-eight awards: Record of the Year and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. The track won the Billboard Music Award for favorite dance/disco 12″ LP in 1983. The single was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a few months after its release, for shipments of at least one million units. In 1989, the standard format single was re-certified platinum by the RIAA, based on the revised sales level of one million units for platinum singles. The total number of digital sales in the US, as of August 2018, stands at 4,000,000.

Music video

The music video for “Beat It” helped establish Jackson as an international pop icon. The video was Jackson’s first treatment of black youth and the streets. Both “Beat It” and “Thriller” are notable for their “mass choreography” of synchronized dancers, a Jackson trademark.

The video, which cost Jackson $150,000 to create after CBS refused to finance it, was filmed on Los Angeles’ Skid Row—mainly on locations on East 5th Street—around March 9, 1983. To add authenticity to the production but also to foster peace between them, Jackson had the idea to cast members of rival Los Angeles street gangs Crips and Bloods. In addition to around 80 genuine gang members, the video, which is noted for opening up many job opportunities for dancers in the US, also featured 18 professional dancers and four breakdancers. Besides Jackson, Michael Peters, and Vincent Paterson, the cast included Michael DeLorenzo, Stoney Jackson, Tracii Guns, Tony Fields, Peter Tramm, Rick Stone, and Cheryl Song. The bar location shown in the latter part of the first minute of the video was also featured 13 years earlier in the gatefold and on the back cover of the Doors 1970 album, Morrison Hotel. Coincidentally, the name of that skid row bar, the Hard Rock Café, was also the inspiration for the London original of the famous chain of restaurants begun in 1971.

The video was written and directed by Bob Giraldi, produced by Ralph Cohen, Antony Payne and Mary M. Ensign through production company GASP. The second video released for the Thriller album, it was choreographed by Michael Peters who also performed, alongside Vincent Paterson, as one of the two lead dancers. Despite some sources claiming otherwise, Jackson was involved in creating some parts of the choreography. Jackson asked Giraldi, at the time already an established commercial director but who had never directed a music video, to come up with a concept for the “Beat It” video because he really liked a commercial Giraldi had directed for WLS-TV in Chicago about a married couple of two elderly blind people who instead of running from a run-down neighborhood all the other white people had fled from, chose to stay and throw a block party for all the young children in the area. Contrary to popular belief, the concept of the video was not based on the Broadway musical West Side Story; in reality Giraldi drew inspiration from his growing up in Paterson, New Jersey.

The video had its world premiere on MTV during prime time on March 31, 1983; neither “Beat It” nor “Billie Jean” were, as is often claimed, the first music video by an African-American artist to be played on MTV. Soon after its premiere the video was also running on other video programs including BET’s Video Soul, SuperStation WTBS’s Night Tracks, and NBC’s Friday Night Videos. In fact, “Beat It” was the first video shown on the latter’s first ever telecast on July 29, 1983.

The video opens with the news of a fight circulating at a diner. This scene repeats itself at a pool hall, where gang members arrive via foot, forklift, and out of sewers, while the video’s titular song begins to play. The camera cuts to Jackson lying on a bed as he contemplates the senseless violence. Jackson notices rival gangs and leaves. Michael Jackson dons a red leather J. Parks brand jacket, and dances his way towards the fight through the diner and pool hall. A knife fight is taking place between the two gang leaders in a warehouse. They dance battle for an interlude of music until Jackson arrives; he breaks up the fight and launches into a dance routine. The video ends with the gang members joining him in the dance, agreeing that violence is not the solution to their problems.

The video received recognition through numerous awards. The American Music Awards named the short film their Favorite Pop/Rock Video and their Favorite Soul Video. The Black Gold Awards honored Jackson with the Best Video Performance award. The Billboard Video Awards recognized the video with 7 awards; Best Overall Video Clip, Best Performance by a Male Artist, Best Use of Video to Enhance a Song, Best Use of Video to Enhance an Artist’s Image, Best Choreography, Best Overall Video and Best Dance/Disco 12″. The short film was ranked by Rolling Stone as the No. 1 video, in both their critic’s and reader’s poll. The video was later inducted into the Music Video Producer’s Hall of Fame.

The music video of the song appears on the video albums: Video Greatest Hits – HIStory, HIStory on Film, Volume II, Number Ones, on the bonus DVD of Thriller 25 and Michael Jackson’s Vision.

Legacy

Jackson’s “Beat It” has been cited as one of the most successful, recognized, awarded and celebrated songs in the history of pop music; both the song and video had a large impact on pop culture. The song is said to be a “pioneer” in black rock music, and is considered one of the cornerstones of the Thriller album. Eddie Van Halen has been praised for adding “the greatest guitar solo”, helping “Beat It” become one of the best-selling singles of all time.

Shortly after its release, “Beat It” was included in the National Highway Safety Commission’s anti-drunk driving campaign, “Drinking and Driving Can Kill a Friendship”. The song was also included on the accompanying album. Jackson collected an award from President Ronald Reagan at the White House, in recognition for his support of the campaign. Reagan stated that Jackson was “proof of what a person can accomplish through a lifestyle free of alcohol or drug abuse. People young and old respect that. And if Americans follow his example, then we can face up to the problem of drinking and driving, and we can, in Michael’s words, ‘Beat It’.”

Frequently listed in greatest song polling lists, “Beat It” was ranked as the world’s fourth favorite song in a 2005 poll conducted by Sony Ericsson. Over 700,000 people in 60 different countries cast their votes. Voters from the UK placed “Billie Jean” at No. 1, ahead of “Thriller”, with a further five of the top ten being solo recordings by Jackson. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine placed “Beat It” in the 337th spot on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The song was featured in the films Back to the Future Part II, Zoolander and Undercover Brother. When re-released, as part of the Visionary campaign in 2006, “Beat It” charted at No. 15 in the UK. The song has been used in TV commercials for companies like Budweiser, eBay, Burger King, Delta Air Lines, Game Boy, Coldwell Banker and the NFL. On the City Guys episode of season 3’s “Face the Music”, Jamal says to Slick Billy West, played by Sherman Hemsley, “Well Gone Michael Jackson and Beat It” which was in the final scene. The song also appeared in the 2008 music game, Guitar Hero World Tour, as the last song in the vocal career. Notably, in this game, the vocalist will perform the same dance routine performed by Jackson on the video and live performances when singing the final verse. The song is featured on the dancing game Michael Jackson: The Experience.

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