I admit, I am way, way behind on my book reviews. As always, there are more MJ-related books coming out than one person can keep apace of. Fortunately, summer is here and, along with the laid back pace comes the opportunity to catch up on my MJ reading list. So even though I may be a bit tardy on some of these titles, I figure I can’t be the only fan who’s catching up on my reading list, and it’s never too late to let fans know what books are worth their time and investment.
I was very excited for Damien Shield’s Xscape Origins:The Songs & Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind when the title was first announced back in March. If you are not familiar with Shield’s blog, he is a music writer and journalist whose blog is dedicated to the very thing that made us all love Michael-the music.
His blog is always one of the first places I go to when there is a pending Michael Jackson release, a place where I know I will always get the most honest and up to date chart information, reviews, and more.
Now that the dust and hype has settled around 2014’s release of the Xscape album, this is a good time to really step back and assess what this album-and perhaps more importantly, its songs-represents for Michael’s legacy. After all, it’s always easy to get caught up in the feverish hype and excitement of a new Michael Jackson release. But only time can really assess how well these songs hold up alongside the great classics we know and love. Regardless of whether you were one of those celebrating or protesting the release of Xscape, one thing that is for certain-and one thing we could all agree on-is that those eight original, demo tracks represented some damn great Michael Jackson work. Where it becomes a much grayer area is determining to what extent the integrity of those tracks was compromised by the modern “contemporizing” done by producers L.A. Reid, Timbaland, Jerome Harmon, Stargate, John McClain and Rodney Jerkins. But that controversy isn’t the focus of Shield’s book. Instead, he puts the focus squarely back where it belongs-on the songs themselves and the stories behind them. In the introduction, he describes a conversation with a friend that took place in June of 2014, at the time in which the album’s promotion was at its peak.
“Our conversation about Xscape was rooted in frustration. We were frustrated with the fact that the original versions of Michael’s work— the versions that Michael himself spent countless hours, days, weeks, months, and in some cases years working diligently on perfecting— were seemingly being ignored during the promotion of the album, while the newly remixed versions were given a multimillion-dollar marketing push and global platform. It felt, at least to us, like the original versions were being treated by the record label and estate merely as obligatory inclusions, rather than the brilliant must-hear masterpieces they actually were. It felt like those in charge of overseeing Michael’s legacy— the gatekeepers to his vast catalog of released and unreleased material— did not believe in his ability to appeal to mainstream audiences. It felt as though they had no faith in the quality of the work itself, and that these timeless artistic blueprints were somehow outdated and out of touch; not trendy or contemporary enough to capture the attention or imagination of today’s youth. It felt like they had absolutely no confidence in the marketability of the “Michael Jackson” brand on its own, instead relying on the names of “current” producers and artists to feature on, remix, and essentially redraw the blueprints that Michael and his team of sonic architects had worked so hard to draft.”-Damien Shields, excerpted from the Introduction to Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind.
Shields, Damien (2015-03-24). Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind (Kindle Locations 34-43). Modegy, LLC.. Kindle Edition.
Let’s just ask a few questions, and you can determine if this is a book for you based on how you answer. Were you one of those who found it just slightly irritating that almost all of the hype surrounding the Xscape release seemed to be more about the producers than The Master himself? And yet…did you notice that almost all of the critical praise the album generated was mostly due to the strength of the demos on the deluxe edition, rather than the newly produced versions? Did you question whether Michael really needed a fake duet with Justin Timberlake to sell his music (even if,granted, it was a strategy that worked at least in this case?). Most of all, did you find that over time, it was those original demos-those recordings that best represented Michael’s actual visions for these songs-that kept you coming back to Xscape for repeated listenings? And did you, at any point, find yourself wondering about the origins and histories of those tracks? Yes, we had the liner notes, but if you were like me, you still wanted to dig deeper. For example, how much did Michael actually contribute to those tracks (the ones he didn’t write himself) and just why did these songs ultimately end up on the recording studio equivalent of the cutting room floor? (The answers are not always the ones we expect!). And how much do we really know about Michael’s own vision for these tracks?
When Xscape was first released, we got a lot of these guys’ stories-what was it like to be tasked with producing and updating these tracks? Though their stories were interesting, it still left a huge gap unfilled:
This is where Xscape Origins comes in, and it is a must-have read in order to complete the story of what at least one critic, Buzzfeed’s Matthew Perpetua, called “The Great Michael Jackson Record He Wouldn’t Have Let Himself Make.”
As many of you may recalI, I wrote a rave review of Xscape at the time of its release, and over a year later I still stand by it.
I was not one of those who had an issue with the updated versions of the songs. I thought for the most part the production was handled with respect for Michael’s original vision (if we can make an exception for Timbaland’s quacking ducks on “Chicago; still don’t know what the hell was up with that!). In some cases, I liked a couple of the updates at least almost as much as the originals. “Xscape” is simply a kick ass song in either incarnation, which may have had something to do with the fact that Rodney Jerkins was the force behind both versions. But this is not about the modern producers or the process of “updating” Michael’s songs. That story has already been told. This is about the songs. It’s about the writers, producers, musicians and engineers who first breathed life into these tracks.
And one amazingly talented singer, performer, and writer who oversaw all of them from start to finish, the one who indelibly stamped his blood, sweat and tears into every crevice, every groove. You may have heard of him.
In telling the background story of each track, Shields chose a very simple structure that works well.The book follows the chronological order of the album. He gives the full background story of every track. from inception to its most recently known incarnation prior to the making of Xscape. While a lot of the information may be well known to hardcore fans who have followed the history of his recorded works, there are still a lot of surprising facts and little known trivia, enough to make the book worthwhile even for the hardcore. This is mostly due to the fact that Shields is not an armchair writer content with second hand sources. In writing this book, he conducted exhaustive, personal interviews with those who were involved intimately in the creative process of these tracks alongside Michael. Along the way, he also clears up some of the erroneous information that was put out at the time of the album’s release. For example, “Love Never Felt So Good” did not date back to 1983 and the Thriller era, as some outlets mistakenly reported, but actually predated Thriller by two years, having been recorded at Anka’s house in 1980. The error was widely circulated without check at the time (perhaps because it was assumed to be more advantageous for sales if the public believed it to be a Thriller-era track?). Another “who woulda thunk it” moment was learning that the “warp sound” (as L.A. Reid described it in the documentary accompanying the deluxe edition) was not the sound of a thirty-year-old damaged tape at all, but part of an experiment in sound being conducted by Michael and his collaborative partner on the track, synthesist John Barnes. This was one of the sounds Michael apparently kept because he liked it.
And did you know that the version of “A Place With No Name” that we hear on the album actually dates from a final version that was recorded in 2008, and not the first version that dates from 1998?
It doesn’t end there. You may know, for example, that “Chicago” was never called “Chicago” at all but, rather, “She Was Loving Me.” “Chicago” was never even a subtitle; it was not an alternate title. The song was never anything but “She Was Loving Me” during Michael’s lifetime; its official BMI registration is listed as such,and it remains somewhat of a mystery why the title was changed, other than that someone at Epic evidently thought “Chicago” sounded more catchy. I must admit, I like “Chicago” better, too; “She Was Loving Me” isn’t exactly a title to catch the world on fire, but it does beg the bigger and more disturbing question: Just how many liberties are being taken with these works? (Funny side note: Michael was informally challenged to replace “Chicago” with the name of another city to prove that “Chicago” was the only city whose name would fit the song. He apparently had fun trying out many variations, according to songwriter Cory Rooney, singing everything from “I met her on the way to Los Angeles” to “I met her on the way to San Francisco”).
The track was also a vocal tour de force for Michael, requiring alternate days in which to record the low voice for the verses and the higher “Dirty Diana” register for the choruses. While I won’t spoil too much, I’ll just say that the background stories behind those recording sessions alone are well worth the cover price.
Although the Xscape album does contain three tracks dating to the 80’s and one-“Slave To the Rhythm”-from the early 90’s Dangerous sessions,most of the tracks that dominate the album date to the first phase of the Invincible sessions, from 1998 to approximately 2000. Part of what fascinates me about Xscape is that I can always envision when listening to it that this is the album that Invincible might have been. Don’t get me wrong, I love Invincible. But I still find it, overall, a flawed album, one that begins strong but is ultimately bogged down in the middle by several weaker tracks. So I do somewhat “get” what critics like Matthew Perpetua were saying. The tracks from Xscape comprising the Invincible era-“Chicago,””A Place With No Name,” “Blue Gangsta” and, especially, the title track, are not only strong tracks in and of themselves, but there is a cohesion to them (as well as Xscape’s other four tracks) that makes them work especially well as a unit.
According to Shields, the tracklist for Invincible as it stood in mid 2000, when the mixing process began, was slated to include “Break of Dawn,” “A Place With No Name,” “Blue Gangsta” (basically all of the Dr. Freeze collaborations), “She Was Loving Me” (“Chicago”), “Speechless,” “Cry,” “We’ve Had Enough,” “You Rock My World,” and “Xscape.” Although I love many of the tracks that came later-“Threatened,” “2000 Watts, “Unbreakable,” “Butterflies,” etc, I can’t help but envision what might have been had this earlier version materialized. The truth is that the Invincible album dropped at a time when most music critics simply could no longer look past the media caricature of Michael Jackson long enough to fairly assess his music. Invincible, an album clearly at least ten years ahead of its time, was unfairly dismissed out of hand by many. Yet the critical reception to Xscape did seem to give pause for thought. How differently might Invincible have been received at the time had this original, conceptually tighter version of the album come to fruition? We may never know, but this does bring up another important point that the book addresses. Just because these songs didn’t appear on any album during Michael’s lifetime doesn’t make them inferior. It simply meant, as so often happened out of hundreds of tracks culled, written, and recorded for every project, that Michael ultimately decided their time hadn’t come just yet. A few of these tracks in particular were “A Place With No Name,” which Michael returned to for over a decade, and “Xscape” which he specifically said would be on the next project and to which he vowed to Rodney Jerkins would “see the light of day one day.” As with “A Place With No Name” he was still working on “Xscape” as late as 2008, a year before his death. This is an apt quote from Michael, included in the book, which explains exactly why it often took him years to develop a song to his satisfaction:
“A perfectionist has to take his time,” explains Jackson. “He shapes and he molds and he sculpts that thing until it’s perfect. He can’t let it go before he’s satisfied; he can’t.”
“If it’s not right, you throw it away and you do it over. You work that thing till it’s just right. When it’s as perfect as you can make it, you put it out there. Really, you’ve got to get it to where it’s just right; that’s the secret. That’s the difference between a number thirty record and a number one record that stays at number one for weeks. It’s got to be good. If it is, it stays up there and the whole world wonders when it’s going to come down.”-Michael Jackson
Shields, Damien (2015-03-24). Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind (Kindle Location 1240). Modegy, LLC.. Kindle Edition.
After the controversial fiasco of the “Michael” album, Xscape was a much needed healing step in the right direction, proving that a good posthumous Michael Jackson album could be a possibility. However, Xscape’s strength stands ultimately not on its modern production values but in the stark, raw power of those eight songs, their master sculptor, and the collaborative teams behind them who helped bring their magic to fruition.
This is their story. And it’s worth reading.
Xscape Origins: The Songs & Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind can be purchased on Amazon.com: