Danny Baker's 1980 article for the NME about Michael Jackson, and his brothers, titled “The great Greenland mystery”, may well be my favourite piece of music writing ever. The subject matter lends itself to the bizarre, of course. For the most part of this pretty lengthy article, the Jackson angle is at once central and peripheral, sometimes at the same time.
The best example of that is an account of a press conference in LA, held to promote The Jackson’s Triumph album (the one with the soaring “can You Feel It”). From experience I know that his portrayal of these events is hilariously accurate. Especially so in the context of entertainment writing, as I experienced during a brief excursion into the field in the early '90s.
Here then the pertinent excerpts from Baker’s classic and very, very funny article (followed by a few Jacko tracks for your pleasure):
I LOVE press conferences. Nobody says anything for the first ten minutes and then, when someone does, questions fly about in little spurts. In the gaps, hungry hacks eye up and down their comrades' columns to see if someone is going to ask a question a split second before they open their own cake-holes, thus shutting down their own effort in its first syllable.
Then there's the all-out strain to see who can project the best image of the seen-it-all pressman. Never admit it's your first PC. Also sort out where the majors are present. No one wants to admit they're from the Basildon Non-Ferrous Metals Weekly when you're sandwiched between the Times and the Telegraph.
It's wonderful to spot potential questioners. You can see their lips moving as they run over and over the question, ironing it out a full quarter -hour before popping it. And worse! If some bastard creep gets in your query first, they usually get approving nods from all around and you feel like screeching 'But I was going to ask that!'
Then there's the well-used but still fresh-looking note-pad that on every page has the standard four lines of shorthand at the top. You have to rattle a pencil around your teeth — never chew it! — until you get an 'idea'. Then you add another half line of shorthand culminating in finally slamming your notebook shut with a disturbing air of confidence. Then you just sit back, arms folded, surveying the lesser hacks who've yet to complete the preliminaries.
"Once the artists enter you're treated to a stampede of photographers -- forming tight bundles like mating-crazed frogs. [...] All the smudges yell 'This way please Cecil' even though Cecil never does. They usually nick a glance from somebody else's successful bid.
Before photographers do all this, they pick straws to see who will be the one who goes around behind the artists and takes a shot or two of All The Other Photographers Taking Photos of Cecil. The runner-up gets to be the essential smudge who stands firm snapping away after the others have retreated. He carries this on until a bouncer leads him away.
If you meet someone you know at a press conference, you always ask each other what you're doing here. The you both decide 'It's a giggle', the subject is only fit to be sent up, and ask who was that berk who asked such and such a question halfway through. Then you destroy the berk's paper.
Michael Jackson and his brothers have entered, "all sporting huge jamtart sized sunglasses".
The questions are real tat. 'Ven fill hue be wisiting Sweden, Michael?' 'Are you a close family, Michael? (to which the family Michael showed a keen drollery in snapping back 'No Sir'), 'Can you give us information about your new record?'
It was pretty bleak until this one poor wretched Japanese looking bloke committed the cardinal sin of any press conference — he tried to crack a joke. Oh, but he did. Y'see there's a track on their new LP called "Heartbreak Hotel" and this bloke — who had little command of English anyway — thought he had cooked up a real zinger.
'Ah, Michael', he stuttered, seizing his chance. 'Ah if you had not been a hit with your LP, ah, would you have gone to, ah, Heartbreak Hotel?'
In the ensuing silence, the wind blew, crickets chirped and you could hear the guy swallow hard as the apologetic grin froze on his chops. It turns out nobody understood him. Tito asks him to repeat the 'question'.
'Ah, Michael, i-if your LP had n-not been success...w-would you have, ah, have gone t-to Heartbreak Hotel?'
By now most of us hacks have caught on to what's being said and the less valiant turn away and clear their throats. The guy is still grinning although he has stopped blinking by now and is wobbling perceptibly.
A Jacksons aide steps in. 'Er, Yoshi, what do you mean?'
'Ah Michael. If your album h-h-had not been su-su-success wouldyouhavegonetoHeartbreakHotel?'
Michael shakes his head and Jackie tries. 'OK, I got Heartbreak Hotel but that was on our LP — what's it got to do with Michael?'
Poor Yoshi is drenched in flop-sweat. He is darting his eyes around looking for an ally. His neck has gone to semolina and his palms perspire like the Boulder dam.
'I-I-I'm playing with words you see.'
Nobody sees and Yoshi's grasp of the lingo falls an inch short of the word 'joke'.
'P-P-Playing with words … words.'
The eyes of the world are burrowing deep inside that tweed jacket of his. He's trembling like a sapling in monsoon and smoke is starting to belch out of his ears. Then — a voice at the back ends the torture.
'I think the guy's trying to make a funny.'
'Yis! Yis! That's it!' babbles the released spirit. 'I'm making funny! Funny!'
As he begins to appeal for clemency, the final cruel blow sounds. Amidst the unnecessary sighing the aide says: 'Hey Yoshi. This is a press conference, man. Save the funnies, huh?'
The dumb questions resumed but I couldn't take my eyes from the broken Japanese. Ruined, he never heard another word all afternoon. Today, I suspect he sits in a bathchair in some far off sanatorium, grey haired and twitching, mumbling to anyone who will listen: 'The words. Playing with words you see…is funny…'
The Jacksons - Can You Feel It.mp3
The Jacksons - Blame It On The Boogie.mp3
The Jackson 5 - I Want You Back (Remix).mp3
Michael Jackson - Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough (Demo).mp3
Michael Jackson - Billy Jean (Demo).mp3