From John and Yoko to Tupac, PBS Digital Studios’ Blank on Blank series has taken music journalists’ unheard audiotapes and fused them with clever animation. Now the series has unveiled yet another amazing interview: An intimate conversation with Michael Jackson from January 1980, years before Thriller and his ascension to the King of Pop. In the interview, Jackson – and, in a way, his sister Janet – discuss labeling music, perfectionism, meeting Quincy Jones and godliness while chatting with music historian John Pidgeon.
“I do deeply believe in perfection. I’m never satisfied,” a young Jackson tells Pidgeon. “I’ll cut a track or something, I’ll come home and I say, ‘No, that’s not right, we got to do it over, it’s not right.’ And then go back and back and back. Then, when it’s finally out, you say, ‘Darn it, I should have done this.’ It’s Number One on the charts, you’re still screaming about what you should have done.” Jackson also speaks out at being labeled – at the time – as a disco artist, saying that all music is music, and genres are like trying to figure out if a beautiful birdcall is courtesy of a blue jay or a crow.
The dynamics of the interview are just as weird as the answers: Michael Jackson forces Pidgeon to direct questions to his sister, a then-13-year-old Janet, who in turn asks her older brother Michael the same question he just heard Pidgeon say aloud. For example, Pidgeon asks Janet, “When Michael is in the studio, is it important for him to go for a vocal straight away or does he kind of build up to doing the one,” and then Janet asks Michael, “When you’re in the studio, does it… do you… do you have to go for a vocal straight away or do you have to build up to it?” It’s an odd game of “Telephone,” but it’s captured perfectly in the animation.
We also learn from this unearthed interview that Jackson needed only one take to record the vocals for “Ben,” his 1972 ode to a rat and the singer’s first solo Number One hit. Jackson also discusses meeting Jones for the first time at Sammy Davis Jr.’s house. It’s an enlightening, candid look at the future King of Pop before fame forced him to become a recluse. For the entire Jackson interview with Pidgeon, check out Rock’s Back Pages.