Over the course of the last week, many music and entertainment outlets briefly observed the sixth anniversary of Michael Jackson's death. Love him or despise him (because of his music or behavior), the majority of credit for the King of Pop's album "Thriller" was shared between Jackson and producer Quincy Jones. Being the shrewd businessmen that they were, esp. Jones, Jones-and-Jackson utilized many talented musicians and songwriters to craft what may be the "perfect" studio release in music history (and certainly the most-successful), including the credited use of several members of the band Toto (Steve Lukather, David Paich, Steve & Jeff Porcaro), composer and producer David Foster, Paul McCartney, and Jackson's sisters LaToya and Janet. However, and arguably the most significant musical contribution was the uncredited writing, arrangement, and solo provided by Eddie Van Halen on the song/single "Beat It". As the story goes, Van Halen (the band) is on a brief recording/touring hiatus, with three-of-the-four band members scattered to the winds. Eddie Van Halen (EVH) is alone at his home recording studio (later dubbed "5150", which is the California criminal code for the criminally insane) and receives a telephone call. Immediately on pick-up, the connection is fuzzy and nearly inaudible. An unfamiliar voice asks "Is this Eddie?" After several unpleasant responses by EVH, the unfamiliar voices identifies himself as Quincy Jones, and asks if EVH would like to play a solo on one of Jackson's songs. With his brother, the lead singer, and the bassist unavailable for consultation, EVH agrees to contribute, figuring he will do it for free, uncredited, no messy royalties to discuss (or split), and no one would be the wiser. The wishiest of wishful thoughts.
As the third single from what was becoming a pop-cultural juggernaut (Thriller), "Beat It" strayed from the R&B and pop playbook Jackson had been so successful with as a member of the Jackson 5 and during the infancy of his solo career. With Toto's guitarist Steve Lukather providing a tasty lead riff and underlying rhythm guitar, EVH's "trademark" squeals and screeches from his striped Frankenstein "strat" provided one of the more memorable guitar solos on pop-radio in the 1980s. More importantly, it was the "sound" of 80s guitar-power included on a pop-single, and gave hard rock and album-oriented rock radio stations, as well as the caucasian-rock-band-centric MTV, permission to play a young black man's song as part of the rock rotation. "Beat It" help propel "Thriller" into the phenomenon that it became.
Notably, this would not be the last time that EVH contributed uncredited music to a pop-culture success. In 1985, EVH's guitar (sounds) found its way into the film "Back to the Future" as music used to scare George McFly into submitting to the suggestions of a "robot". Unless EVH is (and has been) lying to fans for decades, his work on Jackson's "Beat It" and "Back to the Future" were not only uncredited but also uncompensated. The thought that EVH made nary a cent from either contribution is a bit mind-boggling, given the record sales and ticket/rental sales each has logged in the three-decades since each was released.
Jackson (and video director John Landis) would later pay a small (double) homage to EVH and "Back to the Future", having young Macaulay Culkin strap-on an Ernie Ball Music Man (EBMM) Wolfgang model guitar designed by and for EVH and hit a power chord akin to the one hit by Michael J. Fox in "BTTF" in the intro of the song/video "Black or White".
In the "small world" category, Jackson himself contributed uncredited backing vocals to the Doobie Brothers 1978 release Minute By Minute (on songs "What a Fool Believes", "Here to Love You", and "Minute By Minute"), working with future Van Halen collaborators producer Ted Templeman and Doobie Michael McDonald (sharing a co-writing credit on the 1984 Top 15 single "I'll Wait" from the album 1984). Later, Jackson would be credited with backing vocals on the #2 hit-single by Rockwell "Somebody's Watching Me".
Jackson and EVH's uncredited contributions are consistent with the occasional uncredited contributions of mega-popular artists, including Mick Jagger's famous uncredited backing vocals on Carly Simon's hit-single "You're So Vain". Of course, when you are the type of recording stars that Jagger, EVH, and Jackson (at the time of working with the Doobies), getting another co-writing and publishing credit may be less of a reward than the work itself (maybe). OTOH, these guys passed up A LOT of money by not getting those credits.
1. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Jackson's "Thriller" is tied with The Eagles' "Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975" with certified sales of 29 million copies. However, "Thriller" is an original studio release (1982), while "Their Greatest Hits" is a compilation of The Eagles biggest hits, thereby supporting the distinction as most-successful studio release. Also notable, "Thriller" has not been certified Aug. 2009, while "Their Greatest Hits" has not been certified since Jan. 2006. It is highly likely that each is now over 30 million in certified sales. 2. Back to the Future / EVH 3. You're So Vain