Interview by John Pidgeon
This interview was recorded in Los Angeles in January 1980. Michael Jackson required John to ask his questions to then 13-year old Janet Jackson who relayed them to her brother before he would answer.
Listen to the full interview: RocksBackPages.com
The Animated Transcript
John Pidgeon is a longtime journalist, author and music historian. Learn more
I hate labels because it should be just music. I don’t see anything wrong with disco. You can’t dance to [imitates guitar thrashing sound] or… Call it disco. Call it anything. It’s music. Would you call “She’s Out of My Life” disco? “Off The Wall”, “Rock With You”… I don’t know. It’s music to me. It’s like you hear a bird chirping. You don’t say: “That’s a bluejay. This one is a crow.” It’s a beautiful sound. That’s all that counts. Listen to it. You watch them soar in the skies. It’s just beautiful.
Does he work very hard on his dancing?
Janet Jackson: He just… oh the question. Do you work very hard on your dancing? [laughs]
I should but I don’t. [laughs] I just… whatever you see me do is spontaneous reactions on stage. It’s nothing planned. It’s nothing that I got in the room and tried to think of hard. It just happens through feeling.
Does he actually find it hard to keep from dancing when he’s in the studio?
Janet Jackson: [laughs] Yeah, I think so.
[laughs] Yeah that isn’t my problem. I’m just dancing around…
Janet Jackson: Can’t keep still…
Yeah, hard to keep still. Moving around from the mic. [laughs]
My singing it’s just.. I’ll just say it simple as possible: it’s just godly. Really it’s just… When I was small I didn’t really know what i was doing. I just sang and it came out sounding pretty good. I just do it and it happens. It’s… I can’t explain it or… It’s no real personal experience or anything that makes it come across. Just a feeling and God, I’ll say. Mainly God.
You hear us talk about the peacock a lot because the peacock is the only bird of all the bird family that integrates every color into one. That’s our main goal in music. When you go to our concerts and you see every race out there and they’re all waving hands and they’re holding hands and they’re smiling and dancing. All colors. That’s what great. That’s what keeps me going. [laughs]
I do believe deeply in perfection. I’m never satisfied. I’ll cut a track or something and I come home and I say: “no, that’s not right. We gotta 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. If you’re satisfied with everything you’re just going to stay at one level and the world will move ahead. [laughs] That’s not good either.
When Michael’s 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?
Janet Jackson: When you’re in the studio does it… Do you, ah… do you have to go for a vocal straight away or do you have to build up to it?
No I do vocals pretty quick. But for instance “Ben” I did in one take. I went right in and cut it. I said: “want to do another one?” The guy said: “no, no, it was great.” I said “was it?” That was at Motown. I’ll never forget that little apple box I stood on because I couldn’t reach the microphone. My name was written on it and it’s sitting at Diana Ross’s house now. She has all my little doodling papers I would draw and write.
A lot of people have been overexposed. It’s true. Where people are fed up. I pray that that never happens with me. I just don’t like being on a lot of different things or being everywhere because I get kind of embarrassed. But I think secretly and privately there is… I mean really deep within there is a destiny for me and just for me to stay on that track and follow it. I really believe and feel I am here for a reason and that’s my job, you know, to perform for the people and if they accept it that I am rewarded. If they want to put me up on that pedestal I feel even better.
Was it through the Wiz that Michael Jackson got to work with Quincy Jones?
Janet Jackson: Was it to do with The Wiz that you got to work with Quincy?
Yes. That was… I met Quincy before at Sammy Davis’s house a long time ago. But the real meeting with Quincy, the real marriage, was the Wiz project. We really got to know one another. We worked beautifully together. Ah, so well.
And, ah, I called Quincy up one day and said: “Quincy, I’m ready to do an album, a solo album. But I want a real good producer to work with me.” I said: “can you recommend somebody?” I wasn’t trying to hint around at all. I wasn’t. I didn’t think about him. He said: “Smelly.” He calls me “Smelly.” He said: “Smelly: why don’t you let me do it?” I said: “ahhhh… that’s a great idea.” I started giggling and he said: “why don’t we start.” Next week we got together. We started planning and that’s how “Off The Wall” came about.
John Pidgeon remembers his interview with Michael Jackson:
It was dusk by the time I drove through the unguarded gates of 4641 Hayvenhurst Avenue. … A woman I recognised as Shirley Brooks appeared under the porch light. … Shirley was a publicist for Epic Records, and we’d met before. As we shook hands, she told me I looked tired. … I waded through the shaggy ivory carpet, chandeliers twinkling on either side like lights in an elfin grotto, until, just as we were about to enter the next room, Shirley slowed, then stopped me with her arm.
“One thing,” she said, as if it was an insignificance she had overlooked and just remembered, “you don’t mind if his sister sits in on the interview, do you?”
Already aware of a distant figure on a marshmallow sofa, I shook my head readily.
“Of course not, Shirley,” I assured her with a smile. “What’s her name?”
“Janet,” I repeated.
“Oh, and one more thing…”
Shirley paused, to ensure she had my attention. Anticipating another trivial afterthought, I wasn’t ready for the bomb Shirley was about to drop.
“If you could direct your questions to Janet, she’ll put them to Michael.”
My mouth opened and I turned to query this extraordinary request, but the arm that had been barring my way was behind me now, launching me through a double doorway and down several carpeted steps into the presence of he-who-must-not-be-addressed-directly, while I struggled to convert a confused backward glance into a great-to-meet-you grin, and wondered whether I was permitted to say hello face to face or expected to channel my greeting via the kid sister too.
Michael Jackson stood up. I stuck out my hand and so did he. I held his flimsy fingers carefully, fearful that I might hurt him. He was stick thin, with fine skin and hairs that had never seen a razor sprouting feebly here and there on his cheeks and chin. He still had his own nose, brown skin and an afro, as Off The Wall’s cover shot confirms.
The voice that welcomed me was tremulous. When I turned to say hullo to Janet, she grinned as if this might all be a game. Michael sat down again, and I perched on a hassock between brother and sister, separated by the glass top of a low table. …
Then I leaned across the table, waving the microphone like a metal detector in front of me, unsure where to point it. I found out later that I wasn’t the only interviewer who had been asked to go along with the wacky ritual of using thirteen-year-old Janet Jackson as a conduit for questions.
* * *
… I was barely listening to Michael’s answers, which were consistently unilluminating. It quickly became clear that he had little understanding either of the history of black music or of his place in it. In almost every interview there are moments when things are said that allow you to put a tick against a list – there’s my opener, that’s the closing observation, more ticks for key points commented on between – but the second reel was already underway and, as yet, there had been none from Michael. Not a single killer quote. …
Aware that I couldn’t expect insights, I knew nonetheless that I had what I had come for: the voice of Michael Jackson on tape.
“Rock With You”
“Off The Wall”
The Jackson 5 “The Love You Save