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(Credit: Alan Light)

Music

The true story behind Eddie Van Halen’s ‘Beat It’ solo for Michael Jackson

@TomTaylorFO

Quincy Jones found out that Eddie Van Halen was a disbelieving fellow the hard way. When he called to request his services, he was told to go forth and multiply and hung up upon four times before he managed to get past “Hello, it’s Quincy Jones.” In fact, Van Halen was closer to changing his number than believing him on the first few occasions until the unique timbre to Jones’s voice slowly began to resonate, and Van Halen paused before slamming the phone down and thought, ‘what if…’

Jones was producing Michael Jackson’s album, Thriller, and his humble aim with it was to save recorded music from a dire fate. Thus, with a task like that in mind, it was only natural that a guitar legend should be involved somewhere along the line. With ‘Beat It’ crying out for blitzkrieg solo, Jones had the glossy tones of Van Halen in mind. Van Halen had made a pledge to his band never to take a job on the side, but with Jones pitching that the future of music was at stake, he took little convincing. 

However, he wanted to go about his mission in a clandestine fashion so that his bandmates would never find out—that meant forgoing a credit on one of the biggest tracks in history, a simple payment of a case of beer, and a promise that Jackson would teach him a few dance moves so he could introduce them in his subsequent shows. 

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When Van Halen arrived at the studio under a guise of anonymity, he found Jackson in floods of tears because voice-over work was being recorded for E.T. in the next studio over. Jackson had been privy to these recordings and apparently happened upon an emotional scene. With Jackson distracted by the sad tale of a slug-like extra-terrestrial bidding farewell to a young boy, Jones and Van Halen cracked on with the track.

As Van Halen later told CNN: “The funniest thing of all was I actually rearranged the song. The section they wanted me to solo over was just … there were no chord changes underneath, so I had to rearrange the song. Then Michael came in and I said, ‘Oh, I hope you don’t mind but I changed your song.’ And he listens and he goes, ‘No, I really like that high-fast stuff you do!’” In truth, Jackson wasn’t particularly fond of Van Halen’s stuff, his intent for the song was the sort of rock record that a child might like, which doesn’t really line up with Van Halen’s manic mantra.

That being said, the work he crafted is among the most iconic sounding of the entire era. And if you were a child born around that time the riff is no doubt blasted firmly into your brain. Thus, it would seem their contrasting ideologies melded beautifully, and the mastery of Jones perfectly mixed them the way that a man who had made the wondrous mayhem of ‘Soul Bossa Nova’ only could. 

There was one more hitch worth mentioning before the whole thing came to fruition, though. As Van Halen was recording the solo, he poured so much heat into it that the amp actually exploded causing the Epic Records sound engineer on hand to proclaim: “This must be really good!” It was really good, so good in fact that the song was rearranged to play out in the key of E and one of the most iconic songs of the 1980s was born.