11th October 2018

Queen and the King of Pop: The Parallel Evolution and Lasting Friendship of Michael Jackson and Queen - Fan Feature by Sam “Jesta” Geden

15th September 1982.

The LA Forum and the crowd hits crescendo after crescendo, crying out for the show to start. Backstage, however, the call to rock is but an echo on a level with Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ blasting overhead as Freddie Mercury – clad in arrows and surrounded by his entourage – turn a corner to grace his audience with his elegance. He seems pensive, nervous, on edge… Clicking his fingers and clapping his hands, in a rare moment of anything less than the complete self-assuredness that was his public persona. Walking a couple of feet behind him is the rest of the ensemble – guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon, and drummer Roger Taylor – as the camera moves to one side and lets them pass, no longer trailing but observing these musical giants as they prepare to take the stage.

But seconds before the video cuts out, another figure emerges from behind the camera: wearing a loud cyan jacket with rolled-up sleeves and a lavender shirt, he is stopped to be introduced to one of the backstage personnel. Giving a quick handshake and a winning grin, he soon follows the band through the doors to the immediate backstage area.

That man – who managed to blend in so easily despite wearing easily the most colourful outfit there – was Michael Jackson, two months before ‘Thriller’ took the world by storm. It seems fitting, especially in hindsight, that the man who in a matter of months was due to drop the biggest-selling album of all time would be friends with one of the greatest and most commercially successful bands of all time, but what’s curious is that this is the only piece of footage that exists showing Jackson and the members of Queen together, and even then it doesn’t show them in the same frame but as part of the same entourage. Granted, pictures of the two creative powerhouses are in greater abundance, but for a friendship that yielded three unreleased songs (until 2014, but I’m getting ahead of myself…) and a mutual respect that is self-evident in those pictures and other materials, one would expect something more than a fleeting glimpse in a backstage recording. It’s that tantalising scarcity that makes the friendship between Jackson and Queen, and the three recordings Jackson made with Mercury between 1981 and 1984, all the more mythical.

This article will focus on the friendship and mutual admiration Michael Jackson and the members of Queen shared, while also going into detail on the songs ‘There Must Be More to Life Than This’ (Mercury), ‘State of Shock’ (Jackson, Randy Hansen) and ‘Victory’ (Jackson, Mercury), their background and the circumstances behind their lack of release. There will also be a focus on the parallel evolution of Queen and Michael Jackson’s careers, and how those parallels further inform the creative influence they seemed to have had on each other.

By all accounts, the events shown in that backstage video from Queen’s LA stop on the Hot Space Tour was not a unique occurrence. Michael often saw the group perform whenever they played the LA Forum, and it is therefore likely that during one of these performances (8th-12th July 1980) during the American leg of the 1980 The Game Tour that Jackson implored the group to release the song ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ as a single due to his belief that it would be a big hit, which was at odds with the band’s thoughts about the song at the time. Roger Taylor recalled in 2012 that "We'd already had one number one from that album, The Game, and then we had another hit and I remember Michael Jackson saying, ‘You guys are mad if you don't release Another One Bites the Dust'. I remember saying, 'That will never be a hit.' How wrong can you be?".

However, it seemed that the band were steadfast in taking Jackson’s advice: they added ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ just over a month later on 17th August 1980 in Indianapolis, and has since become a staple of the band’s live repertoire. The band then released the song as a single in the intervening weeks to worldwide success, charting in the top 10 in numerous countries and hitting the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks straight, and stayed within the top 100 for thirty-one weeks.

It also stands to reason that the photos taken by Neal Preston that show Jackson, Mercury and Brian May backstage would also be from that meeting, thus immortalising in celluloid a pivotal turning point in the careers of both the band and Jackson: Jackson’s advice gave Queen an all-important second Number One in America, after ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ before it and connected them to a whole new audience in America that otherwise likely would have paid them no mind. May later mused that the song’s success was due to its Disco and Funk influences and that "the record became huge because of the black audience. There’s one particular station in New York, picked it up thinking we were a black band and played the hell out of it and it became a huge hit." On the flipside, Queen seemingly provided Jackson with a number of stylistic influences that, while perhaps coincidental, are numerous, from the way that he crafted his live shows to connect to his audience, and the greater marrying of rock and pop compared to his previous output, particularly his collaborations with Slash.

During the course of their friendship, Mercury and Jackson recorded three songs together, which have become something of a holy grail for fans of both. According to Peter Freestone, Freddie’s PA, the duo recorded the songs in a day during a visit Jackson’s Encino home and studio in August 1983, though it seems this wasn’t the first time they attempted to collaborate. During a 1983 interview with Lisa Robinson, Mercury remarked that ‘I was initially going to be on ‘Thriller’, can you believe that? Blew it!’, confirming that Mercury was one of the musical personalities Jackson had his eye on while making his seminal album; Paul McCartney, Eddie Van Halen, and Steve Porcaro and Steve Lukather of Toto instead made the final cut. With that information in mind, it seems likely that the songs worked on that day correlated with what was now seen as ‘side-projects’: Mercury had just signed on with CBS Records – the same record label as Jackson – for a solo album, while Jackson still had an obligation to his band The Jacksons, though the fact that Thriller had spent 19 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts in that year meant that his prominence as a solo artist was beginning to take precedence over the group. Freestone remembered in one of his ‘Ask Phoebe’ blog entries that “the work comprised of a Michael track, ‘State of Shock’, which only needed another vocal, which Freddie happily provided. When they had finished, it really only needed mixing.” The other songs recorded that day, Mercury’s ‘There Must Be More to Life Than This’ and their joint effort ‘Victory’ were in far more embryonic states according to Freestone: ‘There Must Be More…’ existed mostly as ‘a piano tune and Freddie had come up with a few words’ to which Jackson provided a guide vocal and ad-libbed lyrics where Mercury hadn’t written them yet, while ‘Victory’ was conceived more-or-less on-the-spot, with no existing work put into it. As such, it can be assumed that the track – in the state left by Mercury and Jackson that day – is incredibly bare due to the lack of musicians or proper set-up. There were no drums in the studio, so Freestone and the one technician on-hand at the time created a drum loop by “banging a toilet door in perfect time”, and it can be further assumed that the leading instrument would be the same piano that Mercury played during ‘There Must Be More…’ Sadly, these songs were only worked on in their duet format within that day in Jackson’s studio, as the two’s schedules became incredibly hectic from there on out. Jackson’s meteoric rise with the release of ‘Thriller’ only gained in momentum in the next few years with the trifecta of singles ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Beat It’ and ‘Thriller’ itself, which not only topped the charts but also broke new grounds in how the music video medium could be utilised as a more cinematic art-form compared to the lo-fi, kitschy production values of what came before them. Jackson also honoured his commitments to his brothers’ band The Jacksons by contributing – though to a lesser degree than previously – to their 1984 album ‘Victory’, while working with George Lucas and Disney on the 1985 3D short film ‘Captain EO’. On the other hand, Mercury took to beginning work on his own solo album shortly after the Hot Space Tour on top of balancing his commitments to Queen with recording and touring, and contributing a track to Giorgio Moroder’s unconventional restoration of the 1927 silent film ‘Metropolis’.

Unfortunately, writing about the only song that Freddie Mercury and Michael Jackson had written together is an exercise in conjecture as it is the only one of the three songs that haven’t been heard by the public in any capacity. ‘State of Shock’ didn’t make the cut for ‘Thriller’ but was revisited in 1984 for The Jacksons’ album ‘Victory’, which ironically didn’t feature the song that Mercury and Jackson had worked on of the same name. Meanwhile, Mercury later revisited ‘There Must Be More…’ for his 1985 solo project ‘Mr. Bad Guy’ after purportedly failing to make the cut for an unspecified Queen album (likely 1984’s ‘The Works’, during which he played cuts from the session with Jackson to the band before recording their own version.) However, in both cases, the involvement of the other had disappeared from the end result. Jackson was hard-pressed to complete ‘State of Shock’ for the deadline of his brothers’ album, and as Mercury recalled in 1984, “Michael called me up and said, “Look I want to finish the song. I want it on Jackson’s album” and I said, “I can’t come over because I’m in Munich” and he said “is it okay if Mick [Jagger] does it?” So I said, “Fine, you know: a song is a song. I mean as long as our friendship carries on we can write all kinds of songs after that.’ When it came to ‘There Must Be More…’, Mercury opted to make the song a purely solo affair rather than reaching out for another artist to work on it as Jackson did.

I realise I can’t write an article on Jackson and Mercury without addressing the elephant in the room… Or rather, the llama in the room. Numerous reasons have been given over the years as to why these songs were never completed or why Jackson and Mercury never worked together again, beyond the obvious idea that they were simply too busy to get together. The most famous one – uttered by Jim Beach – was that Mercury was off-put by Jackson’s insistence that he bring his pet llama Louie into the studio with him. Given its provenance, it’s hard to discount that story completely. There was a Rolling Stone article in 1987 which stated that animals such as Bubbles the chimp and Crusher the snake were seen in the studio occasionally, but they are relatively small animals compared to a llama, and as such it’s a tad difficult to see the story as being without some hint of exaggeration, especially since such an incident wasn’t disclosed in Peter Freestone’s account of events. Another explanation is in the form of a rumour that I cannot find a definitive source for, which claimed that Jackson found Mercury doing cocaine in his home which fractured their friendship, but there’s little to corroborate this, especially since Jackson subsequently contacted Mercury to complete ‘State of Shock’ after that session.

Frustratingly, there is very little discourse from Jackson over his friendship with Mercury and the rest of the group. The only source I could find is a Rolling Stone article from 1983 which wrote about Jackson’s visit to see the band in 1982, and contained an interesting and heartwarming exchange between Jackson and Mercury, where Jackson proclaims ‘I’m a Freddie Mercury fan’ when asked if he liked the group, and Mercury responding ‘righto, little brother’ after confirming Jackson’s involvement in the band releasing ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. Beyond that - nothing. Instead, Jackson’s behaviour can only be seen through the prism of his perception through other members of the band. Mercury was certainly fond of him, and courteous whenever he spoke of him in interviews as demonstrated throughout this article. May recounted Jackson’s friendliness towards him in a 2014 interview, stating that “I remember spending time at airports with him, because sometimes when you’re on tour at the same time, you cross at certain points […] I remember Michael playing games with Jimmy, my son […] He was just someone we enjoyed having around.” May also eulogised Jackson upon his death on 25th June 2009, stating that “I think he qualifies as a great artist; he devoted his whole body and soul to his art. […]I only hope he passed away in happiness, in great hopes and anticipation of his glorious comeback tour.”

Amusingly, Jackson’s and Mercury’s solo efforts after their 1983 recording session – while worked on independently of each other – ended up being named similarly. While Mercury’s ‘Mr. Bad Guy’ is more a comment on his lifestyle that prioritised fun over anything else and could be read a lamentation of some kind of ‘toxicity’ that Mercury inflicted on others and his ‘destiny’ to shoulder the burden of driving other away, Jackson’s ‘Bad’ was an illustration of a true story Jackson had read about a young black man being killed by a gang after attending private school to escape his poor background, with ‘Bad’ being a subversion of the traditional meaning. ‘Bad’ was also more of a mission statement for the album, which dealt with darker themes than his previous projects, such as death, prostitution and implied rape. ‘Mr. Bad Guy’ seems less a mission statement as more a title Mercury bestowed upon himself, with the rest of the album exploring the depths of his emotions in a way that he never fully could beforehand with Queen. It seems this coincidence was noted close after their recording session, as Mercury informed the other members of the band on Jackson’s idea of naming his next album ‘Bad’ and coyly suggested naming their next album ‘Good’ in response.

At that point, it looked like the Jackson-Mercury dream was over. Two of the three songs worked on were released without the involvement of the other, and ‘Victory’ seemed all but forgotten. For the rest of the 20th century, the songs laid dormant and achieved that mythical status: what might these songs have been if they were worked on and completed? A 1998 interview with May by Q Magazine was the first hint that these songs weren’t completely forgotten, as May stated when asked about remaining Mercury material in the vault that there was ‘very little. There's a song that Freddie recorded with Michael Jackson, but we haven't worked out a way to complete it.’ If we infer that the band had already attempted to utilise Mercury’s vocals from his session with Jackson before this interview, it’s not too farfetched to assume that the band were in communication with Jackson during the making of ‘Made in Heaven’ to include either ‘State of Shock’ or ‘Victory’ on the album, possibly in a similar fashion to how ‘Let Me Live’ was completed as a Queen song despite starting out as a duet between Mercury and Rod Stewart, though there is no concrete evidence or testimony to support that.

Around the same time as that interview – or so this writer is led to believe – the tapes for Mercury and Jackson’s version of ‘State of Shock’ and ‘There Must Be More to Life Than This’ surfaced on the internet, and fans could finally hear these two titans together! The demo of ‘State of Shock’ sounded almost finished – the key difference between it and the finished product was a less-developed rhythm section. ‘There Must Be More…’ was much more scaled back and clearly, a one-take affair, with Mercury heard directing Jackson to ad-lib while he was playing the piano. Jackson, in turn, isn’t giving a wholehearted vocal performance, as he tries to suss the song out. But beyond that, both songs sounded incredible! However, most tantalisingly, the song that both of them wrote remained unleaked, and to this day is still something we can but dream of hearing, adding more and more to its mythical status.

Jackson’s death in 2009 seemed to be the end of any possible hope that these songs could see an official release. Dealing with one estate for a project would be difficult enough, but having two to sort out a deal seemed impossible. Though in the wake of Jackson’s death, interest in his unreleased music began to surface, and that naturally included these mythical duets. As his Estate released albums of previously-unheard material, rumours and hushed-whisperings of a potential release for these songs also began. But these rumours – undoubtedly fuelled by May and Taylor discussing Jackson in public in the intervening years – seemed to be just that. A pipe dream. Something for fans to lust over forevermore…

… Until 2012, when the impossible happened: a clip of ‘There Must Be More…’ – an artificial duet between Mercury and Jackson, using what sounded like the backing track to the finished version found on ‘Mr. Bad Guy’ – was featuring in the documentary on Mercury’s life, ‘The Great Pretender’. Suddenly ‘the dream’ seemed very real! This was proof that Mercury’s and Jackson’s Estates were in communication with each other! More fuel was added to the fire over the next year as May and Taylor informally discussed ‘finding new tracks’ and that a new Queen album could be released that could feature the Mercury-Jackson duets, but it was never anything official, just asides in interviews. An interview with May at the time revealed that ‘as little as three but as many as five’ new songs were being considered, which made way for the possibility that all three duets were being worked on. That all changed when ‘Queen Forever’ was announced in 2014: a compilation of more obscure songs from Queen’s catalogue that also included three new songs, one of which was a special duet version of ‘There Must Be More…’

It finally happened. And yet, something was off.

Namely, there were some public disagreements about the arrangements that led to ‘There Must Be More…’ featuring on the album. The band stated that they made ‘a Queen mix’ of the song, but that would not be featured on the album, instead favouring a remix ‘very much sounding like the band’ using the same elements by William Orbit. May and Taylor stated separately in interviews that difficulties in working with the Jackson Estate on an agreed final track led to the inclusion of Orbit’s version over their own, while other reasons such as demands by Virgin Records have also been rumoured. Characteristically of the Jackson Estate, they have abstained from commenting on the situation.

No-one outside of Queen’s circle knows what their full take on ‘There Must Be More…’ sounds like, though it’s been said that it includes Jackson and Mercury trading lines in the verses rather than having one verse to themselves and only coming together at the end. As for the fate of the other songs, they seem to be in limbo. ‘State of Shock’, being written partially by Jackson, is therefore owned by the Jackson Estate and it’s imaginable that it would be more difficult for Queen to justify working on it for one of their projects. Similarly, as ‘Victory’ was written by both of them and recorded within Jackson’s studio, that could provide another legal hurdle if Queen wanted to get involved. As of now, it seems that the two remaining songs are unlikely to be heard in an official capacity: representatives of the Jackson Estate have stated to fans that they have no intention ‘right now’ to do anything with the songs, and Queen have since gone silent on the possibility of releasing them.

To editorialise, and I realise this is an ‘of course you do’ moment, I’d love to see the last two of the songs released officially. Orbit’s version of ‘There Must Be More…’, some weird mixing/levels issues notwithstanding, is a beautiful and definitive take on a song that, in my opinion, didn’t quite hit the mark when originally released in 1985. With this version, we got a more fleshed out instrumentation, a beautiful guitar solo and a stirring combination of the two vocals to create something that does justice to both performers. But while it’s a beautiful ballad and a worthy addition to the canon of both artists, and by no means am I complaining that we ‘only’ got this song, ‘State of Shock’ is a no-brainer when it comes to giving it the Queen treatment. It seems clear to me that it was written to be something akin to Queen, and could happily sit in the company of ‘Tear It Up’ were it not constrained by a programmed drum track and a way-too-neat guitar sound. To have the band strip it back and give it the full rock treatment could make it something really special and heavy and rockin’.

As for ‘Victory’… Of course, no-one outside of a very select few can attest to its quality, but the novelty of a song written and recorded by both Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury alone warrants a listen for posterity’s sake…