In May of 1987 I found myself in Los Angeles. I had been sent, primarily, on one of those faintly ridiculous writing trips that publishers are so fond of. You get a sniff of success by accidentally writing a song on a big selling album, and they just whip you off across the Atlantic. Once there you are forced to try and write with confident career obsessed Americans who write half a dozen songs before lunch time on a daily basis. Anyway, while I was there I stayed with a friend of mine called Larry Williams. Larry is not only a brilliant saxophone player but a top notch keyboard player as well. We had first met in ’83 when I was making a solo album for Stiff records. The producer of that album had suggested horns on a couple of tracks and said that the only place to record horns was in the States and that the only man for the job was Jerry Hey and the Seawind Horns. For the uninitiated amongst you they were the section on all of Quincy Jones productions including all the Michael Jackson albums. In fact anything that features a flash and incredibly tight horn section on an American record in the Eighties and you can bet your life it’ll be Jerry and the boy’s. I got on particularly well with Larry during those sessions and we’ve been firm friends ever since. As well as the attempts at co-writing I was also to play guitar on Larry’s own album for R.C.A. One day he said that Jerry and the rest of the section were doing a session at the weekend and why didn’t I drop by as I hadn’t seen the rest of them for a year or so. I said that would be great and arranged to meet him at Westlake Audio that Saturday.
I arrived at Westlake and parked my hire car. I was rather surprised at the amount of security at the Studio, though. Normally these are pretty faceless buildings that fans don’t much bother about. You can usually walk in without much bother, but not today. ‘‘Who are you?” was the rather sternly delivered question at the front desk. I explained that I was a friend of Larry’s and was there at his request. After a few minutes Larry came out to get me. As we walked down the dimly lit corridor towards the control room I could see the tall, very thin not to mention very pale, figure of Michael Jackson.
‘‘Michael this is a friend of mine from England.’’
‘‘Oh hi,‘’ said Michael in his now trade mark helium filled falsetto. I was a bit dumbstruck, I have to admit. It’s not that I’d ever been an enormous Michael Jackson fan, it’s just that you couldn’t help but be aware that you were in the presence of not only a very famous and instantly recognisable celebrity, but someone you’re not likely to bump into at Safeways or anywhere else come to that.
He’s a kind of musical Howard Hughes of our generation if you like. After our brief introduction I followed Larry into the control room and was further introduced to engineer Bruce Sweiden and producer Quincy Jones.
Because I was Larry’s friend, and a musician and shortly to be playing on Larry’s album, I earned a kind of respect and kudos that I didn’t really deserve. They all think he’s a bit of a genius and rather foolishly assumed that as guitarist on his record I must be of some similar standing.
Anyway the point is that they talked to me in a very candid and friendly way that they wouldn’t have done had I merely been Larry’s brother in law just hanging out for the weekend. They were working on what was to become the ‘Bad’ album. The sound of the title track blaring out of the large studio monitors was, needless to say, pretty damned impressive. ‘’It sounds amazing’’ I said to Quincy. ‘’So it damn well should’’ was his not unreasonable reply. He went on to explain that with an unlimited budget and access to the best players in the World something would be very wrong if it sounded anything other than impressive.
Rather surprisingly he followed this with ‘’You should hear some of this stuff when it first comes in here’’ Tales of the most basic of demos featuring just a one bar drum loop and a hummed vocal line ensued. I found it all rather reassuring quite frankly.
Michael snuck into the control room quietly as the horn players started to do their stuff.
He lent against the wall in a fairly motionless fashion, save for the odd tapped foot. All he said was the occasional ‘’You guys are great’’ as indeed they were.
As the day progressed Michael would sporadically proffer a brief opinion but always treated everyone with a great, almost deferential respect.
It was rather like watching a well behaved child in awe of his clever parents. His demeanour changed completely, however, when he went out into the corridor and played silly, childish games with a group of boy’s between the ages of 9 and 12. This was, incidentally, some years before the unproven allegations by the likes of Jordan Chandler.
Whilst it did strike me as a bit odd at the time, I saw nothing that would have lead me to the more lurid conclusions of the tabloid press.
He just seemed relaxed and at home with them and uncomfortable with anyone over the age of 25.
The Seawind Horns rattled off a number of impressive sounding charts including the very complicated, fast and almost super human licks on ‘Speed Demon’ (most of this flash stuff was left off the finished version of that track incidentally)
As they sailed through their work load and afternoon turned to dusk outside, the control room began to fill up with various family members and friends who had turned up for a brief glimpse of the infinitely more famous of the ‘Jacko’s available to them that afternoon.
Jackson’s reaction to this was at first to get the tape op to turn the lights down. The more people arrived, the more uncomfortable he became. By the end of this procession, the lights were barely on and he was now sitting in a chair situated in the doorway of the tape store which was at the back of the control room. You wouldn’t have known he was there.
The hangers on eventually left. Michael lightened up considerably, had the lights turned back up and sat in the control room with everybody else.
I was just sitting there reading some technical magazine when I heard the Mickey Mouse lilt of Michael’s voice say
‘’Gee, I really like your shoes’’
I was wearing a pair of ridiculous pointy suede shoes.
It was 1987 after all and I was in L. A not my local Pub.
All the same I couldn’t quite believe that probably the most famous human being in the World was starting an informal chat with me.
‘‘I beg your pardon?’’ I spluttered.
‘‘I said, I really like your shoes’’
“Oh. … er Thanks’’ I felt like an idiot, but it was going to get worse.
‘’What do you guys call those?’’
This was more than a passing comment this was an actual conversation.
‘’Er… call them? em well we call these winkle pickers’’
They were probably called something like ‘Suede Oxford 45's extra angled leather upper tie ups model 45643' but winkle pickers is what my Dad would have called them and it was the first thing that came into my head.
He held his hand to his mouth and started to laugh rather excessively.
It was a strange kind of giggly laugh. The kind of laugh an 11 year old would laugh if his friend had just farted in the headmasters study.
I was a bit disorientated to be honest.
I’m in a top studio in L. A with Quincy Jones, some of the worlds most accomplished musicians andI’m having a chat with Michael Jackson, he’s asked what I call the shoes he so admires, I told him and now he’s laughing his head off at me.
In a state of panic I suddenly realised that a childish American aphorism for male genitalia is winkle.
Oh dear. Have you ever had that experience when your brain and your mouth suddenly, and for no apparent reason, decide to work independently of each other? Your mouth is merrily saying one thing whilst your brain is screaming ‘Shut the **** up you tosser’ but the two things have come uncoupled and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.
I was having such a moment.’ ‘Ah no ..er you see…er…in…in England…er a wink…a winkle is a ..well a small shell fish you see and um you have to er… you have to get the thing out with um a pin or.. something and…..’’
Bear in mind that all this errant nonsense is being accompanied by hand movements.
Pretty useless hand movements obviously, as I attempt to mime a winkle with one hand and use my index finger as the pin
At last my brain eventually re-docks with my mouth and the remaining language grinds to a halt.
Then nothing.Michael’s not laughing anymore and the entire room seems to be looking at me with a mixture of sympathy and disbelief.
I pretend to carry on reading the magazine and try to convince myself that no one noticed.
Well, that was it then. My in depth conversation with Michael Jackson. Within ten seconds I said the word ‘Winkle,’ through no real fault of my own, and then proceeded to humiliate my self in both sound and vision.
Quincy Jones must have thought I was an unbelievable musician at this point if Larry was prepared to put up with a prat like me. The silence seemed to last at least 18 months.
Then as if by magic Michael said ‘‘Where did you get em?’’
‘‘Those Winkle pickers, where did you buy em?’’
You know, in the same way that I irrationally panicked and made an even bigger dick of myself than I would have done, I was now about to react in the opposite way
I got overly confident.
This was now much more than just a friendly chat, me and Mike were mates now.
We’re talking shoes at the moment, but he’ll probably be seeking my advice on all sorts of other matters soon.
‘’Oh where did I get them? Well, in London from a shop, called Shelly’s. Do you know Shelly’s?’’
‘’But you’ve been to London right? Course you have’’
“Oh yeah” he said
Shut up Michael I’m talking. Thing is I’m off.
Only this time my brain and mouth are in this together. They’ve got their collective feet on the accelerator pedal and there’s no stopping them.
I’m almost at the point of asking Michael what he’s doing for Christmas.
‘‘Well, they’ve got this big branch on Oxford street. You know Oxford Street don’t you?’’
‘‘Oxford Street, let me think now’’
‘’Yeah you remember, when you went to the big toy shop. What’s it called? Hamleys’’
‘‘Oh yeah, Hamleys, right’’
‘’Well that’s in Regent Street and Oxford streets just round the corner.’’
Everyone in the control room has now stopped what they were doing and have started to listen to this overconfident but inconsequential rubbish.
Maybe they just sensed that very shortly I was about to say something unbelievably stupid.
If so they didn’t have long to wait.
‘‘Oh yeah you’ll love it and they have loads of different styles’’
Here it comes
‘‘ Not only that Michael, but they’re really cheap.’’
Michael Jackson’s previous Album ‘Thriller’ has sold over 54 million copies.