Xscape Origins: The Songs & Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind by Damien Shields (Book Review)

Xscape OriginsI admit, I am way, way behind on my book reviews.  As always, there are more MJ-related books coming out than one person can keep apace of. Fortunately, summer is here and, along with the laid back pace comes the opportunity to catch up on my MJ reading list. So even though I may be a bit tardy on some of these titles, I figure I can’t be the only fan who’s catching up on my reading list, and it’s never too late to let fans know what books are worth their time and investment.

I was very excited for Damien Shield’s Xscape Origins:The Songs & Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind when the title was first announced back in March. If you are not familiar with Shield’s blog, he is a music writer and journalist whose blog is dedicated to the very thing that made us all love Michael-the music.

http://www.damienshields.com/

His blog is always one of the first places I go to when there is a pending Michael Jackson release, a place where I know I will always get the most honest and up to date chart information, reviews, and more.

Now that the dust and hype has settled around 2014’s release of the Xscape album, this is a good time to really step back and assess what this album-and perhaps more importantly, its songs-represents for Michael’s legacy. After all, it’s always easy to get caught up in the feverish hype and excitement of a new Michael Jackson release. But only time can really assess how well these songs hold up alongside the great classics we know and love. Regardless of whether you were one of those celebrating or protesting the release of Xscape, one thing that is for certain-and one thing we could all agree on-is that those eight original, demo tracks represented some damn great Michael Jackson work. Where it becomes a much grayer area is determining to what extent the integrity of those tracks was compromised by the modern “contemporizing” done by producers L.A. Reid, Timbaland, Jerome Harmon, Stargate, John McClain and Rodney Jerkins. But that controversy isn’t the focus of Shield’s book. Instead, he puts the focus squarely back where it belongs-on the songs themselves and the stories behind them. In the introduction, he describes a conversation with a friend that took place in June of 2014, at the time in which the album’s promotion was at its peak.

“Our conversation about Xscape was rooted in frustration. We were frustrated with the fact that the original versions of Michael’s work— the versions that Michael himself spent countless hours, days, weeks, months, and in some cases years working diligently on perfecting— were seemingly being ignored during the promotion of the album, while the newly remixed versions were given a multimillion-dollar marketing push and global platform. It felt, at least to us, like the original versions were being treated by the record label and estate merely as obligatory inclusions, rather than the brilliant must-hear masterpieces they actually were. It felt like those in charge of overseeing Michael’s legacy— the gatekeepers to his vast catalog of released and unreleased material— did not believe in his ability to appeal to mainstream audiences. It felt as though they had no faith in the quality of the work itself, and that these timeless artistic blueprints were somehow outdated and out of touch; not trendy or contemporary enough to capture the attention or imagination of today’s youth. It felt like they had absolutely no confidence in the marketability of the “Michael Jackson” brand on its own, instead relying on the names of “current” producers and artists to feature on, remix, and essentially redraw the blueprints that Michael and his team of sonic architects had worked so hard to draft.”-Damien Shields, excerpted from the Introduction to Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind. 

Shields, Damien (2015-03-24). Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind (Kindle Locations 34-43). Modegy, LLC.. Kindle Edition.

Let’s just ask a few questions, and you can determine if this is a book for you based on how you answer. Were you one of those who found it just slightly irritating that almost all of the hype surrounding the Xscape release seemed to be more about the producers than The Master himself? And yet…did you notice that almost all of the critical praise the album generated was mostly due to the strength of the demos on the deluxe edition, rather than the newly produced versions? Did you question whether Michael really needed a fake duet with Justin Timberlake to sell his music (even if,granted, it was a strategy that worked at least in this case?). Most of all, did you find that over time, it was those original demos-those recordings that best represented Michael’s actual visions for these songs-that kept you coming back to Xscape for repeated listenings? And did you, at any point, find yourself wondering about the origins and histories of those tracks? Yes, we had the liner notes, but if you were like me, you still wanted to dig deeper. For example, how much did Michael actually contribute to those tracks (the ones he didn’t write himself) and just why did these songs ultimately end up on the recording studio equivalent of the cutting room floor? (The answers are not always the ones we expect!). And how much do we really know about Michael’s own  vision for these tracks?

When Xscape was first released, we got a lot of these guys’ stories-what was it like to be tasked with producing and updating these tracks? Though their stories were interesting, it still left a huge gap unfilled:

This is where Xscape Origins comes in, and it is a must-have read in order to complete the story of what at least one critic, Buzzfeed’s Matthew Perpetua, called “The Great Michael Jackson Record He Wouldn’t Have Let Himself Make.”

As many of you may recalI, I wrote a rave review of Xscape at the time of its release, and over a year later I still stand by it.

http://www.allforloveblog.com/?p=9098

I was not one of those who had an issue with the updated versions of the songs. I thought for the most part the production was handled with respect for Michael’s original vision (if we can make an exception for Timbaland’s quacking ducks on “Chicago; still don’t know what the hell was up with that!). In some cases, I liked a couple of the updates at least almost as much as the originals. “Xscape” is simply a kick ass song in either incarnation, which may have had something to do with the fact that Rodney Jerkins was the force behind both versions. But this is not about the modern producers or the process of “updating” Michael’s songs. That story has already been told. This is about the songs. It’s about the writers, producers, musicians and engineers who first breathed life into these tracks.

And one amazingly talented singer, performer, and writer who oversaw all of them from start to finish, the one who indelibly stamped his blood, sweat and tears into every crevice, every groove. You may have heard of him.

In telling the background story of each track, Shields chose a very simple structure that works well.The book follows the chronological order of the album. He gives the  full background story of every track. from inception to its most recently known incarnation prior to the making of Xscape. While a lot of the information may be well known to hardcore fans who have followed the history of his recorded works, there are still a lot of surprising facts and little known trivia, enough to make the book worthwhile even for the hardcore. This is mostly due to the fact that Shields is not an armchair writer content with second hand sources. In writing this book, he conducted exhaustive, personal interviews with those who were involved intimately in the creative process of these tracks alongside Michael. Along the way, he also clears up some of the erroneous information that was put out at the time of the album’s release. For example, “Love Never Felt So Good” did not date back to 1983 and the Thriller era, as some outlets mistakenly reported, but actually predated Thriller by two years, having been recorded at Anka’s house in 1980. The error was widely circulated without check at the time (perhaps because it was assumed to be more advantageous for sales if the public believed it to be a Thriller-era track?). Another “who woulda thunk it” moment was learning that the “warp sound” (as L.A. Reid described it in the documentary accompanying the deluxe edition) was not the sound of a thirty-year-old damaged tape at all, but part of an experiment in sound being conducted by Michael and his collaborative partner on the track, synthesist John Barnes.  This was one of the sounds Michael apparently kept because he liked it.

And did you know that the version of “A Place With No Name” that we hear on the album actually dates from a final version that was recorded in 2008, and not the first version that dates from  1998?

It doesn’t end there. You may know, for example, that “Chicago” was never called “Chicago” at all but, rather, “She Was Loving Me.” “Chicago” was never even a subtitle; it was not an alternate title. The song was never anything but “She Was Loving Me” during Michael’s lifetime; its official  BMI  registration is listed as such,and it remains somewhat of a mystery why the title was changed, other than that someone at Epic evidently thought “Chicago” sounded more catchy. I must admit, I like “Chicago” better, too; “She Was Loving Me” isn’t exactly a title to catch the world on fire, but it does beg the bigger and more disturbing question: Just how many liberties are  being taken with these works? (Funny side note: Michael was informally challenged to replace “Chicago” with the name of another city to prove that “Chicago” was the only city whose name would fit the song. He apparently had fun trying out many variations, according to songwriter Cory Rooney, singing everything from “I met her on the way to Los Angeles” to “I met her on the way to San Francisco”).

The track was also a vocal tour de force for Michael, requiring alternate days in which to record the low voice for the verses and the higher “Dirty Diana” register for the choruses. While I won’t spoil too much, I’ll just say that the background stories behind those recording sessions alone are well worth the cover price.

Although the Xscape album does contain three tracks dating to the 80’s and one-“Slave To the Rhythm”-from the early 90’s Dangerous sessions,most of the tracks that dominate the album date to the first phase of the Invincible sessions, from 1998 to approximately 2000. Part of what fascinates me about Xscape is that I can always envision when listening to it that this is the album that Invincible might have been. Don’t get me wrong, I love Invincible. But I still find it, overall, a flawed album, one that begins strong but is ultimately bogged down in the middle by several weaker tracks. So I do somewhat “get” what critics like Matthew Perpetua were saying. The tracks from Xscape comprising the Invincible era-“Chicago,””A Place With No Name,” “Blue Gangsta” and, especially, the title track, are not only strong tracks in and of themselves, but there is a cohesion to them (as well as Xscape’s other four tracks) that makes them work especially well as a unit.

invincible4According to Shields, the tracklist for Invincible as it stood in mid 2000, when the mixing process began, was slated to include “Break of Dawn,” “A Place With No Name,” “Blue Gangsta” (basically all of the Dr. Freeze collaborations), “She Was Loving Me” (“Chicago”), “Speechless,” “Cry,” “We’ve Had Enough,” “You Rock My World,” and “Xscape.” Although I love many of the tracks that came later-“Threatened,” “2000 Watts, “Unbreakable,” “Butterflies,” etc, I can’t help but envision what might have been had this earlier version materialized. The truth is that the Invincible album dropped at a time when most music critics simply could no longer look past the media caricature of Michael Jackson long enough to fairly assess his music. Invincible, an album clearly at least ten years ahead of its time, was unfairly dismissed out of hand by many. Yet the critical reception to Xscape did seem to give pause for thought. How differently might Invincible have been received at the time had this original, conceptually tighter version  of the album come to fruition? We may never know, but this does bring up another important point that the book addresses. Just because these songs didn’t appear on any album during Michael’s lifetime doesn’t make them inferior. It simply meant, as so often happened out of hundreds of tracks culled, written, and recorded for every project, that Michael ultimately decided their time hadn’t come just yet.  A few of these tracks in particular were “A Place With No Name,” which Michael returned to for over a decade, and “Xscape” which he specifically said would be on the next project and  to which he vowed to Rodney Jerkins would “see the light of day one day.” As with “A Place With No Name” he was still working on “Xscape” as late as 2008, a year before his death. This is an apt quote from Michael, included in the book, which explains exactly why it often took him years to develop a song to his satisfaction:

“A perfectionist has to take his time,” explains Jackson. “He shapes and he molds and he sculpts that thing until it’s perfect. He can’t let it go before he’s satisfied; he can’t.”

“If it’s not right, you throw it away and you do it over. You work that thing till it’s just right. When it’s as perfect as you can make it, you put it out there. Really, you’ve got to get it to where it’s just right; that’s the secret. That’s the difference between a number thirty record and a number one record that stays at number one for weeks. It’s got to be good. If it is, it stays up there and the whole world wonders when it’s going to come down.”-Michael Jackson

Shields, Damien (2015-03-24). Xscape Origins: The Songs and Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind (Kindle Location 1240). Modegy, LLC.. Kindle Edition.

After the controversial fiasco of the “Michael” album, Xscape was a much needed healing step in the right direction, proving that a good posthumous Michael Jackson album could be a possibility. However, Xscape’s strength stands ultimately not on its modern production values but in the stark, raw power of those eight songs, their master sculptor, and the collaborative teams behind them who helped bring their magic to fruition.

This is their story. And it’s worth reading.

Xscape Origins: The Songs & Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind can be purchased on Amazon.com:

http://www.amazon.com/Xscape-Origins-Stories-Michael-Jackson/dp/0986199109

2 thoughts on “Xscape Origins: The Songs & Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind by Damien Shields (Book Review)”

  1. Raven says,
    “Were you one of those who found it just slightly irritating that almost all of the hype surrounding the Xscape release seemed to be more about the producers than The Master himself? And yet…did you notice that almost all of the critical praise the album generated was mostly due to the strength of the demos on the deluxe edition, rather than the newly produced versions? Did you question whether Michael really needed a fake duet with Justin Timberlake to sell his music (even if,granted, it was a strategy that worked at least in this case?). Most of all, did you find that over time, it was those original demos-those recordings that best represented Michael’s actual visions for these songs-that kept you coming back to Xscape for repeated listenings? And did you, at any point, find yourself wondering about the origins and histories of those tracks? ”

    A resounding YES to all of the above. In fact, I quickly found that I was only interested in listening to the *original* (demo) recordings on *all* these tracks. (I listened to the “contemporized” versions at first, but they began to pall after a few listenings.)

    Some younger people might find that the “old” tracks sound dated, while others might feel (as I did) that the “contemporized” versions didn’t make for any particular improvement over the original versions. As for Justin Timberlake, I could have done without him—or without the rest of the instrumental arrangement on “Love Never Felt So Good.” Just Michael, a piano, and a few overdubs—as we heard in the original, available on YouTube forever—was fine with me. If anything, its simplicity only deepened its poignancy.

    I won’t go on complaining about the Estate in particular, as they’re only following the dictum that Michael himself left behind: sell the maximum number of units to the maximum number of people. (There may have been good reasons why complete saturation was important to Michael Jackson: which would explain why, during the production of the “Bad” album, he reportedly wrote the number “100,000,000” on his mirror, as a talisman.) But now that Michael is no longer with us, I have to question this as a strategy. It may also be because I believe an audience shouldn’t constantly be *pandered* to; sooner or later, they have an obligation to learn (and someone must teach them) to appreciate the art of the past—distant or recent—as “dated” as its language or manner of presentation may seem.

    Does anyone think of “contemporizing” Dickens, or Shakespeare, when their novels go into reprinting? In film, “colorization” was a technique that was applied to black-and-white films, and was popular for awhile—until audiences caught on that it was a “tacky” effect, and learned to genuinely appreciate the fine aesthetics of the black-and-white image. What about visual artists? Does Rembrandt get an “update” to appeal to a younger generation? And certainly the composers, from Beethoven to Duke Ellington—would anyone think to “contemporize” their scores? Sure, electric guitars have been added to “novelty” tracks (like the “discofied” Beethoven’s Fifth, or, a relic of my childhood: “Switched-On Bach,” done with a Moog synthesizer.

    I understand that pop music (and any recorded music, for that matter) doesn’t remain “pure”; even the slightest shifts in recording technology will produce a somewhat different sound. Even so, when “legacy” recordings of other deceased pop artists are released and include previously unreleased tracks, their record companies (and estates) are in no great rush to procure the services of latest producers in the music industry, but instead seem content to release these tracks just as the artist left them: in some state of unfinishedness. They understand that the audience for (say) Bob Dylan or Brian Wilson doesn’t HAVE to include every last living soul on the planet, anyway! Honestly, there comes a time when this “something for everyone” ethos—which Michael, more than most artists, embodied while he lived—is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Maybe his work should be cultivated for “connoisseurs,” young and old.

    Anyway, this debate has already been had, and it’s at least a year old by this time. Suffice it to say, I really appreciated Damien Shields’s book, Xscape Origins. I wished it had gone on and on, with even more stories from musicians, producers, other associates who had any involvement in the gestation of these songs. But even this brief glimpse into the experiences and insights of the people Shields interviewed is cause for thanks.

    1. I was very much against the idea of putting Justin Timberlake on LNFSG; however, the strategy did seem to work in that it helped compel the track to become a Top Ten hit around the world. One obvious advantage, of course, is that if it is an artist who has a large current fanbase, the track gets the added advantage of combined fanbase power in pushing it. There was a time when Michael certainly didn’t need such strategies in order to sell commercially, but that was before the days of a divided fanbase where at least a good half of it are actively boycotting his releases.

      I think LNFSG could have probably been a hit, anyway. After the duet version with JT took off on the Top 40 pop charts, the contemporary version featuring just Michael became a big adult contemporary hit. How much that feat benefitted from the success of the JT version on the pop charts, I don’t know, but for sure, it probably encouraged programmers to push the single more aggressively than they might have otherwise.

      However, my concern is that Sony and the estate, having seen this strategy succeed commercially once, may decide to keep milking that formula and if they do, it will be a huge mistake because everyone will start to see through it as a cheap gimmick. If it’s an authentic duet with another star that Michael actually recorded in his lifetime, such as the rumored duet with Whitney Houston, that is entirely different, of course. But I’m against the idea of too many gimmicks. Over time, these will only succeed in cheapening Michael’s legacy.

      I agree with everything you’ve said here. Although I liked the contemporized versions well enough, I’ve found over time that it’s the original demos that have kept me going back to Xscape. One important lesson they may do well to keep in mind is that Michael’s best music isn’t dated, anyway. We can still listen to songs like “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Thriller” today and they sound as great as ever. Those were masterful productions that still hold up today, especially if we consider how much of today’s popular music is actually just sampled and recycled from pretty much everything that’s been produced for the last 30-40 years, anyway. Granted, Michael’s demos don’t have the polish of a “Billie Jean” or a “Beat It” simply because they were never finished at that stage or level of perfection. But it’s not as if bringing in all of the latest producers are going to be able to achieve that kind of polish or perfection. I think for what it is, they did as much as could be done with what they had, although I question some of the decisions such as changing the entire arrangement of “A Place With No Name.” Michael LOVED the version he had recorded; he loved what he last heard in 2008. This was obviously the direction he wanted for the track, basically retaining the sound and feel of the original version by America, but with a decided twist. Sadly, despite almost unanimous critical praise for this version, most of the world still has not heard it, since the inferior Stargate version was the only one ever officially released. The Stargate version IS catchy, but kind of wears thin after repeated listenings and starts to feel rather gimmicky, whereas the original version maintains its dark and mystical power (both qualities that were stripped out of the contemporary version).

      There were both things to be said for and against Michael’s practice of sitting so long on certain songs and of taking forever in the recording studio to mold and shape them. I love the quote from Michael that Shields used in the book, where he said it is what makes the difference between a song that only reaches the Top 30 vs one that goes straight to the top and stays there so long that you wonder when it’s ever going to come down. As evidenced by so many of his greatest hits, Michael knew the magic of that formula, and knew it innately. However, on the flip side of that coin, it meant he also tended sometimes to over think the process and to second guess himself a lot. I think this became more of an issue in later years (the Invincible sessions being a prime example) where it seemed he was over thinking the process a lot, resulting in (I think, anyway) a lot of great material being cut from Invincible that should have been on it (and, conversely, a lot of weaker tracks making it onto the record that should have been cut). However, it’s really hard to second guess genius. Michael made it clear that he had a future project in mind for the Xscape track, and it is quite possible that he already had a future concept in mind for his next album. He could not have foreseen all of the future events that would prevent him, ultimately, from seeing that project to fruition.

      At any rate, I think the time is long overdue for a Michael Jackson release of pure, unfinished tracks that can be appreciated on their own merits. I have a feeling such an album-if it were done right-could serve as a huge surprise to them, proving that once and for all, Michael Jackson doesn’t need to be “modernized,” over produced, or paired with whoever is the latest flash-in-the-pan in order to sell (not that JT is exactly a flash-in-the-pan, but you know what I mean). So much of the overly produced stuff just strikes a false chord with me, like when they artificially insert his vocal improvs at odd moments-all of his little “woos” and “ows,” etc-you can’t recreate that. Those kinds of things have to come organically out of the track; otherwise, they just sound phony and forced, like someone trying to recreate their idea of a typical Michael Jackson track, replete with vocal tics and all. It just doesn’t work. I always know something is wrong when Michael’s vocal tics are calling undue attention to themselves. On his classic tracks, he knew how to make those improvisational sounds a natural part of the performance. They grew out of the energy of his performance; of what he was feeling. Again, it just annoys me when people try to recreate that feeling by simply cutting and splicing his improvs in wherever they think they might fit or sound “cool.”

      One comment that came out of the book that I found really interesting was when they said that some tracks never saw the light of day simply because they became dated over time. That’s true to a certain extent. For example, “Blood On The Dancefloor,” though it was a track that DID see light of day, had a very dated early 90’s sound to it by the time it was released in 1997. Still, a great song is a great song and, as Michael once said, great melodies are timeless. Michael tended to come back to the songs that he felt had that timeless potential, whereas others, I suppose, were seen too much as products of their time. Still, the decisions about what actually made the albums weren’t always infallible. “Another Part Of Me,” for example, is a very dated sounding track, but my understanding is that it was never a track Michael was overly keen to have on the album, anyway; it was Quincy Jones who was really pushing for its inclusion.

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