I had no sooner thought of this as my all-so-clever subtitle when I realized some might take it as being in bad taste, considering Michael’s tragic Pepsi commercial accident in 1984. The fact that Michael was once, literally, on fire makes such catch-all phrases seem somehow in poor taste, but please hear me out. After having given Wembley many repeat viewings, I simply know no better or more accurate way to describe it. Michael was on fire that night. Not that Michael ever gave a half-hearted performance. But as someone who has watched over hundreds of hours’ worth of MJ concert footage, spanning many eras, I can say without doubt that there was something extraordinarily magical about that night at Wembley.
He was, quite simply, on fire. In a way we would never quite see again, or at least not in the same way. Allow me to explain.
For many years now, the Dangerous Live at Bucharest DVD has stood as my ultimate favorite live Michael Jackson concert. Yes, it may be a bit overproduced and ultra slick, but as a DVD that perfectly captures what a Michael Jackson concert was like when Michael was at the top of his game, it has few rivals. Despite having collected many MJ concerts through the years, Live at Bucharest has always been the one I come back to, especially when introducing newcomers to the magic of an MJ concert-those who, perhaps, may have been too young or those who simply need to know what all the “fuss” was about. It’s easy to see why Michael, the ultimate perfectionist, gave his personal stamp of approval to Live at Bucharest as “the” show to officially represent him.
But now we have Wembley, a concert that captures Michael at the height of the glorious Bad era, and performing with the added zeal of knowing The Royal Couple, Prince Charles and Lady Diana, were in the audience (well, let’s just say with the added zeal of knowing Lady Diana was there, but I’ll get to that shortly). Granted, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen a Bad era concert in its entirety. I’ve also had the Yokohama bootleg for several years, along with a few others. Taken as a whole, the Bad concerts represent an interesting phase in the evolution of live MJ shows, one in which we see him beginning to incorporate many of the polished and ultra choreographed segments of the later shows (the Jackson 5 medley and I Just Can’t Stop Loving You/She’s Out of My Life segments, for example, which would become staples over the years with little variation other than after HIStory, You Are Not Alone replaced She’s Out of My Life). You can see that he was already in the process of shaping and evolving his live shows into a full theatrical EXPERIENCE, not just a concert.
However, for those who value raw spontaneity as part of the concert experience, it has been generally felt that what Michael’s shows may have gained in one apsect, they lost in others over the years. By the time of HIStory, for example, the shows were, without exception, slickly produced, theatrical extravaganzas with little in the way of variation or surprise. Sure, new numbers and new routines were added, such as the great Earth Song, but the performances and shows themselves seemed at times to become more and more mechanical and rote. By the time of HIStory, Michael didn’t smile as much, and sometimes simply didn’t seem to be enjoying performing. His anger had become darker, and real. More and more of the numbers were lip synched rather than sung live. Numerous health issues were starting to take their toll on his body. And though he remained, as always, the ultimate professional and the King of Pop who could put on a show like no other, a crucial ingredient seemed to be missing. But it wasn’t until viewing Wembley that I was able to put my finger on exactly what that “something” was.
It was the sheer joy of performing. Not in feeling the obligation of giving the crowd a spectacle, but in simply feeling the joy of being there, to dance and sing for us.
Wembley is now running neck and neck with Bucharest as my all time favorite Michael Jackson concert, and just may surpass it. While Bucharest may offer MJ polished to a perfected sheen, Wembley offers something else-the pure, raw power of a Michael Jackson performance. What’s more, it allows viewers (especially those newcomers who weren’t on board in 1988) to experience this most interesting phase in Michael’s live performing career-a time when we were just beginning to see the evolution of the larger than life, theatrical extravaganzas, but in a much rawer and more stripped down form. This wasn’t yet the Michael Jackson of the Grande Entrances, who would come out on stage and stand stock still for minutes on end while the crowd went nuts, or who would end his shows by creating the illusion of being rocketed into space. This was still a Michael who could allow himself to get caught up in the spontaneous flow of a gospel impromptu that goes on for minutes on end. Just watch and/or listen to the the “doggone my girl is gone” segment that bridges I’ll Be There and Rock With You; if you don’t get goosebumps from this, you must be dead! This segment takes on an even deeper, darker blues element when you realize that “doggone” is simply a polite euphemism for “god damn.” In this short but powerful exchange, Michael not only showcases his gospel chops but is also connecting to a tradition that goes back hundreds of years, across many generations of African-American injustice and pain. While blues and gospel may seem like complete polar opposities (after all, the one is about spiritual uplifting while the other is about secular heartache often combined with images of lust) they are not so disparate as they seem. Both were direct responses from the slave experience; both became interlinked as a means of survival, endurance, and sometimes just plain communication. In both cases, the music became an outet for a suppressed people to say what words could not. And if, as has so often been said, gospel is “God’s music” and the blues is the devil’s music, is this not then the perfect representation of our own human dichotomy? We strive for an ideal, to unite our soul with our Creator, yet in the meantime we still must sweat, cry, laugh, procreate and everything else that is uniquely part of being human. “Blues gospel”-a term that acknowledges this age old connection between the blues and gospel as both traditional forms of African-American music based on traditional African customs, is thus a natural blend that isn’t as odd as it may at first appear. In fact, gospel music actually derived from the blues.
Blues music had its origins during the 1800s in the deep South of the United States when slaves began singing while working out in the plantation fields. The slaves developed a call and response technique passed down from their African heritage, where a phrase or lyric is repeated, then another phrase or lyric is uttered in response. Call and response was also used instrumentally, where a performer would sing a line, and an instrument would play in response. Modern blues became popular in southern states like Mississippi and New Orleans, but is generally considered to have flourished in Chicago, and is distinguished by its heavy use of electric guitar and bass drums.
Gospel music developed from blues as slaves became Christians and transformed their plaintive blues into a more spiritual, yearning style that derived comfort from celebration of the divine.
The sound quality of this video isn’t great, but does showcase some of the quality of Michael’s amazing gospel runs performed during the Wembley concerts. Here he is exercising the “call and response” pattern that is the traditional hallmark of blues and gospel (and, in fact, would be an essential element of all Michael’s live performances; it’s this traditional “call and response” pattern, after all, that was at the root of all those “hee-hees” and “ows!”).
Michael’s reputation was rightfully earned as The King of Pop, but as such, it is sometimes easy to forget that he was also one helluva gospel singer. Yet there were many performances that would showcase just what a powerful gosepl singer he was. One example that comes immediatly to mind, of course, is his famous Grammy performance of Man In The Mirror (and indeed, MITM would become his ultimate gospel showpiece). But another fine example is I’ll Be There-especially the way he performed it live, with that wonderful vocal run at the end. I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating. When I saw This Is It at the theatre for the first time, you could actually hear the collective “oomph” from the audience when Michael performed that run at the end of “I’ll Be There.” It is a hard reaction to describe, but it’s like that moment I often experience at poetry readings when, say, a poet has just read a particularly moving line that strikes a collective chord; a collective nerve, in the audience. That moment when no one breathes; no one utters a sound, except to say “um” beneath their breaths. You could palpably feel his connection to the audience in that moment, as the “call and response” reaction that is such an ingrained and integral part of both blues and gospel came into play. We were all in his moment; it became our moment. Yes, we wanted to shout! We’ll be there with you, Michael. Every step of the way.
In watching Wembley, this effect is doubled as Michael seques from I’ll Be There into the impromptu “call and response” ad lib of this little segment (which I call “doggone my baby is gone” for lack of anything more specific to call it, lol).
Then we are in for yet another treat as this powerful little gospel segment segues into a COMPLETE and FULLY LIVE performance of Rock With You, a track that sadly would all but disappear from Michael’s live setlist after the Bad tour. (Dirty Diana would also become a casualty after the Bad tour, yet ironically , perhaps, these songs emerge for me as two of the truly stand-out performances of this concert).
Watch those first few moments after Michael says “I think I wanna rock!” Look at that smile. That is pure, exuberant joy right there. And it is this pure, exuberant joy that carries the performance. Several times he can’t resist the urge to break out in spontaneous grins, whether it’s being caught in the moment, or catching someone’s eye from the sidelines. This kind of goofy interplay might have ruined a lesser performance, but here it is both masterful and perfectly synchronized, without ever once feeling forced. It is also, sadly, the kind of spontaneous joy that we would begin to see less and less of, at least until This Is It, when the intimacy of rehearsal would again connect audiences to that Michael who loved to laugh and just be silly sometimes, even as he was always the perfectionist showman.
But just as in later shows, Smooth Criminal would mark the transition-that point in the show when he would leave behind (at least for a little while) his r&b roots for the more current, pop oriented material. Even his costume change marks a kind of shift in identity, as he comes out nearly unrecognizable in a wide fedora hat, the brim pulled low to give him a more menacing and anonymous (yet suavely seductive) appearance. This, as I often call it, is the transition into Michael Jackson, Mack Daddy. And no one ever did it better than, well, Michael Jackson (take heed, Chris Brown!).
Smooth Criminal (note I am referring here to the performance as opposed to the track) as it eventually evolved was a setpiece that was shaped over many years. There are roots of it as far back as the live performances of Heartbreak Hotel on the Victory tour, and even the “do wop” chorus that is first heard at the beginning of Streetwalker. Here we see that Smooth Criminal has pretty much solidified into its most familiar form, with the do wop intro, the neon hotel sign, and Michael dancing in silhouette. But guess what famous feature is noticeably missing? Yep, tha’s right! The famous lean move-now inextricably linked with Smooth Criminal-hadn’t yet been introduced as part of the routine. So again, Wembley allows us a glimpse of a routine-in-progress, and a wonderful opportunity to trace the evolution of one of Michael’s best known performance pieces.
In part two, I will continue my look at Wembley with an analysis of a performance to truly end all MJ performances…or to put it more aptly, the performance that truly put the fire into this night that Michael was on fire.
Was it because of her? And what is the real story behind this performance that wasn’t even supposed to exist (Michael told us he took it out of the show that night and why, remember? So now we learn he not only DID leave it in, but probably gave his all time greatest performance of Dirty Diana that night- all while Prince Charles sat in the audience listening? Hmm. Boy, do inquiring minds want to know all about that one!).