Wembley: The Night Michael Was On Fire-Pt 1

Michael Performing At Wembley. Those Hip Rolls During Another Part Of Me…Lord Have Mercy On Us All!

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 Origins

  • 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 Origins

  • 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.

Moments Like These Weren’t A Rarity During Wembley, But The Norm. His Joy Was-And Remains-Contagious

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!).


Michael Told Us He Took It Out Of The Show Out of Respect For Her, But As The Story Went, Di Was Disappointed. “That’s My Favorite Song!” He Said It Was Too Late To Put It Back In…So Why Is It In The Show? What Changed His Mind? Hmm. The Never Ceasing Mystery Of Figuring Out MJ, Lol!




41 thoughts on “Wembley: The Night Michael Was On Fire-Pt 1”

  1. Good analysis i skimmed through it though lol.

    That picture up there the one that advertises the BAD tour it says see Jacko.

    That reminds me of the way how people with Vitiligo were treated back in the day.

    They were advertised as freaks who are here to put on a show for the people how sad.

    1. That’s true. But this was also during the time when the British press was using it more as a term of endearment than as “Wacko Jacko.”

      1. When did the press start calling MJ “Wacko Jacko” i thought that started during the Bad era.

        Plus the word “Jacko” has a racists history referring to blacks. I for one believe the media at the time knew exactly what they were really calling MJ while the general public just thought it was a meaningless nickname.

        1. Joe Vogel has an article about this in the Atlantic–I think he said it started in the Sun in 1984–the Wacko Jacko. It was racist b/c the name Jacko had been associated in the UK with monkeys, live and toy ones, for centuries.

    1. I’ve considered that as a possibility but this DVD has been sold and marketed on the assumption that what we are getting is the full, entire concert at it was performed at Wembley THAT night (the Royal performance).

      This is one of those questions that could probably only be solved by someone who was there that night and saw the show. They would know, of course.


  2. Well done, Raven.

    One of the things I like about the Wembley DVD is that the camera focuses on Michael…back, front, side, close-up. Unlike Bucharest, there is very little focus on the audience. It is all Michael, all the time.

    Looking forward to part 2.

  3. “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!).”

    I always felt “Smooth Criminal” was a funk song it’s really funky.

  4. @TheresaB, I so agree with the fact that the Wembley DVD focuses so much on Michael, right down to the scuffs on his shoes! Loved every part of this DVD, nevermind the “quality” of the background. I’ve seen clips from various BAD performances and yes, Raven, Michael so enjoyed himself, he really had that glow.

    As for the inclusion of Dirty Diana, I read at several sources that while Michael had planned to omit it from the Wembley performance out of respect for her, Princess Diana actually asked him to not to remove it, and so he left it in the show.

    My personal favorite MJ tour was “HIStory”. Michael’s songs and performances, being so filled with passion for the planet and humanity, were so moving. And, look at this guy, at 38 years of age, actually hanging his entire body from the cherry picker and so smoothly pulling himself back up. Wow!

    1. Yeah, I do have to agree, the cherry picker moves were cool! But I guess my point was that we just didn’t get as much of the spontaneity anymore like during the Bad concerts.

      1. Yes, Raven, I agree about the lack of spontaneity in concerts succeeding BAD; the spaceship arrival in HIStory is cute but I get your meaning about the rawness and joyfulness of BAD. I wonder if you know the answer here: What is Michael saying when he shouts “Bahto” or something similar sounding several times during BAD? This question has been posed on a recent forum and I’ve wondered about it myself. He seems to call out this word on several songs just before his backup singers come in. If you’ve previously answered this, sorry for the repeat!

  5. I agree he was on fire in this concert. So much so that I actually worried about him. It took such stamina. He hardly took a break–even no costumes changes. I was so worried about dehydration, etc. I actually had to stop the DVD and take a break myself b/c it was too much to see him knocking himself out like that. No one could have kept up this type of wild energy. I estimate he did somewhere in the vicinity of 500-800 shows all told. That’s one hell of a lot of live shows. I think performing live, singing AND dancing at the same time, was just exhausting and wore out his body. He said he lost 10 pounds just from sweat in each performance and Michael Bush said they had to make the costumes smaller as they got to the end of the show to compensate for the weight loss. He gave his all. The Wembley show was scary, to me. Yes, it was great to see the energy and the happiness, but I felt he needed to conserve something and not burn it all up like that.

    1. Where they no costume changes? I’m sure i saw a clip of MJ performing “Billie Jean” and i’m sure he had his billie jean outfit on.

        1. Hi, Raven, I may be wrong and will check the DVD again, but I thought he just put on a different shirt or jacket once or twice? There was a kind of tent on stage that he went into and came out of pretty quick. Maybe that was a mini-break.

  6. “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.”
    Thank you..that’s it..that’s what I see, hear… and feel.

  7. He used the tent to more or less change for Dirty Diana and for Thriller and then did a complete change for Working Day and Night; just loved, loved, loved the end dancing with the little kids to BAD; gonna watch it again now!
    It seems that only in the HIStory tour did Michael introduce new songs; Blood on the Dance Floor, Stranger in Moscow, DS (ha,ha), of course Earth Song; in BAD and Dangerous he did the songs his fans wanted to hear, same words he used at the O2 announcement, “the songs my fans want to hear”; always everything for the fans…..

    1. Those transitions that allowed him to do quick costume changes/adjustments became much more smoothly executed by the time of Dangerous. They blended seamlessly into the routine, whereas here they kind of call attention to themselves (it’s so obvious what is going on when he disappears into those tents). By the time of Dangerous, they had really worked out some clever stuff, like when he sits on a chair at end of Working Day or Night and they throw a sheet over him (ala’ James Brown) only to yank the sheet away and…voila’! He’s gone. Where he did he go? Then…

      The opening strains of “Beat It.” Oh look! There he is, on the cherry picker!

      Now THAT was what I call one awesome transition!

  8. I think you make a good point about the joy and spontaneity that are clearly obvious in the Wembley concert–with the transition to tightly choreographed performances underway but not yet complete.

    Nonetheless, I have to agree with June that HIStory shows a mature Michael with an important message to deliver, one I would not miss for the world. In a way, he got more serious and perhaps was on a mission. Maybe it really was more “work” and less play.

    One of the reasons it’s hard to ever tire of Michael Jackson is that he simply never stopped evolving, surprising, forging new paths and uniquely creative ways to deliver his most current music. If his performance style had not evolved the way it had, he may have settled into a personally enjoyable groove, but then maybe it would be a different thing we found to be “missing.”

  9. Raven, you are so spot-on! His joy and pure adrenalin excitement in performing made this performance unforgettable. While there are parts of the Bucharest concerts I adore–the beginning in particular, there was too much focus on the audience, as most people agree. I really loved that we got to see him from so many angles (all of which make you weak! ;-). I loved his costumes used during the HIStory tour but it’s obvious that the performances were, in some ways, an outlet to express the pent-up anger he felt at being so mischaracterized and abused in the press. If I had that part of my life to live over again, I would have been to every concert I could have afforded to attend. I can’t believe that I missed seeing him perform live. One of the big regrets of my life. As far as performances go, I can’t get by the one he gave for Elizabeth Taylor when he sang, once, just for her, Elizabeth, I Love You. He was electrifying–so full of heartfelt emotion and admiration for her and….Oh! so gorgeous on stage! The moment at the end when the lights burst on him, he was ethereal! It’s a performance I watch over and over again. I like it even more than his tribute to Ryan White. That performance just stirs your soul and brings tears to your eyes, it’s true, but his dedication to Liz sealed the deal for me that he simply is the greatest performer I’ve ever seen, or that anyone will ever see again.

    I’m really looking forward to Spike Lee’s documentary. I understand that a short clip of it will be in a commercial tomorrow morning on CBS, I believe.

    Thanks, Raven. I’m looking forward to your next chapter. I kinda think, too, that Michael really wanted to impress Lady Diana so he really burned up the stage! I think he idolized Diana. She was his vision of a perfect woman–beautiful, elegant, deeply compassionate, and a real lady. I hope he found a companion in the latter part of his life who possessed those qualities. And I hope she was out-of-her-mind crazy about him!

  10. Quote: “One of the reasons it’s hard to ever tire of Michael Jackson is that he simply never stopped evolving, surprising, forging new paths and uniquely creative ways to deliver his most current music. If his performance style had not evolved the way it had, he may have settled into a personally enjoyable groove, but then maybe it would be a different thing we found to be “missing.”

    After spending so much time researching his life, there’s no way he would have ever remained static. He wasn’t of this world and he constantly was evolving on every level–emotional, physical and spiritual. I believe that it is because of his constant state of evolution that we are so drawn to him and feel so strongly connected. Whenever I’m in the pasture with my trusty steed at night, I look up into the heavens, find the brightest star and smile and say, “Good Evening, Michael.” “We love you and feel your presence in our lives every single day.”

  11. OMG! I’m more excited than a roomful of kids awaiting that special night we know as Christmas Eve. I envy people who live in New York and LA. They have an opportunity to see it on the BIG SCREEN! Oh, how I wish I could see it at my local I-Max theatre. The bigger, the loude, FANTASTIC!

    So nice of you to give us the link on YouTube. Blessings to you, Raven!

    1. I know what you mean. But at least we can look forward to seeing it on TV Thanksgiving night. And it’s pretty sweet that it’s going to be on a major network!

  12. ok, thanks, will do.

    Btw, about Michael’s gospel side–I love when he did the impassioned ad-libs after Earth Song–‘Tell me what about it!” I think it was at one of the WMA performances and in Brunei.

  13. Hello Raven,
    wow! The Wembley performance is so incredible! He was so happy that night. Pure joy. Pure energy.

    I like every part of the show (including the “backside shots”! Lol, we talked about it few days ago) and I appreciate also the choreography in Smooth Criminal that then will be replaced by the lean. Funny the part when he presents his musicians and simply lovely the part when he dances and sings with those children.

    About Rock with you, oh, I like it so much.
    I’ve watched the live in Auckland from the HIStory tour and there he performed a little medley with RWY – OTW – DSTYGE (I think he performed it also in other stages of that tour, now I don’t remember). Have you ever watched it? Well, it’s very different from the Bad tour performance, but to me is beautiful anyway. Michael wore a very elegant black jacket, a simple white t-shirt and the gold pants. It is a medley sung in playback, but…who cares about it? That style, that way of dancing, that aura. He was beautiful.
    So sad thinking that between the Bad tour and the HIStory tour there was the Chandler case. They tried to steal that smile and that energy from him. Same thing in 2003-2005. What a strenght he had. What a warrior. Despite everything, that special aura never faided away, as his burning passion for music. I can see it in This is it. What an amazing artist we lost.

  14. Oh yeah I think that Michael could have been a gospel singer if he chose. His Earth Song performance at Brunei would have made me jump up and dance in the isles, shouting with him! Keep the Faith shows him singing gospel really strong. Listen to the lyrics. You talk about a powerful, motivational, dancin’ in the church isles song. Keep the Faith always lifts my spirits. I used to attend a wonderful gospel-based church and we’d be dancin’ in the isles constantly, moved by the Spirit and that soul-stirring music. Michael was so right, music inspires, motivates and changes people. God bless him always! I know we can’t actually see him now, but I know he’s still there. And always will be! Here’s a few lines from Keep the Faith. He had it brothas and sistas. He had it like no one else will ever have it again.

    Dust Off Your Butt
    And Get Your Self-Respect Back
    You’ve Known Me Long Enough
    To Know That I Don’t Play
    Take It Like You Want It
    But You Got To Keep The Faith Gon’
    Don’t Let Nobody Take You Down
    Just Keep Your Eyes On The Prize
    And Get Your Feet Back On The Ground
    Keep The Faith, Baby, Yea
    Because It’s Just
    A Matter Of Time
    Before Your Confidence Will Win Out
    But Till That Day I Said You’ve Got To Keep The Faith!”

    1. Susan T said, “He had it brothas and sistas. He had it like no one else will ever have it again.”

      So very true! So very true! His music, concerts, videos will give testimony to that for generations to come!

  15. Amen!! Susan, you said it!!

    Yes, JoyMJ, we lost an amazing artist and a true warrior, but I like what Susan T. says, that he is still here and always will be!!!

  16. Raven said, “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!).”


    Chris = Talented, entertaining and energetic but with a very rehearsed, aggressive, over confident and cocky manner that can be a turn off. Almost feels like he’s forcing himself onto his audience. Just my opinion but to me he’s too much about himself and his ego. An issue enhanced, I believe, due to too many misplaced MJ comparisions early in his career.

    Michael = Raw, fresh talent with real emotion that connects immediately with his audiance leaving them AND him uplifted and energized. There’s truly a two way conversation between Michael and his audience. Can’t teach that!! Does Michael have an ego? Sure he does but it’s never just about him and it never feels like he’s forcing himself onto his audience. That said, there’s still plenty of male confidence and assertiveness that never feels heavy handed or overly aggressive. Woo Hoo Mack Daddy!!! 🙂 Take notes Chris!!

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