“Beat It”’s legend is greater than the song itself, which says a lot considering how great the actual song is. How do I accurately summarize this song’s impact on me and the world? I’m not going to even try. Here are a few interesting facts/theories, though.
The story about Quincy Jones calling Eddie Van Halen to have him play guitar on “Beat It” and him cussing Q out because of a bad connection is almost certainly apocryphal. I’ve mentioned Quincy’s habit of telling tall tales in a previous post, and I feel like you’ve just got to take everything that man says with a grain of salt. It could have happened, I guess. But more likely, Michael was friends with fellow ‘70s teen star Valerie Bertinelli (who happened to be EVH’s wife) and asked if Eddie could be on the record. Easy peasy.
There’s also a quote from Quincy regarding the studio speakers bursting into flames when “Beat It” was played back for the first time. Right.
One interesting thing about Thriller has to do with the fact that so many elements from contemporary hits found their way into the album’s mix. “Billie Jean” has a similar feel to Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That”. Thriller’s title track cribs the bassline from Rick James’ “Give It To Me Baby”. Meanwhile, listen to “Beat It”’s intro, listen to the intro to “Let It Whip” by The Dazz Band (a huge R&B hit in the spring of 1982, right around the time “Beat It” would’ve been recorded, and tell me that they’re not the same. Interesting addendum: Ndugu Chancler (a fellow Epic Records artist who also happened to write “Let It Whip”) appears elsewhere on Thriller. As Arsenio was fond of saying, “hmmm…”
“Beat It” is sung in a ridiculously high key. I can do a fair approximation of Michael’s voice in a karaoke setting, but no way in hell would I touch “Beat It” without slicing one or both of my testicles off. Kudos to Michael (and his vocal coach Seth Riggs) for being able to pull that off (and for Michael to be able to pull it off live during the Victory tour–later performances either dropped the song a key or utilized taped vocals.) When Fall Out Boy remade “Beat It” 10 or so years ago, Patrick Stump (no slouch himself when it comes to singing) brought up the challenging key the song was performed in.
Beyond that. Holy crap. Michael solidified his rock cred (and set the stage for a ton of inferior knockoffs, many of which were recorded by him), he rocked the first (and sweetest) of his two iconic red jackets in the game-changing video (which, in retrospect, is notable because it’s one of the few MJ videos in which he appears to be a normal person—well, a normal person who breaks up gang brawls with some sweet-ass dance moves.). He gave most of the country their first look at Bloods and Crips half a decade before N.W.A., he made Van Halen even bigger than they were (1984 became their biggest selling album AND “Jump” was their only #1 pop record, even making it on to the R&B list), AND if its iconography wasn’t enough, “Beat It” still stands the test of time as an actual song. It’s by no means dated. For that, we’ll tolerate another 100 Quincy tall tales.