THRILLER TURNS 30: Eddie Van Halen takes credit for improving ‘Beat It’
By Denise Quan
(CNN) — Eddie Van Halen sits on a sofa in his home studio, smoking an electronic cigarette and reminiscing about the 30th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s masterpiece album, “Thriller.”
“It seems like yesterday, doesn’t it,” he says softly. “It would have been fun to work with him again.”
Van Halen was a surprise guest on “Beat It,” the album’s third single. His blazing guitar solo lasted all of 20 seconds and took half an hour to record. He did it for free, as a favor to producer Quincy Jones, while the rest of his Van Halen bandmates were out of town.
“I said to myself, ‘Who is going to know that I played on this kid’s record, right? Nobody’s going to find out.’ Wrong!” he laughs. “Big-time wrong. It ended up being Record of the Year.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer recently revealed to CNN what went on behind-the-scenes of his iconic collaboration with the King of Pop.
CNN: When Quincy rang you up, you thought it was a crank call.
Eddie Van Halen: I went off on him. I went, “What do you want, you f-ing so-and-so!” And he goes, “Is this Eddie?” I said, “Yeah, what the hell do you want?” “This is Quincy.” I’m thinking to myself, “I don’t know anyone named Quincy.” He goes, “Quincy Jones, man.” I went, “Ohhh, sorry!” (Laughs)
I asked, “What can I do for you?” And he said, “How would you like to come down and play on Michael Jackson’s new record?” And I’m thinking to myself, “OK, ‘ABC, 1, 2, 3′ and me. How’s that going to work?”
I still wasn’t 100% sure it was him. I said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll meet you at your studio tomorrow.” And lo and behold, when I get there, there’s Quincy, there’s Michael Jackson and there’s engineers. They’re makin’ records!
CNN: Did Quincy give you any direction about what he wanted you to do?
Van Halen: Michael left to go across the hall to do some children’s speaking record. I think it was “E.T.” or something. So I asked Quincy, “What do you want me to do?” And he goes, “Whatever you want to do.” And I go, “Be careful when you say that. If you know anything about me, be careful when you say, “Do anything you want!”
I listened to the song, and I immediately go, “Can I change some parts?” I turned to the engineer and I go, “OK, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out.” Took him maybe 10 minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.
I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in. And you know artists are kind of crazy people. We’re all a little bit strange. I didn’t know how he would react to what I was doing. So I warned him before he listened. I said, “Look, I changed the middle section of your song.”
Now in my mind, he’s either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he’s going to like it. And so he gave it a listen, and he turned to me and went, “Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song, and make it better.”
He was this musical genius with this childlike innocence. He was such a professional, and such a sweetheart.
CNN: That collaboration surprised a lot of people.
Van Halen: I’ll never forget when Tower Records was still open over here in Sherman Oaks. I was buying something, and “Beat It” was playing over the store sound system. The solo comes on, and I hear these kids in front of me going, “Listen to this guy trying to sound like Eddie Van Halen.” I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “That IS me!” That was hilarious.
CNN: How did you explain to the guys in Van Halen what had happened?
Van Halen: I just said, “You know. (Shrugs) Busted!” “Dave, you were out of the country!” “Al, you weren’t around!” I couldn’t call anyone and ask for permission.
Unfortunately, “Thriller” kept our album, “1984,” from going to No. 1. Our album was just about ready to go No. 1 when he burned his hair in that Pepsi commercial, if you remember that. And boom, he went straight to No. 1 again!
CNN: Is there an album since then that has shaken things up in the same way?
Van Halen: Wow, I don’t know.
CNN: Some people cite Nirvana’s “Nevermind” has one that caused a musical shift.
Van Halen: But still not like that. Not that crossed over to such a mass audience. Nirvana was huge, but it didn’t appeal to everyone.
I have a lot of respect for Michael. He’s going to be sorely missed. I’d be curious as to what he’d be doing right now.
CNN: I believe Quincy has said he paid you in two six packs of beer.
Van Halen: Yeah, something like that. Actually, I brought my own, if I remember right.
I don’t even think I’m credited on the record. It just says, “Guitar solo: Question Mark” or “Guitar solo: Frankenstein” (the name of his guitar).
CNN: Did you ever hear from Quincy again?
Van Halen: At the very end, Quincy wrote me a letter thanking me. It was signed, “The F-ing Blah Blah Blah,” which I still have. It’s very funny.
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