Marking the quarter century mark since the release of Michael Jackson’s work of pop genius, Bad 25 is a positively electrifying celebration of this often underrated album. Released five years after Thriller, Bad ended up being regarded by many as a disappointing follow up to what became the best-selling album of all time. While Thriller was certainly a hard act to follow, Jackson did so by stepping up his songwriting output. With only two exceptions (“Man in the Mirror” and “Just Good Friends”), he wrote the entire record.
Of course, songwriting credits alone don’t spell greatness. What does is the sheer craftsmanship and artistry that went into songs like “Smooth Criminal,” “Dirty Diana,” “Leave Me Alone,” and “The Way You Make Me Feel.” These hits helped define pop music in the late-‘80s and continue to serve as standard bearers. Even the lesser known album tracks, such as the propulsive “Speed Demon” and silky “Liberian Girl,” stand out as prime examples of Jackson’s abilities. It helped having Quincy Jones on board as producer, as he had been for Off the Wall and Thriller.
In other words, Bad is a treasure chest of indelible pop hooks, tasteful arrangements, devastating dance grooves, and some impeccable vocal performances. Epic/Legacy Recordings, in collaboration of the Estate of Michael Jackson, meant business when they put together this special anniversary edition. The remastered album sounds great, but the draw for fans is the additional material.
I’m going to jump right to the DVD, which contains a full, unedited two-hour concert from London’s Wembley Stadium, July 16, 1988. Want to see a 26-year-old Sheryl Crow duetting with Jackson on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You?” Crow was a backing vocalist on the Bad tour, but was given a featured spot on that chart-topping ballad. Looking for a few surprises in the set list? There’s a slamming take on the Jacksons’ 1980 hit “This Place Hotel.” This concert is simply incredible from start to finish. Jackson literally finishes “She’s Out of My Life” in tears, bringing a stunning level of intimacy to the 72,000 fans on hand.
Here’s the only catch—the video of the concert was sourced from a VHS cassette from Jackson’s private collection. It was made from the JumboTron feed that the concertgoers saw that night. While the image has been remastered, we’re still stuck with a mid-‘80s home video-quality picture. It’s not nearly as bad as it might sound though. The image, for all its obvious shortcomings, is never difficult to watch. The best part is that the audio was all sourced from the multitrack board tapes, which means it’s excellent. In fact, the DVD boasts a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.
There are a couple bonus clips included on the DVD. “The Way You Make Me Feel” was not performed during the July 16 show, but it was the night before. They recreate the music video, with Sheryl Crow sashaying around as the object of Jackson’s affection. A pair of songs from a September, 1987 show in Japan are included, “Bad” and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” Crow duets with Jackson on the latter, getting soulful and pulling some priceless Joe Cocker faces during an extended ending that isn’t present in their duet from the Wembley performance.
Though slightly edited to fit on one CD, the entire concert is included as a live album—which makes it the first of Jackson’s solo career. The only things missing from the concert video are a “Bad Groove” jam section (that Jackson was not involved in) and a few extended endings (including a spine-tingling coda to “I’ll Be There”). In other words, it’s a sensational live album with 16 tracks of primo Jackson greatness in pristine sound quality.
Then there are the studio outtakes, alternate versions, and new remixes on the other disc. While the remixes may be interesting for some listeners, I didn’t find them to be an essential (or even desired) part of the package. But two Afrojack remixes of “Bad” (one featuring Pitbull) and Nero’s remix of “Speed Demon” are included. Carrying over from the 2001 Bad reissue are “Streetwalker,” “Fly Away,” and the Spanish version of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” This edition adds a French language version of the latter song for good measure.
The real prize is a group of six unvarnished, previously unreleased demos, all written by Jackson and recorded during the Bad sessions. The most immediately attention-getting is “Song Groove (a.k.a. Abortion Papers),” a track that many fans have already begun debating the meaning of. Regardless of whether it carries a pro-life or pro-choice message, it presents a scintillating dance groove with a fiery vocal. While I can’t quite decipher all the lyrics, the liner notes include some quotes from Jackson’s own notes about the song that suggest it’s something more ambiguous than a straightforward “message” song.
“Al Capone” bears strong rhythmic and structural similarities to the track it evolved into, “Smooth Criminal,” but it stands as its own funky workout. I love the piano-driven “Don’t Be Messin’ ‘Round” and the smooth sounds of “I’m So Blue” and “Free.” Those three are fascinating glimpses at Jackson’s songwriting process as they each have clearly unfinished lyrics. Much more complete is “Price of Fame,” a song about obsessive fans that sounds more or less album-ready and would’ve made a great addition to the final product.
Two booklets are included, each with pictures and liner notes. There’s also a double-sided mini-poster folded up inside the matte-finish black box. We fans can only hope for similar treatment for Dangerous and beyond, but for now Bad 25 offers plenty.