Eddie Van Halen played the guitar solo. He did it as a favor for Quincy Jones and was not paid, unless you count the two 6-packs of beer Jones brought into the studio for Eddie.
Part of Jackson's legacy was his crossover success with white audiences, something that many Motown artists achieved, but Jackson took to a new level. He was the first black artist to get regular airplay on MTV, and this song helped expand his audience further by bringing in some of the Van Halen listeners. "Beat It" was a key track in Jackson's rise to superstardom.
Jackson wrote this song. He came up with it when his producer, Quincy Jones, encouraged him to write something like "My Sharona
," which was a huge hit for The Knack in 1979. (this and the first Songfact are confirmed in Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones
The lyrics are about life on the streets and gang activity, something Jackson was very detached from. He was schooled by tutors his whole life and became a star at a young age, so his interpretation of "two gangs coming together to rumble" was based on the celluloid interpretations that he'd seen, specifically West Side Story, which used gangs as musical art.
West Side Story was a 1957 musical that was made into a popular movie in 1961. Starring Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno, the film won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Some of the first dialogue heard in the movie - in a scene where some gang members have encroached on rival territory - is the emphatic line, "beat it."
The lyric "Show me how funky and strong is your fight" is often misheard as something you can't say on the radio. That line also has the distinction of being misquoted on one of the most popular sitcoms of the era
, when Mallory on Family Ties
(Justine Bateman), when demonstrating her idea of good music to her hippie parents, sing, "Show me what's funky, show me what's right..."
About 2:45 into the song, there is an audible knocking noise just before Eddie Van Halen starts his guitar solo. Rumors were that an angry and drunk Eddie made the noise, that he was telling the assistant producer to f--k off, or that it was the sound of his guitar tremolo being bent. The truth is more mundane, as it was an intentional sound created by Michael Jackson banging on a drum case. On the Thriller credits, Jackson is listed on "Beat It" as "Drum Case Beater."
Michael Jackson is quoted in Rolling Stone
magazine's Top 500 songs issue as saying of this, "I wanted to write the type of rock song that I would go out and buy. But also something totally different from the rock music I was hearing on Top 40 radio."
This won 1983 Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Rock Vocal Performance.
The music video for this song was one of the most popular and memorable of the MTV era. Jackson became the first black artist to get regular airplay on the network when "Billie Jean
" went in rotation. When the clip for "Beat It" was delivered, both videos were in hot rotation for much of the summer of 1983.
It was Bob Giraldi who directed the clip, which featured real gang members. Giraldi, who later directed the infamous Pepsi commercial where Jackson's hair caught fire, said in the book I Want My MTV
: "Everybody says 'Beat It' was taken from West Side Story
. It's not true. I had no idea what West Side Story
was. My inspiration was the streets of Paterson, New Jersey, where I'm from. I listened to the song over and over, and realized it was about all the Italian hoodlums I grew up with - everybody trying to be tougher than they are, but really, we're all cowards at heart."
Giraldi adds that Jackson asked to use members of the rival gangs Bloods and Crips as extras in the video, which they did. He says that on the first day of shooting, things got a little tense, so Giraldi had them shoot all scenes with the gang members on the first day.
When Jackson reunited with his brothers for two shows at Madison Square Garden, Slash from Guns N' Roses played guitar during the performance of this and "Black And White."
Weird Al Yankovic did a parody of this song called "Eat It
." Rick Derringer played the guitar solo on his version.
Yankovic also did a video for his song where he appeared dressed like Jackson but with a voracious appetite. Yankovic says that Michael Jackson had a great sense of humor and gave him permission to do the parody. This gave him validation with other artists who had a hard time declining a parody when Michael Jackson said yes.
Members of the group Toto played on this, including Steve Lukather on lead guitar. They helped out with the Thriller album. (thanks, Dias - Sao Paulo, Brazil)
The US Department of Transportation used this in messages to discourage drunk driving. In exchange, Jackson was invited to the White House where he met President Reagan. Jackson showed up in his sequined suit and sunglasses, which made for an interesting photo with the president.
Fall Out Boy recorded this in 2008 for their album ****: Live in Phoenix. Their version, which hit #19 in the US, was first performed this during the 2007 MTV Music Video Awards. Excluding tracks that sample any of Michael Jackson's songs, it became the second highest-charting remake of a Jackson song in Hot 100 history. The highest-ranked cover of a Jackson original was SWV's 1993 medley of "Right Here/Human Nature," which peaked at #2. In this cover of "Beat It," John Mayer joined Fall Out Boy, performing Eddie Van Halen's part on lead guitar. Fall Out Boy released a video for the song that contained many allusions to Michael Jackson and the original video.
Quincy Jones said that when he called Eddie Van Halen to play the guitar solo, "I said, 'I'm not going to tell you what to play, the reason you're here is because of what you do play…' So that's what he did. He played his ass off."
Eddie Van Halen recalled: "Everybody (from Van Halen) was out of town and I figured, 'who's gonna know if I play on this kid's record?' I didn't want nothing. Maybe Michael will give me dance lessons someday." (Source of above two quotes Q magazine August 2009).
This was featured in the 1989 film Back To The Future 2.
According to Jackson's co-songwriter Rod Templeton, a mystery blaze broke out in the control room as Eddie van Halen played his guitar solo. "Eddie was playing and the monitor speakers literally caught on fire," recalled Templeton to Q magazine. "The speaker caught fire and were all thinking, like, 'This must be really good, this solo!' That technicians had to race into the control room with fire extinguishers and put it out."