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 six-packs of beer brought into the studio.
Eddie connected to Quincy through Ted Templeman, who was Van Halen's producer and friends with Jones. It was good timing because Eddie's bandmates were out of town, so they couldn't give him any static for taking on another project. He figured nobody would ever know it was him on the record.
According to Eddie, he had the engineer restructure the song to accommodate his solo, then blasted out two takes. Jackson showed up after the second take and was thrilled that Eddie cared enough about the song to rework it. Eddie told CNN
: "He was this musical genius with this childlike innocence. He was such a professional, and such a sweetheart."
When Van Halen's 1984
album rose to #2 in America for three weeks in March 1984, it was held off the top spot by Thriller
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.
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), demonstrating her idea of good music to her hippie parents, sings, "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: Steve Lukather on lead guitar, Steve Porcaro on synthesizer, and Jeff Porcaro on drums. These guys were seasoned studio pros and had the hot sound - the album Toto IV was one of the best sellers of 1982.
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 Rod Temperton, who wrote the title track to Thriller, 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 Temperton 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."
Anyone who knew their way around a Synclavier at the time probably thought the song's intro synth sounded familiar. According to the album's engineer, Bruce Swedien, it was a stock Synclavier patch.
"Any Synclavier will make that sound," he told MusicRadar
. "We liked it but we wanted everything to be unrecognizable, unique, so we didn't want to use that sound, but Michael loved it and made us keep it."
Swedien was in awe of Eddie Van Halen's powerful guitar solo, but he didn't dare record it himself. Fearing the blast would damage his hearing, he left the studio while Eddie was still warming up. "It was so loud I would never subject my hearing to that kind of volume level!" he said. "I didn't record that solo, I hired his engineer - I figured his hearing would probably be a little suspect right now anyway. I then did the mix after it was recorded."