It’s hard to believe 25 years have passed since Michael Jackson released Bad, the much-anticipated followup to his megahit Thriller. While it didn’t match Thriller’s record-setting sales, it sold 30 to 45 million copies worldwide and spawned five No. 1 singles.
Unlike Thriller and its predecessor, Off the Wall, Bad serves as a artifact of its time, a period where synthesizers and programmed drums dominated pop music. While receiving generally positive reviews, Bad still withstood some criticism: “It was an inevitable anticlimax after Thriller, offering more variations than advances,” states the 2004 Rolling Stone Album Guide. “The album was full of forced poses that started with the title song; people who are ‘really really bad,’ don’t say so backed by a chipmunk chorus. But the music had lots of small pleasures.”
Bad 25, a new box set arriving today, offers listeners the opportunity to reevaluate the album, free from the “will it top Thriller?” speculation of 1987. In addition to the remastered album, the deluxe edition includes another CD of demos and remixes, a DVD of a previously unreleased 1988 Wembley Stadium concert, and the accompanying CD. Two extensive booklets, a full-color poster, and a Bad 25 decal round out the package, held in a black box with a magnetic closure. Jackson fans will undoubtedly want to own this collection, but it also allows casual fans to reassess the album’s place in the music — and Jackson — history.
The remastered album presents the material in crystal-clear sound, exposing Siedah Garrett’s previously buried harmonies on “Man in the Mirror” and the hammering beat of “The Way You Make Me Feel.” This version dramatically fleshes out the sterile, flat sound of the original release, breathing new life into very familiar tunes. “Speed Demon’s” twitchy beat, accompanied by Jackson’s raspy vocals, adds impact to the fun track. He proves he can sing ballads well, his sighs and breathy voice enhancing the sensuality of “Liberian Girl.”
One inescapable element, however, is Bad’s over-reliance on synthesizers, electronic effects, and programed drums. It would have been interesting for Jackson to rerecord the songs using real instruments and minimalist arrangements; therefore songs such as “Dirty Diana” would have benefited more from Jackson’s snarling vocals and rock guitarist Steve Steven’s searing solos. Tragically, that will never happen, but one cannot help but wonder if different production would have earned Bad the same timeless status as Thriller or Off the Wall.
Demos which did not make the final cut appear on the second disc. Clearly, Jackson could have released a classic R&B album full of ballads; he even experimented with Latin rhythms on such breezy tracks as “Free” and “Don’t be Messin’ ‘Round.” Comparing the final album to gentle songs such as “I’m So Blue” and the sweeping “Fly Away,” it’s clear that Jackson eventually elected to go in a tougher direction on Bad. But defiance is present on “Price of Fame,” a scathing indictment on a celebrity’s loss of privacy and an example of his ever-increasing isolation and paranoia. “I feel the pressure setting in,” he cries over a throbbing, keyboard-driven beat.
One of the most fascinating tracks remains “Al Capone,” a heavy funk workout that gradually evolved into “Smooth Criminal.” The bass line and chords vaguely resemble the final version, but the lyrics differ greatly. These demos shed light on Jackson’s creative process, although more outtakes would be more welcome than the other filler tracks: French and Spanish versions of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” (do we really need both versions?), a Nero remix of “Speed Demon,” and two more remixes of “Bad.”
Also included is a DVD of his July 16, 1988 Wembley Stadium concert (Prince Charles and Princess Diana were in attendance). The source is a VHS recording, so the visual quality does not live up to our DVD/Blue Ray standards. Yet, it shows Jackson in his ultra-precise glory, flawlessly executing each moment of the show. A pre-fame Sheryl Crow serves as his duet partner on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” and struts across the stage during a bonus performance of “The Way You Make Me Feel.” The rest of the band plus several backup dancers/singers ably support Jackson as he tears through then-current and classic hits, often dramatically pausing in the middle of tunes for effect. Sweat pouring down his face, Jackson dazzles the audience with his rubber-like legs and Bob Fosse-worthy footwork. Unfortunately the band almost exactly replicates the electronic sound of Bad, but his enthusiasm still enraptures the crowd. At a few points, he lets his guard down slightly, broadly grinning during “Rock with You” and introducing the band with smiles and jokes.
Bonus features include two performances of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Bad” from early in the tour, specifically Yokohama Stadium in September 1987. Hopefully, this entire show will be released someday, as it shows Jackson in a looser frame of mind, apparently not as concerned about being absolutely perfect. That results in a happier Jackson with less elaborate stage costumes and more genuine emotion. By the time he reached Wembley the following year, the show had become a well-oiled machine. Want to simply listen to the concert? A CD of the entire performance is included. Since Jackson’s innovative music videos are so closely interconnected with his songs, a DVD containing all the Bad-era videos would have provided yet another perspective on the entire album.
Even though Jackson’s die-hard fans presumably already own Bad, the deluxe edition will appeal to them due to the demos and Wembley concert. Casual fans may not appreciate the rare material as much, but they will enjoy listening to a welcome remaster of the original album. Finally, the Wembley footage further demonstrates why Jackson is considered one of music’s finest performers. At the very least, Bad 25 allows listeners to decide for themselves whether Bad stands with his finest work, or mostly exists as a solid pop album containing many memorable singles.