It’s hard to believe that only three years have passed since the news of Michael Jackson’s death swept the world. On June 25th 2009 the child star turned King of Pop was found dead in his LA mansion.
The controversial life of the fallen singer in the years leading up to his death were forgotten (or respectfully ignored) as millions of fans worldwide responded with an outpouring of grief. Whether you adore the King of Pop or prefer to think of him as Wacko Jacko, there is no denying that Michael Jackson played an important role in the history of popular music.
It’s strange to think, then, that it all began with a love song about a rat.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s first #1 solo hit with single “Ben”. On this day in 1972, after over five years of performing as part of The Jackson 5 alongside his brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon, a 14-year-old Michael saw “Ben” shoot straight to the top of the charts.
The track was written for the 1972 horror film of the same name and spent one week at the top of the US pop charts. It also became the title track on Jackson’s second solo album Ben.
Despite the softness of the ballad, the song is actually about the friendship between a lonely young boy and his killer pet rat. The song was the first breakout hit for Jackson that confirmed his ability to perform as a solo artist without the help of his brothers.
In retrospect, the song is eerily prophetic in the way it captures the loneliness and isolation that would haunt Michael in later years. The ballad also set a template that Jackson held onto for the remainder of his career.
Crooning love songs found their way into every album he released and they seemed to intensify each time. Love songs about rats, turned into love songs about women – such as Thriller’s “The Lady In My Life” and Bad’s “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”, which eventually manifested into love songs about the planet, “Heal The World” and “Earth Song”.
Jackson’s balladry grew to match the scale of his ambitions and scope, but his career as a solo artist began in 1971 with Got To Be There. While the child star earned enormous success early in his career it would take almost seven years until he struck success again with 1979’s studio album Off The Wall. While it cemented him as an adult superstar almost overnight, the evolution and transition out of being a child star was one that he struggled with, arguably for the rest of his career.
“I think every child star suffers through this period because you’re not the cute and charming child that you were,” the King of Pop revealed to Oprah Winfrey in 1993. “You start to grow, and they want to keep you little forever.”
In the early years, during this awkward transition, Jackson released two albums that received little attention compared to his other works, namely 1973’s Music & Me and Forever, Michael two years later.
He was of course, acquainted with living in the spotlight before even then, as the seventh of nine children and rose to fame during the 70s as part of The Jackson 5 to become one of the biggest pop acts of that period.
The success of their first four singles “I Want You Back”, “ABC”, “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There” made them the first group in pop history to have four consecutive singles top the charts.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t at all as easy as ‘one, two, three’ for The Jackson 5. Domineering father and manager Joseph Jackson allegedly beat his children and chastised them when they didn’t perform to standard.
“We were nervous rehearsing because he would sit in a chair with a belt in his hand, and if you didn’t do it the right way, he would tear you up. Really get you,” Jackson said in the 2003 documentary, Living With Michael Jackson. “We were terrified of him,” he admits.
Jackson’s father/manager reportedly forced his children to call him Joseph rather than ‘father’ or ‘dad’ and was physically and emotionally abusive.
Speaking about his feelings towards his father, Jackson once remarked: “Am I angry with him? Sometimes I do get angry. I don’t know him the way I’d like to know him. My mother’s wonderful. To me she’s perfection. I just wish I could understand my father.”
In this sad story of childhood oppression and abuse, it’s surprising that Jackson took charge of his talent to establish an astounding career. In 1979, MJ fired his father as manager and released Off The Wall. The album produced Jackson’s first solo #1 hit since “Ben”, in “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”.
Four years later Jackson went on to release what would become the greatest selling album of all time, Thriller (1982).
Jackson’s artistry extended to music videos and he produced many successful clips that were more akin to short films, most notably the mini-horror movie that was the video for “Thriller”, directed by John Landis and spanning almost 14 minutes in length.
Not too far a cry from the young lad who sung a soppy, string-laden ballad to his killer pet rat…
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