So it’s Christmas shopping season 1983. Thriller has been out for little over a year, and spent much of that year as the #1 selling album in the country, and so, figuring that it would probably be an easy Christmas present, as Jay and I walked into Tower Records, it seemed like that entire shelf that you’d see as you’d walk into the store was overflowing with nothing but copies of Thriller. Thriller everywhere. Thriller. Thriller. Thriller.
So I walk over to the stack — maybe it went to the ceiling — grabbed a copy, shoved it at Jay and said: “Hey have you heard of this? Is it any good?”
Unless, of course, he made that joke to me. It was 35 years ago. The point, of course, was that, in 1983, Thriller was totally and utterly inescapable.
All things considered, Thriller — along with perhaps the M*A*S*H finale, which happened the same week it first topped the charts — was the absolute and utter peak of the monoculture, and the crossover success of “Beat It” had a huge part in that, as it ran over the divisions between “black music” and “white music” with the efficiency of a bullet train.
And that’s despite having two of the guys from Toto provide the drums and guitar!
But that guitar is playing a super cool riff, though, marching inexorably against both the real and fake drums, and underpinning the call-and-response chorus with equal parts flair and precision, and honestly, “Beat It” would have been remembered as a classic without Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo, the crossover elephant in any conversation about it.
As we will get to at some point in say, 2021, I loved Van Halen, as their debut album came out in my sophomore year in high school — and therefore that love was mandated by law — and even though I discovered punk rock almost immediately afterwards, they were still very much a staple of my musical diet.
That said, when Eddie got the call to come in toss a tornado into the middle of “Beat It,” they’d just made what was easily their weakest album to that point, Diver Down, so it’s possible he was looking for some outside inspiration when Quincy Jones called him.
So in the most “why the fuck not?” moment in his career, he came down, messed around with the song structure and recorded a quintessential Eddie Van Halen guitar solo, which sounded that much more amazing for being unexpected. I mean, unexpected musically: I’m pretty sure that anybody paying attention to popular music already knew that Michael Jackson had a song with an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo, but on the record it sounds like Eddie walked in, plugged in, played a blazing solo, unplugged and walked out, having helped change everything.
It’s so awesome it even makes up for Sammy Hagar.
In case you’ve never seen it, here’s the official music video for “Beat It”
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