One Hell of An Eye
The Official Blog of Mike Salisbury
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“When will.i.am shouted, “Welcome to the future!” as he and the rest of the Black Eyed Peas cavorted with a blur of dancers through a medley that sounded like a military cadence mixed with an ad jingle at the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, he wasn’t only spouting a cliché. His bulletin announced that pop music’s winning game is changing, and that the only way for the music business to survive is to jump into the pandemonium.”

–Ann Powers, L.A. Times

But long before the recent Grammys and its roster of artists spinning on spritzing ropes, marching with jack-booted SWAT teams, or struggling to sing live without digital assistance, there was one artist who reached that transcendent place where we are told the future of music is headed and held his place there for the lifetime of his career.

He could do it all.  Perform spectacularly.  Dance.  Sing music. Music he created. Do it all without the non sequiter hype. Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson's original "Off the Wall" photo shoot

Michael Jackson's original "Off the Wall" photo shoot

Following is an interview Richard Lecoq conducted with me for his MichaelJacksonDataBank, Paris, France, (richard.lecocq@mjdatabank.com)…about the beginning of that future acclaimed by will.i.am.

Mike, you created the image of Michael Jackson for the cover of his first hugely successful solo album “Off the Wall.” How did it all happen?

I saw Michael Jackson in the movie “The Wiz” and was blown away. I knew his agent and called him to say that Michael was going to be huge and I wanted to work on something with him.  Anything.

The agent told me to come to his office immediately.  I ran to Beverly Hills.  He showed me an album cover mock up and said,  “This is set to be his solo debut album. What do you think?”  It looked like a cheap ad for the children’s department of Macy’s and I told him so. “I know,” the agent agreed.  “It sucks.  Apparently no one has any confidence in Michael as a solo artist.”

“Look,” I said, “Michael Jackson is going to be a phenomenon and should be introduced to the world with an iconic image of him as a star and a star on his own. Let me come back with some ideas.”

What was that creative process for you?

Marketing recording stars like George Harrison, James Taylor, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Ike and Tina, Rickie Lee Jones and art directing Rolling Stone magazine, I had experience in the music business.  And I had an idea about how to market Michael but it needed to be sold with a presentation.  I didn’t want to get shot down if my concept couldn’t be visualized.  This was the major turning point in a young artist’s life and I wanted to create a new image for him, a brand.

Most music marketing elements–- covers, photography, artist logos— are all typically created in verbal sessions with the artist.  But I had one really good idea and no idea whom I would be presenting to.   And if not Michael, I needed something he would get if it was delivered to him by someone besides me.  My concept had to be tangible.  It involved creating not just an album cover, but a look for Michael.

How did your concept become visually tangible?

Because I was not only designing and creating a cover but was also styling a person, I had my concept sketched in several variations by a fashion illustrator who was not only good at fashion but could also draw an accurate likeness of a person.  This had to express the concept and look like our star.

Did your presentation work?

I returned to the agent’s office and presented the concepts.  He looked, looked again, perplexed like a cross eyed-chicken checking out a worm.  I knew I had to sell and sell now. “It’s a metaphor,” I subtly yelled, “It’s a metaphor!!”  The agent continued to look perplexed.  “He’s a kid just out from under his dad”, I said. “Just stepping away from his big brothers.  I want to make the statement:  this is his debut as a man and it’s as big as Sinatra coming on stage in Vegas. This is a new emblematic symbol created by combining two symbols not usually associated together—a visual metaphor.”

What symbols did you combine to create your visual metaphor and just what is the metaphor?

At that time, young Michael was gangly and had an Afro.  A kid.  Pointing to the fashion drawing I said, “I put a kid in a tuxedo – a tuxedo like Sinatra walking into the spotlight to the applause of a sold out Vegas performance.”

Michael Jackson's fingers - photo by Leftéris

Michael Jackson's fingers - photo by Leftéris Padavos

Black and white.  Simple. Dramatic.  “That says: big deal!”  The agent hemmed and hawed and was just about to dismiss the whole nutty idea when a little high-pitched voice softly giggled, “I like it.”  And Michael stepped out from behind the tall heavy drape covering the large office window overlooking Sunset Boulevard. Almost in a whisper he said, “Let’s do it.”

Where did the white socks he continued to wear with black pants and shoes his entire career come from?

Michael bought my tux idea with glee but he wanted to make one change: “I want to wear white socks,” he whispered.  “Then they have to be glamorous socks,” I said.  And they were.  Custom-made for Michael by famous Hollywood costume designer Bob Mackie.  My wife at the time found an Yves St. Laurent woman’s tux in Beverly Hills that fit Michael and when we shot the cover I said, “Roll up your pant legs, put your fingers in your pockets and pull your pants up like Gene Kelly – show off the socks.”   To really carry off the concept I had Michael get loafers like Kelly wore with his white socks under rolled up pants in the film “An American in Paris.”

Well, it worked.

Not at first!  The first shoot for me simply did not work.  It had no energy.  No literal wall imagery. Or, as they say in music—“No announcement value.”

Michael was a good sport and we re-shot in an urban alley against an old wall I found made of real brick and voila!…Off the Wall.  After the Great Wall and the Berlin Wall, probably one of the most famous walls in the world!

And that first cover had something really special about it.  A fan wrote me recently and remarked that he liked that particular shot because it captured Michael in his natural state, so yes, it worked.

Let’s talk about the glove…it is, after all, the ultimate Michael symbol.

Basically it was just further development of “the look.”  The white socks were so successful at drawing attention to Michael and his dance moves, a conversation started about doing gloves too.  White gloves.  I felt that would start looking literally Mickey Mouse (and of course Michael was a big Mickey Mouse fan) so I said to the agent and Michael  “Why two?”

Michael Jackson's Rolling Stone cover

Michael Jackson as Mickey Mouse - Rolling Stone cover

We got it down to one white glitzy glove.

There’s all this talk recently about the glove being an attempt to hide his skin condition, but I was there when the look was created and it was all about making a distinct creative statement and getting attention.

Of course, another iconic element of the look was the hat.

I know where the socks, shoes, tux and glove came from but the hat was after my involvement.  I had the thought that since I turned Michael onto Gene Kelly, (or Sinatra).  Perhaps he was the inspiration for the hat.  Then I recalled between cover shoots going to the townhouse Michael had at the time out in the valley.  In the foyer was a replica of Donatello’s David; David wears a hat tilted down over his forehead.

Donatello's bronze David...inspiration for part of Michael's look

Donatello's bronze David...inspiration for part of Michael's look

Michael liked the look.  I also recall the strong graphics of the statue’s body positioning and that influenced me to push Michael further to get to that iconic pose that is the original cover of  Off the Wall.

The whole look we created at that time was a graphic metaphor of Michael’s coming of age, of his stepping out as a man on his own.  Those images, the black and white palette, the socks and glove and all the other trademark elements we came up with, were kept in some form as the symbol of Michael Jackson throughout his career.

Where exactly was the cover shot taken?

The first attempt was Michael’s idea to shoot up at the Hollywood Planetarium at the Griffith Observatory.  Michael was late drove up the hill way too fast, stopped at the spot in front of the building that was the location for the knife fight in Rebel Without a Cause and that’s where we shot.  He was just 21 and came roaring up in a new blue Rolls Royce.  Never having driven himself most of his life, he sort of drove by ear and the Roller had the dents that were he markers o his directional sound bites!

There was no place to change and we were under the gun because we had no permit to shoot there.  But the women’s restroom was open and like a real trouper he ran in there and put on the tux.  I didn’t want him to be overpowered in the photo by the building, and he agreed, so we shot closer in to him.  Later he was a good enough sport to realize those observatory shots wouldn’t work and agreed to a re-shoot.  I redid it with photographer Steve Harvey with Michael standing against that wall. The title even suggests the outrageousness of his coming out as a mature solo act. He needed a look that announced that.

Any concluding thoughts on Michael’s story?

There’s a famous Artie Shaw quote:  “Failure was easy to deal with. You always knew where to go:  UP.  You would keep on trying.  But success was confusing.  It was like a drug.  Most people are conditioned and used to failure.  Not many are conditioned and trained for what happens once you succeed.  It’s very, very, confusing…”

I think it all just became confusing for Michael.  He had so much success and from a very young age.  I don’t think too many people can understand what it was like to be him, to continually have to reinvent him to stay on top. But he did.

And I take some small pride in the fact that my graphic black and white elements are always there. My visual metaphor. For a star. And the future of pop.

MJ, iconic in black and white

MJ, iconic in black and white

Comments:

FROM MIKE: Thanks to Gerrit Terstiege of Form Magazine (www.form.de) and producer Micah Smith for their very “off the wall” coverage.  Thanks also to Patt Morrison for the interview on KPCC, along with her then-producer Karen Fritsche, and Alan Metter, the real King of Comedy who suggested this story to them!  MS.

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Great talent, maybe the best ever in his genre.  The ones that stand out are Elvis, James Brown and Jackson.  All total head cases.  Some doctors say genius and insanity live in the same room.  Tim DY

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Very cool, Mike! Kevin D.

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Hey, Mike, my kids and grandkids are in awe of all of your work.  My grandaughter, Gracie, didn’t know anything about Michael till his death, got interested and now she did a talent show dressed in black tux, hat, white sox and black loafers.  She danced just like he did.   She is very good.   If you have more material on Michael, please forward.   Gracie is 11 yrs. old.  Thank you.  Dave & Shay

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Yeah, your Michael Jackson blog was really interesting. I just re-read it. I remember being at your place that day.  I grew up with his posters, including the Off the Wall design, on my bedroom wall.    Andrew

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