THE EVENT HORIZON – “SYNCLAVIER, MUSIC AND MICHAEL JACKSON” PART 3

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By Christopher Currell

Japanese – 日本語

Spanish – Español

The “Bad” World Tour

There were so many experiences while on the “Bad” tour, and it is almost an impossible task to write about them without making a complete book. I could break down the tour into three primary categories. The rehearsals; the actual tour which covered Japan, Australia, America and Europe; and the period right after the tour. I will talk about some of the experiences in the above mentioned three categories. What I will not discuss are the political/business aspects of the tour as these subjects tend to be somewhat of a downer. Due to the amount of information, I will write about my experiences on the Bad tour in two columns. This month I will talk about the rehearsals. Next month I will talk about the actual tour with a few additional notes of what I experienced shortly after the tour. Let’s get going….

The Rehearsals

The phone calls started coming! Everyone that was working around Michael was wondering what was going on. It soon became clear that Michael and Frank had started a company called TTC Touring, which was to handle all aspects of the tour. TTC had begun hiring some staff for the tour. I had assumed, from previous discussions with Michael, that I would make the transition from the studio to the live tour. However, it seemed that to some people working for TTC, my participation was questionable. If I was going on the tour, most likely I would be performing off stage.

One afternoon at Westlake (we were still recording), I confronted Michael directly about my participation. I asked Mike if he wanted me to play on the tour. He said yes. I asked him what he wanted me to play. He said guitar and Synclavier. I asked him if I would be on stage. He said yes. He also asked me about the Synclavier. Since the Synclavier was such an important instrument for the Bad album in the studio, he wanted to use it live. Michael’s idea of the show was to duplicate the record. He said people listen to the album and then they go to the shows expecting to hear those songs like they are on the album. So using the Synclavier was important to achieve his idea for the live shows.

His question to me was, would the Synclavier function consistently and reliably from night to night during the rigors of the tour? I told him if he did exactly what I said he would have no problems. We needed to hire the top expert engineer from the Synclavier company to maintain the Synclaviers on the tour. We would need redundant backup systems and we would need an air-conditioned clean room off stage to protect the Synclavier mainframe from the elements; such as dirt, heat and rain. He also wanted to be able to use the Synclavier to write songs while on the tour. So I said we can bring one and set it up in my hotel room and he could come use it and I would operate it any time he wanted! He was excited and said ‘let’s do it’!

I informed the current staff at TTC what Michael had requested. They were frustrated because it was a lot of extra work to bring the Synclaviers and traveling with them at this level had never been done before. Yet Michael had spoken so that was it! I also told the TTC people that the person to maintain the Synclaviers on tour should be Mitch Marcoulier who worked for NED-the Synclavier company.

I called Mitch and told him about the situation and  asked if he would be interested. He said yes. I told him that he had to call TTC and tell them you wanted the gig. Ethically, TTC could not officially ask Mitch because of conflicts of interests. Mitch informed NED that he should go on the tour to make sure the Synclaviers would perform properly in such a high profile situation. It would also be good for NED and good for Michael Jackson. Everyone was happy and Mitch came on board as part of the technical crew for the tour.

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Next thing was to figure out exactly what Synclavier systems were needed. Based on the music and how I would use them in performance, I decided I needed two fully loaded Synclaviers on stage with a Synclavier Direct to Disk recording system. We also needed an entire Synclavier in spare parts as well as redundant hard drives in case there was a problem. This system would add up to about $1,400,000! Only Michael Jackson could afford such a system for a world tour. In addition, we added another Synclavier for my hotel room along with additional recording equipment, speakers, a mixer, my electric guitar and effects.

My biggest worry was how to play the Synclavier Live. I am not a keyboard player. I am a guitar player. I needed to search for the latest technology that would allow a guitar player to play an instrument with guitar like technique but would output digital information reliably to a computer to trigger the Synclavier. I tried everything! In the end, I chose an instrument called the SynthAxe. After plying it for 5 minutes, I knew this instrument could do the job. It was $12,000! I bought one for myself and I had TTC buy two for the tour. Now I just had to learn to play it in a few weeks!

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Meanwhile, auditions for band musicians began and a space was set up at Leeds Rehearsal space in North Hollywood, California. This space included all kinds of Keyboard equipment and some guitar amps for players to use if they needed while auditioning. Rory Kaplin was in charge of the auditions and would help the musicians with the equipment if needed. Rory also became one of the keyboard players in the band. Previously, Rory had played with the Jacksons on the Jackson’s Victory Tour.

Michael was not present at the auditions. A video camera was set up to film the musician’s performance and was later shown to Michael in the evening at his house.

There was not very much time to put the tour together so the list of accomplished musicians that would qualify was narrowed down very quickly by professional referrals in the industry. Michael wanted a female blond guitar player for the band image he had in mind. The Guitar Institute of Technology (GIT) was notified and they said they would send over 5 of their best female students. Due to time constraints, TTC requested that GIT just send the best of the five players.

I happened to be at Leeds the day Jennifer Batten came to audition. She pulled up in a beat up pickup truck. She was a guitar instructor at GIT. She had her guitar and her amp. I was walking into Leeds at the same time so she asked where she should set up. She did not look like a rock star…she looked more like an introverted librarian. I showed her the stage. As I recall, Rory was there too. Jennifer asked what she should play. We said anything she wants. So she played the Eddie Van Halen solo on Beat It perfectly with no backing music! We were floored! Later that evening, at Michael’s house, we were watching the videos. I told Michael that Jennifer was really good and he should really check her out! He watched and got very excited and said…”Wow! She is really good but we have to do something about her look!” We all laughed! She was immediately in the band!

Next, came a referral for a bass player! Don Boyette! He had played with many people including the Pointer Sisters and had just come off a year tour with Lionel Richie. Great player and a great look he was in right away!

There were many keyboard players auditioning but Michael wanted Greg Phillinganes. He had played on some of the songs in the studio and he had been working with Michael for many years. I am not sure why we even held keyboard auditions. He was the last musician to come into the band.

It seemed that the plan was to use Jonathan Moffett on drums and David Williams on guitar since both were on the Jackson’s Victory tour. The problem was, they were currently out touring with Madonna. Her tour would soon end allowing a couple of weeks to make the transition into the band. For rehearsals, we needed substitutes for the drums and guitar. Ricky Lawson was brought in on drums. He had also been on the Lionel Richie tour with Don Boyette so they were already very tight playing together. Ricky wanted to take some time off from touring so he agreed to set in temporarily for Jonathan Moffett at the rehearsals. As it turns out, Ricky and Greg were both from Detroit, Michigan and had already done much playing together. I found that interesting because I am also from Michigan and had also lived in Detroit.

LA session guitar player, Paul Jackson, Jr. was asked to fill in for the rehearsals but turned it down. He referred a guitar player named Jon Clark. As I recall, Jon had a day job being a messenger for a record company. When he got the call, Jon said yes right away even though it was just a temporary gig.

If I was to also play guitar, I needed a guitar system so I had TTC buy two Mesa Boogie amps and speakers. I realized very quickly, however, that my gig was going to be very demanding with the SynthAxe and the Synclavier. We had very little time to assemble, program and learn the music. I decided playing guitar was not really necessary since we had two good guitarists already. So I dropped the idea of playing guitar to focus on just playing the SynthAxe and Synclavier.

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The band at this point was me, Greg Phillinganes, Rory Kaplan, Ricky Lawson, Jennifer Batten, Don Boyette and Jon Clark. We were finally ready to begin band rehearsals!

Everyday the sound got better and better. We were impressed how well we played together and how good the sound was!

Meanwhile it seemed that Madonna was extending her tour. She would not be finished until we were in the middle of the Japan tour! Clearly this was a problem. Our integration of technology and performances would not be easy for Jonathan Moffet or David Williams to just walk into with little or no rehearsal. Also, the band was sounding great as is! Even Ricky changed his mind and wanted to do the tour! The band had a meeting and we all agreed that this was going to be THE band! We decided that we needed to make our thoughts known to Michael and Frank. So Greg, Rory and myself had a meeting with Michael and Frank to discuss the situation.

We explained that it would not be easy to quickly integrate other players because so much technology was being used. Plus a different drummer and guitar player would change the basic feel of the band and already it was sounding great. We explained to Michael that we thought that the current lineup of members should be the final band. Michael agreed. He thought the band as is sounded great! Frank had no problem with the current lineup because he was already frustrated with negotiations concerning the high salaries that Jonathan and David were demanding. So it was decided! The current lineup was to be the official band! We reported back the good news to the other band members. Ricky was very excited! Jon Clark was in tears! He had no idea that he would actually become a final member in the band! He was overjoyed!

Next stop…production rehearsals!

Production rehearsals were to take place at the Universal Studio’s largest sound stage in Los Angeles. These rehearsals are where we refine everything…the music arrangements, the vocals, the sounds, the choreography, costume changes and the pyrotechnics!

The first day at rehearsal, I had the SynthAxe strapped on. Michael walked up and saw it for the first time. I thought his eyes were going to pop out of his head! He said “Wow! Where did you get that!” I responded with “I have my ways” with a smile. Right away he wanted some future looking guitars dug out of storage from the Jacksons’ Victory tour. Jennifer and Jon diplomatically tried them but declined as they were too hard to play.

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Everyday there was new arrivals. The backing vocalists showed up for the first time…Kevin Dorsey, Dorian Holley, Darryl Phinnessee and Sheryl Crow.

During the rehearsal time spent at the sound stage, our work required long hours. Basically we ran the two hour plus show three times a day. Then in the evening, we would work on programing the gear to reflect the additions or changes to the songs as Michael requested. If I recall correctly, we would arrive around 10:00 am and work until about 1:00 am everyday.

Michael would go rehearse with the dancers at another place when we finished playing the show for the day.

More crew arrived. Then lighting technicians. Finally a tour production management company called Nocturne Productions was hired. Headed up by a production manager, Benny Collins. They came and started running things like the military and they were not very fun.

The sound company, Clair Bros., arrived with a huge sound system, which seemed to keep getting bigger as the rehearsals progressed.

Michael decided to wait until the Bad album was released to do a lot of those songs on the tour so instead, we would do a lot of older material and then later, add the new songs.

He decided to do “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Bad” since those would be the first singles released from the Bad album. He also decided to perform “Thriller” for the first time!

For Thriller, I had to go back to old multi-track tapes to get the sounds and key individual instrument performances, such as the exotic percussion. I also had to get the classic Vincent Price intro as well! All these were put into the Synclavier.

An interesting story about performing Thriller. Michael told me he got a lot of negative reaction to the original release of Thriller from his church! They thought the song was the devil’s work and that under no circumstances should Michael perform it live. Michael told me he did not understand their reaction. His intention was not evil or devils work. He said it was just kids stuff…like Halloween and was not a serious thing. But pressure from the church was great so he caved in and agreed not to perform it. Moving forward in time…while we were recording Bad, Michael made the decision to leave his church. He still believed in the church’s basic teaching about being good and helping others, but he said he felt suppressed creatively, so decided to officially leave. I am sure this was not an easy decision for Michael. But now for the first time, Michael was going to perform Thriller live complete with the choreography, costumes and even his transition into the werewolf! YAY!!!

Our set list became finalized and included the following songs:

Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’
Things I Do For You
Off The Wall
Human Nature
Heartbreak Hotel
She’s Out Of My Life
Jackson 5 Medley (I Want You Back, The Love You Save, I’ll Be There)
Rock With You
You Are My Lovely One
Working Day And Night
Beat It
Billie Jean
Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)
Thriller
I Just Can’t Stop Loving You
Bad

In between running the shows, we were fitted for stage costumes. This is when I first met Michael’s main costume designer, Michael Bush. Hair and makeup were handled by Karen Faye.

As the time grew near for us to travel to Japan for the beginning of the first leg of the tour, more and more things needed to be handled. One important one was work visas and passports for the band. As I recall, maybe we had a week or so before we had to leave for Japan. I was wondering how we were going to get visas and passports that quickly. That is when I realized how much influence Michael had. The band was told to arrive together at the immigration office in LA. We got our pictures taken. We were then told to wait at the back of the room. Our names would be called and we were to just walk quickly into the room without looking at anyone. After about 15 minutes or so, my name was called. I just walked into the room as instructed. Once there, the immigration officer checked my ID and handed me my passport with the visa already stamped inside. Wow!

I remember having to get some glasses for the tour. I had no time to get contact lenses…besides, I had never worn them so I was not sure how well I could see with them. I went for a quick shopping spree at the Beverly Center in LA and got some cool looking frames. I was able to get a quick prescription and got them the next day.

I remember when we were informed that our per diem…the spending money that we were given for our food, laundry or anything else we might need on our Japan trip…would be $45 a day! The more experienced travelers in the band said that this was not enough for Japan since it was very expensive there. Usually for a band it was around $70.00 a day! We requested more. I really do not recall if TTC raised it or not! Maybe we had to be extremely thrifty!!

It was decided by Karen Fay that I should get the KISS look. My face would be painted silver with a lightning bolt across my forehead. Also, she dyed my hair black. All the members had black hair except Jennifer Batten and Sheryl Crow. Their hair was to be long and blond. Karen also gave me hair extensions, which made my hair much longer! Wow!

Due to time constraints, we were never given the time to do a complete run through of the show that included the actual music, costume changes, the complete choreography and lighting. We did various combinations but not everything at once! Everyone involved were complete professionals so we all hoped that somehow, the show will all come together on stage in Japan as it was intended!

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The day came very quickly! We arrived at LAX…next stop…Japan!

Next month, I will conclude my Synclavier, Music and Michael Jackson story:

The “Bad” world tour.

See you next month here at the Event Horizon!

You can check out my various activities at these links:

http://transformation.ishwish.net

http://currelleffect.ishwish.net

http://www.ishwish.net

http://www.audiocybernetics.com

http://ishwish.blog131.fc2.com

http://magnatune.com/artists/ishwish

http://www.plenumvoid.com

Or…just type my name Christopher Currell into your browser.

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  • Marko Tervonen

    Thanks for writing these! These are very interesting to read. Bad Tour is my favorite tour of Michael’s. The music sounds so good. What you think about the Wembley concert DVD released that was released 2012?

    • Hi Marko,

      The Bad Wembly concert was a highlight of the Bad tour. I am glad that it was documented on DVD!

      – Chris

  • Anthony Kimball

    A fascinating read, thank you! I’ve always been interested in the preparations and whatnot needed before a tour. It must be quite a difference between a tour of this magnitude and, say, touring with Allan Holdsworth (since you’re a guitarist, that must have been a dream !!)

    • Hi Anthony,
      The Bad tour was a huge undertaking. It was cool that I could push the edge of technology on this tour!

      – Chris

  • Suzy

    This is a really interesting series. Thanks for writing it. I am a big fan of MJ and the Bad album.

  • Ann L. Cavanaugh

    Christopher: Thank you for this excellent series of articles on working with team MJ. Not only is it wonderful to read about Michael’s approach to the work, but I’m just as delighted to read about the contributions of everyone on the team (even if a bit rocky at times, cuz — as we all know — that’s life). MJ drew the best of the best to him, so when I say I’m a fan of Michael Jackson’s, what I really mean is I’m a fan of ‘Team MJ.’ Very much looking forward to your fourth installment.

    • Hi Ann,
      Even though MJ was a talented artist, there was a team effort by many other talented people that helped MJ make such wonderful music. I am very glad that you appreciate the “Team MJ”!!
      – Chris

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  • Felipe P.

    Dear Christopher: I read about your contribution to the tour and album as far as 1987 in a Keyboard Magazine article… years later I watched the Yokohama DVD, and enjoyed it very much, specially the instrumental intermission. Great looks and performance! I was intrigued with the guitar synthesizer, being an engineer and keyboardist myself… I have only praise for your work and contribution to some of the greatest music from the XX century, thru Michael Jackson. Your story about getting the Synclavier is an inspiration for us all, being as expensive at it was, you were very lucky and professional. Of course, for a fraction of the Synclavier cost, today you can afford much more powerful workstations such as the Oasys or the Motif XF. Back in the 80s, you needed BALLS to get a loan to buy those beasts, use them in expensive studios and deal with extravagant musicians. Kudos Chris, hope you’ll share more entertaining and inspirational stories like these… bye!

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