How Eddie Van Halen transformed Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' and perfectly fused pop and rock

7 October 2020, 13:03

Eddie Van Halen and Michael Jackson performing 'Beat It' in 1984
Eddie Van Halen and Michael Jackson performing 'Beat It' in 1984. Picture: Getty

By Tom Eames

Eddie Van Halen was known as one of the world's greatest guitarists. So when Michael Jackson needed a kick-ass guitar solo on a new track from his Thriller album, there was only one person for the job.

'Beat It' was one of Thriller's standout tracks, and was arguably one of the first songs ever to perfectly marry hard rock and funk pop for the mainstream.

What is less known is how the collaboration came about, and how Eddie Van Halen deserved a songwriting credit for his iconic solo.

With Eddie Van Halen passing away at the age of 65 after battling throat cancer, we look back at the making of an inspired team-up.

  1. How did Eddie Van Halen come to work with Michael Jackson?

    Eddie Van Halen in 1978
    Eddie Van Halen in 1978. Picture: Getty

    Michael Jackson wrote 'Beat It' for his Thriller album.

    Producer Quincy Jones wanted to include a rock song in the style of the Knack's 'My Sharona'.

    Jackson later said of 'Beat It': "I wanted to write a song, the type of song that I would buy if I were to buy a rock song... That is how I approached it and I wanted the children to really enjoy it—the school children as well as the college students."

    Read more: Michael Jackson's 30 greatest songs, ranked

    Eddie Van Halen, the lead guitarist of Van Halen, was asked to add a guitar solo to the song by Jones and Jackson.

    When first contacted by Jones, Van Halen thought he was at the receiving end of a prank call.

  2. Eddie Van Halen recorded his solo for free

    For the song, Van Halen used a Hartley–Thompson amplifier borrowed from guitarist Allan Holdsworth.

    He recorded his guitar solo free of charge, something his bandmates thought was ridiculous.

    "I did it as a favour", he later said. "I was a complete fool, according to the rest of the band, our manager and everyone else. I was not used. I knew what I was doing—I don't do something unless I want to do it."

  3. Eddie Van Halen totally transformed the solo, and thus the song

    Van Halen recorded his solo after Jones and Jackson arrived at his house, with a "skeleton version" of the song.

    Fellow guitarist, Toto's Steve Lukather, later said: "Initially, we rocked it out as Eddie had played a good solo — but Quincy thought it was too tough. So I had to reduce the distorted guitar sound and that is what was released."

    Read more: Michael Jackson's mind-blowing final ever live performance

    “It was 20 minutes of my life," Van Halen later told Billboard. "I didn’t want anything for doing that... I literally thought to myself, ‘Who is possibly going to know if I play on this kid’s record?’

    "So I went to the studio and listened to the song twice, and I didn’t like the section they wanted me to solo over. They wanted me to solo over the breakdown.

    "I asked Quincy Jones to edit the chords underneath the solo. Then I could play the solo in the key of E, but it was the chords underneath that made the solo interesting. So I guess I did rearrange it.”

    Despite this big change, Van Halen wasn't given a songwriting credit, not that he seemed to care.

    Eddie Van Halen in 2012
    Eddie Van Halen in 2012. Picture: Getty

    Speaking about working with Michael, Van Halen told CNN: "I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in. And you know artists are kind of crazy people. We're all a little bit strange.

    "I didn't know how he would react to what I was doing. So I warned him before he listened. I said, 'Look, I changed the middle section of your song.'

    "Now in my mind, he's either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he's going to like it.

    "And so he gave it a listen, and he turned to me and went, 'Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song, and make it better'.

    "He was this musical genius with this childlike innocence. He was such a professional, and such a sweetheart."

  4. The song brought rock and pop together

    Van Halen joked about hearing how the song brought hard rock into the mainstream, saying: "I'll never forget when Tower Records was still open over here in Sherman Oaks.

    "I was buying something, and 'Beat It' was playing over the store sound system. The solo comes on, and I hear these kids in front of me going, 'Listen to this guy trying to sound like Eddie Van Halen'.

    "I tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'That IS me!' That was hilarious."

  5. Did Michael Jackson and Eddie Van Halen ever perform together live?

    They did, just once.

    On July 14, 1984, Michael Jackson performed 'Beat It' live with his brothers during The Jacksons' Victory Tour in Texas.

    The brothers were joined on stage by Eddie Van Halen, who played his famous guitar solo. What a moment.