‘Bad 25’: A Michael Jackson masterpiece gets its due

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How do you follow up the most successful album ever made? This unenviable task confronted a 28-year-old Michael Jackson in 1986 when he undertook his ambitious solo album Bad.

The blockbuster album, released in August of 1987, failed to live up to Jackson’s unbelievably lofty expectations (he reportedly wanted to sell 100 million copies) but it still managed to spawn five number one hits, a record that was matched for the first time last year by Katy Perry.

Twenty-five years after its initial release, Epic/Legacy Recordings is giving this often underrated classic the recognition it deserves with a lovingly packaged box set — Bad 25 — which features a remastered edition of the original LP, several terrific unreleased tracks from the original Bad recording sessions, as well as a DVD and CD of Jackson’s celebrated 1988 concert at Wembley Stadium in London — you know, the one with all those fainting teenage girls.

As if this treasure trove were not enough, filmmaker Spike Lee — as of late, one of Michael Jackson’s biggest boosters — has directed and produced a full-length documentary exploring the inspired and frequently arduous process of creating the album, which sold over 8 million copies in the United States alone and now ranks as the fifth all-time best-seller internationally. The film, which will debut on ABC this Thanksgiving, is already scoring rave reviews.

Jackson’s ambition for Bad was to build upon the popularity of its predecessor Thriller in every conceivable way. He wrote 9 of the 11 final songs himself (whittled down from a rumored 60-plus tracks), the sound of the music grew more complex and Jackson moved farther away from his genteel “lover, not a fighter” image.

“By the time we were working on Bad, Mike’s ideas became stronger and clear,” Greg Phillinganes, a musician who worked on both the album and its subsequent international tour, recently told TIME. In the same piece, Jackson’s lawyer and co-executor of his estate, John Branca, says, “He was intent on topping himself and he put a lot of pressure on himself to do that.”

By most accounts, Jackson’s infamous perfectionism paid off. Bad boasts unforgettable ballads like “Man In the Mirror” and dancefloor staples like “Smooth Criminal” and “The Way You Make Me Feel.” State-of-the-art music videos accompanied the album and were ubiquitous on MTV — the most indelible of which was arguably Martin Scorsese’s take on the hit title cut, which featured an up-and-coming Wesley Snipes as an antagonist. Yet, while Bad now routinely lands on Greatest Albums of All Time lists, its legacy as a masterpiece was never all that assured.

Jackson had largely disappeared from the pop culture landscape following the unprecedented success of Thriller. With the exception of his historic role in crafting “We Are the World” in 1985 and his starring role in the 3-D sci-fi epic Captain EO for Disney in 1986, he appeared to be ceding his place at the top of the charts to the artists who came in his wake.

The press grew skeptical and Jackson started to get some of the first negative notices of his career. “The year 1985 has been a black hole for Michael watchers, who witnessed the most spectacular disappearing act since Halley’s comet headed for the far side of the solar system in 1910,” wrote Gerri Hirshey for Rolling Stone. In 1988, that magazine’s readers would vote Jackson the “Worst Male Singer” and “Worst Dressed.”

“People are responding negatively to his image and to the hype,” said Rolling Stone music editor David Wild at the time.

People magazine was only slightly more charitable, its cover heralding his 1987 return to music read: “He’s back. He’s Bad. Is this guy weird or what?”

The King of Pop’s decision during this period to purchase a sizable portion of the highly-prized Sony/ATV music publishing catalogue, which included classic songs by The Beatles and others, not only angered Jackson’s longtime friend and collaborator Paul McCartney, but also legions of music fans. Many people resented the re-purposing of influential 1960s rock songs for what they considered crass commercial use. Jackson made a fortune, but also a few enemies in the process.

It was also around this period that the “Wacko Jacko” moniker, which according to The Atlantic may have had racial connotations, was attached to the singer by the tabloid press, where it would remain a mainstay for the rest of his life. Some of the coverage of his eccentricities was the result of self-inflicted wounds. Jackson himself is alleged to have been the source of outrageous rumors that he sought to purchase the Elephant Man’s bones and slept in a hyperbaric chamber, but some of the backlash was a symptom of his hypersensitive persona and drastically evolved physical appearance.