In the wake of the death of Eddie Van Halen, we reminisce on one of his finest contributions to music: the guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”
Rock legend Eddie Van Halen died on Tuesday, October 6th, at the age of 65 after a long battle with throat cancer. The lead guitarist and songwriter was the namesake for the award-winning band Van Halen. He has a long, storied career and is known for being in the pantheon of all-time great guitarists, alongside Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Prince.
With people reflecting on one of rock & roll’s greatest talents, now is the perfect time to remember that one of his best contributions to music came in collaboration with the King of Pop. Eddie Van Halen was an important part of Michael Jackson’s classic record “Beat It.” Van Halen played a guitar solo on the all-time classic album Thriller single.
As the story goes, in 1982, the rest of Van Halen’s bandmates were out of town, when Eddie got a call out of the blue. It was legendary producer Quincy Jones. At first, Eddie didn’t believe it.
“I went off on him,” he said, in a 2012 interview with CNN. “I went, “What do you want, you fucking so-and-so!” And he goes, “Is this Eddie?” I said, “Yeah, what the hell do you want?” “This is Quincy.” I’m thinking to myself, “I don’t know anyone named Quincy.” He goes, “Quincy Jones, man.” I went, “Ohhh, sorry!”
Quincy would go on to ask Eddie to play on Michael Jackson’s new record. “I’m thinking to myself,” he continued, “OK, ‘ABC, 1, 2, 3’ and me. How’s that going to work?”
Since his bandmates weren’t around to nix the collaboration, he agreed. He made some minor adjustments to the track’s arrangement and did the solo for free, as a favor, in just two separate takes. The entire thing took less than an hour. In a video on music engineering, the track’s engineers revealed that during the solo, the studio’s monitor speakers literally burst into flames.
“I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in,” he continued. “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. 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.”
When his bandmates got back home and learned of the collaboration, they thought he’d made a grave mistake. He sees it differently. “I was a complete fool,” he said, “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.”
Coincidentally, the Thriller album kept Van Halen’s 1984 album from topping the charts.
“Our album was just about ready to go No. 1 when he burned his hair in that Pepsi commercial,” he said. “And boom, he went straight to No. 1 again!”
Eddie Van Halen is survived by his son, Wolfgang Van Halen and wife, Janie Liszewski.