Adrian Grant, author of ‘Michael Jackson: The Visual Documentary,’ was recently interviewed by Brice Najar for his website. Adrian is also the founder of MJWN, and has been involved in the fan club world since setting up Michael’s very first fan club in the late 1980’s. He’s also the brains behind ‘Thriller Live,’ as well as the Annual MJ Day; a public celebration of Michael that was held over many years in London, including one that Michael personally attended in 2001.
Adrian will be celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Annual MJ Day, with a Michael Jackson Halloween party at Madame Tussauds, London on the 30th October. For more details sign up at www.mjday30.com.
Read the complete interview between Adrian and Brice below:
First, can you tell us how you became a Michael Jackson fan, and share your oldest memories of that era?
My dad was a big music fan, mainly soul and lovers rock (reggae). His pride and joy were his HiFi system, speakers and record collection. They did sound great, and from a young age I enjoyed listening to the various artist he played such as Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Maze, Odyssey, Diana Ross and Earth, Wind & Fire. However, I strongly remember when I first heard the Jacksons on the radio. The song was ‘Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)’. I would have been about 9-years old, and I just loved their energy and sound.
That said it wasn’t until the first time I saw Michael moonwalk during the Motown 25th Anniversary TV special that I really became a huge fan. His whole performance was electric and on point, and it turned Michael from a superstar into a megastar overnight.
The ‘Thriller’ album had been released several months earlier, and I remember my school friend Helen raving about it. She lent me the cassette she had bought (yes, there were no downloads or internet back then, lol). I took it home and played it on my boombox, and was blown away by the first track, ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’. Wow, the vocals, the lyrics, the beat. Actually, to this day it’s still one of my favourite Michael tracks.
Then came the ‘Thriller’ short film itself! It was shown on a programme called ‘The Tube’ which aired on Channel 4, hosted by Jools Holland and Paula Yates. They had a late-night premiere (1am!) and I, like most of the nation, stayed up to watch. The public were mesmerised. Firstly, we had never seen a music video so grand, but also the choreography, the special effects and the way Michael looked in that red leather jacket was perfect. Everything was just off the scale.
I was now a big fan of Michael, so it was great whenever he was mentioned in magazines or newspapers. He was a trailblazer during the 80s and many other pop and RnB acts followed his lead. So, it was with bated breath that I waited for his next album, ‘BAD’, to be released. I recall some months or weeks before seeing a track listing published in Number One magazine and thinking what the meaning behind each song was, or what the video may be like. As fans we already knew about ‘Another Part Of Me’, as it was from the Disney film, ‘Captain Eo’. But song titles such as ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, ‘Man In The Mirror’ and ‘Smooth Criminal’ really set the imagination alight.
When the ‘BAD’ video premiered it was another must-watch TV event. Michael had been somewhat away from the media eye prior to its release, so when the public first saw his new look, it was an OMG moment! The hair, the boots and buckles. This was a new, sharp grown-up Michael Jackson, who really was bad, in a good way!
The following day, 1st September 1987, the ‘BAD’ album was released in the UK (it had been released on the 31st August elsewhere around the world, but that was a bank holiday in England. Tuesday morning couldn’t come quick enough as I scuttled into town, and bought a vinyl copy of the album from Our Price Records. On the bus ride home, I felt like Charlie Bucket with his winning golden ticket. I studied every word on the album, from the cover to inner sleeve. Taking in the names of all the musicians, writers and Michael’s messages of thanks to those who had made the album possible. Back in the day those liner notes were as a much a part of an album release than the music itself!
When I got back home, I put the record on my dad’s beloved turntable, cranked up the volume and let the music burst out of those glorious huge speakers! At the time, ‘Another Part of Me’ and ‘Liberian Girl’ were amongst my favourite tracks, but it was ‘Man In The Mirror’ that got rotated most. “Make that change!”
The 80s were a magical time for music full-stop. We had the likes of Madonna, Freddie Mercury and George Michael at their peak. But there will never be another Michael Jackson. The music industry has changed and is far more instant now than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. Michael had grown up during the Motown era, and worked hard with his brothers touring and perfecting their craft. Furthermore, he had learnt from greats such as Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson and James Brown. He once said, “Believe in yourself. Study the greats. And become greater.” And that he did!
You may find an individual who can sing better, or dance better – but what made Michael the King of Pop was that he did everything, and he did it so very well and with his own style. Look at some of the hits he wrote such as ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Remember The Time’, ‘Earth Song’ and ‘Don’t Stop Til’ You Get Enough’ – pure pop classics. As a singer he had an incredible 4-octave range, and as a dancer he created breakthrough videos such as ‘Beat It’ and ‘Smooth Criminal’.
I sometimes think he was underrated as an artist, because people focused more on his lifestyle and the hype around him, than the actual quality of his music and performances.
How did you get the idea to do something for the Jackson community of fans and create the ‘Off The Wall’ magazine in 1988 when you were only 19 years old?
After completing a Business Studies diploma at college, I had been discussing with a friend the idea of starting our own company. We looked at various ventures from window cleaning to selling fresh orange juice! Fortunately those ideas came to nothing, and we both jumped into what I would call, ‘safe’ career choices – James working in Insurance whilst I went on to work as an Accounts Assistant for a computer company. But after several months I was finding the job boring. What I really wanted to do was to work in entertainment and media producing content. So, I applied for many different jobs at various record companies, radio stations and TV channels. However, rejection letter upon rejection letter fell on my doorstep.
Then one day I was in Tower Records browsing through a fanzine called ‘Controversy’ for the artist Prince, whom I was also a fan of, and had a light-bulb moment. I thought if Prince has a magazine why doesn’t Michael Jackson? Fortune favoured the brave, and I wrote to CBS/Epic Records to see if it they had a problem with me starting a Michael Jackson fanzine in England. They said it would be fine. I then wrote out a business plan and applied for a Grant from the Prince’s Youth Business Trust. I received £1,500 which allowed to me purchase a computer, some desktop publishing software and print 200-copies of the fanzine. The first issue of ‘Off The Wall’ magazine was published on the 1st July 1988, just two-weeks before Michael’s record-breaking concerts at Wembley Stadium on his ‘BAD’ world tour.
How did you manage to write articles and get photos at the beginning of the adventure? And how did the magazine evolve and keep growing in the course of its existence?
As we had no social media in the 80s, teenagers tended to make friendships by having pen pals. I had met Denise Pfeiffer this way, who was probably one of the biggest Michael Jackson fans in the country. She was also a good writer and helped with a lot of content in the early years. I also acquired content from some American fans who became regular contributors including Gayle Stever, who at the time was writing a thesis on fan behaviour for her master’s degree in counselling at Arizona State University.
Then there were other more mysterious writers including Mr Tibbs and Benny Cool, who were actually just figments of my imagination to make my editorial team look bigger than it actually was.
The first few issues of the magazine were quite frankly not very good. It was very much trial and error, as I had never produced a magazine before and there were many mistakes. But it was raw, real and passionate and the fans were loving it, as they had no other dedicated source of Michael Jackson news.
For the second issue I managed to get some distribution in Tower Records and Virgin Megastore and circulation quickly rose from 200, to 500, to 700 and kept growing.
For pictures I had to go to a photo agency in London and spend hours trawling through their files to get one decent photo of Michael for use in the magazine. Others were supplied either by Sony Records, and later by MJJ Productions.
Eventually the magazine peaked with a distribution of over 25,000 copies and readers in 47 different countries!
Do you know how Michael Jackson first heard about your magazine? How did it feel to know that your idol took your work into consideration?
The magazine was published every three months and I used to send it over to Michael’s President of Communications, Bob Jones. He was very supportive of my work and passed the magazine onto Michael, telling me that he really liked the publication and all the fans’ comments. I was blown away to think that Michael was actually reading my magazine, and that made me even more determined to improve its quality.
It soon went from being printed in black and white to colour, and I think by the seventh or eighth issue I had obtained national distribution in shops like WH Smith, and even into Rita Fairclough’s corner store in Coronation Street (a popular British soap).
As the magazine became more popular it attracted more and more writers. Chris Cadman was a very important contributor at the time, as was John Powner. Later on Gloria Haydock became the editor of the magazine and was meticulous with her proof reading which really helped!
The team continued to grow and I’m glad to still be in touch with some of them including Jayne Ross, who now runs the Michael Jackson World Network, something that had grown from the endeavours of the magazine.
A crucial moment in your relationship with Michael Jackson was the trip you made to Los Angeles in March 1990 when you presented him with the ‘Off The Wall Appreciation Award’. How did you get the idea to have a montage made by painter Vincent McKoy to give to Michael?
I can’t remember the exact origins, but I recall wanting to present Michael with an appreciation award from the readers of the magazine. I believe it may have been Chris Cadman that suggested a painting, so I did some research and came across Vincent McKoy, who had been putting together some incredible oil paintings of famous personalities.
I told him I would like a montage of Michael Jackson images from the past 20-years (1969-1989), gave him some references and told him he only had two-months to complete the painting. I think he did it in 6-weeks and had sent me a photograph of the finished canvas, cheekily asking ‘if this would do?’. It was incredible!
Can you tell us about your meeting with Michael for the first time? Did you already know that you would be allowed in the studio and experience those fabulous moments?
In March 1990 I flew over to Los Angeles after Bob Jones had set up a meeting for me to present the ‘Appreciation Award’ to Michael at Record One Studios where he was recording his new album, ‘Dangerous’.
Just getting the 6 x 3 foot painting to the studio in one piece was a mission. Firstly, when it was unloaded off the plane from cargo at LAX, I noticed a hole in the packaging and feared it may have gone through the canvas. Then I was interrogated by security for what felt like an hour, as to its contents and did I know there had been a recent oil painting heist. And then my taxi driver decided to pursue a hit and run he had witnessed instead of taking me straight to my hotel. Welcome to America!
The following day I made my way to the recording studio and was surprised by its surroundings. It really was a non-descript neighbourhood, and not one where you may have thought the world’s biggest star was at home recording the follow up to two of the best-selling albums of all time!
Still I was fairly relaxed and didn’t know what to expect of the day. I first met photographer Sam Emerson, who helped me place the picture above a fireplace in a lounge room next to the recording studio. Bob Jones was also there, but it was Sam who was doing most of the talking and telling me some interesting stories about some of the famous people he had worked with.
We then waited, and waited some more (or so it felt), and then I heard a beautiful voice singing acapella. It was Michael, adlibbing a tune. He walked into the room, and I swear it felt like the moment he walked into Club 30 from the ‘Smooth Criminal’ video. Everything around me just disappeared, and all I could see was Michael Jackson in glorious technicolour right in front of me! Still, I kept it together. Although Michael looked fabulous, and he was the world’s biggest most famous celebrity, whom I had dedicated a complete magazine to and my whole career. Yes, he was that man, the reason why. And his first glance, was not towards me, but the incredible 6 x 3 foot oil painting that was hanging on the wall. Oh no, he’s going to ignore me I thought. But he didn’t, he stretched out his hand, as Bob Jones introduced me. I can’t remember the first words that I or Michael spoke, but I did feel instantly at ease in his presence.
I presented Michael with the painting, told him the story behind it, and Sam busily took photographs of us both grinning from ear to ear. I then asked if Michael would give Vincent a call, and this he did – to thank him for his beautiful artwork. It must have been early morning when Vincent received the call, but he was certainly wide awake as he spoke to Michael, although a little shocked!
From there on the day just got better and better. I asked Michael if he would pose for a picture for the cover of ‘Off The Wall’ magazine, and this he did, much to Bob Jones surprise who stated, “He’s not going to do that Adrian!”. Michael replied, “It’s ok, it’s for the magazine.” And that’s how Michael was, and our relationship. He really was the most giving person I have ever met, and he gave his time to me because he knew it was for the fans.
Michael then asked if I would like to hear a track from the new album, which I’m led to believe no one else had heard at them time. He played me ‘Men In Black’, which was funky and loud, but ultimately never made it onto the final track listing. I stood by his side nodding my head to the beat, as Michael sat at his mix desk pushing various buttons. We talked some more, and he read through some of the letters and messages the fans had sent me to bring along. Then Michael wrote a heartfelt note for the fans, which was published in the magazine.
And then time stood still again, when Michael asked me if I would like to come over to his ranch, Neverland, that coming weekend for lunch. Did I just hear correctly? Would I like to go to Neverland Valley for lunch with Michael Jackson on Saturday, when my flight home leaves on Friday? Ummm, yes, absolutely. Would love to, even if I have to walk home!
What memories do you hold of that first visit to Neverland?
Needless to say, visiting Neverland was the most memorable experience ever. It really was a fantasy land, filled with fun things to do and the most beautiful scenery everywhere you looked.
As I walked through the gates I saw two chimpanzees, Max and Alex, rolling around on the grass, giraffes, llamas, the funfair and classical music was echoing out from the flowerbeds. I said to the security guard who was escorting me up to the main house that this wasn’t reality, but he replied that it was reality for Michael Jackson, that this was what he woke up to every morning. And that was true. Michael had lived a life that pretty much since the age of 11, when he had his first number one with The Jackson Five, he was able to have almost anything that he wanted or had his every whim catered for. Fortunately, Michael chose to channel most of his desires towards something positive and getting to know him I saw how much he really did care for children – often opening the Neverland gates to the underprivileged or disabled. I feel this (his charitable work), along with four decades of great music is his greatest personal legacy.
For the rest of the visit Michael was very hospitable. He chatted a lot during lunch which was shared by a couple of other musicians who were working with him on the ‘Dangerous’ album. They talked a little about some of the songs, but in the main Michael was relaxed and jovial. I then had a tour of the grounds, which included an extended period of me playing on the arcade machines. Later as Michael showed me the movie theatre, we passed through a dance studio, and I asked if I could teach him any moves. The grin and on Michael’s face was a definite, thanks, but no thanks!
At the end of the day Michael said come back anytime and I did that just that, being fortunate enough to visit the ranch many more times in future years.
You met with Michael several times over the following years (backstage during tours or shootings of videos, and at ceremonies. Can you share a few anecdotes about those moments and your relationship with Michael that surely had evolved over the years?
There were many memorable moments I had with Michael, but I recall a trip to Budapest in 1994. Michael, along with Lisa Marie-Presley, was visiting children’s hospitals, handing out gifts and toys. I was fortunate to be the only ‘media’ allowed to accompany them into the hospitals, and I was delighted to help in giving the gifts to some of the sick children. However, the sceptical press suggested the trip (part of Michael’s ‘Heal The World’ campaign), was nothing more than a publicity stunt. What they didn’t report was the moving moment when Michael brought a smile to the face of a dying girl who had lain motionless and silent for weeks. Her mother, at her side in constant vigil, broke down in tears as her daughter reached out and touched Michael’s hand.
A few months later I was fortunate to spend some more time with Michael at the Hit Factory in New York where he was recording the ‘HIStory’ album. I was there for about three days. On one occasion Janet was there, along with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, presumably they had been working on ‘Scream’. The next day, Lisa Marie Presley was in the studio, and Michael treated us to a preview of the songs, ‘Stranger In Moscow’, and ‘Smile’. Both songs were incredible. Especially ‘Stranger In Moscow’, hearing it breathe around the acoustics of the state-of-the-art studio complete with a 96-channel mixing console. This indeed was history being made right there. Lisa and Michael were very relaxed and happy together.
I suggested to Michael that for ‘Smile’ he could appear in a video alongside actual footage of Charlie Chaplin, as Tom Hanks had done in the movie, ‘Forrest Gump’ with the likes of John F. Kennedy, John Lennon and Richard Nixon. Michael replied saying that’s exactly what he intended to do, but unfortunately a video was never made for the song.
The following day we were meant to do a photo shoot at the studio, but Michael didn’t feel up to it. This led to one of my most memorable conversations with Michael when just the two of us spoke for half an hour in his office about life in general, and my hair, lol. I think every time we met, I had done something different to it. Actually Michael felt bad about the postponed photo shoot, so he flew me to Chicago a few months later, and I got to take my favourite ever pictures with him, in which I sporting a very funky hair style, lol.
Looking back I feel very privileged that I got to know one of the greatest entertainers of all-time so well. He inspired me greatly to do the things I love, working in music, film and theatre. As a person he was always kind, giving and funny and as an artist he was a true genius.
You also published three books about Michael Jackson. How did you move on to that next step? How did Michael react to your work as a writer?
Being the editor and publisher of ‘Off The Wall’ gave me great access to Michael’s world and I was invited to cover many stories from concert tours to video shoots and more recording sessions. These were all so special and I believe in time Michael grew used to me being around and trusted me enough to have chats not just about his own work, but life around him.
The first book, ‘Live And Dangerous’, was published in 1992, and was really just a review of the ‘Dangerous’ concert. It was more of a magazine, but I was pleased I was able to capture the magic of that tour in a commemorative publication.
‘Making HIStory’ was very similar to ‘Live And Dangerous’, again more of an extended magazine, of which the focus was an interview I did with Michael in February 1998, talking about the making of the ‘HIStory’ album. However, it was originally intended to be much bigger book published back in 1996 to coincide with the ‘HIStory’ tour. Michael was going to contribute some drawings, poems and we were going to chat about the most memorable moments of his career, for which I had agreed a publishing deal. But Sony were looking for a more lucrative contract. In the end it never happened, and the rest as they say is history, lol.
The concept of your book ‘The Visual Documentary’ was obviously a very demanding work, describing Michael Jackson’s life day by day. How did the concept of that project emerge, including the numerous updates and new versions that followed? Were you nervous about the fact that Michael himself was expecting it?
‘Michael Jackson – The Visual Documentary’, really was a labour of love and at the time was a book that I wanted to be the most concise chronology of Michael’s life ever published. To make that possible I had an amazing team of researchers including Chris Cadman, Lisa Campbell, Angelika Meisel and Gloria Haydock who spent months trailing through newspapers, reports and other books to make sure we had as many facts as possible. For later editions of the book Deborah Dannelley, Jayne Ross and Luigi Pedone would also be very important contributors.
I also spent about three weeks in LA going backwards and forwards to the beautiful offices of MJJ Productions on Sunset Boulevard, when at the time they had a massive vault of photographs that I was able to make a selection from. Again, Bob Jones was most supportive of my work, and transcripts of the book were sent to Michael in advance of it being finished for his approval.
I remember on one visit to Neverland, I saw a copy of the book in Michael’s lounge, and that made me really proud.
Organizing musical shows is also part of your work. How did you come up with the idea of ‘Thriller Live’ during the 2000s, while Michael was less to be seen in the musical news?
Michael was a big fan of the ‘Annual Michael Jackson Day’ that I used to produce once a year in London, first starting in 1991. He loved them so much that he used to send his own video crew to film them, as well as donating signed prizes for the raffle, and recording personal video messages for the fans.
Then on the 10th anniversary in 2001 Michael came to watch the event personally. Unlike previous MJ Days this was more of a complete show, a tribute concert that featured various singers and dancers, and after the performance, Michael came on stage (having watched from the wings in a tent to shield him from the fans) and said it was ‘Incredible and beautiful!’ He loved all the acts and seeing the young kids ‘impersonating’ the Jackson 5 and other renditions of the songs he had made famous.
That gave me the idea and belief that the annual celebration could become a touring show, not just for Michael’s fans – but for everybody to get a little taste of what Michael Jackson was like live on stage.
Shows like ‘We Will Rock You’ (Queen) and ‘Mamma Mia’ (Abba), went onto become massive hits, and both groups, like Michael were very theatrical. The Queen musical especially inspired me, and I had originally wanted to create a book musical that saw Michael’s songs woven into a fictitious story which I had written.
However, there were various obstacles in my way and I couldn’t get the grand rights for a book musical, plus Michael had to sadly face more trials and tribulations in court during 2005. But when he was rightly vindicated, I thought now is time people need to be reminded of his music and what a great artist he is. This led me to create the first ‘Thriller Live’ show in August 2006, then the following year I teamed up with Flying Music, an experienced theatrical and concert producer for more than 25 years and they took the show on a UK and European tour in 2007. Since then ‘Thriller Live’ has played in 34 different countries to almost 5 million people!
I am fortunate we have always had an amazing team of creatives, crew and performers working on the show from the company manager to sound engineers, video technicians, dressers and chaperones to everyone in the producer’s officer who take care of marketing, bookings and a multitude of other task.
Add to that the work of director and choreographer, Gary Lloyd and musical director, John Maher, whom are both meticulous in their efforts in putting the show together, as we all strive for a production that will make Michael’s fans happy.
Looking back, do you consider Thriller Live as a posthumous tribute, even though it was launched while Michael was still alive?
The show was always a celebration of Michael Jackson’s music, and its format has never changed from the time it was first produced in 2006 until now. It was created out of love and respect for Michael’s work, and that remains true today, so I wouldn’t call is a posthumous tribute. Every time I see the show, and hear and see our performers dancing and singing, it feels as fresh to me now as it did the first time. I can feel Michael’s energy all around the production, and whilst we cannot replicate his magic, we can certainly honour him with the best show possible and I am proud of what we have achieved over the past 15-years with ‘Thriller Live’.
As a conclusion, I would like to evoke your long-lasting relationship with Michael Jackson. How and why did it remain so strong over the years, in your opinion?
I was always honest with Michael, and I would like to think that I spoke with him like I would any other friend. Because of that he trusted me and allowed me access to his world – that is Michael Jackson the normal man at home, and Michael Jackson the megastar on stage.
But at the end of the day Michael opened his doors to me because I was a fan, like many others who he gave access to.
After Michael’s memorial in 2009, I went back to Havenhurst and spent some time with the family. I had met Katherine once before, but this time I was introduced as a writer who always spoke well of her son. Katherine replied, “Well what else could he write, Michael was only every good.”
And that Mrs. Jackson is very true. Michael was the best!