Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens had already gotten a taste of the big leagues by the mid-’80s, having played on Idol’s double-platinum smash Rebel Yell and its million-selling follow-up Whiplash Smile. But the six-stringer witnessed a whole new level of extravagance when he teamed up with Michael Jackson for the pop-metal smash “Dirty Diana.”
Following the success of Thriller‘s “Beat It,” featuring Eddie Van Halen and Steve Lukather, the King of Pop wanted another guitar hero to play on the hard-edged Bad single. Jackson producer Quincy Jones reached out to Van Halen producer Ted Templeman, who recommended Stevens.
“Ted suggested that Quincy call me, which he did,” Stevens tells UCR. “So I flew out to Los Angeles, but I was not used to working outside of the way that I was accustomed to with Billy Idol, which was basically Billy, myself and our producer, Keith [Forsey], in the studio. Very intimate, very close-knit, concentrated effort. And here I am thinking, ‘Oh, I’m gonna go out and do this Michael Jackson thing, there’s gonna be an entourage, the monkey’s gonna be there, and it’s gonna be craziness.’ I’m not ready for that, you know?”
When Stevens arrived at the session, he was surprised to find a familiar work environment. “I get to the studio and I open the studio door, and it’s just Michael and Quincy and an engineer, the same way I was used to working with Billy,” he says. “And I said, ‘Oh, I’m at home. This is cool.'”
The guitarist remembers Jackson being “very exacting about the rhythm” and making a few suggestions about the “big picture” of the song, but otherwise, he let Stevens have free reign of the track. “He wasn’t one of these guys to say, ‘Play a B-flat here and diminished,’ you know. He would just hum it,” he adds.
Although the recording session was low-key, Stevens says he got “the ultimate Michael Jackson” experience when he showed up to the massive “Dirty Diana” video shoot. “I pull up, and there’s a van outside the soundstage,” he says. “There’s toys and swings and all this stuff set up. I go ‘Wow, this is great. They take care of the kids.’ No, no. This is [for] Bubbles. Bubbles Mobile [for] the chimp.” The guitarist fondly recalls meeting Bubbles and says the whole production was “exactly the way you’d imagine it.”
Watch Michael Jackson’s ‘Dirty Diana’ Video
During the video shoot, Jackson asked Stevens about various elements of stage production, as he was about to embark on the gargantuan Bad tour, his first solo trek. “He had previously just done Jackson 5 tours, and on the R&B circuit, the productions weren’t as big, lighting wasn’t as big, sound wasn’t [as big],” Stevens says. “But Michael had seen Queen and Van Halen, and he knew what a rock show was about. So he was really hitting me up for all of, ‘Who does your sound? Who does your lights?'”
Jackson even peppered Stevens with some amateur trivia. “At one point [he asked me], ‘Oh, do you know Eddie?’ I go, ‘Yeah, I know Eddie.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, he played on “Beat It.”‘ Like who doesn’t know that?” Stevens says bemusedly. “I go, ‘Yes, Michael. I know that’s Eddie Van Halen on “Beat It.”‘”
And that’s when Stevens saw Jackson do something he’ll never forget.
“He goes, ‘Do you like Van Halen? I like Van Halen,'” the guitarist remembers. “And he proceeded to do — now if you can imagine this, this is Michael Jackson, doing an impression of David Lee Roth. Now, that is something that probably I saw, and no one else on the planet. He did the whole, ‘Look at all the people here!‘ Had him down perfectly, the strut. Great, man. That was the moment that I said, you know, I’m like pinching myself. I go, ‘Am I watching Michael Jackson impersonate David Lee Roth? Is that really what I’m seeing?'”
Jackson released Bad on Aug. 31, 1987. The album sold more than 11 million copies in the U.S. and notched a record-breaking five No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, including “Dirty Diana.” Jennifer Batten handled shredding duties on the Bad tour, but Stevens joined Jackson onstage at Madison Square Garden in 1988 to perform the song.
“I’ve had some absolutely incredible experiences,” says Stevens, who will embark on a U.K. tour with Idol, with support from the Go-Go’s, in June. “For the first time, we’re gonna play Wembley Arena. And obviously [that’s huge] for Billy, growing up in England, and we’ve never played Wembley Arena. So after 40 years working with someone, there’s always new things to accomplish.”
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