NEW YORK – Before Eddie Van Halen agreed to add a guitar break to Michael Jackson's “Beat It,” one of the most famous cameos in rock history, he had to be sure the phone call from producer Quincy Jones wasn't a practical joke.
“I went off on him. I went, ‘What do you want, you f-ing so-and-so!,’” Van Halen told CNN in 2012, 30 years after he worked on the song. "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!’”
Van Halen, who died Tuesday at age 65, needed less than an hour in the studio and 20 scorching seconds on record to join white heavy metal to Black pop at a time when they seemed in entirely different worlds, when the young MTV channel rarely aired videos by Black artists. “Beat It” became one of the signature tracks on Jackson's mega-selling “Thriller” album, won Grammys in 1984 for record of the year and male rock vocal performance and helped open up MTV's programming.
Van Halen himself would admit he was initially skeptical of contributing to Jackson's album, wondering how much he had in common with a singer he remembered for chanting “A-B-C, easy as 1-2-3.” But Jackson had written “Beat It” as a rock song, anchored by a hard and funky ruff by guitarist Steve Lukather. When Van Halen arrived at the studio in Los Angeles, Jones told him he could improvise. Van Halen listened to "Beat It," asked if he could rearrange the song and added a pair of solos during which, engineers would long swear, a speaker caught on fire.
As he was finishing, Jackson walked in.
“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,’” Van Halen told CNN. "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.’”
Van Halen worked for free, was not credited on the album and didn't appear in the video. But his touch was undisguisable. After the record's release, Van Halen would remember shopping in a Tower Records while “Beat It” was playing on the 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,'” he said. “I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘That IS me!’ That was hilarious.”