It would be putting it mildly to say that in the spring of 1983, Michael Jackson was hot.
Fueled by the popularity of “The Girl Is Mine” and “Billie Jean,” his album Thriller was three months into an amazing 37-week run at the top of the album charts. “Billie Jean” was #1 on the Top 40 and “Beat It” was getting more and more attention.
“Beat It” was unlike any Michael Jackson single the world had heard. For one thing, it had guitars. And not just a lightly-strummed acoustic guitar in the background. This song had a hard-driving rock and roll guitar hook, and even a blistering guitar solo by none other than Eddie Van Halen. This was about as different from “The Girl Is Mine” as you could get. This was a song people wanted to hear.
But people still wanted to hear “Billie Jean” too. As “Beat It” shot up the singles chart, “Billie Jean” was still tenaciously hanging onto the #1 position on the Top 40. Could “Beat It” knock “Billie Jean” out of the top spot?
If it could, that would mean back-to-back number ones by the same artist, by no means an easy task. Only The Beatles had done it, in 1964, with “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” all hitting #1, one after another. The Bee Gees had almost done it at the height of disco-mania in 1978, with “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever,” but those two number ones were separated by brother Andy Gibbs’ “Shadow Dancing.”
“Beat It” video
So the world watched as “Beat It” moved closer and closer to the top spot held by “Billie Jean.” And then, on April 23, 1983, Billboard magazine announced that there was a new number one:
“Come on Eileen,” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
At the height of the Michael Jackson phenomena, a one-hit wonder had, for one week, managed to keep both “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” out of the top spot, ending “Billie Jean”’s seven-week run at the top. The next week, however, Michael got his revenge and “Beat It” ascended to its rightful place at #1, staying there for three weeks.
Jackson followed his success with four more top-ten singles from Thriller, plus a chart-topping duet with Paul McCartney (“Say Say Say”). Then, almost exactly a year after “Beat It” had first hit the Top 40, the music of “Beat It” returned to the charts. This time, though, the lyrics were different: “Weird Al” Yankovic had released a parody, “Eat It,” which became the most successful single of his (Al’s) career, peaking at number 12. Meanwhile, Jackson was still on the charts, with both the title track from Thriller and a guest appearance on Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me.”
Michael Jackson doll (Beat It costume)
In all, Michael Jackson spent sixteen weeks at #1 in 1983 and early 1984 with “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Say Say Say.” He also had a decent run at #2 with “The Girl Is Mine” and as a guest on “Somebody’s Watching Me.”
“Beat It” made another appearance in 1996: a rocking Moby-remixed version of the song (with much more prominent placement of Eddie Van Halen’s solo) was included on one of the CD singles of the controversial “They Don’t Care About Us.”