How Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ Became the First Album To Notch Five Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s
Despite lesser sales, Michael Jackson's 'Bad' achieved a feat that not only did his earlier 'Thriller' not accomplish, but that no album in history ever had before: It spawned five No. 1 hits on the…
Thirty years ago today — on Aug. 31, 1987 — Michael Jackson debuted one of the most anticipated albums in the history of pop music: Bad, the follow-up to 1982’s Thriller, which had already been certified 20-times platinum by the RIAA upon its successor’s release, well on its way to becoming the best-selling album of all time.
Undaunted, Jackson and producer Quincy Jones attempted to outdo themselves with Bad, setting their sales goals even higher the next time around. “I heard was that [Michael] was carrying around — I can’t remember if it was a quarter and a nickel or three dimes — but he was carrying around 30 cents in his pocket because he wanted to sell [that many million copies of Bad],” says Geoff Mayfield, retail editor at Billboard in 1987.
Jackson would fall well short of that goal — Bad had topped out at 6-times platinum in the U.S. by the time the album’s promo cycle finally ended at the close of the ’80s, and was finally certified diamond (for 10 million equivalent album units) by the RIAA earlier this year. But despite the lesser sales, Bad did achieve a feat that not only did Thriller not accomplish, but that no album in history ever had before: It spawned five No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100.
Each of the set’s first five singles — Siedah Garrett ballad duet “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” storming title track “Bad,” strutting love song “The Way You Make Me Feel,” anthemic power ballad “Man in the Mirror” and rock-infused backstage drama “Dirty Diana” — made it all the way to the Hot 100’s apex, breaking the previous record of four No. 1 hits off the same album, initially set in 1978 by the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. For more than two decades, Bad reigned as the lone album to notch five Hot 100-toppers, until Katy Perry finally tied the achievement in 2011 with her fifth No. 1 off sophomore album Teenage Dream.
So how did an album that largely failed to live up to commercial expectation manage to do something no blockbuster album had managed before? A lot of the answer can be found through the album’s surrounding context — in terms of Michael Jackson’s career, in terms of the pop landscape in the late ’80s and in terms of the Billboard charts of the time.
Though Thriller managed “only” two Hot 100 No. 1s of its own — “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” — it raised the bar for how long an album’s shelf life could last. “It’s one of those few records I can think of with three meaningful Christmas seasons,” says Mayfield. “When I was at Billboard [in 1984] it was the third Christmas season for Thriller, and it was still one of the records that retailers cited as a traffic builder for them, and that’s unusual.”
The album also set new standards for the number of hit singles that could be pulled from the same record, with seven of its nine tracks becoming top 10 hits on the Hot 100 — a then-record. “Having seven top 10 hits [on Thriller] was important,” says Larry Stessel, senior VP/marketing for Jackson’s Sony-owned label Epic in the ’80s. “Because you had all of those songs that were being played on 98 percent of the radio stations in the country, whether it was some lesser singles… as long as they’re in the top 10 or top five, they’re going to have a tremendous impact.”
After Thriller, albums that previously would’ve only spun off three or four singles were now increasingly likely to have five, six, even seven songs pulled as A-sides before the artist would move on to a next album. Tellingly, Def Leppard’s Diamond-selling Pyromania set, released just a couple months after Thriller in 1983, saw only four songs released as singles, but by the time of 1987 follow-up Hysteria, that LP spawned seven singles — with the fourth and fifth single in the U.S. (“Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Love Bites”) becoming the set’s biggest Hot 100 hits, reaching Nos. 2 and 1, respectively. “‘We should do a rock version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller,'” Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen recalled to Billboard of producer Mutt Lange’s goals for Hysteria.
Also contributing to these albums’ extended lifespans was the rise of MTV. Albums like Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. (1984) and Janet Jackson’s Control (1986) were able to generate at least five top 10 hits each (seven for Born) in large part because many of their singles were accompanied by captivating music videos that were endlessly promoted on what had become the world’s most influential musical outlet. And Michael Jackson, who had helped the channel go truly global with videos for Thriller‘s “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” and the title track, was the station’s unquestioned male lead. “They were so hungry for Michael Jackson videos that we could’ve put out Michael singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and they would’ve played it,” Stessel recalls.
And when Bad was finally ready for release in 1987, a half-decade after Thriller had permanently changed the parameters for pop album scaling, it was given one of the great promotional pushes in record industry history. Walter Yetnikoff, then-CEO of CBS and Sony Music, was behind Jackson fully. At the time, Columbia Records (a CBS division) had mega-selling acts Springsteen, Pink Floyd and Billy Joel on its roster, but it was clear which artist was Yetnikoff’s top priority. “As much as Walter loved those [other] acts, Michael was the king at the company,” says one former Sony executive. “The push behind Jackson kept Columbia from getting to No. 1 with their records. They over-aggressively promoted Michael Jackson, because that was what Walter wanted.” (Journey’s Frontiers album on Columbia stalled at No. 2 for nine weeks in 1983, stuck behind Thriller.)
The Bad album — whose progress was kept as a secret even to Jackson’s label, Epic Records, until shortly before it was delivered — was first introduced to a who’s who of radio and retail bigwigs at a private dinner at the pop star’s house in Encino, California. “The first thing I thought was… we have to make Michael real to the industry again,” says Jim Caparro, then-head of sales at Epic. “To make him real again I came up with this wild notion that we should bring all the accounts and big radio people to Michael’s house and have him debut the album to them.”
“Sony brought in Wolfgang Puck, he was the chef at the house,” recalls Bruce Ogilvie, now the CEO of Alliance Entertainment and the then-owner of the Abbey Road One-Stop distributor, about the summit. “They had all the Sony senior people there and [manager] Frank DiLeo was there, and so was Janet Jackson. They didn’t spare any expense. They picked everyone up in limousines to bring us there. It floated around the party that Michael Jackson was sleeping upstairs in the oxygen chamber but would come down later.”
Bad was brought to the general public via a half-hour special, Michael Jackson: The Magic Returns, which debuted on CBS primetime the night before the album was released. The centerpiece of the special was the “Bad” music video, an 18-minute short film helmed by legendary director Martin Scorsese and co-starring a pre-fame Wesley Snipes. “It was on from 8-8:30 [on CBS] and it was the No. 5 show of the week,” says Stessel, who wrote, produced and directed the program (along with Don Wilson), which also featured a short catch-up film summarizing Michael’s career to that point. “It was a tremendous coup… we shipped 4.2 million copies [of the album], and we sold half of it the first week.”
All of this set the scene for a singles rollout that built on the momentum of Thriller and attempted to take it to new heights. “The album of your career is always going to put you on a higher plateau than you were before,” Mayfield says. “And I would say that Thriller did some of the heavy lifting for Bad just by making his tent larger than it ever could have been prior to that album.”
Not wanting to mess with the successful formula of the latter, the release strategy for Bad closely mirrored that of its predecessor. “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” with Siedah Garrett — the more traditional pop duet without a music video — was pulled as a single first (as the Paul McCartney collab “The Girl Is Mine” was from Thriller), followed by two more obvious modern pop knockouts with elaborate visuals to match in “Bad” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” (just like “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” an album earlier). “Everything was about, ‘Let’s just do everything the Thriller way,'” Stessel recalls.
But when it came to scoring Hot 100-toppers, Bad had era advantages that Thriller didn’t. The late ’80s saw a particularly high concentration of singles hitting the top of the Hot 100, with 33 separate singles spending time at No. 1 in 1988 (including three of the five Bad No. 1s), and only one single (Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It”) reigning at the chart’s apex for as many as four weeks. By contrast, only 17 singles reached pole position on the Hot 100 in 1983 — including both of Thriller‘s No. 1s — and seven separate songs reigned for at least four weeks. It was easier for Jackson to score more No. 1s off Bad, because there were simply more No. 1s to go around in the late ’80s.
Why was this? Well, by the late ’80s, the big labels had largely decided that the duration of their artists’ No. 1 hits was not nearly as important as the volume. “Nobody would care if you had a No. 1 for one week or 10 weeks,” explains Michael Ellis, Billboard‘s assistant director of charts and author of the weekly “Hot 100 Singles Spotlight” column in 1987. “You just would go down in history that you had a No. 1. So the minute you had your peak position, the labels wanted it out of the way.” Consequently, Ellis says, labels would intentionally cut back on promoting their records shortly after they’d hit their chart peaks: “They’d work it down to get rid of it, so the next single could come up, whether it was by that artist or another artist that they were trying to get [a hit].”
When it came to Bad, CBS execs definitely felt the stress of getting Jackson’s singles to the top spot. “I remember we would sit in sales meetings, and there was a lot of conversation and pressure to get No. 1 store [sales] reports, because Michael was the most important artist on the label,” says Harvey Leeds, CBS’ then-VP promotion and video. “Particularly after a successful monster like Thriller… Michael got what Michael wanted.”
And what Michael wanted was history. “He always wanted to break the next record,” Leeds recalls. “That was Michael’s whole thing, to break new ground and to be the first person to do something that no other recording artist had ever done.”
All of the Bad No. 1s enjoyed these abbreviated chart peaks, with “Bad” and “Man in the Mirror” each holding on at No. 1 for two weeks, and the set’s other three chart-toppers spending just a single week on top. But Bad wasn’t alone in this phenomenon: While it was the only album of its era to spawn five No. 1 singles, four other late ’80s albums — Whitney Houston’s Whitney (1987), George Michael’s Faith (1987), Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl (1988) and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989) — spun off four each, a feat matched by only three other albums in the decades since. And for each of these albums, the singles’ reigns at No. 1 were relatively short lived; none spent more than four weeks on top, and many were one- or two-week triumphs.
The end of this era on the charts came with the introduction of Nielsen SoundScan and BDSRadio technology to Billboard‘s chart methodology, which allowed for more accurate tracking of album sales and radio airplay (respectively), and for less label influence in the reporting of those numbers. In 1992, the first full year of Billboard‘s Nielsen integration, the number of total No. 1s on the Hot 100 dropped from 27 the year before to just 13.
Tellingly, Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album, released in late ’91 as his Bad follow-up, notched just a single No. 1 on the chart — though it lasted for seven weeks, far longer than any of his Bad Hot 100 champions. “They were so nervous — Sony — about how this would affect their relationship with Michael Jackson… They actually flew me from New York to L.A. to meet with him,” Ellis recalls, “and explain the new chart system. So when Sony told him what was going on, he would see that they were not lying to him. That it wasn’t just a weakness in their promotional efforts — that there really was a new system in place.”
Jackson never again threatened Bad‘s record for No. 1 singles, but for a long time, neither did anyone else. After the Nielsen data was introduced to Billboard calculations in 1991, it wasn’t until Usher’s Confessions album in 2004 that another album would notch as many as four Hot 100 No. 1s.
And then it wasn’t until 2011 — nearly a quarter-century after Bad first set the chart milestone — that it would be matched, as Perry’s Teenage Dream album also spawned No. 1s with its first five singles: the Snoop Dogg-assisted “California Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” “Firework,” “E.T.” (featuring Kanye West on the single release) and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” “We made an event of every single we rolled out from that album,” says Greg Thompson — then-executive VP of marketing and promotion at Perry’s label Capitol Records — of what it took to match Bad‘s five No. 1s. “Our job was doing the best possible job on each single and maximizing every opportunity.”
Of course, as many external explanations as there were for Michael Jackson’s unprecedented chart achievement, the biggest might still be the simplest: They were five really good pop songs. “It was a brilliant record,” Caparro says of Bad. “When all is said and done, the only way you get five No. 1 singles from an album is awesome talent — forget the set-up and the craftmanship to the marketing. We were all holding onto his talent, his awesomeness and his momentum.”
And Michael’s shining example made it an honor for Perry to share his historic company. “When it was pointed out to me that we were starting to infringe on Michael Jackson territory and it suddenly dawned on us that we could make some history here, we talked to Katy,” Thompson recalls. “Together we realized it was rarified air to be in the same place as Michael Jackson.”