20 May 2018

Deadpool's Gong Show ft. Michael Jackson

In preparation for the long-awaited sequel (out in theaters as of the time of this writing) my roommate and I rewatched the original Deadpool film. To its credit, it holds up far better than it has any right to, and Negasonic Teenage Warhead is still the coolest superhero name ever. I can't say I enjoyed it more the second time around, but I certainly enjoyed it as much and did notice something interesting that I hadn't before, and that's an odd string of notes in the score. It's something of a leitmotif for DP, so I had plenty of opportunities to listen for it and try picking it apart in my head. It was a synthetic sound, very bassy, and made me think of a gong, like the transition effect used all over Law & Order, but with more of a sting to it. 

It finally hit me toward the end of the film that it sounded almost exactly like the opening notes for Michael Jackson's Beat It. Wikipedia wound up having a surprisingly in-depth look at the score, noting that since all of Pool's musical references were from the 1980's, especially WHAM!, it was decided to use instrumentation from that period. It mentioned two synthesizers, an Oberheim, and a Synclavier. The Oberheim link only showed me the entire range of equipment, so I focused on the latter. Sure enough, buried in a lengthy list of notable users was the King of Pop, with Beat It specifically cited for its notable "gong" sound. 

That should be where this story ends, but there's a twist to it. This "gong" sound isn't actually from Beat It. At least, it's not originally from Beat It. A full year before Thriller was released, Sycnlavier released a demo disc of their new Sycnlavier II model. It's about 24 minutes of small samples. It's at around 6 minutes and 40 seconds, following some jaunty xylophone-like sounds, we hear the gong.

But we don't simply hear the gong, we don't simply hear it in all its ominous glory; we hear it verbatim, all 7 notes. 

For the sake of giving credit where credit is due, all synthesizer sounds on Thriller were a team effort consisting of Steve Porcaro, Brian Banks, and Anthony Marinelli. The demo disc was effectively a promotional item from Synclavier, with Discogs crediting Denny Jaeger with that particular track.

Liner notes for Thriller do mention Jaeger, who went onto work for Jackson on BAD, but only after reaching out to Jackson upon spotting the match. This is not meant to be some call for justice or a knock against the King of Pop. If anyone was concerned about plagiarism or infringement, they've made peace with it by now. After all, Jaeger is credited with programming and performing the track for the demo, all under the hire of New England Digital, who intended the effect to be a built-in patch for their new synthesizer. Songwriter Tom Bahler, who wrote She's Out of My Life originally for Frank Sinatra before Michael Jackson made it famous, was actually the one who first played the effect for Jackson while writing Thriller. The rest of the programming team was anxious about using it, since it was so distinct (and a stock sound that literally worked right out of the box) and they'd have preferred to work more with the synth to produce original sounds. Michael, however, was insistent on using it. 

Okay, that explains the sound itself being featured, but it isn't just the sound, it's the full set of notes. This is an important distinction to make for legal reasons. Without getting into the exact economics of it, it is far less expensive to license a song to be covered (buying the sheet music, so to speak) than it is to sample even one second of a song's original recording. So, are the Synclavier II's gong sounds as they appear on its demo disc being sampled or covered in Beat It

The short answer is nobody really knows, it's in all likelihood a recreation using the original instrument in question, but the matter is almost academic. It does make me wonder if someone were to use those same 7 notes from the demo disc if they'd be getting a legal notice from the estate of Michael Jackson, New England Digital, or anybody at all. Then again, who would they be fooling? Sure, seven notes doesn't seem like anything special, but think of the first two notes of Elvis "The King of Rock" Presley's Jailhouse Rock, courtesy of his guitarist Scotty Moore

How often can you identify a song by the first two notes? Most people can probably identify Beat It by the first one. Suddenly all the red tape of legal ownership becomes a moot point because the two are linked by an almost unbreakable cultural consensus. 

Most of the information for the latter half of this entry is sourced from an article by Gino Sorcinelli for Medium.