Michael Jackson’s “A Place With No Name” – The story behind the song

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Below is an excerpt from a chapter in my book Xscape Origins: The Songs & Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind. To read the full story, along with the stories of seven other previously-unreleased Michael Jackson songs, simply click here and order your copy of Xscape Origins – available in both physical and digital formats.

On September 7, 1996, Michael Jackson kicked off his record-breaking HIStory World Tour at Letna Park in Prague, Czech Republic. The tour, a grueling 82-date trek across the globe which saw Jackson perform in front of 4.5 million fans, in thirty-five countries, on five continents, came to an end thirteen months later, on October 15, 1997, at Kings Park Stadium in Durban, South Africa.

During a five-month break between the first and second legs of the tour, Jackson’s record label, Sony Music, released Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix—a compilation album including five “new” songs (two of which had already been released six months earlier as part of the 40-minute Ghosts film) and eight dance remixes of tracks taken from 1995’s HIStory album. Jackson personally expressed his dissatisfaction with the remixes on the album, saying, “The least I can say is that I don’t like them. I don’t like it that they come in and change my songs completely, but Sony says that kids love remixes.”[1]

Moreover, the fact that only three of the songs on Blood on the Dance Floor—“Morphine,” “Superfly Sister,” and title track—had never been heard before left fans hungry for more new music from the King of Pop.

And so, shortly after the completion of the tour, Jackson turned his attention towards his next full-length album, returning to the recording studio to work on ideas with his team of trusted collaborators.

As was customary when recording a new album, Jackson also invited a number of new personnel into the fold—with whom he had not yet worked—to see what they could bring to the table. One of the new personnel was singer, songwriter, and producer Elliot Straite (a.k.a. “Dr. Freeze”), best known for his New Jack Swing style production, and for having cowritten R & B boy band Color Me Badd’s 1991 hit “I Wanna Sex You Up.”

“I knew [Jackson’s] manager, John McClain, and I was working on an album with my partner, Spydermann,” recalls Freeze. “After completing the album, things did not go as planned and we had to cancel the project. I was very upset. And then John McClain said, ‘Don’t worry, Freeze. I have another project for you. You’ll be in business with Michael.’ I said, ‘Michael who?’ And he said, ‘Michael Jackson!’”[2]

At first Freeze thought McClain was crazy, not believing that Michael Jackson would actually want to work with him. Then one day, when Freeze was talking to his father on the phone, someone called him on the other line. Freeze put his father on hold and took the other call. It was Jackson.

Soon after their initial phone introduction, Freeze began preparing a collection of songs to present to Jackson. Once the songs were ready, Jackson came in, and they got to work on the ones Jackson liked best.

“I introduced him to many songs,” says Freeze. “The main songs on which we worked were ‘Break Of Dawn,’ ‘A Place With No Name,’ and ‘Blue Gangsta.’ These three songs were our priorities… He adored them.”[2]

Though already an accomplished artist in his own right, and fully capable of holding his own in a recording studio, Freeze, like most of those who encountered Jackson in person for the first time, was intimidated by the experience.

“It was pretty scary for me,” recalls Freeze. “I felt like I was back in primary school, and not knowing anything about production. With Michael, I relearned everything. The other producers and I were [like] students facing a teacher. With Michael, it was as if we knew nothing [about] the business; we had to start over and relearn everything. He taught us to do everything the best way possible. Michael was a perfectionist… I was very nervous. Very nervous, but very honored. He knew all about the music industry; everything about everything. Nothing was foreign to him, and he taught me a lot.”[2]

“Michael and I, we have a knack for melody,” Freeze continues. “So every time I proposed something, it was easy for him to study the song because it was as if he already knew it. I gave him some songs that he adored. He cherished them… I did all the music, and he only had to learn the lyrics.”[2]

“‘A Place With No Name’ is itself a kind of escape; a song where you just close your eyes to find yourself instantly transported into a wonderful world,” says Freeze. “This song is very cinematic. It would have been a perfect song for a movie like Avatar, because it reveals to us a wonderful world where people are different, but happy. This song is like an escape from everyday life.”[2]

“[The] song was inspired by ‘A Horse With No Name,’ [by] the group America,” explains Freeze. “The lyrics of this song are very deep. I wanted to refresh it [and] make a version for the 2000s.”[2]

“Michael knew the guys from America,” recalls Jackson’s recording engineer Michael Prince, “so he called them to ask if it was okay to use the sample from ‘A Horse With No Name,’ and they said yes.”[3]

“America loved the idea,” says Freeze. “They found this update absolutely terrific. They were really excited about [the] project.”[2]

This wasn’t the first time that Jackson had taken someone else’s song and covered or repurposed it for his own project. Jackson performed a rock version of The Beatles’ 1969 number one hit “Come Together” in his 1988 feature film, Moonwalker, later including the track as a B-side on his “Remember The Time” single in 1992, and again on the HIStory album in 1995. The HIStory album also features a stunning Jackson rendition of “Smile,” originally composed as an instrumental by Charlie Chaplin for his 1936 film Modern Times, and later recorded by Nat King Cole in 1954 featuring newly written lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons.

The King of Pop’s 1998 reimagining of “A Horse With No Name” also wasn’t the first (or the last) time a Jackson had recorded a track inspired by America’s music. In 1985, Michael Jackson’s sister, Janet, was working on the follow-up to her Dream Street album, released the previous year. Janet had recently hired John McClain as her manager, who brought Minneapolis-based production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on board to help produce the album, ultimately called Control, which was released in 1986. One of the first tracks Jam and Lewis penned for the album was “Let’s Wait Awhile,” which bears striking similarities to America’s 1975 hit “Daisy Jane,” although a cowriter credit was not given to the group. Fifteen years later, Jam and Lewis penned yet another America-inspired track, called “Someone to Call My Lover,” released as part of Janet’s All For You album in 2001. “Someone to Call My Lover” directly samples the Dewey Bunnell-written guitar riff from America’s 1972 track “Ventura Highway.”

Bunnell recalls that “Ventura Highway” was inspired when he, his brother, and their father encountered a flat tire during a family trip many years earlier. “It was 1963, when I was in seventh grade,” says Bunnell. “We got a flat tire, and we’re standing on the side of the road, and I was staring at this highway sign. It said ‘Ventura’ on it, and it just stuck with me.”[4]

In what one can only assume to be a massive coincidence, thirty-five years after the Bunnell family’s flat tire, Dr. Freeze dreamt up the same exact scenario for Jackson’s “A Place With No Name,” writing, “As I drove across on the highway… I noticed I got a flat,” in the song’s opening lyrics.

“A Place With No Name” was first worked on at the Los Angeles-based Record Plant Recording Studios in August of 1998. At the time, CJ deVillar was assisting Freeze with the engineering side of his work with Jackson. During a recording session, Freeze mentioned to deVillar that he wanted to have a live bass guitar on the track. DeVillar, an accomplished bassist himself, told Freeze he could play, and would be happy to lay something down for him.

Before the bass was laid, Jackson recorded a scratch vocal for the track with deVillar and engineer Eddie Delena, whom deVillar was initially working for as a second engineer. Once the scratch vocal was done, and Freeze was prepared, the bass could be added.

DeVillar insisted that he and Freeze should wait for Jackson to leave the studio before entering the booth to record the bass, because he didn’t want to jeopardize his position as an engineer by being caught playing something that Jackson had not requested.

“Michael usually left around the same time every evening,” recalls deVillar, “so we waited for him to leave before I did my thing. The reason I didn’t want Michael to see me play was in case he didn’t understand that I’m also a bass player. I was scared of him seeing me and wondering why his engineer was messing around with his song. I didn’t want to get fired.”[5]

It was a Tuesday evening on August 25, 1998 that deVillar finally laid down his bass parts at the Record Plant. And it was that night that his worst nightmare became a reality, with Jackson catching him in the act almost immediately after plugging his bass guitar in.

“I saw Mike appear from the studio lounge through the glass right when I had just started playing,” recalls deVillar, “and I was like, Oh, God! But when he walked in, and heard what I was playing, he became very excited.”[5]

Jackson asked deVillar what he and Freeze were doing, to which deVillar replied sheepishly, “Laying down some bass, Mike.”[5]

Jackson wanted to hear what they’d done so far, and questioned whether anything had been recorded.

“Um, no, Mike,” said deVillar. “I’m just trying to find a vibe.”[6]

Jackson encouraged deVillar to keep playing, and for Freeze to record it all, which is exactly what they did. Jackson liked what he heard so much that he entered the booth and began rocking out with deVillar.

“I had Michael in my face, and he cranked the speakers up loud,” recalls deVillar. “I’m hearing his voice; he’s dancing, popping and locking. I’ve got total Michael Jackson immersion. It was like I’d been zapped, like some crazy channeling was going on. It was like some kind of musical blessing that his aura and his power ended up in my space. And that bass line was created.”[5]

“It wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t there, because he’s standing right in front of me. He’s dancing. He’s making faces. He’s cheering me on. He’s playing air guitar. He’s giving me affirmations while I’m playing, and I’m absorbing these affirmations like he’s a fan in the audience. It was like a live concert, and he was producing me live on stage. He kept saying…”[5] Read more!

XO book layout imageThe above is an excerpt from a chapter in my book Xscape Origins: The Songs & Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind. To read the rest of this story, along with the stories of seven other previously-unreleased Michael Jackson songs, simply click here and order your copy of Xscape Origins – available in both physical and digital formats. Thank you for your support.

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1. Michael Jackson, interview with Black and White magazine, 1998 (Accessed May 12, 2014).

2. Elliot Straite a.k.a. “Dr. Freeze,” interview with Quagmire, “MEETING MICHAEL WAS LIKE MEETING CAPTAIN KIRK,” MJFrancetranslated here, January 2011. (Accessed December 4, 2013).

3. Michael Prince, author interview, February 4, 2015.

4. Dewey Bunnell, “Ventura Highway America 1972,” L.A. Times, October 1, 2006 (Accessed February 5, 2015).

5. CJ deVillar, author interview, May 20, 2014.

6. CJ deVillar, “Working with Michael Jackson,” Songwerx.com, August 2009 (Accessed December 4, 2013).

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