Michael Jackson Meets America in Invincible Album Outtake ‘A Place With No Name’

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Below is a chapter from my book Michael Jackson: Songs & Stories From The Vault, revised for this article. The full book is available via Amazon and iBooks.

On May 20, 1997, Epic Records, released Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix – a compilation album including five new songs by Michael Jackson and eight remixes of tracks taken from his 1995 album, HIStory.

While some of the new songs are arguably among the best of Jackson’s illustrious career, only three of them had never been heard at the time of Blood on the Dance Floor’s release, leaving fans hungry for more new music from the pop star.

And so in 1998, 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.

The newest member of Jackson’s team was singer, songwriter, and producer Elliot Straite, who goes by the name Dr. Freeze in the music industry.

Prior to working with Jackson, Freeze was best known for his New Jack Swing style production, and for having co-written the 1991 hit “I Wanna Sex You Up” for boy band Color Me Badd, and “Poison” for Bell Biv DeVoe.

In 1998, Freeze had been working on an album with one of his collaborative partners. But unfortunately, the album never saw the light of day.

“After completing the album, things did not go as planned and we had to cancel the project,” Freeze recalls in a 2011 interview with MJFrance.

At the time, Freeze was being managed by record executive John McClain.

Disappointed that his prior project had failed, Freeze recalls that he received some news from McClain that changed his life forever:

“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!’”

At first, Freeze thought McClain was crazy, not believing that Michael Jackson would actually want to work with him.

But then, Jackson called Freeze, telling the producer that he was returning to the studio to record another album, and he wanted Freeze to join him.

The collaboration was possible for Freeze because McClain was also managing Jackson at the time. And soon after their initial phone call, Freeze began preparing a collection of songs to present to Jackson.

When the songs were ready, the pair got to work on the tracks Jackson liked best.

“I introduced him to many songs,” recalls 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.”

Though already an accomplished artist in his own right, and fully capable of holding his own in a recording studio, Freeze was intimidated during his first studio session with Jackson.

“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.”

“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.”

For “A Place With No Name,” Freeze envisioned a hypnotic song themed around escapism.

“[It’s] a song where you just close your eyes to find yourself instantly transported into a wonderful world,” explains 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. [It] was inspired by ‘A Horse With No Name,’ by the group America. The lyrics of this song are very deep. I wanted to refresh it and make a version for the 2000s.”

“Michael knew the guys from America,” recalls Jackson’s recording engineer, Michael Prince, who worked on the track with Jackson and Freeze.

Jackson also knew America’s longtime manager, Jim Morey, who had co-managed Jackson with Sandy Gallin for a period of time years prior.

“So he called them to ask if it was okay to use the sample from ‘A Horse With No Name,’ and they said yes,” explains Prince.

“I know from my personal time with Michael that he was a musical fan of America. He mentioned it to me several times, actually,” recalls Morey.

“Michael himself never actually spoke to Dewey Bunnell, who is the original writer of the song. What happened was a publishing rep from Warner-Chappell Music notified me that there was going to be a use of the song which Michael had changed and needed permission for. Dewey agreed to the changes subject to payment and I negotiated the fee with Michael’s lawyer. It was very simple. No dramas.”

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.

Jackson and Freeze’s 1998 reimagining of “A Horse With No Name” also wasn’t the first – or the last – time a Jackson family member had recorded a track inspired by America’s music.

In 1985, Michael’s sister, Janet Jackson, was working on what would become the Control album.

At the time, Janet had recently hired John McClain as her manager, and McClain brought Minneapolis-based production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on board to help bring the album to fruition.

One of the first tracks Jam and Lewis penned for Control, released in 1986, was “Let’s Wait Awhile,” which bears striking similarities to America’s 1975 hit “Daisy Jane.”

Fifteen years later, Jam & Lewis penned another America-inspired track for Janet, called “Someone to Call My Lover,” released as part of her 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.”

“I love sampling,” explains Jimmy Jam, who together with Terry Lewis worked on some of the most sample-heavy songs of Michael Jackson’s career, including “History” and “Tabloid Junkie” from Jackson’s 1995 HIStory album.

“I’m not into stealing. I’m not into taking something illegally and using it. But if people get credit for it, [I love] the idea of introducing people to new music through old music, and music I grew up with.”

Dewey 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,” recalls 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.” 

In what appears to be an unimaginable coincidence, thirty-five years after the Bunnell family’s highway flat tire, the lyrics to first lines of “A Place With No Name” go like this:

As I drove across on the highway,
My jeep began to rock.
I didn’t know what to do so I stopped and got out,
And looked down and noticed I got a flat.

Lyrics to “A Place With No Name”

“America loved the idea,” says Freeze of he and Jackson’s new version of the 1971 chart-topper.

“They found this update absolutely terrific. They were really excited about [the] project.”

“A Place With No Name” was first worked on at Record Plant Recording Studios in Los Angeles in August of 1998.

At the time, CJ deVillar was the Record Plant’s chief engineer.

DeVillar is not only an engineer, but also an accomplished musician. In the early 1980s, deVillar played bass guitar in a couple of moderately successful bands, one of which was signed to Epic Records in 1984 – the same time that Michael Jackson and The Jacksons were.

As chief engineer at the Record Plant, deVillar was responsible for overseeing the recording sessions of high-profile artists, and was always present to ensure the more technically challenging sessions ran smoothly.

When Jackson first arrived at the Record Plant to begin working on new music with Dr. Freeze in the summer of ’98, Jackson wanted to hire a new engineer to assist with their sessions. DeVillar, who had worked with Jackson before, was assigned the task of helping him find the best man for the job.

To test out their skills, Jackson threw several tasks at the engineers, including asking each of them to compile a vocal using a variety of multi-track machines.

However, unfortunately for the engineers, Jackson’s requests were too complex, with deVillar having to constantly step in and fix a problem, or complete the task on his own.

After trialling three different engineers, it became clear that deVillar himself was far more capable of giving Jackson what he needed than any of the engineers they’d trialled.

“So three or four days later,” recalls deVillar, “Michael looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you be my engineer?’ And I said, ‘Yeah! I’m ready. Let’s do this. Let’s work.’ And he said, ‘Great!’ And the next day I was working in the studio with MJ.”

The first track deVillar, Jackson and Freeze worked on was “Break of Dawn,” which Freeze had written for Jackson.

Production on “Break of Dawn” moved quickly, with Jackson recording it early on in the Record Plant sessions, before moving on to other songs, including “Blue Gangsta” and “A Place With No Name.” 

During an early collaborative session for “A Place With No Name,” Jackson recorded a scratch vocal for the track with Freeze, deVillar, and another engineer, Eddie Delena, with whom Jackson and deVillar had previously worked a few years earlier.

At one point during the session, Freeze mentioned to deVillar that he wanted to have a ‘real’ (live) bass guitar on the track.

“Michael’s music usually uses a synth bass,” explains deVillar in an interview with The MJCast,

“So the minute I heard [Freeze say he wanted live bass] I was like, ‘I play bass! I’ve played for years. I could drop in and see if you guys like it.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, bring it down!’” 

DeVillar took Freeze at his word, bringing his bass guitar to the studio.

“I bring it down, and I take it out of the case,” recalls deVillar, “and I sit it in the corner so they can see it. Because I’m not gonna mention it again. I don’t want to be forward and rude [and] I don’t want to be forceful.”

But he didn’t have to be forceful at all. Before long, Freeze had suggested the timing may be right for deVillar to plug in and see what he could come up with.

Jackson, however, was still at the studio, and deVillar insisted that he and Freeze should wait for Jackson to leave the studio before entering the booth to record the bass.

DeVillar’s concern was that he didn’t want to jeopardize his position as an engineer on the project by being caught playing something that Jackson had not requested. And so they waited.

“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.” 

It was a Tuesday evening on August 25, 1998, when deVillar finally laid down his bass parts at the Record Plant. And it was that same 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!’”

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

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.”

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. 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, ‘Oh, yeah, CJ. That was stinky. Hurt me! Let’s do another.’ His enthusiasm was inspiring me. It was hypnotic, and Freeze wanted the track to be hypnotic.” 

“I dropped in a total of five or six times, with the last one being a solid groove track so we didn’t have to compile a bunch of bass ideas to make the song listenable right away,” explains deVillar.

“After a few loud playbacks, I put together a quick rough mix and made him a DAT tape to listen to. He graciously thanked me again and then went home for the day… I had a lot of fun recording [with] Michael and Freeze. It showed me Michael’s relentless musical energy so vividly… The whole session went down in about thirty minutes, and it gave me a whole new level of respect for Michael.”

The next day, Jackson arrived back at Record Plant Recording Studios ready to record the background vocals and “na nas” with Freeze.

While the majority of the background vocals on the track belong to Freeze, there are a few instances where he and Jackson have recorded in harmony, with their vocals being layered seamlessly together by engineers.

Early versions of “A Place With No Name” ran eight minutes in length and were recorded across forty-eight tracks including conga drums, wind effects, shakers, claps, the guitar sample from America’s original version of the song, and, of course, deVillar’s live bass part.

After about a week of tweaking and editing the rough “A Place With No Name” mix, Jackson was ready to record the lead vocals.

The recording session, engineered by Eddie Delena with the assistance of deVillar, took place at the Record Plant on September 8, 1998.

Dr. Freeze recalls what it was like to witness Jackson in full force, recording vocals in the booth:

“When he came into the studio to record, he stood before the microphone and set fire to the song. As he left, the studio was in ashes and our jaws on the floor. It was really impressive to see.”

“He sang so well that when he was in the booth, magic was coming out,” recalls deVillar.

“I had to hold my emotions, because I’m more of a music guy than an engineer. When Michael would sing, sometimes he would hit these notes where I would jump out of my seat like, Oh, my god! And I’d have to stop myself, because I’m the engineer and I can’t jump out of my seat. But I did a few times!”

DeVillar continues:

“The pyrotechnics that came out of this man were ridiculous. And it came out like that all the f*cking time. It’s powerful. It’s magic. It was like he was channeling when he would sing. It was scary sometimes. He would actually grab the microphone with his hands and roar and just get into it. Then the part would be over and he would let go of the mic and he would just sit there and simmer. And I would wait sometimes up to twenty or thirty seconds until he got his composure back. He was gathering up energy, widening up his body and then, Bam! Letting it loose. Then relaxing, composing himself, a slight little five-second meditation and then we’d do another take. He was really focused on every part, every swing at the ball. There was a lot of force behind every single take.”

Jackson’s lead vocals were recorded using a Neumann M149 microphone.

Additional leads were recorded on October 16, 1998, by engineer Mike Ging at the Ocean Way Recording facility – commonly referred to as Record One.

The following day, Ging worked on a new mix.

From there, “A Place With No Name” did some serious studio hopping.

“It was such a round robin back in those days,” recalls engineer Michael Prince, who was bouncing back and forth between a room with Jackson’s longtime arranger, Brad Buxer, and another with Dr. Freeze.

“At one point we ended up at Marvin’s Place. We then moved back to Record Plant, then back to Record One again.”

“Typically, I was working mostly on the songs Brad and MJ were writing,” recalls Prince. “We had our hands busy with about five or six songs.”

Two of those songs were “The Way You Love Me” and “Hollywood Tonight.”

“A Place With No Name” was again revisited throughout February 1999, with Jackson, Prince, Buxer and Ging making further edits to the track at Record One.

“We were very happy at Record One, and that’s where we got the majority of our work done,” recalls Prince.

“That’s when Rodney Jerkins joined the team. Rodney, Fred Jerkins, and LaShawn Daniels were there for at least the last month that we were at Record One.”

Then, at the end of March 1999, Jackson flew out to New York to work at The Hit Factory recording studio with producer Cory Rooney on the song “She Was Loving Me,” which Rooney had written specifically for Jackson.

After a month of recording, editing and hanging out in the studio, Jackson decided to leave the completion of “She Was Loving Me” in Rooney’s hands, while he moved on to other songs.

But Jackson wouldn’t resume recording in Los Angeles.

Jackson’s month on the east coast had inspired him to move a selection of his production team from LA to New York City, where they would continue working at The Hit Factory, Sony Music Studios, and even in Jackson’s hotel room.

Much to their disappointment, CJ deVillar and Mike Ging did not receive a call to join Jackson in New York. Brad Buxer and Michael Prince, on the other hand, packed their bags and headed to the Big Apple.

Moving studios was a major task back in the days of recording to tape, especially the way Jackson composed songs.

Some of Jackson’s more complex pieces consisted of upwards of one hundred individual tracks.

“It took us days to make copies of all the tapes and hard drives, and to label them,” recalls Prince, “and then everything got shipped to The Hit Factory in New York and we spent months there.”

In early May 1999, once all the tapes had arrived in New York, Hit Factory engineer Paul J. Falcone worked on yet another mix of “A Place With No Name.”

However, as recording sessions for the work-in-progress album advanced, “A Place With No Name” was put on the backburner, along with Cory Rooney’s “She Was Loving Me” and Freeze’s “Blue Gangsta.”

At that time, Jackson shifted his focus to working with producer Rodney Jerkins, and Jerkins had done the same in return.

In the end, the Invincible album was released on October 30, 2001, and “A Place With No Name” was not included.

Years later, in early 2004, when working on music in a makeshift studio at his Neverland Valley Ranch, Jackson revisited the track with engineer Michael Prince.

“It has improved gradually,” explains Freeze.

“It was incremental work. He listened to the different mixes and changed some details around here or there. He was in full creative control. We wanted the song to be perfect… It was a bit like a director looking to improve his film by changing the script or changing players. This is the type of process that was used to create this song, and overall, the album Invincible… All that interested him was to have number one hits.”

Freeze’s sentiments about Michael wanting to have hits have been echoed by many over the years, including producer RedOne, and also by Jackson himself.

“Michael always has been focused on having hits,” says RedOne, who spent time working with Jackson during the final years of his life. “He always records a lot of songs and takes the best of them. That’s his formula, which I love.”

“It was Tchaikovsky that influenced me the most,” revealed Jackson in an interview with Bryan Monroe from Ebony magazine.

“If you take an album like Nutcracker Suite – every song is a killer. Every one! People used to do an album where you’d get one good song, and the rest were like B-sides. They’d call them ‘album songs,’ and I would say to myself, ‘Why can’t every one be like a hit song? Why can’t every song be so great that people would want to buy it if you could release it as a single?’ So, I always tried to strive for that… That was the whole idea… I worked hard for it.”

The 2004 version was briefly considered for a box set called The Ultimate Collection, released by Epic Records on November 16 the same year. But as with the Invincible album three years prior, it was again not included.

The track was then shelved for four more years, before being resurrected merely a year prior to Jackson’s death.

In January 2008, Jackson and his three children had moved into a rented mansion in Las Vegas.

The property was equipped with a home recording studio, in which Jackson began working on music, including with a producer called Neff-U, with whom Jackson had worked for several years.

During their 2008 collaborative sessions, Neff-U was also given a number of Jackson’s unreleased songs from the vault, to see if he could give them a fresh new sound.

“Michael had favourite songs, or songs that were works in progress,” explains engineer Michael Prince.

“Once Neff-U took over in 2008, Michael brought out some songs, including ‘A Place With No Name,’ and said: ‘Here, work with this song. See what you can come up with for this song.’ The vocals were always pretty much the same, but Neff-U would put new music on them.”

Minor edits were made by Neff-U in 2008, at Jackson’s home studio in Vegas. And coincidentally, the song’s original producer, Dr. Freeze, also visited Jackson at his home studio that year.

The pair had reunited to discuss the next chapter of Jackson’s musical journey.

“I was in the studio with him shortly before his death,” recalls Freeze.

“To be precise, I remember going to see him at his residence in Vegas, and there was a studio there… Nothing was recorded. We just brainstormed. We were about to start recording sessions… I offered a few new songs I had written especially for him. He loved [the songs] very much,” says Freeze.

But their work musical reunion wasn’t to be, with Jackson tragically passing away on June 25, 2009 – before they’d actually got in the studio and recorded the new songs.

“This was our last discussion,” recalls Freeze.

“He said ‘I love you’ and voila, it was over. He wanted to [record the songs], but he died.”

Three weeks after Jackson’s death, in July 2009, a short snippet of “A Place With No Name” leaked online, and it was quickly identified as a remake of America’s “A Horse With No Name.”

Following the leak, the writer’s of its predecessor – America’s Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley – expressed their desire for Jackson’s rendition of their 1972 hit to be released in full.

“We’re also hoping it will be released soon so that music listeners around the world can hear the whole song and once again experience the incomparable brilliance of Michael Jackson,” they said in a joint statement in July 2009, adding: “We truly hope his fans – and our fans – get to hear it in its entirety.”

Despite America’s enthusiasm for it to be released, the Jackson’s version remained unreleased for five more years.

Then, in May 2014, the track appeared on Xscape – the second posthumous album of Jackson material from the singer’s estate and Epic Records.

Two versions of “A Place With No Name” appear on Xscape – an original version and a remixed version.

The remix was done by Norwegian production duo Stargate, who had met with Jackson shortly before his death to discuss a potential collaboration.

Above: Jackson with production duo Stargate.

President of Epic Records at the time, LA Reid, who was overseeing the Xscape album project and recruiting the team of A-list producers who worked on it, discusses Stargate’s approach to their “A Place With No Name” remix.

“They approached it was so creative,” recalls Reid.

“They listened to the time signature of the song, which was a 6/8 time signature. So the guys from Stargate asked: ‘Which songs have had the 6/8 time signature?‘ There were songs like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground,’ which was an influence… It’s a really special record.”

Stargate’s remix indeed had a strong Stevie Wonder “Higher Ground” vibe about it.

Tor Erik Hermansen recalls how Jackson’s rhythmic vocals inspired he and Stargate co-producer Mikkel Eriksen when working on the remix:

“When I listened to Michael, he’s in the booth snapping his fingers, clapping his hands and stomping his feet. He’s doing all these energetic things that gave us a vibe where this track should go. That’s when we started to experiment with the bassline. We didn’t even have the drums on it yet, just the bassline and a chord progression that really worked for something more danceable. Then we started working on drums. But all of that stuff really came from Michael Jackson.”

On August 13, 2014, Stargate’s remix of “A Place With No Name” was released as the second single from the Xscape album, along with a music video directed by Samuel Bayer.

The original version of “A Place With No Name” included on Xscape is what Jackson heard during those 2008 collaborative sessions with producer Neff-U and recording engineer Michael Prince.

“Compared with the 2004 version, you can hear the drums are different in the final version,” observes Prince.

“It has a different kick drum pattern, a little stronger snare, and the ‘na nas’ are copied to repeat through the fade.”

One element of the track that Jackson never changed, however, was engineer CJ deVillar’s bass part.

“That bass credit is the greatest highlight of my career,” beams deVillar, “because no one told me what to play. Michael just said he wanted to hear some live bass, and I played. Michael used that bass, made it part of his lexicon, sang to it, and kept it on the track for the next decade. He never had anyone redo it. He never removed it. He kept that bass for over ten years. How on earth did I get that privilege? I’m beside myself just thinking about it.”

“Michael loved that song. I mean, who didn’t love that song? It’s still a huge classic,” recalls deVillar of Jackson’s affection for the original, original version – “A Horse With No Name” – by America.

“Michael was a real artist’s artist. He wanted to work on things just because he wanted to. I don’t think Michael made plans with music. I think he sort of just mused and had fun with music [and] I think he just loved that song so much.”

DeVillar continues:

“In hip hop culture it’s just so natural to flip anything – just flip any song you want. And so that was just Michael and Freeze putting love into it. I don’t think they went after that track like it was supposed to be put on a record. I think it was even more personal than that. The feeling I got during that time was that they were just having so much fun trying to play with the melody and the lyrics and the music, and were really just having a great time flipping this classic track. And a successful flip isn’t easy, but I thought that was just wonderful.”

The song’s original writers, Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley, agreed.

“We’re honoured that Michael Jackson chose to record it, and we’re impressed with the quality of the track,” they said.

“Michael really did it justice. It’s really poignant.”

Damien Shields is the author of the book Michael Jackson: Songs & Stories From The Vault examining the King of Pop’s creative process, and the producer of the podcast The Genesis of Thriller which takes you inside the recording studio as Jackson and his team create the biggest selling album in music history.

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