Seven iconic beats mark the intro to Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’. The sound can be called eerie, dark, and perhaps even ominous. It’s a sound created by Craig Huxley and his Blaster Beam along with Synclavier. Huxley’s unusual aluminum instrument features on a number of Jackson songs, creating some of the King of Pop’s most iconic sounds.
Huxley – a well-known synthesist, music composer and creator of electronic soundscapes – has fond memories of his collaboration with Jackson. “Michael enjoyed the Blaster Beam, because it was outrageous. I am a somewhat gentle person when not ranting about something, but MJ was ten times more gentle. So to have us softly chatting and then I’m signaled to give a bombastic Blaster Beam soundcheck level or show my part was pretty hilarious”, he recalls.
Of course, the Blaster Beam couldn’t have had a more appropriate name. The instrument looks like a prop from Star Trek and it has even been used for its soundtrack. But what exactly is it? The Blaster Beam is an aluminum sounding board shaped like a plank. It measures 18 feet (or 5.5 meters), is strung with 24 bronze strings, and has a number of movable electric guitar pickups attached.
When in action, the Blaster Beam functions like the giant fret of a steel guitar, played by plucking the strings or by striking them with a mallet or a large metal tube, such as artillery shell casing. This creates a tone or a single chord that sounds deep and rather sinister, much to the enjoyment of Jackson, who was always on the lookout for innovative and unusual sounds.
Other types of longbeams were built in the early 1970s. The innovations of aluminum beam with bronze strings and mobile piezoelectric pickups was patented by Huxley. Huxley was no stranger to the world of entertainment. As a child actor, he played the nephew of Captain Kirk on Star Trek. This is when he met young Michael Jackson: “Michael and I first became friends at his age of ten, when I was fourteen and famous. We shared the same Hollywood tutor, Ms. Rose Fine, who went on tours with me, then him, back and forth”, Huxley remembers.
Besides being a child actor, Huxley was also a child prodigy pianist with a keen interest in music and sound. “At the end of a day’s shooting, I used to go and hang out with all the studio musicians, and I was always really interested in that. When I was in my early 20’s, I started getting calls to play some of the instruments I had designed and built, and I just ended up being a session player. That led to my building my own studio and gradually getting involved in producing movie scores with various composers,” Huxley told CinemaScore magazine in 1985.
It was in Huxley’s first recording studio that he and Jackson began to explore their collaboration in music: “Michael came to my Sherman Oaks home studio for many day-long sessions, and I then started going to his home studio on Hayvenhurst in Encino, at least a hundred times.” In later years, Huxley built the impressive Enterprise Studios in Burbank, which became one of the largest diversified indie studios in music history.
Working with Jackson
As Huxley had performed as a synthesist with such legends as Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire, it was no surprise that he also started working with Jackson and producer Quincy Jones on Jackson’s legendary album Thriller. His Blaster Beam – which brought out signature sounds and timbres that could not be created by traditional instruments – became part of the album and featured on songs such as ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Beat It’.
But playing the Blaster Beam was not all Huxley did. “I mostly programmed synth and Synclavier sounds and played electronic keyboards as well on the Thriller and Bad albums. I was kept on-hand for weeks at a time on each album.” Huxley also played on the charity single ‘We Are The World’ – co-written by Jackson – and on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Storybook, narrated by Jackson.
In addition, Huxley worked on the 1986 Captain EO exhibit at Disneyland, which featured Jackson as an intergalactic warrior in a 4D experience. Huxley is credited for its music and sound design, including the Blaster Beam, under the direction of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. Another decade later, the Blaster Beam played a role in Jackson’s ‘Earth Song’ on his HIStory album.
Three decades of collaboration
All in all, Huxley and Jackson collaborated for over thirty years. “Michael was my friend from my teen years, his tween years, so he treated me like an older brother-friend. First in the ’70s, then during the many weeks at a time on each project over at Westlake Studios. Later at my home studio and dozens of times at his home studio.”
Of all the artists Huxley has met and worked with at his recording studio, Jackson remains his number one. “I put MJ at the top of my list; he was a truly great person and artist. And I am very critical of many superstars who I worked with or who frequented my studios and rental companies. Michael was a highly sensitive person, which is very unusual in this ego-driven business.”
Although the two collaborated for many years, including the sound design and support of Jackson’s Bad, Dangerous and HIStory world tours, they eventually lost touch as a result of their busy schedules. It’s something that has left Huxley with a pang in his heart. “I regret not being more involved in the final decade, but I was running my huge Enterprise operations with a hundred employees”, he says.
After Jackson’s premature death in 2009, their musical partnership came to a full stop. “Of course he was let down by his sycophants and handlers”, Huxley says when touching upon the subject. Still, he prefers to focus on the future: “I am going to tell the tale of my five decades with Star Trek, Michael’s close collaboration for thirty years, and the 300 stars of music frequenting The Enterprise in a documentary TV series”, he reveals.
By the sound of it, Craig Huxley still has many stories to tell and plenty of projects left to explore. If these are as innovative as the sounds produced by his Blaster Beam, we are in for a treat.
© Annemarie Latour
A special note of thanks to Craig Huxley for sharing some of his memories of working with Michael Jackson. At the moment, Craig and his daughter Fiona focus on various projects, including their wildlife conservation project Elephant Life Force.