This song takes the 'let's build up the instrumentals until we get into a great groove' approach. There must be a technical name for this, surely.
I'm a sucker for it, whether it's Deep Purple's Smoke On The Water, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's The Intro And The Outro (Adolf Hitler on Vibes) or Billie Jean.
The song opens with a standard drum beat along with a standard hi-hat, and it contains hardly any reverberation. After two bars, another standard open hi-hat enters. After two more bars, a repetitive bassline enters. Each time it passes through the tonic, the note is doubled by a distorted synth bass. This accompaniment is followed by a repetitive three-note synth, playedstaccato with a deep reverb. The defining chord progression is then established. Jackson's quiet vocals enter, accompanied by a finger-snap, which comes and goes during the verses, as the rhythm and chord progression repeats.
That was according to wikipedia and I'm not about to argue. Written like that it doesn't sound like much does it? But there is a definite sense of energy and power when you hear it building these layers of sound. There's a reason for this.
The song was mixed by Bruce Swedien ninety-one times — unusual for Swedien, who usually mixed a song just once. Quincy Jones had told Swedien to create a drum sound that no one had ever heard before. The audio engineer was also told to add a different element: "sonic personality". "What I ended up doing was building a drum platform and designing some special little things, like a bass drum cover and a flat piece of wood that goes between the snare and the hi-hat" Swedien later wrote. "The bottom line is that there aren't many pieces of music where you can hear the first three or four notes of the drums, and immediately tell what the piece of music is." He concluded, "But I think that is the case with 'Billie Jean' — and that I attribute to sonic personality
Have a listen:
Hidden gem: The B side is labelled an 'instrumental version' but there are a few of MJ's vocals, the Billie Jean bits, on it. I guess this was made for a DJ kinda thing. For the rest of the world we'll take MJ's peerless vocals as well as those amazing instrumental passages thanks very much.
As a sidebar: I came across this version of the song a few years ago on a CD compilation of Eighties Anthems by some outfit called Clubhouse. It's a mash up between Steely Dan's Do It Again and Billie Jean and it works really well!
Outside of this the most widely celebrated 'live' version of this song is MJ's famous Motown 25th anniversary performance and it would be against some sort of musical law of the universe not to include it here.