Eddie Van Halen’s featured moment on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” is a widely celebrated guitar solo, but the musician—who died Tuesday at the age of 65 after battling cancer—was actually far more involved in the creation of the hit than publicized at the time.
In addition to the guitar riffing (which Van Halen received no compensation for performing), the Van Halen frontman ghostwrote on the song as well. “I think it’s funny the way people talk about that,” Van Halen told Billboard in 2015. “It was 20 minutes of my life. I didn’t want anything for doing that,” he added of recording the 1983 chart-topper, which went on to become one of the best-selling singles of all time. “I literally thought to myself, ‘Who is possibly going to know if I play on this kid’s record?’ So I went to the studio and listened to the song twice, and I didn’t like the section they wanted me to solo over. They wanted me to solo over the breakdown. I asked [Thriller producer] Quincy Jones to edit the chords underneath the solo. Then I could play the solo in the key of E, but it was the chords underneath that made the solo interesting. So I guess I did rearrange it.”
Van Halen referring to Jackson as “this kid” may sound like a diss, but the guitar player apparently hated listening to “contemporary music” or really any music that he wasn’t actively working on (except maybe Yo-Yo Ma). “I don’t listen to anything,” he told Billboard, not even the radio. “I prefer the sound of the motor.”
We, on the other hand, have a few other things to listen to than the motor today.