One of three duets with Michael Jackson, ‘Say Say Say’ was the lead single from Paul McCartney’s fourth solo studio album Pipes Of Peace.

The singers had first met Jackson in 1975, and Jackson’s version of Wings’ ‘Girlfriend’ was the fifth single from his 1979 album Off The Wall. He called McCartney unexpectedly in Christmas 1980 and suggested a collaboration.

It was Christmastime. Somebody rang me up, and this high voice I didn’t recognise said, ‘Hi, Paul.’ I thought, ‘This is a girl fan, and how the hell did she get my number?’ I was quite annoyed. Then the voice said, ‘It’s Michael,’ and suddenly it dawned on me. It wasn’t a girl; it was Michael Jackson, and he basically said, ‘Do you want to make some hits?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, sure. Come over here.’ Our paths had crossed a few times before. Michael covered the Wings song ‘Girlfriend’ on his album Off The Wall, and I’d known his producer, Quincy Jones, for a long time. Quincy had picked up the Oscar for The Beatles when we won for best Original Song Score with Let It Be in 1971.

Their first joint songwriting session took place at the MPL offices in central London.

Michael flew to England and came to my office in London. We went up to the top floor, where I have a piano, and just started doing ‘Say Say Say’. I let him lead quite a bit, and I think a lot of the sensibility of the song was Michael’s. ‘Baptised in all my tears’ – that’s a line I wouldn’t have used. I would help with the tune, and he’d be throwing in the lyrics. We were both quite excited to work together, and the song came together pretty quickly; we were bouncing off each other. I wrote the lyrics down, and by the time we left the office we had ‘Say Say Say’. I think the first time we recorded it as a demo, it was just the two of us singing and me on guitar.

‘Say Say Say’ was written when Jackson had established himself as a solo artist, but was mostly recorded before work started on the worldwide smash Thriller.

Paul McCartney's handwritten lyrics for Say Say Say

In the studio

The first recording session for ‘Say Say Say’ took place at AIR Studios in London in May 1981, with George Martin producing. At this time it was chiefly considered to be a demo.

The AIR recording featured McCartney on guitar, synthesizer and percussion, although his parts were later replaced. McCartney and Jackson also worked on on ‘Say Say Say’ and ‘The Man’ at Odyssey Studios in London in 1981.

Jackson reworked the song at Cherokee Studios and Hollywood Sound in Los Angeles in April 1982. Initially the new recordings featured bass guitarist Mike McKinney and drummer Jonathan Moffett, but their parts were later replaced by Nathan Watts and Ricky Lawson respectively.

Michael came to me with a cassette of he and Paul singing the song with Paul playing acoustic guitar. We worked out a rhythm arrangement, and with a couple of keyboards, and a drum machine, we recorded a four-track demo for the musicians to hear to learn the song. We then went into the studio to record it. We did the basic tracks, but the feel wasn’t there. Michael was disappointed. I suggested we try again the next day with Nathan Watts on bass, and Ricky Lawson on drums. We did that, and it came out great.
Bill Wolfer, keyboards
Paul McCartney: Recording Sessions (1969-2013), Luca Perasi

Paul McCartney's handwritten lyrics for Say Say Say

Further overdubs included a harmonica part by Chris Smith, and synthesizer and brass. Although not initially intended for release, McCartney reportedly liked Jackson’s demo so much that the only additional overdubs were vocals.

Michael called me back to do some synthesizer overdubs. In the meantime, he had recorded the horns, guitar, and the harmonica solo. Michael had told me that he hoped that Paul would use his demo as the track for the album, and that’s what happened. Michael took the 24-track tape to London, and Paul loved it, and wanted to use it as is. They just added their final vocals to it and mixed.
Bill Wolfer, keyboards
Paul McCartney: Recording Sessions (1969-2013), Luca Perasi

Jackson stayed at the McCartneys’ home during the final overdub sessions in February 1983, during which time Paul explained the advantages of music publishing ownership. The conversation led to Jackson’s 1985 purchase of ATV Music Publishing which included the rights to The Beatles’ songs, much to McCartney’s regret.

‘Say Say Say’ was mixed at AIR Studios on 15 February 1983.

The song was also remixed twice by John ‘Jellybean’ Benitez. One was an extended version lasting 5:40, and the other was a seven-minute instrumental. Both were issued on a 12″ single in the USA.

Paul McCartney's handwritten lyrics for Say Say Say

The release

‘Say Say Say’ was released on 3 October 1983 as the lead single from Pipes Of Peace. The b-side was McCartney’s ‘Ode To A Koala Bear’.

By that time Jackson was a worldwide phenomenon mainly due to the astronomical success of Thriller – which itself contained the McCartney duet ‘The Girl Is Mine’.

‘Say Say Say’ topped the singles charts in Canada, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the USA, and became a top ten hit in Australia, Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Switzerland, and the UK.

It was McCartney’s best-selling single of the 1980s, and his final US number one.

In December 1983 the RIAA certified ‘Say Say Say’ gold, representing sales of 1,000,000 copies.

On 6 October 2015 McCartney released a new version of the song, which reversed his and Jackson’s vocal parts. The remix was by Steve Orchard and Mark ‘Spike’ Stent.

Paul remembered that there were two unused lead vocal performances by Michael and himself. We rearranged the vocal sequence and inverted the original performance so that Michael opened the first verse instead of Paul, to give the song a different take to the original version.
Steve Orchard
Yahoo! Entertainment

The full remix was also included on the 2015 reissue of Pipes Of Peace. A radio edit, previously released on streaming services on 30 October 2015, was also included on the Pure McCartney compilation.

The video

The video for ‘Say Say Say’ featured Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson playing Old West conmen named Mac and Jack. It also had appearances by Linda McCartney and La Toya Jackson.

It was directed by Bob Giraldi, with the shoot lasting four days in Los Alamos, California, at a cost of $500,000.

Paul was terribly insecure about appearing next to Michael, in terms of dance. And who wouldn’t, if you’re going to go onstage and be choreographed next to Michael Jackson?

In all my years of working in film and commercials, I’ve worked with some of the worst divas and superstars of all time. Paul and Michael were not that.

Bob Giraldi
Rolling Stone

Preliminary work began on 3 October 1983, with the shoot beginning the following day. Exterior shots were the first to be made.

On 5 October the hotel and pool hall scenes were filmed at the Union Hotel in Los Alamos. The vaudeville show and other exterior shots were filmed on 6 October.

During the shoot, the McCartneys stayed at Sycamore Valley Ranch near Los Olivos, California. Jackson visited them there and expressed an interest in buying the property; he did so in 1988, renaming it Neverland Ranch. After Jackson’s death it was renamed Sycamore Valley Ranch.

A new video, directed and choreographed by Ryan Heffington, was released in October 2015 featuring the Orchard/Stent remix.

Previous song: ‘Pipes Of Peace’
Next song: ‘The Other Me’
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