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He’s Out of My Life: Off the Wall and Michael Jackson’s Legacy

           

In the previous post here, I made an offhand mention of the supposed rivalry between Prince and Michael Jackson in the mid-1980s. Bracketing the implicit offensiveness (and probable truth) of the notion that there was room for only one black superstar in so-called mainstream (read “white”) US popular culture at the time, there certainly were occurrences that supported that appearance. One in particular stands out: the night of and the weeks following 1985’s American Music Awards show. Michael Jackson and producer Quincy Jones corralled many of the performers in attendance at the ceremony for a late-night session that served at least two purposes: the recording of what would be the charity single “We Are the World” and the presentation of a US-based answer to the British single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” from the previous year, a project spearheaded by Bob Geldof. (Both songs, by the way, are extremely ethnocentric and narcissistic: the latter’s lyrics presume that famine is a bad thing [only?] during the holiday season, while the former, riddled with grammatical errors, is American arrogance and [consumerist?] self-interest writ large: we are the world? We’re saving our own lives? And why was Dan Aykroyd there?). Prince, who, up to that time, had made of point of performing only his own music, declined an offer to participate, promising to contribute a song (“4 the Tears in Your Eyes”) to the USA for Africa LP. He received a lot of bad press for that decision, as well as an incident later that evening during which two of his bodyguards seized the camera of and forcibly ejected a photographer who climbed into the musician’s limousine. Those same bodyguards were later arrested on battery and theft charges. Prince tried telling his side of the story in the hastily composed and recorded “Hello,” the b-side for the single “Pop Life” later that spring.

That sequence of events came back to mind just as I was about to leave the office earlier, when the news broke that Jackson had collapsed, apparently from a heart attack, and had been rushed to UCLA Medical Center. It was one thing, I thought, for Farrah Fawcett to have died, but Jackson’s collapse made me wonder whether any residual bitterness might have affected Prince’s reaction to the news, coming as it did on the 25th anniversary of the release of Purple Rain. I won’t ever know, and the answer is not particularly important, but if today ever had the potential to be a day on which popular music lovers celebrated Prince, it has now surely become one where they mourn Michael Jackson.

I have neither the time nor the desire to present an overview of Jackson’s career, especially since the major news organizations’ obituaries, prepared over a much longer period of time, will provide more than enough information. Instead, what I want to do here is to comment on what I hear as his most fully realized work. Ironically, my choice is probably not the one you’ll be reading about repeatedly over the next several days: Thriller CD Cover1982’s Thriller, a collection that is too sprawling and too calculated for crossover appeal (via the inclusion of guests Paul McCartney, Eddie Van Halen and Vincent Price) to qualify as a great album. It is instead a collection of great singles: the seven released ones did exceptionally well on the charts in 1982 and 1983. I’m sure some readers will disagree, but most of their justifications will be primarily biographical. And I’m profoundly uninterested here in why the album appears in the personal canons of so many people—memories of their life stages, identification with various aspects of Jackson’s real (or imagined) interior world, etc., notwithstanding. No, my concern is what makes for a seemingly full album experience. Arguably, Jackson’s best effort in that regard is 1979’s Off the Wall.

Like many of my musician friends, I’d long thought of Jackson as a consummate performer, equally skilled at singing and dancing, and attributed whatever greater artistry there was in his recorded output to people like producer and arranger Quincy Jones and celebrated recording engineer and mixer Bruce Swedien. The meticulously detailed arrangement and ear candy on “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough,” about which I’ll have more to say shortly, were, I assumed, mostly a result of their work. Likewise, the quality of the songs themselves seem more a function of good choices than artistic acumen. After all, Rod Temperton, earlier known for his work in the group Heatwave, contributed “Rock with You,” the title track and “Burn This Disco Out.” Paul McCartney penned “Girlfriend”; Tom Bahler wrote “She’s Out of My Life”; Stevie Wonder and Susaye Greene-Browne gave him “I Can’t Help It,” and Carole Bayer Sager and David Foster were responsible for “It’s the Falling in Love.” Of the three remaining songs, only two are credited solely to Jackson—“Don’t Stop…” and “Workin’ Day and Night.”

Given that set of beliefs, you might imagine how chagrined I was when my friend Erik pulled out the Deluxe Edition of Off the Wall, released in 2001, during one of our listening sessions. Besides being beautifully remastered by Bernie Grundman, the disc contained Jackson’s home demos for the two songs he wrote alone. Of them, “Don’t Stop…” was the most revelatory. Before hearing it, I was certain that the dense percussive bed that supports the strings, keyboards, guitars, horns, bass, drums and vocals must have been Jones’s contribution. The spoken thirteen-second intro to one track informed me otherwise: “The following is Michael’s original 1978 demo recording of ‘Don’t Stop….’ Assorted percussion, including cabasa, cowbell and glass bottles, were [sic] played by Michael, [his brother] Randy and [his sister] Janet.” And when the demo itself started playing, I learned not only that that percussion bed, but also the bass and guitar response riffs—that is, all of the final recording’s distinctive elements—came from him. The lyrics weren’t yet written, though Jackson’s vocalizations make clear that he already had the tune’s melody and structure in mind as well. In other words, all that was missing were the horns and strings. Similar observations apply to “Workin’ Day and Night.”

After that experience, I felt the need to reassess the album, upgrading my previous assumptions about Jackson’s role in the process of making it. While Jones says in a couple of the other commentaries that he was responsible for bringing some of the songs to Jackson’s attention and Swedien’s work can’t be downplayed, I now see Jackson’s role as nearly comparable to Marvin Gaye’s on What’s Going On (see this post for more on Gaye’s album). Indeed, by all accounts, Jackson was detail-oriented, engaged with interpreting his and other writers’ lyrics sensitively and hyper-concerned with the sound and quality of his overdubbed background vocals.

As I listen to the album again, I’m struck by how exceptionally well-sequenced it is. The energy and near-bombast of “Don’t Stop…” flows nicely into the medium tempo, soft-funk ballad “Rock with You” (compare it to Boz Scaggs’s “Lowdown” from the 1976 album Silk Degrees). Off the Wall CD CoverThe tempo goes up and the texture grows dense again for “Workin’ Day and Night,” and things settle into a funky pocket for “Get on the Floor” (whose music was written by bassist Louis Johnson of the Brothers Johnson; Jackson gets credit for the lyric and vocal arrangements). The first side closes with the title track, whose “wicked witch of the west” laugh in the intro perhaps hinted at the occult trappings that would appear in the title track of Thriller. It also places things back in the medium tempo groove that works so well on the album’s varied tracks.

In contrast, side two is more subdued, given more to the wounded and/or reflective balladry that was one of Jackson’s strong suits. Indeed, the first three songs—“Girlfriend,” “She’s Out of My Life” and “I Can’t Help It”—present scenarios that give us a guided tour through male heterosexual relational possibilities: the boyfriend who craves exclusivity; the regretful, self-flagellating man who has only himself to blame for a breakup; and the overjoyed, appreciative man with a new-found love, respectively. The arrangement of the latter, featuring contributions from Jerry Hey, Greg Phillinganes and Stevie Wonder, makes it sound like an early ’70s track on one of Wonder’s albums. “It’s the Falling in Love” follows and intially sounds like another ballad, but it soon turns into another soft funk tune, one on which Jackson’s voice and Patti Austin’s entwine perfectly, especially during the bridge that precedes the modulation that, in turn, sets up the repeat-til-fade ad-libs on the chorus material. It’s a long fade, and the silence afterwards is little preparation for the most-rocking tune on the album (if one could say that Jackson ever rocked): “Burn This Disco Out.” The singer’s artistry is subtly revealed in the way that he approaches successive iterations of the chorus. In particular, note the way Jackson progressively adds more emphasis to the word “spin” (at 0:39, 1:15, 2:10 and especially at 2:46).

From beginning to end, it’s a solid album, equally well-paced and well-conceived. True, the ending might have packed more punch, but its long fade and lack of finality make it register more as an ellipsis than as a faulty full stop. And throughout there are brilliant performances, with none perhaps topping his emotionally naked, sobbing vocal take on “She’s Out of My Life,” the only track lacking background vocals and/or vocal overdubs.

While the news about Jackson earlier (as well as about Fawcett) may have overshadowed what I regarded as Prince’s day, his death is nonetheless a profound loss. Listening to this album, rather than Thriller, is perhaps the best indication of exactly why that is the case. When the obituary writers have finished detailing the singer’s rise and fall, his eccentrictity and his legal and financial woes, this album will be the most solid reminder of exactly what he was capable of doing. While I might not shed tears, I’ll nonetheless be mourning. Recontextualizing the following words, I’ll explain by quoting one of the album’s songs: I can’t help it if I wanted to. I wouldn’t help it even if I could…

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