Friday, 30 June 2017

Michael Jackson part 2

Today we'll be revisiting Michael Jackson's adult years, both as a solo artist, as well as part of the Jacksons, otherwise known as his Epic period, both in connection to the name of his label, but also in connection to the scale and influence his music had on the world.

Epic initially placed the Jacksons with Philadelphia producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and the first album they released, on November 5, 1976, was simply titled The Jacksons. It was certified gold in the US, as well as reaching #4 in Canada.

The first single to be released was called Enjoy Yourself. Since Jermaine, who had married the boss' daughter, stayed with Motown, he was replaced by younger brother Randy. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, together with the Jacksons, created this hard-driving, disco-leaning Top 10 single, but the sessions left another lasting impression on Michael. "Just watching Huff play the piano while Gamble sang taught me more about the anatomy of a song than anything else," he wrote. "I'd sit there like a hawk, observing every decision, listening to every note."

The song was a #6 hit in the US (#2 R&B):

Their follow-up single, Show You the Way to Go, was surprisingly the only #1 hit the Jackson had in the UK as a group. It was also a #5 hit in Ireland and #28 in the US (#6 R&B):

Dreamer was a #22 UK hit:

There were only two songs actually written by the Jacksons on this album: Style of Life was written by Tito and Michael, while Blues Away was written by Michael alone. Let's listen to the latter:

Their next album, Goin' Places, also under the supervision of Gamble and Huff, was released on October 8, 1977. This is considered their lowest-selling album next to 2300 Jackson Street (their last studio album). The first single, Goin' Places, only managed to reach #82 in the US Hot 100. It did reach #8 in the R&B chart though, as well as #13 in Ireland and #26 in the UK.

Even Though You're Gone was only a minor hit in the UK, peaking at #31:

Different Kind of Lady was written by the group. It became a disco-hit and gave the brothers the confidence to write and produce an entire album, their next, by themselves. The video of this song has been withdrawn from the Internet, so we'll get to hear another single off this album, Find Me a Girl, which peaked at #36 on the US R&B chart.

After the Jacksons' 1977 Goin' Places tanked commercially, it took Michael Jackson to help rescue the band – but not the one you think. Blame It on the Boogie,  was co-written and performed by Michael "Mick" Jackson, a bearded Yorkshire singer-songwriter, who released his own version almost simultaneously. As the tracks battled for position in the UK charts, the press hailed it ‘The Battle Of The Boogie’. Of course he didn't stand a chance against the Jackson disco inferno, but harbors no hard feelings. "The fact that the song made it, made it a lot easier for me," said Mick Jackson. "And of course the Jacksons went on to huge success."

Here's Mick Jackson's version:

Blame It on the Boogie (the Jacksons' version) (#54 US Hot 100, #3 US R&B, #8 UK, #4 Australia, and #15 Ireland) was the lead single from Destiny, their first self-produced album that returned them to big success, selling two million copies in America during its initial run and another two million worldwide.

The follow-up single was an even bigger hit: Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground), a tremor-inducing jam, represents the moment Michael Jackson was transfigured from the lead singer of a very successful boy band into the King of Pop – or, at the very least, its young prince. Taking the proto-disco single-mindedness of the J5's Dancing Machine, it added a kinetic dose of Sly and the Family Stone-crossover soul and Stevie Wonder-style synth funk, alongside percussive vocals and Michael's still-teenage yet unmistakably post-pubescent exhortations and squeals. The song peaked at #7 on the US Hot 100 (also #3 US R&B, #4 UK, and #9 Ireland), but that belies its profound pop prescience. It would be memorably sampled on Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's Get on the Dance Floor, among other hip-hop songs. And it was covered in 2013 by Justin Timberlake – a man who owes Michael quite a lot indeed. The song was written by Michael and Randy. Here's the version by the Jacksons:

... and here's Justin Timberlake covering the song:

Also in 1978, Michael would play the Scarecrow against Diana Ross' Dorothy on the film version of The Wiz (a reworking of The Wizard of Oz). Here they are with the song Ease On Down The Road:

Destiny, though, was merely a prelude: By the time the album was finished, Michael was ready to make crucial changes that would establish his ascendancy as a solo artist. He fired his father as his manager and in effect found himself a new father, producer Quincy Jones, whom Michael connected with while filming The Wiz. Jones was a respected jazz musician, bandleader, composer and arranger who had worked with Clifford Brown, Frank Sinatra, Lesley Gore, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, and Manos Hadjidakis, among others, and he had written the film scores for The PawnbrokerIn Cold Blood and In the Heat of the Night. Jackson liked the arranger's ear for mixing complex hard beats with soft overlayers. "It was the first time that I fully wrote and produced my songs," Jackson said later, "and I was looking for somebody who would give me that freedom, plus somebody who's unlimited musically." Specifically, Jackson said his solo album had to sound different than the Jacksons; he wanted a cleaner and funkier sound.

On August 10, 1979, Off the Wall, produced by Quincy Jones, was released. It was preceded by a couple of weeks by the album's lead single, one of the two best MJ songs of all-time: Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough.

Jackson called the opening track on Off the Wall "my first big chance," and he wasn't kidding. Six minutes of joyous pop funk that whooshed like a jet stream, Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough was both an unstoppable hit and a milestone in Jackson's creative life. "That song means a lot to me," he wrote in his memoir Moonwalk, "because it was the first song I wrote as a whole." Indeed, it embodied Jackson's new, hands-on approach to his music. He not only wrote it but also sang all the multi­layered backing vocals and devised the spoken intro ("to build up tension and surprise people," he said). He even played the glass bottles (along with his brother Randy) that lend the song added rhythmic sparkle. When his mother, Katherine, questioned the sexual undertones of lines like "Ain't nothing like a love desire. . . . I'm melting like hot candle wax," Jackson responded, "Well, if you think it means something dirty, then that's what it'll mean. But that's not how I intended it."

The song was an international hit: it peaked at the very top on the US Hot 100, the US R&B chart, Australia, Denmark, Norway, South Africa and New Zealand, #2 on the US Disco chart, in Belgium and the Netherlands, #3 in the UK and Canada, and #4 in Switzerland.

Follow-up single, Rock With You, a smooth ballad with a dancing beat, was also a #1 hit in the US, and a big Top 10 hit in most major markets. "So much uptempo dance music is threatening, but I liked the coaxing, the gentleness, taking a shy girl and letting her shed her fears rather than forcing them out of her," Jackson recalled, describing Rock With You. Arguably the last hit of the classic disco era, this chart-topper remains one of the great seduction jams in modern R&B, a template for countless wanna-be mirror-ball lotharios, wrapped in vibrant string arrangements and poised halfway between a silk-sheet ballad and a dance-floor burner. "Songs like Rock With You made me want to become a performer," Usher said in 2009. It was the first song written for Jackson by key collaborator Rod Temperton, of boogie merchants Heatwave, after a request from Quincy Jones. (Temperton went on to pen Thriller, Off the Wall, Burn This Disco Out, Baby Be Mine and others.) The video, with Jackson working his magic in a silver outfit with little more than lasers and smoke as visuals, shows a solo artist looking barely more than a kid but in complete control of his game.

His next single off the album was the title track, yet another Top 10 in the US and the UK. "In the studio, Michael was silly and fun-loving," recalled Rod Temperton, who began working with Jackson during the late Seventies. "He never swore. He didn't even say the word 'funky,' he said 'smelly.' So that was Quincy's nickname for him: Smelly." His loose, playful side is on display during the title track, written by Temperton. Off the Wall was an ode to "party people night and day." It invited listeners to "hide your inhibitions/Gotta let that fool loose deep inside your soul" by hitting the dance clubs and "livin' crazy, that's the only way." But its succulent groove, swathed in Jackson's sumptuous overdubbed harmonies, was as smoothly seductive as the vision of dance music in his head. Temperton, who arranged the rhythm and vocal tracks, re-created the dance-floor vibe of his disco band Heatwave, and the song's growling funk synths were partly played by jazz and fusion keyboardist George Duke. The song was also strangely prophetic: In the decades after its release, the world saw how truly off the wall Jackson's life could become.

The pairing of Michael and Quincy proved as fortuitous as any collaboration in history. Jones brought an ethereal buoyancy to Jackson's soft erotic fever on songs like Rock With You and Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough, and in a stunning moment like She's Out of My Life, Jones had the good sense to let nothing obscure the magnificent heartbreak in the singer's voice. The resulting album, Off the Wall – which established Jackson as a mature artistic force in his own right – has the most unified feel of any of his works. It was also a massive hit, selling more than 8 million copies in the US, and more than 20 million worldwide.

She's Out of My Life peaked at #10 in the Hot 100, marking the first time any solo artist had ever achieved four Top 10 hits from one album. She's Out of My Life was an emotional ballad. The song has a tempo of 66 beats per minute, making it one of Jackson's slowest songs. Jackson's vocals on the record were considered by critics to be some of his best. It also peaked at #3 in the UK, #4 in Ireland and #6 in New Zealand.

"Maybe that was too personal for a party – it was for me," Jackson said of She's Out of My Life, the moment of ballad heartbreak amid Off the Wall's disco celebration. The song was written by Los Angeles musician Thomas Bähler, about the end of a two-year relationship (Bähler had been with Karen Carpenter but has said the song isn't about her). Quincy Jones had planned to record the song with Frank Sinatra, but Jackson got a shot instead and dug deep for a stunning version. She's Out of My Life was Off the Wall's fourth Top 10 single, and Greg Phillinganes' electric piano set the tone for seemingly every hit ballad of the next decade and a half. Famously, Jackson's mighty voice cracks and wavers on the song's last few words. "Every time we did it, I'd look up at the end and Michael would be crying," Jones said in 1983. "I said, 'We'll come back in two weeks and do it again. . . .' Came back and he started to get teary. So we left it in." It was a staple of Jackson's set lists from 1981 to 1993, always followed by a peppy medley to bring the mood back up.

Girlfriend was a composition of one of Michael's greatest idols, Paul McCartney, who offered the song to Jackson to sing. This would be the beginning of their fruitful collaboration.

Here are some great album tracks from this outstanding album. First, here's Get on the Floor: Quincy Jones says it was a leftover from a session by the funk group Brothers Johnson. One of the Brothers, bassist Louis "Thunder Thumbs" Johnson, says it came from a home-recorded cassette of bass ideas that he played to Michael. Either way, the slap-happy collaboration is the hardest funking thing on Off the Wall. Even though Louis Johnson would play on three other Jackson albums, it was a high point he couldn't repeat. "What I'll always cherish is the fun and excitement of playing live together on the Off the Wall sessions," he said. "Michael and everybody laughing, knowing we were making magic."

The closing track on Off the Wall, Burn This Disco Out bursts with giddy dance-floor flair. The wriggly guitar line could've squirmed in from a Stevie Wonder rec­ord. Jackson, who'd worked through a Saturday night memorizing the lyrics so he wouldn't have to read from a cheat sheet on a Sunday recording session, bounces his voice around a melody designed for his percussive vocal style. "He was very rhythmically driven," said Rod Temperton. "So I tried to write melodies that had a lot of short notes to give him some staccato things he could do . . . and came up with Burn This Disco Out."

One of those monster Off the Wall grooves that easily could have been a huge hit – except it never became a single, maybe because the charts were already packed with hits from Off the Wall, Workin' Day and Night sits halfway through the unstoppable Side One of the original vinyl LP (the disco side), one of two tracks Jackson wrote solo. (The other was Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough.) The lyrics give an early hint of MJ's combative side, with the standard bluesman's plaint about how hard his woman makes him work. Yet the hyperactive Latin percussion, spiky horns and gulping-for-oxygen vocals all reflect the fanatical work ethic MJ brought to his solo breakthrough. "When he commits to an idea, he goes all the way with it," Jones said. "It's ass power, man. You have to be emotionally ready to put as much energy into it as it takes to make it right." As a deep cut, Workin' Day and Night is prized among MJ cognoscenti – thanks to all that ass power.

We've practically presented the whole album, and we'll do the same with the next one. The reason is obvious: all the tracks are worth presenting.

Michael Jackson had in effect become one of the biggest black artists America had ever produced, and he expected Off the Wall to win top honors during the 1980 Grammy Awards ceremony. Instead, it received only one honor, for Best Male R&B vocal. The Doobie Brothers' What a Fool Believes won for Record of the Year, and Billy Joel's 52nd Street won Album of the Year. Jackson was stunned and bitter. "My family thought I was going crazy because I was weeping so much about it," he recalled. "I felt ignored and it hurt. I said to myself, 'Wait until next time' – they won't be able to ignore the next album… That experience lit a fire in my soul."

In the meantime, Michael worked with his brothers for their upcoming album, Triumph. It was released on September 26, 1980 and sold over 1 million copies in the United States and over two million copies worldwide. The album was produced by the Jacksons and all of the songs were written by them. Lead single, Lovely One, peaked at #12 in the US.

The future King of Pop took on the legacy of the King of Rock & Roll on the Jacksons' 1980 take on Heartbreak Hotel (US, #22). Written by Michael, it has little in common with Elvis Presley's 1956 classic; it's a lithe disco-pop tune that takes the original's theme in a darker direction with lyrics about a hotel where relationships break up. Heartbreak Hotel became a Number Two R&B hit; then somebody at the Jacksons' label, perhaps sensing legal complications, changed the title to the nonsensical This Place Hotel.

My favorite song from this album was their third single, called Can You Feel It. It didn't do very well in the Hot 100 (#77), but it peaked at #1 on the US Dance chart, as well as in Belgium and South Africa. It also peaked at #6 in the UK and at #12 in Ireland.

"I got a call at three in the morning, it's Michael Jackson," says vocal coordinator Stephanie Spruill, who had assembled the 30-voice choir for the Jacksons' Can You Feel It. "He says, 'I know I asked you to get the choir of voices . . . but now I need a choir of children. And I want them to be every race, creed and color.' Mind you, the session was in two days." Spruill – who also sings the song's high notes – pulled it off. The choir was triple-tracked, creating a triumphal disco entreaty that, according to Tito, defines the Jacksons. "It speaks about what we're about," he told Larry King. "Love and peace and harmony for the world."

The song's video was voted one of the 100 best videos of all time in a poll to mark the 20th anniversary of MTV:

Walk Right Now similarly wasn't a big mainstream hit in the US, but it made #7 in the UK:

Now it's time to speak of that album: You may recall (unless you suffer from short memory loss, in which case, I'm sorry) how unhappy Michael was over the perceived Grammy shun of Off the Wall. Jackson told Quincy Jones – and apparently others as well – that his next album wouldn't simply be bigger than Off the Wall, it would be the biggest album ever. When Thriller was released in November 1982, it didn't seem to have any overarching theme or even a cohesive style. Instead, it sounded like an assembly of singles – like a greatest-hits album, before the fact. But it became evident fast that this was exactly what Jackson intended Thriller to be: a brilliant collection of songs intended as hits, each one designed with mass crossover audiences in mind. Jackson put out Billie Jean for the dance crowd, Beat It for the white rockers, and then followed each crossover with crafty videos designed to enhance both his allure and his inaccessibility.

Yet after hearing these songs find their natural life on radio, it was obvious that they were something more than exceptional highlights. They were a well-conceived body of passion, rhythm and structure that defined the sensibility – if not the inner life – of the artist behind them. These were instantly compelling songs about emotional and sexual claustrophobia, about hard-earned adulthood and about a newfound brand of resolution that worked as an arbiter between the artist's fears and the inescapable fact of his fame. Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'? had the sense of a vitalizing nightmare in its best lines ("You're stuck in the middle/And the pain is thunder/Still they hate you, you're a vegetable/They eat off you, you're a vegetable"). Billie Jean, in the meantime, exposed the ways in which the interaction between the artist's fame and the outside world might invoke soul-killing dishonor ("People always told me, be careful of what you do/'Cause the lie becomes the truth," Jackson sings, possibly thinking of a paternity charge from a while back). And Beat It was pure anger – a rousing depiction of violence as a male stance, as a social inheritance that might be overcome. In sum, Thriller's parts added up to the most improbable kind of art – a work of personal revelation that was also a mass-market masterpiece. It's an achievement that will likely never be topped.

Except, in a sense, Jackson did top it, and he did it within months after Thriller's release. It came during a May 16th, 1983, TV special celebrating Motown's 25th anniversary. Jackson had just performed a medley of greatest hits with his brothers. It was exciting stuff, but for Michael it wasn't enough. As his brothers said their goodbyes and left the stage, Michael remained. He seemed shy for a moment, trying to find words to say. "Yeah," he almost whispered, "those were good old days…I like those songs a lot. But especially," and then he placed the microphone into the stand with a commanding look and said, "I like the new songs." He swooped down, picked up a fedora, put it on his head with confidence, and vaulted into Billie Jean.

This was one of Michael Jackson's first public acts as a star outside and beyond the Jacksons, and it was startlingly clear that he was not only one of the most thrilling live performers in pop music, but that he was perhaps more capable of inspiring an audience's imagination than any single pop artist since Elvis Presley. There are times when you know you are hearing or seeing something extraordinary, something that captures the hopes and dreams popular music might aspire to, and that might unite and inflame a new audience. That time came that night, on TV screens across the nation – the sight of a young man staking out his territory, and just starting to lay claim to his rightful pop legend. "Almost 50 million people saw that show," Jackson wrote in Moonwalk. "After that, many things changed."

He was right. That was the last truly blessed moment in Michael Jackson's life. After that, everything became argument and recrimination. And in time, decay. But more of that later. Now it's time to celebrate Thriller.

Let's begin by listing the album's achievements: it spent 37 weeks at #1 in the US, second only to the soundtrack of West Side Story. In just over a year, Thriller became - and currently remains - the world's best-selling album, with estimated sales of 66 million copies. It is the best-selling album in the United States and the first album to be certified 33× multi-platinum, having shipped 33 million album-equivalent units. The album won a record-breaking number of eight Grammy Awards in 1984, including Album of the Year. Seven singles (out of nine tracks) were released from the album, all of which reached the top 10 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, establishing a record. Thriller also enabled Jackson to break down racial barriers in pop music, via his appearances on MTV and meeting with the US President Ronald Reagan at the White House. The album was one of the first to use music videos as successful promotional tools, and the videos for the songs Thriller, Billie Jean and Beat It all received regular rotation on MTV.

The album's first single, The Girl Is Mine, was also its weakest, and led some to believe that the album would be a disappointment and to suggestions that Jackson was bowing to a white audience. Jackson called this Paul McCartney duet the "obvious first single" from Thriller. But Quincy Jones has referred to it as a "red herring," since it only hinted at Thriller's power. Jackson offered McCartney the song, which has an easy, jazzy groove and shows off a breezy rapport between Jackson and the ex-Beatle, as a duet to "repay the favor" of McCartney giving him Girlfriend for Off the Wall. McCartney's one concern was the word "doggone," which he felt some listeners might consider "shallow." "When I checked with Michael, he explained that he wasn't going for depth, he was going for rhythm, he was going for feel," McCartney said.

It was the next single that sealed the deal: Billie Jean was Michael's greatest song, which sums up all the contradictions in his music: youthful exuberance, tortured nerves, pure physical grace. As he told Rolling Stone at the time, Billie Jean reflected his own sexual paranoia as a 24-year-old megastar: "Girls in the lobby, coming up the stairway. You hear guards getting them out of elevators. But you stay in your room and write a song. And when you get tired of that, you talk to yourself. Then let it all out onstage." Although Billie Jean was one of the first songs MJ wrote for Thriller, he and Quincy Jones kept tinkering with it right up to the final mastering stage. The miles-deep bass line comes from funk stalwart Louis Johnson of the Brothers Johnson. Drummer Ndugu Chancler cut the drum track over Jackson's original drum-machine beat, and jazz vet Tom Scott played the eerie lyricon solo. At five minutes long, Billie Jean has the sleek sweep of disco, yet a classic-rock sense of epic scale. Quincy Jones worried the intro was too long: "But [Jackson] said, 'That's the jelly, that's what makes me want to dance.' " The world has been dancing to Billie Jean ever since.

And here's his iconic performance, on May 16th, 1983, for the TV special celebrating Motown's 25th anniversary:

Billie Jean was an easy #1, all over the world; in the US it held the position for 7 weeks. The follow-up, Beat It, held the US #1 position for 3 weeks. (The song that hit Number One in between? Dexys Midnight Runners' Come on Eileen.) The song was a visionary mix of metal bluster and disco glitz, complete with a headbanger's ball of an Eddie Van Halen guitar eruption. Beat It was the last song added to Thriller, as the clock was ticking to the release date. As Quincy Jones told Rolling Stone, "When we were finishing Beat It, we had three studios going. We had Eddie Van Halen in one. Michael was in another singing a part through a cardboard tube, and we were mixing in another. We were working five nights and five days with no sleep. And at one point, the speakers overloaded and caught on fire." The only person not blown away was Van Halen's David Lee Roth, who scoffed, "What did Edward do with Michael Jackson? He went in and played the same fucking solo he's been playing in this band for 10 years. Big deal!" Shame on you David! The star line-up also included Steve Lukather and Steve Porcaro, both members of Toto.

The fourth single was yet another suberb song: Originally written during the Off the Wall sessions, Wanna Be Startin' Somethin, the opening track on Thriller was a declaration of radical intent. Using the African chant "ma ma se ma ma sa ma ma ku sa" from Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango's unlikely 1972 international pop hit Soul Makossa, Jackson widened the earlier song's universal appeal, paying tribute to his own roots with a prescient crate-digging hip-hop savvy. Foremost, it's a club banger, "something you can play with on the dance floor and get sweaty working out to," as Jackson described it. But it also has a dark lyrical drama and whip-crack call-and-response vocal tension. Between the swirl of synth beats, Brazilian percussionist Paulinho da Costa's friction drum colors, hot horn stabs, and rhythms pounded out by Jackson and bandmates on a "bathroom stomping board," the groove never stops coming. If Off the Wall had been pop disco's crowning moment, this is the first great example of polyglot, post-disco dance music – basically, what global pop has become.

Next came one more masterpiece: Human Nature had the honour to be covered by jazz legend Miles Davis. One of Jackson's most vulnerable R&B ballads, it had a surprising origin – the rock band Toto, of Africa and Hold the Line fame. As I've already mentioned, some of the band played on Thriller, including keyboardist Steve Porcaro. Late in the sessions, Jones was still hunting for songs, so Toto sent over a couple of demos. But at the end of the tape was an unfinished instrumental that caught Jones' ear. "There was this dummy lyric, a very skeletal thing," he recalled, "but such a wonderful flavor." Jones sent it to lyricist John Bettis, who also co-wrote tender hits like the Carpenters' Top of the World and Madonna's Crazy for You. The result perfectly fit Michael's shy, breathy vocals, even if the plot involves hitting the clubs and snagging a one-night stand ("If this town is just an apple," he sings, "then let me take a bite"). Though it was a last-minute addition to Thriller, Human Nature became its fifth single and a Top 10 summer hit. It returned to the charts 10 summers later as SWV's 1993 Number One R&B hit Right Here/Human Nature, from Free Willy, a kiddie movie about a killer whale. Here's the original version:

Here's SWV's version:

... And here's Miles Davis' version:

The next single was P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing): Full of funky keyboard squiggles and playful slang like "tenderoni," P.Y.T. was Thriller's most carefree single. Quincy Jones wrote it with singer James Ingram after Jones' wife brought home lingerie called Pretty Young Things. Ingram has said that he was astonished by how Jackson actually danced in the studio as he was singing the song. That energy comes through, as Jackson trades off "na-na-na's" with a few pretty-young-thing backup singers he knew quite well: sisters Janet and La Toya. Artists ranging from American Idol singer Justin Guarini to Jones himself – with T-Pain and Robin Thicke – have covered the song, and the 25th-anniversary edition of Thriller featured a completely refigured version of the song by, but no one could capture the electric energy of the original. "I love Pretty Young Thing," Jackson recalled. "I liked the 'code' in the lyrics, and 'tenderoni' and 'sugar fly' were fun rock & roll-type words that you couldn't find in the dictionary."

The seventh and final single was Thriller. The epic video for the title track of Jackson's bestselling album has become so iconic that it's easy to underestimate the song itself, one of the strangest pieces of music he ever released. Written by Rod Temperton, the song was first called Starlight until Quincy Jones asked Temperton for another title. "The next morning I woke up and I just said this word [thriller]," Temperton says. "Something in my head just said, 'This is the title.' You could visualize it at the top of the Billboard charts." Temperton also revised the lyrics to take in Jackson's love of horror movies. The track took the percolating-funk feel of Off the Wall to a grander, more theatrical level, with its supernatural sound effects – howling werewolves and creaking coffins – and the creepy-crawly narration of actor Vincent Price, a friend of Jones' then-wife, Peggy Lipton, who nailed his part in two takes. The weirdness of Thriller didn't end there: While the song was being mixed, Jackson's eight-foot-long boa constrictor, Muscles, slithered across the console. The last of a mind-boggling seven singles from Thriller, it hit #4 on the US Hot 100.

I thought that the Michael Jackson story would be over today, but there's so much more to say and to hear; there will be a third part. Till then, toodle-oo!

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Michael Jackson part 1

For a while, I was wondering whether to include Michael Jackson in this list. Was he straight, gay, bisexual, or a pedophile? There are arguments to be made for all of the above assumptions. I even asked the question publicly, here, some time ago. One of the great friends of GCL (Alan) said "I think you should go with Michael. He's too important to ignore." That is my view as well. MJ is too important to ignore.

First let's make one thing clear: I will make no argument for or against his pedophile accusations. It's a sordid affair either way - if he really was, it's terrible, if, on the other hand, some money-grabbing parents used the fact that he liked to be surrounded by children as the means to blackmail him, that's sad, especially as to what it says about the morals of our society. Anyway, the man had an early death, which is punishment enough if he were guilty. As to why, in his own words, he liked having children around, his answer to musician Thomas Dolby was, "I never really had a childhood."

The straight or bisexual camp brings up his two marriages, to Elvis' daughter Lisa Marie Presley (1994-96) and to nurse Debbie Rowe (1996-99), as evidence, as well as his three children.

The gay or bisexual camp offers published testimonies to support its claim: Ian Halperin, in his unauthorised biography of Jackson, claims that the star was allegedly “madly in love” with a half-Asian construction worker, who was in his early 20s, an affair which began in 2007 in Vegas, as well as one with an aspiring actor, working as a waiter, who visited Jackson’s Hollywood Hills home almost every night for three weeks during a short but passionate affair.

Jason Pfeiffer, an executive working for Jackson's dermatologist Arnold Klein, alleges he enjoyed a string of dates with the superstar during his final weeks - and they became more than close friends.
Liberace's former boyfriend, Scott Thorson, insists he and Michael Jackson were lovers for 'six or seven years'. He allegedly met Jackson in the late 1970s, introduced to him by Liberace himself.

All these claims are neither here nor there. Neither his marriages are conclusive in themselves, nor these guys who made the above statements are altogether believable. So, let's describe his sexuality as (?) and go on with his story.

No single artist – indeed, no movement or force – has eclipsed what Michael Jackson accomplished in the first years of his adult solo career. Jackson changed the balance in the pop world in a way that nobody has since. He forced rock & roll and the mainstream press to acknowledge that the biggest pop star in the world could be young and black, and in doing so he broke down more barriers than anybody. But he is also among the best proofs in living memory of poet William Carlos Williams' famous verse: "The pure products of America/go crazy."

When Jackson died on June 25th, 2009, of apparent cardiac arrest in Los Angeles at age 50, the outpouring of first shock, then grief, was the largest, most instantaneous of its kind the world had ever known, short of the events of September 11th, 2001. What immediately became obvious in all the coverage is that despite the dishonor that had come upon him, the world still respected Michael Jackson for his music – for the singles he made as a Motown prodigy, for the visionary disco he made as a young adult, for Thriller, a stunningly vibrant album that blew up around the world on a scale we'll never see again, for his less impactful but still one-of-kind later work, even for his cheesy ballads. In 2009 Jackson was the biggest-selling artist in the world.

Michael's father, Joe Jackson, was a crane operator during the 1950s, in Gary, Indiana – a place in which, according to Dave Marsh's Trapped: Michael Jackson and the Crossover Dream, quotas were imposed on how many black workers were allowed to advance into skilled trades in the city's mills. Michael's mother, Katherine Scruse, was from Alabama but was living in East Chicago, Indiana, when she met Joe. She was a devout Jehovah's Witness, who had grown up hearing country & western music, and although she entertained her own dreams of singing and playing music, a bout of polio had left her with a permanent limp. Joe and Katherine were a young couple, married in 1949, and began a large family immediately. Their first child, Maureen (Rebbie), was born in 1950, followed by Sigmund (Jackie) in 1951, Toriano (Tito) in 1953, Jermaine in 1954, La Toya in 1956 and Marlon in 1957. Michael was born on August 29th, 1958, and Randy was born in 1961. Janet, the last born, wouldn't arrive until 1966. A sixth brother, Marlon's twin Brandon, died shortly after birth.

Michael and his siblings heard music all the time. Joe had a strong inclination toward the rowdy electric urban blues that had developed in nearby Chicago, and also for early rock & roll. Along with his brothers, Joe formed a band, the Falcons, and made some modest extra income from playing bars and college dances around Gary. When the Falcons folded, Joe retired his guitar to a bedroom closet, and he guarded it jealously, just as he did everything in his domain. Katherine, though, sometimes led her children in country-music singalongs, during which she taught them to harmonize.

Soon he was working all his sons into an ensemble. Though Joe was at heart a blues man, he appreciated that contemporary R&B – Motown and soul – was the music that attracted his sons. Joe groomed Jermaine to be lead singer, but one day, Katherine saw Michael, just four at the time, singing along to a James Brown song, and Michael – in both his voice and moves – was already eclipsing his older brother. She told Joe, "I think we have another lead singer." Katherine would later say that sometimes Michael's precocious abilities frightened her – she probably saw that his childhood might give way to stardom – but she also recognized that there was something undeniable about his young voice, that it could communicate longings and experiences that no child could yet know.

Michael was also a natural center of attention. He loved singing and dancing, and because he was so young – such an unexpected vehicle for a rousing, dead-on soulful expression – he became an obvious point of attention when he and his brothers performed. Little Michael Jackson was cute, but little Michael Jackson was also dynamite.

By Joe's own admission he was unrelenting. "When I found out that my kids were interested in becoming entertainers, I really went to work with them," he told Time in 1984. "I rehearsed them about three years before I turned them loose. I saw that after they became better, they enjoyed it more." That isn't always how Michael remembered it. "We'd perform for him, and he'd critique us," he wrote in Moonwalk. "If you messed up, you got hit, sometimes with a belt, sometimes with a switch… I'd get beaten for things that happened mostly outside rehearsal. Those moments – and probably many more – created a loss that Jackson never got over. Again, from Moonwalk: "One of the few things I regret most is never being able to have a real closeness with him. He built a shell around himself over the years, and once he stopped talking about our family business, he found it hard to relate to us. We'd all be together, and he'd just leave the room."

Around 1964, Joe began entering the Jackson brothers in talent contests, many of which they handily won. A single they cut for the local Steeltown recording label around 1967-68, Big Boy, achieved local success.

"At first I told myself they were just kids," Joe said in 1971. "I soon realized they were very professional. There was nothing to wait for. The boys were ready for stage training, and I ran out of reasons to keep them from the school of hard knocks." In 1966, he booked his sons into Gary's black nightclubs, as well as some in Chicago. Many of the clubs served alcohol, and several featured strippers. "This is quite a life for a nine-year-old," Katherine would remind her husband, but Joe was undaunted.

"I used to stand in the wings of this one place in Chicago and watch a lady whose name was Mary Rose," Michael recalled. "This girl would take off her clothes and her panties and throw them to the audience. The men would pick them up and sniff them and yell. My brothers and I would be watching all this, taking it in, and my father wouldn't mind." Sam Moore, of Sam and Dave, recalled Joe locking Michael – who was maybe 10 years old – in a dressing room while Joe went off on his own adventures. Michael sat alone for hours. He also later recalled having to go onstage even if he'd been sick in bed that day.

Michael and his brothers began to tour on what was still referred to as the "chitlin circuit" – a network of black venues throughout the US (Joe made sure his sons kept their school studies up to date and maintained their grades at an acceptable level.) In these theaters and clubs, the Jacksons opened for numerous R&B artists, including the Temptations, Sam and Dave, Jackie Wilson, Jerry Butler, the O'Jays and Etta James, though no one was as important to Michael as James Brown. "I knew every step, every grunt, every spin and turn," he recalled. "He would give a performance that would exhaust you, just wear you out emotionally. His whole physical presence, the fire coming out of his pores, would be phenomenal. You'd feel every bead of sweat on his face, and you'd know what he was going through… You couldn't teach a person what I've learned just standing and watching."

The most famous site on these tours was the Apollo in New York, where the Jackson 5 won an Amateur Night show in 1967. Joe had invested everything he had in his sons' success, though of course any real recognition or profit would be his success as well. While on the circuit, Joe had come to know Gladys Knight, who was enjoying a string of small successes with Motown, America's pre-eminent black pop label. With the encouragement of both Knight and Motown R&B star Bobby Taylor, Joe took his sons to Detroit to audition for the label. In 1969, Motown moved the Jackson family to Los Angeles, set them up at the homes of Diana Ross and the label's owner, Berry Gordy, and began grooming them. Michael remembered Gordy telling them, "I'm gonna make you the biggest thing in the world… Your first record will be a number one, your second record will be a number one, and so will your third record. Three number-one records in a row."

In 1959, Gordy founded Tamla Records – which soon became known as Motown – in Detroit. By the time he signed the Jackson 5, Motown had long enjoyed its status as the most important black-owned and -operated record label in America, spawning the successes of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, Mary Wells, the Four Tops, and Diana Ross and the Supremes, among others. In contrast to Stax and Atlantic, Motown's soul wasn't especially bluesy or gritty, nor was it a music that spoke explicitly to social matters or to the black struggle in the US. By its nature the label exemplified black achievement, but its music was calibrated for assimilation by the pop mainstream – which of course meant a white audience as much as a black one (the label's early records bore the legend "The Sound of Young America"). At the time, rock music was increasingly becoming a medium for album-length works. By contrast, Motown maintained its identity as a factory that manufactured hit singles, despite groundbreaking albums by Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Gordy was looking for a singles-oriented group that would not only deliver hits for young people, but would also give them somebody to seize as their own, to identify with and to adore. The Jackson 5, Gordy said, would exemplify "bubblegum soul."

The Jackson 5's first three singles – I Want You Back, ABC and The Love You Save – became Number One hits as Gordy had promised, and so did a fourth, I'll Be There. The group was established as the breakout sensation of 1970. Fred Rice, who would create Jackson 5 merchandise for Motown, said, "I call 'em the black Beatles…It's unbelievable." And he was right. The Jackson 5 defined the transition from 1960s soul to 1970s pop as much as Sly and the Family Stone did, and at a time when many Americans were uneasy about minority aspirations to power, the Jackson 5 conveyed an agreeable ideal of black pride, one that reflected kinship and aspiration rather than opposition. They represented a realization that the civil rights movement made possible, and that couldn't have happened even five or six years earlier. Moreover, the Jackson 5 earned critical respectability.

I Want You Back, released on October 7, 1969, was a dynamite debut, which would eventually sell six million copies worldwide and be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It ranks #121 on Rolling Stone's list of the '500 Greatest Songs of All Time' and also ranks ninth on Rolling Stone's list of the '100 Greatest Pop Songs since 1963'.

I Want You Back was also in their debut album, Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5, which peaked at #5 in the US. In the same album there was also their rendition of Smokey Robinson's Who's Loving You:

Their second #1 single was the title track of their second album, ABC (#4, US), released in 1970.

The Love You Save, their third #1 single, was also found in this album:

Their fourth #1 in a row, another classic called I'll Be There was the lead single from their third album, simply titled Third Album (#4, US), also released in 1970.

The most successful single ever released by the Jackson 5, I'll Be There sold 4.2 million copies in the United States, and 6.1 million copies worldwide. Not only that, but when it was covered by Mariah Carey in 1992 and was released as a single, it flew yet again all the way to the top of the charts.

The second single from the Third Album, Mama's Pearl, broke their string of US #1 singles, but only just; it peaked at #2.

They released a third album in 1970, their fourth in less than 12 months. It was a Christmas album. Their next album proper, Maybe Tomorrow, was released in 1971 and peaked at #11. Never Can Say Goodbye was their first single off the album; like the single before, this also peaked at #2.

Gloria Gaynor's disco version was released in 1974 and made #9 in the US and #2 in the UK:

In 1987 the Communards took the song to #4 in the UK and to #2 on the US Hot Dance/Disco chart.

The title track of Maybe Tomorrow was their folow-up single; it peaked at #20:

From the same album, which was the first Jackson 5 album I ever bought, here's the album track She's Good:

Just two years after their first release, the Jackson 5 were popular enough for a Greatest Hits album. It contained all their singles, plus a new recording, Sugar Daddy, which was released as a single and peaked at #10, US.

And though they functioned as a group, there was no question who the Jackson 5's true star was, and who they depended on. Michael's voice also worked beyond conventional notions of male-soul vocals – even worked beyond gender. Cultural critic and musician Jason King, in an outstanding essay, recently wrote, "It is not an exaggeration to say that he was the most advanced popular singer of his age in the history of recorded music. His untrained tenor was uncanny. By all rights, he shouldn't have had as much vocal authority as he did at such a young age." So, naturally, Michael was groomed for a parallel career as a solo act. His first solo single, Got To Be There, released on 24 January 1972, peaked at #4 in the US, at #5 in the UK and at #3 in Canada.

His follow-up solo hit was Rockin' Robin, a cover version of Bobby Day's 1958 hit. It equalled Day's #2 peak in the US, and peaked at #3 in the UK.

His follow-up was I Wanna Be Where You Are (#16, US):

... while in Europe his third solo hit was Michael's version of Bill Withers' Aint No Sunshine (#8, UK and #17, the Netherlands):

The song that made me fall in love with Michael was Ben. Ben was originally written for Donny Osmond, but was offered to Jackson as Osmond was on tour at the time and unavailable for recording. It was the song that played during the closing credits of the movie of the same name, the sequel to Willard. Ben was a killer rat. I didn't know that at the time (no Internet, you see). I thought the song was sung to a boy like me. The lyrics could certainly be construed as such:

Ben, the two of us need look no more
We both found what we were looking for
With a friend to call my own
I'll never be alone
And you my friend will see
You've got a friend in me

Ben, you're always running here and there
You feel you're not wanted anywhere
If you ever look behind
And don't like what you find
There's something you should know
You've got a place to go

I used to say "I" and "me"
Now it's "us", now it's "we"

Ben, most people would turn you away
I don't listen to a word they say
They don't see you as I do
I wish they would try to
I'm sure they'd think again
If they had a friend like Ben 

The song won the Golden Globe and was nominated for the Best Song Oscar. It peaked at #1 in the US and Australia, #6 in Canada, #7 in the UK, #15 in Ireland and #18 in New Zealand.

Ben was also the name of Michael's next album (1972, US peak: #5). From the same album, here's Greatest Show On Earth:

Meanwhile, the Jackson 5 were also active: Lookin' Through the Windows was their 1972 album (#7, US). The lead single was Little Bitty Pretty One, a song written and originally recorded by Bobby Day, and popularized by Thurston Harris in 1957. The Jackson 5 version peaked at #13, US:

Their next single was the album's title track. It peaked at #16, US, as well as at #9, UK:

Doctor My Eyes, a Europe-only single (UK #9) was a cover of the Jackson Browne US hit:

Their next album was Skywriter (1973). This is one of the least successful albums the Jackson brothers ever created (#44, US). Lead single Corner Of The Sky made #18 in the US:

Hallelujah Day peaked at #28 in the US and #20 in the UK:

Meanwhile, Michael's next solo album was released on April 13, 1973. Called Music & Me, it peaked at #27 in Australia, but only managed #92 in the US. Lead single was Happy, the theme song from Lady Sings the Blues, the Diana Ross starring Billie Holiday biopic. The song was written by pop royalty, Michel Legrand and Smokey Robinson. However its chart fortunes were not good: #21 in New Zealand and #31 in Australia. In the UK, where it was released as a single later on, it could only reach #52.

Music and Me only managed to make an impression in the Netherlands, where it peaked at #29:

Michael's last solo album for Motown, Forever, Michael, was generally well received by contemporary music critics, but was not commercially successful worldwide. Except for the peak position of #101 in the US, the album did not chart on any other music charts. The closest it got to a hit single was with Just a Little Bit of You (#23, US):

It did however contain One Day in Your Life. At the time it was just an album track, but was released as a single in 1981, to cash in on the success of the Off The Wall album. It was a clever decision, even if it only made #55 in the US, because it made #9 in Australia, #2 in the Netherlands and #1 in Ireland and in the UK, where it was the sixth best-selling single of 1981:

Meanwhile, the Jackson 5 released a second album in 1973. G.I.T.: Get It Together peaked at only #100 in the US, although it did make #4 on the R&B chart. The single Get It Together was a #28 Hot 100 hit and a #2 R&B hit:

It was with Dancing Machine that the Jackson 5 returned to their former glory: a #2 Hot 100 hit and a #1 R&B hit, as well as the receiver of a Grammy nomination. The song, which reportedly sold over three million copies, popularized the physically complicated Robot dance technique, devised by Charles Washington in the late 1960s.

Dancing Machine, originally recorded for the group's 1973 album G.I.T.: Get It Together, was also the title track of their 1974 album Dancing Machine released in 1974 as a remix for a response to the success of the single. After two less successful albums, this one returned the group to the Top 20 in the US (#16) and Canada (#12). Whatever You Got, I Want was also a single, a #38 Hot 100 hit and a #3 R&B hit:

I Am Love was an even bigger hit: #15 Hot 100 and #5 R&B:

Their last Motown album, Moving Violation, was a lesser hit (#36, US). The only single from it to make the US pop chart was Forever Came Today (#60 Hot 100 and #6 R&B):

All I Do Is Think of You didn't make the Hot 100. It peaked at #50 on the US R&B chart, but over the years, the song gained cult status as a ballad favorite for Jackson 5 fans:

For at least the first few years, Michael and his brothers seemed omnipresent and enjoyed universal praise. But soon they experienced some hard limitations. The music they were making wasn't really of invention – they didn't write or produce it – and after Michael was relegated to recording throwback fare like Rockin' Robin, in 1972, he worried that the Jackson 5 would become an "oldies act" before he left adolescence. The Jackson 5 began pushing to produce themselves and to create their own sound. Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye had demonstrated an ability to grow and change – and sell records – when given creative leeway, and with 1974's Dancing Machine, the Jacksons proved they could thrive when they seized a funk groove.

Motown, however, wouldn't consider it. "They not only refused to grant our requests," Michael said in Moonwalk, "they told us it was taboo to even mention that we wanted to do our own music." Michael understood what this meant: Not only would Motown not let the Jackson 5 grow, they also wouldn't let him grow. Michael bided his time, studying the producers he and his brothers worked with. "I was like a hawk preying in the night," he said. "I'd watch everything. They didn't get away with nothing without me seeing. I really wanted to get into it."

In 1975, Joe Jackson negotiated a new deal for his sons – this time with Epic Records, for a 500 percent royalty-rate increase. The contract also stipulated solo albums from the Jacksons (though the arrangement did not include Jermaine, who married Gordy's daughter Hazel and stayed with Motown, creating a rift with the family that lasted for several years). Motown tried to block the deal, and in the end stopped the brothers from using the Jackson 5 name; the group would now be known as the Jacksons.

The Epic deal proved to be a good one for the Jacksons as a group, but it was Michael's solo career that would rise to the stratosphere. This is a good place to stop. Next time we'll deal with the epic Epic years. See you then!