Sunday, August 02, 2009

Michael Jackson: The Forgotten Era

I was considering posting about this a while ago, and almost didn't bother because the Michael Jackson moment is kind of passing (though he still dominates the top ten albums on Amazon), but a rare in-person conversation with Tex convinced me it was worth doing because it seems that this time in Michael Jackson's history is completely overlooked and should really get its due.

Last month, while I was obsessively listening to Off the Wall, I was trying to figure out if anyone else in R&B was doing anything with a similar sound at that time. I noticed that, in fact, the Jacksons (the Jackson 5 name was owned by Motown so they had to give it up when they moved to CBS in 1976) had released an album in 1978, just before Off the Wall, and then an album in 1980, between Off the Wall and Thriller. Now, the basic narrative of Michael Jackson has him as a cute little kid singing "ABC," and then a few years later, emerges full formed singing "Rock With You" on Off the Wall. But not only was he still a member of the Jackson 5/Jacksons right up through the Off the Wall era, he actually was a member all the way through Thriller. In fact, MJ's first solo tour was for Bad-- the live shows he played during the Thriller era were with his brothers (though they increasingly featured his solo material).

Anyway, not only was he fully the lead singer on the Jacksons albums released during that time, he also wrote or co-wrote the vast majority of the songs (which can't be said for his early solo albums, though the songs he wrote actually did tend to be the best ones (Billie Jean, Don't Stop Till You Get Enough, Beat It, Wanna Be Startin Somethin)). So, basically, the two albums from 1978 and 1980, Destiny and Triumph, are totally forgotten Michael Jackson albums, released while he was at the absolute peak of his powers as a musician and songwriter.

PS Before Drischord weighs in, I'll just assure everyone-- these are pretty unambiguously "disco," though I can't remember the context of that argument so I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing.

Both are absolutely worth getting. I tend to like Triumph a bit better (you have to overlook the chintzy jheri-curl-filled cover), but they're both great. Here's a sampling of a couple of the key tracks from each. None of these would have sounded out of place on Off the Wall, and though they don't benefit from the impeccable crispness of a Quincy Jones production, they used a lot of the same session players, so it's the same feel.

Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground), from Destiny (Shockingly, this is a TV appearance and not a creepy fan montage. I'm pretty sure it's the studio version playing though):

Bless His Soul, from Destiny (This one's a little cheesy, but listen at least through the two minute mark or so when the arrangement totally takes off) (Just a still image of the album cover for this one):

This Place Hotel, from Triumph (Originally "Heartbreak Hotel," but changed to avoid confusion. This is an MJ solo composition and it absolutely kills)(and don't worry, this one is TOTALLY a creepy fan montage):

Can You Feel It, from Triumph (This is the actual video for the song and it's INSANE. I almost didn't include this one because the song itself is almost totally obscured by the Star Wars sound effects and random bits of orchestral scoring. It's worth watching though, if only to see that he was making over the top videos well before Thriller):


dr. kittybrains said...

My personal favorite is "Blame It On The Boogie".

Eric said...

Love that song. I left it off because it's one of the few not written by them (though, improbably, it's written by a totally different guy-- and english songwriter named Michael "Mick" Jackson!) and it's a bit more of a throwback to the bubblegummy sound, while I was going for the stuff that was reminiscent of his solo work.