Monday, 21 April 2014

LOST IN MUSIC THROWBACK: Michael Jackson's 'Off The Wall'

Now I could have gone the obvious route.

When deciding who, and what, the focus of the very first Lost In Music 2014 feature should be, I very easily could have gone for the easy choice that everyone would expect, and it would have been a nobrainer. After all, if you are going to talk about The Greatest Entertainer of ALL Time, then surely his greatest collection of works is only fitting, no? No. Not for this Miss.

Instead of the lazy obvious, I decided to take a look at the works that preceded it. For, as a standing rule, I firmly believe that with any artistic great – no matter whom they are, or what they do, before their Opus, comes an inkling that something great is on the way, because the groundwork is already there. Take the female equivalent of my favourite leading examples, for instance. Before Mariah Carey's Butterfly, there was Daydream, which bore the now infamous line that we all know backwards – think Mariah, and pacifiers – you with me? Good. Let's move on, because Mariah made a trend out of exactly this sort of thing. Before The Emancipation of Mimi, there was Charmbracelet, and before Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, there was E=MC2 – okay, that last one may have only had great moments, but overall, each was grossly underrated, and each was a tell-tale sign of the brilliance that was to come.

Now the problem with Michael Jackson's Off The Wall, serves equally as part of its charm. In 10 songs, lasting 42 minutes and some change, the album is over before you know it, leaving your ears desperately wanting more. Equally, it takes you on a breathless ride that boggles the mind before you realise the rhythmic takeover.

Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough is undoubtedly one of, if not thee best of musical introductions ever recorded. The intro is foreboding and slightly scary, as you listen to 'Little Michael Jackson' talking about a 'force' that appears to be swallowing him whole. Now having seen the video, my jury is still out on whether his force had anything to with the Star Wars force – I mean, how could you really tell, space is space, no? Nevertheless, with a rebirth-like cry, and an electric undercurrent of excitement and anxiety that fit perfectly with his personal life at the time, the choice is yours - whether you hear a musical rebirth, the start of a one of a kind rollercoaster ride, or both. Having just left The Jacksons officially, to break out as an Independent Artist, there were a lot expectant eyes upon him, as well as a misguided father (and sacked Manager) poised to celebrate his failure, if there was even a hint that the public would not accept a completely solo Michael Jackson. Aren't we glad MJ proved him wrong, with quite possibly the most magnificent of bait & switches in musical history? How many of you realised, in this moment tailor-made for John Travolta and some flashing lights, that 'Little Michael Jackson' was actually singing about doing 'The Big Nasty'?

'Get closer to my body now; just love me, 'til you don’t know how'

'Touch me and I feel on fire. Ain’t nothing like a love desire…
I'm melting, like hot candle wax'

If you are anything like me, then suddenly you hear that early yelp in a whole other quick finish context

If Don't Stop broke Michael Jackson free from The Jacksons' chains, then Rock With You catapulted him to the heights of genuine Vocal Sexpert. Nobody knew that 'Little Michael' had it in him! Well that was because he was 'Little Michael' no more. 

With an intro that proves who the Pied Piper of Music really was (hint: NOT you, R. Kelly), his new RnB sound was seductive without a doubt. You instantly realise that from that drum solo to those early strings, something radical was happening in this new kind of music. It sounded like nothing else on the radio – and you should thank Quincy Jones’ production, and Rod Temperton's lyrics for that. Just as Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis would do with Michael's baby sister less than a decade later, Jones and Temperton took a shy young man, found his inner charm and charisma, and the three lay their findings down on wax. You’d be hard-pressed to find a sexier song before or after it, unless Michael wrote and sang it himself.

'Girl, close your eyes, let the rhythm get into you.
Don't try to fight it; there ain't nothing that you can do.'

As he sings those opening lyrics, you realise that what you are feeling, he is, word for word, depicting in song. Now how can anyone get so far inside a beat that he gets under the skin of women for generations to come, when he would sadly no longer be around, to witness the remarkable reach of his talent? Mr Jones made sure the bass got in on the act, while Michael purred seductively, in a manner we had never heard before, and that was essentially that! Ready-made seduction in 3 minutes and 41 seconds; served up and putting itself in the modern classic history books, alongside Marvin Gaye's 'Let's Get It On'. Many cite this as Michael's greatest release – but they forget, that other big album had not happened yet

Next is Working Day & Night, which a young ES completely misunderstood the real meaning of, until her early 20s. Contrary to (my) popular belief, Michael was not, in fact, singing about a money-grubbing girlfriend sending him out to work all the hours, so that she could spend all of his money…Nor was she deliberately making him too tired to partner her in ‘Ze Bedroom Danse’ (teen years). As we (I) discovered (what everybody else already knew), MJ is bemoaning his ladylove for making him work too hard, whilst not giving him any ‘love’ at all…

'How can you leave girl, when love like ours was meant to be?
You must be seeing, some other guy instead of me!'

Now in my defence, who knew that one man could make rhythm sound like a conveyor belt and dancefloor rolled into one, yet still be appealing at the same time? Moreover, can we talk about Quincy Jones production on this one for just a second? I dare you to name a tighter horn section than the one that battled the electric guitar, in a bridge that literally sounded like the guy and girl, going back and forth in a lovers quarrel? Answers in the Comment Box below please! The orchestral sound was so fresh and revitalising in a genre that, at the time, was so heavily synthesised and electric. Between them, Jackson and Jones brought a live, big band feel to Disco that was funky enough to have made even Nile Rodgers jealous!

More live instrumentation and vocal percussion lead the way in the fourth track. The first to actually do what it says on the tin; Get On The Floor is all about 'that girl' that he’s spotted in the club, and her mesmerising moves, MJ croons about trying to woo a potential new ladylove with a few gyrations of his own. And let’s be honest, if he couldn't do it, no one could!

Now I always considered the intro to title track Off The Wall, a precursor to Thriller. It’s Halloween spooky for no apparent reason other than Michael just wanted to liven up everybody – including the dead. Ghoulish elements aside, this song was an early ode to acceptance, togetherness, and being brave enough to be YOU, in spite of those who would dissuade you; with a 'feel good vibe, funky enough to rival McFadden & Whitehead at their finest. GLEE eat your heart out.

'Do what you want to do, there ain’t no rules, it’s up to you'

By the Paul McCartney penned Girlfriend, the tempo slows just enough for the pace to change into an audible love note, that makes me think of the school playground. Something about the arrangement that is almost like a teasing chant between a boy and girl in the throes of puppy love. The song is sweet and subtle enough to make you forget that it is essentially, a story about emotional blackmail, ultimatums and a young girl with loose morals. And yet it is. Remember that as you’re singing along. It will not stop you, because the song is too catchy, but at least bear it in mind.

'Girlfriend, I'm gonna tell your boyfriend (yeah),
tell him, exactly what we're doing (yeah);
tell him what you do to me, late at night when the wind is free.'

Every RnB crooner, from Ginuwine to Marc Nelson, to Country & Western's Willie Nelson even, has covered She's Out Of My Life – with no version even coming close to the original. A sad, painful ballad, it almost feels like the next chapter in the story of this girl that he has been chasing for the last few songs. The moment lets those who pressed play, looking for 'Little Michael Jackson' know, that part of him was still here. Part of the strength of this song, is its simplicity. Just as in the video you're about to see, directed by Bruce Gowers; it's purely a grown up Michael, and some keys, living through the storm of a first heartbreak. The fanfare left when the love did.

Michael Jackson’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s I Can’t Help It brought the sexy back way before Justin, with an intro that is at once hypnotic, and movement inducing. The tempo ramps back up slightly, and gives you, the listener, the opportunity to compare and contrast the application of his softer voice in two completely different scenarios. The change is ever so slight, and yet both make you want to hand the man a tissue – in one song, for his tears and snot, in the other, with your phone number. And possibly your address, dependent upon your moral latitude (Hey, no judgement here).

It's The Falling In Love, the only duet on the album called upon the one and only Patti Austin to take on the gargantuan task; talks of the juxtaposition of falling, and actually being in love, now that they've gone and unwillingly fallen all over again

'No matter how it starts it ends the same, someone's always doing someone wrong.'

Quincy Jones' Goddaughter, aka Ms Patti Austin, provides a beautiful wall of sound from the outset with the background vocals, and her tone blends so seamlessly with his, that it is often difficult to differentiate between the two. Like the eight preceding it, 'Falling' is another track that gets under your skin, and makes it impossible not to sing along to; with a subtly sped up tempo, that acts as a blindsiding segue to the closing dancefloor anthem

Burn This Disco Out is full of pomp and glory, in the sense that it is a marvellous way to demonstrate going out with a literal BANG. Again, the live orchestral feel, gives the track a sense of closing fanfare. It’s big, it’s braggadocious, and it dares you not to dance.

'Got a hot foot, better freak across the floor,
Join the party; and we came to move, and that’s for sure.'

No soft vocals on this one, it’s Michael’s sharp, fight voice, leading a disco revolt, to party euphoria in an RnB, Jazz and Funk fusion – narcotics not necessary.

Rod Temperton, of Heatwave fame, partnered with Michael for the writing credits on this legendary album that has not only been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as it's own entity, but been cited as one of the greatest albums of ALL TIME. The vast experience in his influence cannot be overlooked. If he were the blueprint, then Jones’ wizardry of live instruments throughout most definitely provided the literal bricks and mortar for the powerhouse, and Michael? Well he was just the electricity that illuminates up the project! Between Temperton, Jones, and Jackson, here was not only a formidable team, but also one of literal organic magic; what else could come from a creative team so powerful? And they were just getting started

Michael Jackson, for Off The Wall, We Salute Your Memory for getting us Lost In Music.

Until the next,
ES ;)