“Life ain’t so bad at all…”

 
As the grisly speculation over the circumstances surrounding Michael Jackson”s untimely demise continues, the less ghoulish among us have opted to remember the self-proclaimed ‘King of Pop’ through his music. For me, nothing in Jackson”s discography better epitomises his singular talent than his 1979 offering, and first collaboration with Quincy Jones, ‘Off The Wall’. Though Jackson”s solo career had been underway for several years prior to its release, with four pleasant-if-unremarkable long-players already under his belt, ‘Off The Wall’ truly established him as a solo artist to be reckoned with and paved the way for the stratospheric success of ‘Thriller’ three years later. Though there’s no doubting the latter deserves its place in the pantheon of great pop records, and it doesn’t take a Paul Gambaccini to calculate that it’s by some margin the more popular of the two (as global sales of over 100 million copies to date will attest), there is a charm, exuberance and sheer joie de vivre about ‘Off The Wall’ that, for me, puts it qualitatively streets ahead of its follow-up.

From the breathy, faltering, slightly effete spoken intro to ”Don”t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” to ”Burn This Disco Out””s joyous fade, there is hardly a moment on the record (save for the balladic interlude of ”She”s Out of My Life”) that isn’t suffused with a sense of fun and vivacity; Jackson is having an absolute ball, every vocal peppered with whoops, yelps, cackles, or breathy, percussive vocal sounds, or a combination of the lot. Never again, bar a few such moments on ‘Thriller’, would a Jackson record sound so life-affirming. It”s perhaps no coincidence that the album was recorded as Jackson”s management contract with his father, Joe, was about to draw to a close, freeing him not just creatively, but from a domineering presence who”d cast a considerable shadow over his formative years in showbusiness.

Jackson”s bravura vocal performances notwithstanding, much of the album”s energy can be attributed to its ‘live’ sound and the stellar cast of session musicians assembled by Quincy Jones, among them bassists Louis Johnson and Bobby Watson (whose insouciant performance on ”Rock With You” is a key to that track”s silky charm), drummer John ‘J.R.’ Robinson, keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, and a crack brass section led by trumpeter Jerry Hey. The term ”session musician” is much maligned by music purists, carrying for them a connotation of soulless, uninspired proficiency, but the man known to his friends as ”Q” elicits fine performances from all concerned- funky, tasteful, and never drawing too much attention from the real star of the show. Indeed, one has to listen very closely to ‘Off The Wall’ to even notice some of the breathtaking musicianship on display, so subtly is it woven into the mix by engineer par excellence Bruce Swedien. Only Louis Johnson gets to momentarily share the limelight with Michael, courtesy of the earth-shaking slap groove that dominates ”Get On The Floor”.

Another vital ingredient in the album”s enduring success is the astute choice of material. Jackson himself comes into his own as sole writer of several the album”s best cuts, not least the scintillating opener ”Don”t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and the propulsive ”Working Day and Night”. Of equal importance are the three tracks written by Rod Temperton, an ex-pat Brit (hailing from Cleethorpes) who”d already enjoyed considerable success as keyboardist and principle songwriter with Heatwave, as well as providing hits for the likes of Rufus and The Brothers Johnson. Temperton contributed the title track (which the musicologists among you will notice cannibalises the bassline to his own ”Boogie Nights”), the hugely underrated ”Burn This Disco Out” and the evergreen ”Rock With You”. Temperton would again prove his worth three years later, penning the title track to what would go on to be the biggest selling album in history. Go here to treat yourself to a smorgasbord of other Temperton-penned delights.

Elsewhere are contributions from such luminaries as Paul McCartney (”Girlfriend”), Stevie Wonder (”I Can’t Help It”) and Carole Bayer Sager (”It”s The Falling in Love”) which, though they make up the album”s relatively lightweight second half, were canny choices clearly intended to enhance the record”s soul/funk/pop crossover appeal. Again, this would act as a template for ‘Thriller’.

So if you”ve never dug deeper into this exemplar of the pop music idiom, now”s the time to educate yourself.

Addendum: Engineer Bruce Swedien has written a book recounting his work with Michael Jackson in some detail, which is to be released imminently and should provide welcome relief from the raft of hateful hack job biographies written in the wake of Jackson”s passing.

 

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