Monday, 24 September 2018

Michael Jackson

From Motown super-kid to tragic global megastar....

Got To Be There (1972)

This was Michael Jackson's first studio album. In places it is a remarkably mature performance from Jackson, such as on the wonderful cover of Bill WithersAin't No Sunshine. His voice is still considerably in "transition", shall we say, (not quite there yet) but he has a great ability to deal with whatever song he is asked to sing. Berry Gordy brought in lots of Motown big hitters to play on the album and the backing and sound quality is excellent. At the time, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were releasing seriously credible, socio-political and adult romantic material, but it has to remembered that Jackson was still just a twelve year-old boy and they were grown men. There was still a huge market for teen pop, and this was teen pop-soul of the highest quality.

Obviously, Ain't No Sunshine is the stand-out track, but I Wanna Be Where You Are is lively and soulful, with a great bass line and solid groove. Girl Don't Take Love From Me is a good one too. These songs are so nostalgic of those early seventies years. I was born in the same year as Michael Jackson. In Our Small Way is cheesy but simply lovely and, of course, Got To Be There is just sublime. One of his best songs, even though he was only twelve when he recorded it. Yes, Rockin' Robin is pure bubblegum, but I still love it. I guess it just takes me back to my childhood. I was twelve, Jackson was twelve. I thought both it and he were great at the time. Listening to it now, it still resonates as being a really good album. For a twelve year-old boy, it is pretty impressive. 

Wings Of My Love is highly orchestrated, with sweeping strings. Perfect early seventies teen schmaltz, but nothing wrong with that. Jimmy Ruffin's Maria (You Were The Only One) is covered highly convincingly, with some funky buzzy guitar backing and a gritty soulful atmosphere. Again, Jackson proves his potential on this one. Diana Ross & The SupremesLove Is Here And Now You're Gone gets a similar, really confident treatment. It is very much the equal of the original. James Taylor's Carole King-penned You've Got A Friend is handled well by Jackson too. This lad had something.

Ben (1972)

Coming only seven months after his debut solo album, this was another age-defying offering from the only just teenage Michael Jackson. He copes with a variety of different songs with consummate ease and displays a remarkable ability to read a song's requisites.
Ben is incredibly cheesy, of course, but its so nostalgic for those of us who grew up at the time of its release. I was thirteen when it came out. So, I believe, was Michael Jackson. Greatest Show On Earth is a very typical early seventies, Burt Bacharach-sounding song (but not one). It has a poppy and pleasant vibe to it. A similar feel can be found on the reflective People Make You World Go Round. This was also a hit for The StylisticsThe catchy, singalong We've Got A Good Thing Going was a reggae hit for Sugar Minott in the late seventies. Everybody's Somebody's Fool was a ballad that had been a hit for Connie Francis in 1960. The Temptations’ My Girl is given a warm, bassy, slighty dance-ish makeover. It makes a very familiar song worth listening to in this slightly different format. It is not simply a note-for-note cover. What Goes Around Comes Around is an attractive, melodic trademark early seventies Motown mid-pace ballad.

In Our Small Way, for some reason, was included both on this album and also on its predecessor, Got To Be There. This sometimes happened on Motown albums. Strange, it was not as if they were short of tracks. 
Stevie Wonder’s Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day has a clavinet-backed funky rhythm to it which again makes this cover version a worthwhile listen. It is still amazing to hear what an effortless soul Jackson had in his voice, at thirteen. Brenda Holloway’s 1965 single, You Can Cry On My Shoulder, is a pleasant slow number with a nice, melodic bass line. Once more, Jackson “owns” the song. Look, this is certainly no work of genius, no What’s Going On or Talking Book but as an enjoyable half hour spent listening to the precocious talent of a thirteen year-old Jackson it is worth your time.

Off The Wall (1979)
This is where it started for Michael Jackson as a serious, adult, solo artist. Taking the smooth, infectious disco-soul sound that had made The Jacksons so successful in the mid-late seventies, he, together with producer Quincy Jones and underrated songwriter Rod Temperton,  put out this sumptuous album of upbeat, intoxicating disco songs and syrupy but polished ballads. Disco had been and gone, of course, several years earlier and the fires of funk were still smoking as their embers died out. What Jackson and his team did here was blend danceable disco elements with bassy, melodic funk rhythms, a brassy punch and some sumptuous string orchestration. There was something in this music for soul fans, something for funk aficionados, something for chart pop enthusiasts and something for disco dancers. Even the drums had a mid-tempo rock beat. The formula was a winning one.

The first two tracks, Jackson's catchy Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough and Temperton's funky Rock With You were classic examples of this great music that they had hit on. The lively funk of Working Day And Night is another. The sound quality is fantastic and another thing that has appeal for me in this material, is that is played by a proper band - proper bass guitar, keyboards and, most importantly, proper drums. The amount of musicians on here is remarkable. As the eighties were not underway, the trend for enveloping everything in synthesisers hadn't arrived yet, thank goodness. This is what makes this album so refreshing, genuine and credible. For me, it is by far Jackson's best solo album. Even lesser-known tracks like Get On The Floor with its Saturday Night Fever-style string backing are good ones. Jackson's voice is excellent throughout - he is developing that hiccupy falsetto that would characterise so much of his subsequent material. The percussion on this track is excellent. It's Paulinho Da Costa, so not a surprise. This whole old "side one" is a classic of late seventies disco-funk and it pointed the direction for dance music for the next few years. My favourite from the album is the title track, Off The Wall, which, oddly, is never mentioned quite as much as some of his other tracks. God knows why, it's superb. You could actually leave the album at this point, having feasted heartily. Jackson's hiccups are quite remarkable on this song, though. I still can't quite see how he did it. I can't do it to save my life.

Jackson's cover of Paul McCartney & WingsGirlfriend is pleasant enough, but lacks the coper-bottomed funky credibility of the previous songs. 
She's Out Of My Life is heartbreaking and beautifully sung by Jackson, but I prefer the upbeat tracks on the album. I know this is probably heresy, but there you go. There is a lovely bass line underpinning the song's "bridge" half way through, though. Stevie Wonder's late night, laid-back jazzy I Can't Help It is excellent, instantly recognisable as a Stevie Wonder song. Carole Bayer Sager's It's The Falling In Love sees a welcome return to that intoxicating rhythmic vibe of the first five tracks. The pumping Burn This Disco Out is an underrated Jackson classic to end this highly enjoyable, iconic album. It also has to be said that across the whole album, the remastered sound quality is simply superb, just as it should be.

Thriller (1982)

1979's Off The Wall had been relatively successful, but it still remained only averagely so compared with this monstrous seller. Nobody could have really expected the incredible success of it, not the producers or Jackson himself. It launched him into the pop stratosphere and he became the "king of pop" from this moment on. While Off The Wall had a myriad of styles to keep all sorts happy, Thriller had even more - there was rock guitar riffage, a harder, more "street" funk, more schmaltzy ballads and an even more polished smooth soul sound. Blending all those together proved to be guaranteed to result in massive global sales. Together with the advent of MTV, which endlessly played the many videos this album generated, Jackson conquered the world.
I clearly remember the night in early December 1982 when Channel 4 showed the Thriller video for the first time, at about midnight I recall. The nation stood still. Everyone seemed to watch it, even people like myself who weren't particularly Michael Jackson fans. The next day it was all "did you see it?" from everyone you spoke to. To a certain extent, the album lost its focus as an actual album by the hype surrounding the video and, also because there were seven singles taken from the album it just seemed almost like a "greatest hits" package, and had no real "album" identity. Personally, I always preferred Off The Wall, finding it had a more authentic appeal. That is not to say this is without its obvious good points, of course. Maybe we all just know the songs so well.

As with Off The Wall, the music is immaculate, "proper" music i.e. no synthesised drums such as blighted later albums like Invincible, played by a proper band, not by a computer. My favourite track was always the Manu Dibango-inspired Wanna Be Startin' Something with its infectious AfroFunk-influenced rhythms. Billie Jean has that killer bass line intro and unforgettable hook. 

Beat It had rock guitar legend Eddie Van Halen supplying its iconic riff. The track is probably the rockiest thing Jackson ever did. P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) was an appealing slice of commercial funk. Rod Temperton's Baby Me Mine continued the slick, disco, funk lite sound of Off The Wall, full of the hiccupy vocals that had now become Jackson's odd, quirky trademark. Human Nature is a sweet soul number, very silky smooth, typical of what would be now thought of as prototype "r 'n' b" soul. It is pleasant and very listenable but a little too saccharine for my taste. Immaculately played, however. The Lady In My Life falls into the same category. The two remaining tracks are the over-the-top Thriller, which I always felt to be a bit silly, although it has some obviously classic and iconic moments, and the dreadfully cheesy duet with Paul McCartney, The Girl Is Mine, with its awful spoken parts in the outro. It wouldn't worry me if I never heard it again, being brutally honest. You can't argue with the album's impact, though, but it suffers, like Sgt. PepperBorn In The USA and Brothers In Arms from being just too well known. If I listen to any Michael Jackson these days, there are other albums I choose before this - definitely Off The Wall, for sure.

Bad (1987)

Michael Jackson returned five years after the stratospheric Thriller with this long-waited offering from 1987. It is heavier and denser than its two predecessors, Thriller and Off The Wall, but, as it was 1987, is synthseiser-dominated. It contains enough instantly appealing chart material to keep the pop/greatest hits consumers happy and, although for some, it is let down by its "filler", I find those tracks are more credible than earlier equivalents. It also marked the period when Jackson went white, so to speak, returning with a dramatically-altered appearance since Thriller, on which he was still holding on to normality. Someone who was quirky and inventive before had now turned decidedly weird. His long descent started here. The album was well-received by his now millions of fans, though, and was soon playing in wine bars and sitting on the shelves of those who had invested in the new phenomenon of a CD player and had three or four CDs. You could rest assured that this was one of them.

Bad begins with a programmed drum backing and a typically hiccuppy Jackson vocal. There is a vaguely jazzy feel to the verses before the song kicks in to the instantly recognisable synthy chorus. The track has an in-your-face catchiness, though, that ensures it serves its purpose as a robust announcement that Michael Jackson was back. Next up is a classic serving of Jackson pop in The Man In The Mirror, which is again dominated by programmed drums and synth breaks but redeemed by a killer chorus. Now it is time for the "filler" - four tracks in a row. Speed Demon is a chunky, industrial chugger of a track that has a gritty appeal. Liberian Girl slows the mood down on an appealing slowie that has more about it than some of Jackson's earlier, more saccharine ballads. 

Just Good Friends is so very 1987 - a pounding piece of synthy dance pop with Jackson fully using his trademarks whoops and yelps to the nth degree. Another Part Of Me does so too, although over a slightly less frenetic beat. Again, it is a solid enough track, if not anything special. It is certainly more than acceptable. Although these tracks had not been as bad as some said, The Man In The Mirror makes you sit up again, though, on a perfect slice of Jackson soul-pop. Great chorus and equally fine vocal, augmented by some gospel choir backing at the end. I Just Can't Stop Loving You is probably the album's most slushy song but it carries a considerable thump to its backing. Dirty Diana is an atmospheric and hard-edged heavy rock influenced number about a groupie that attracted accusations of sexism. I've heard far worse. So Diana was a bit dirty. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm sure Michael got over it. Smooth Criminal has often been dismissed as a sub-standard offering, but the slightly Prince-influenced number has always sounded powerful enough to me in a programmed funk sort of way. The album ends with another upbeat piece of pop-funk in the lively grind of Leave Me AloneSonically, this was an album very much of its time, but, taking that into account, it is still listenable, despite a bit of a bombastic production.

Dangerous (1991)

Michael Jackson was an absolute megastar by now - the "King of Pop" and all that. This album was not, however, quite as critically well-received as the previous three. It is, for me, a sprawling affair that is, like so many of its contemporaries in the early-mid nineties and indeed beyond, far too long. It clocks in at nearly one hour and twenty minutes. Value for money? Of course, but I do have to say I prefer the succinctness of your average sixties-seventies-eighties albums, where forty minutes was considered long. The tracks are not only numerous, they all seem to go on way too long as well, individually. This would have been considered a double album in the seventies. The music is dominated by what was known as "new jack swing" - a fusion of hip/hop with r 'n' b powered by drum machine backing.
Jam has a shuffling, funky beat that sort of recalls the best of the Thriller album but with an updated early nineties thumping backing. The same applies to Why You Wanna Trip On Me. There are some Prince-esque bits in here as well. In The Closet is quirkily appealing, but as with the previous track, it just goes on seemingly forever. She Drives Me Wild has those trademark Jackson vocal hiccups, a bit of rap/hip-hop backing vocal interjections and a rhythmic dance beat, but, personally, I long for the clear instrumentation and Quincy Jones production of the Off The Wall album. This nineties style, loud, crashing production tends to deaden the vitality of the songs, in my opinion anyway. Many love it, though, and it certainly was up-to-the minute. The new jack swing drum machine rhythm makes the sound homogenous through a lot of the album.

Remember The Time has a bit of an Earth, Wind & Fire vocal feel to it and a more understated, bassy beat. The problem has been that the previous few tracks have been, to an extent, petty indistinguishable from each other. That was certainly not the case with the songs on Off The Wall, Thriller or some of Bad. Like all Michael Jackson albums, there were numerous singles taken from this one - an incredible NINE singles out of fourteen tracks. Trouble is, I can't remember too many of them. 
The Prince-influenced groove of I Can't Let Her Get Away was not a single, but it is one of the album's catchier tracks, but it does sound a lot like many of the others in its synth drum-synth backing and the generally somewhat soulless approach from Jackson. I cannot help but feel he goes through the motions a bit on some of the tracks, in comparison to the verve and vigour of earlier material. You can't deny his commitment on the earnest Heal The World, however. Despite its obvious cheesiness, it is a melodic relief after what seemed like ages of synthy dance grooves. Jackson's voice is warm and beautiful on here. The best track on the album is Black And White, a glorious, riffy anthem, with a worthy message. I love the "kid in the bedroom" intro before it launches into that classic riff. Vocal hiccups all over the place, great bass, full of charisma, this is the killer Jackson track the album has been crying out for. At last. Despite the professional competence of much of the previous songs on the album, this is the one that really grabs you by the whatever. Love it. Who Is It has a lot of atmosphere, I have to say, and a yearning, soulful vocal from Jackson. Give In To Me is a low-key grower, which has some understated hidden depths and a great guitar solo (from Slash of Guns 'n' Roses). Will You Be There has a ghostly, classical-influenced extended opening, which is all very nice, but a little incongruous when the drum machines kick in. It is an odd song, slightly gospel-influenced and also reminiscent of a Christmas carol. It is different though.

By now, the album should have finished, so Keep The Faith just sort of passes me by, although it's harmless enough. 
The plaintive Gone Too Soon sounds like something from a musical. Dangerous ends the album on a high note, though, with a brooding, mysterious groove. Its spoken vocal intro leads into some more high-pitched yelping and a catchy refrain. Surprisingly, this one wasn't a single. Maybe it should have been. Ok, I've spent long enough listening to this and certainly long enough writing about does have an appeal, though, for all its (admittedly a little bit nit-picking) flaws.
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