Back around the time Off The Wall was in heavy rotation on radio, I remember a friend’s sister calling in to the local radio station’s request line: “Stop playing all of that #*(@$& Michael Jackson music!” Back then, there was no escaping “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” on the radio, in the stores, or anywhere else. But what we didn’t know was that a follow-up album named Thriller would so capture the world’s attention that it would go on to become the biggest selling album of all time. In the aftermath of that success, Michael Jackson went beyond being a pop star: he became an icon of the 80s.
Sadly, his life after Thriller became a downward spiral that ended in his death just a few days ago. He proclaimed himself the “King of Pop”, reverted to the dreams of his childhood (witness Neverland Ranch), and was even accused of things that made parents and other moral individuals around the world shudder. He retreated into seclusion. He married, divorced, and married again. He went betwen fabulously rich and flat broke. The media, hungry for “trash”, ate it all up. And we’ll leave it at that.
Despite it all, we’re left with his memory, and as we rewind our internal clocks by 20-30 years and listen to these songs again, we realize that they were finely constructed tunes that have withstood the test of time, and a new generation of listeners (yes, even today’s teens) consider him “awesome”, given the highlights of his career on music videos and radio airplay. Let’s face it: when Michael Jackson made music in his heyday, it was damn good!
In my own opinion, the “sweet spot” of his career was between the Destiny album by The Jackson, through Michael’s own Bad album, yet another album that spawned a bucketload of hits. When Bad came out, I was simultaneously dreading it (“ain’t no way I’m gonna buy that thing) and anxious to slap it on the turntable and give it a spin. Yes, you were sick and tired of Thriller, but Bad had more of that irresistible confection that you couldn’t help but listen to.
I credit a lot of his success to Quincy Jones. Some of Quincy’s productions had his unimstakable stamp on them: when you heard a Brothers Johnson album or any of their hits (“Stomp”, “I’ll Be Good To You”), or James Ingram telling you to “Find One Hundred Ways”, you knew it was a Quincy Jones production. And even on Michael’s own Off The Wall album, you had Quincy producing, a tune or two by Rod Temperton…a certain Quincy “sound” you knew well.
With Thriller, I feel that Quincy really found the secret formula that allowed Michael to channel his boundless energy into the grooves, creating a new sound with more of an edge to it, yet still having enough of that ear-friendly Quincy Jones style that helped the album spawn seven Billboard Top 10 hits. Crossover music? You bet–funk, R&B, rock, pop, adult contemporary…this album delivered it all, and the widespread appeal made it a sales smash.
What really ignited Thriller was an appearance on the Motown 25th Anniversary TV special: after the reunited Jacksons ran down some of their old Jackson 5 hits, Michael gave us a premiere of his new style of dancing, and included the now-legendary “moonwalk”, which left audience members amazed with his moves. And with his music videos in constant rotation, there was no escaping the sounds, the moves, etc. that made him a household name.
Bad was a more than worthy follow-up: Quincy still took the producer’s seat, and repeated the formula: he let Michael Jackson “do his thing” and channeled it all in the right direction again. With Dangerous and the albums that followed, however, it was painfully obvious that Quincy Jones’ touch was missed. There were still some good songs in his later albums, but that magic was gone. Michael still “did his thing”, but it felt like the focus was lost.
It’s an interesting career timeline that spanned nearly all of the Jackson family’s lifetimes. (All nine of the Jackson siblings would be involved in music.) First, we had bubblegum Motown pop in the Jackson 5, and Michael’s own early solo recordings. When The Jacksons signed with Epic, they were supposedly now adults, and shifted their music to match it. Parts of Destiny still are a bit on the bubblegum side, but they were a more sophisticated blend of disco, funk and R&B, with pop overtones. Following that, albums alternated between Michael’s solo albums and The Jacksons’ recordings, becoming more “worldly” (for lack of a better word?) and making albums that ranked up there with their peers. I feel this period is best listened to as a group: Destiny, Off The Wall, Triump, Thriller, Victory and Bad. You hear the progression of their sound (and Michael’s), and you also realize that is one hell of a body of work. He/they were on a roll.
Fortunately, today, we can still pop our old records on the turntable and relive all of the great music The Jacksons and Michael made over the years. And my recommendation for the blues: don’t mourn Michael Jackson’s passing. Grieve a bit, then put the ol’ records on and “Shake Your Body Down To The Ground.” I bet he would have wanted it that way. He made music to entertain us. Enjoy it! (Yes, even if it’s a guilty pleasure!)