Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)
Part I. 2009
IT IS SEPTEMBER 1981, AND I’M SITTING IN A FLOOR seat at Madison Square Garden alongside a woman who will become my first serious postcollege girlfriend. I have great seats because I’m the black music editor at Record World magazine, my first real job as a music journalist. This year I will interview Prince, Morris Day and the Time, Jermaine Jackson, Rick James, the Dramatics, and many more. A young, upcoming party promoter named Russell Simmons hosts a party for me and talks endlessly about a new genre called rap music. The world of black popular music, which has obsessed me since I was a little boy, is undergoing a profound changing of the guard that I will be lucky enough to witness.
I am finally a full-fledged working journalist. But I am also very much a fan, whose profile is the same as that of most in the crowd: black, early teens to late twenties, people for whom the Jacksons are part of their DNA. The group is performing one of thirty-six shows on its sold-out Triumph tour, one Rolling Stone would later name one of the top concerts of the 1980s. Although the tour is named after the Jacksons’ latest album, in truth it should have been called the “Off the Wall tour featuring some cuts from Triumph.”
IN THE FOUR YEARS BETWEEN the CBS series and this tour, the Jacksons in general, and Michael in particular, revamped their sound and image. Their once-trademark Afros gave way to the now-fashionable jheri curls, and the boys’ occasional pelvic thrusts were now more sexual in nature.
After a so-so two-album apprenticeship under Philly sound mavens Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff—where the boys had one major hit, “Enjoy Yourself,” while studying under the masters of the message song—the Jacksons finally took control of the writing and production. Though there were some Epic-imposed executive producers and material (“Blame It on the Boogie”), they flexed some creative muscle, with Tito, Marlon, and elder brother Jackie contributing material. With Jermaine pursuing a solo career (and staying at his father-in-law’s label), the long-silent background brothers got a chance to speak. But the true revelation of Destiny (1978) and Triumph (1980) was what an accomplished songwriter Michael was, which he achieved with his chief collaborator: baby brother Randy.
In retrospect, the Garden show was significant because it was the first concert I attended where the songs were performed in the shadow of music videos. Several years before MTV’s debut, NBC had a late-night show called Friday Night Videos, a showcase for the short music films that were made to market acts in Europe. New York DJ Frankie Crocker, trying to make a transition into television, was the show’s semiregular host, his deep baritone now accompanied by the image of a slim, chic black man with a sharp nose and snazzy suit.
It was on Friday Night Videos that I and millions of other viewers got our first taste of how Michael saw himself. From Off the Wall came two videos for two great records—“Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” and “Rock with You.” The production values of both are typical of the kind of low-budget videos that black artists would be saddled with well into the mid-1980s: on videotape before a primitive green screen where backgrounds were dropped in later. As special effects, they are deeply chintzy, even by the standards of the era.
Despite these limitations, both videos show a young man comfortable in the spotlight by himself. He is performing without props, backing dancers, or a big concept (a rare occurrence in his career). He seems to be having a good time, smiling and joyous without any of the self-consciousness, calculation, or rage of later videos.
In “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” Michael wears a tuxedo, tux tie, white shirt, black shoes, and glittering socks (similar to the outfit he’d wear later in the “Billie Jean” video). For “Rock with You,” Michael dons a glittering jumpsuit that looks made of the same material as his famous iridescent glove. Much has been made of the fact that Michael’s dancing recalled James Brown. And although Michael and Brown did share spins and a similar intensity, Jackson also learned from Jackie Wilson, as is evident in these two videos. Though he didn’t have the consistent musical success of Brown, Wilson was one of the only soul era performers who could be as dazzling onstage as the God-father of Soul. Wilson was an ex-Golden Gloves boxer from Detroit whose footwork reflected that athletic grace. Michael watched Wilson from the wings countless times as a child and internalized much of what he saw.
The way Michael holds the microphone. The way he holds his upper body as he spins. His hand gestures with his non-microphone-holding hand. How he tilts his head and isolates his body parts as he dances. There’s a bit of Wilson in all of these MJ moves. Michael’s vocal range and whoops sound a lot more like Wilson’s high tenor and hiccups than Brown’s gritty growls. There are beautiful echoes of this old master in young Michael, a performer just defining his adult style.
After establishing his star persona on Off the Wall, Michael wasn’t ready to become a team player again with the Jacksons. The video for “Can You Feel It,” the first single from Triumph, had a much bigger budget and a very ambitious concept. In it, the Jacksons are godlike figures bringing light to the darkness of mankind. In pretension and iconography, this video recalls Jehovah’s Witnesses scripture, where Jesus Christ raises a select number of the dead to walk again on a heavenly earth.
In the Jacksons’ version of the resurrection, Michael stands front and center, his brothers flanked behind him as supporting players. Like Atlas, Michael holds a globe over his head, but this orb sends out a glowing light. His other brothers have a moment or two of omnipotence in the video, but Michael is the true redeemer. This depiction of Michael as a creature blessed with the power to transform both nature and man would become a consistent visual theme in his career.
The concert at Madison Square Garden (and all the dates on the Triumph tour) opened with a projection of the “Can You Feel It” video, a harbinger of Michael’s involvement with mixing film and live performance. (Twenty-eight years later his star-crossed This Is It concert was to be filled with extensive use of video clips to augment the performance.) As the clip ended, Randy Jackson, in a suit of armor, emerged holding a flaming torch, as if the Jacksons were about to lead concertgoers out of the wilderness. For most of the show, Michael glided across the stage in a jumpsuit much like his glittering “Rock with You” outfit. Then after an explosion near the end of the show, Michael appeared on a riser in his “Don’t Stop” tuxedo and the glittering socks.
THE PLAYLIST ON THE TRIUMPH TOUR, documented on a 1981 live album, speaks to Michael’s musical domination of the group. Five of the fifteen songs are from Off the Wall (the title track, “She’s Out of My Life,” “Rock with You,” “Working Day and Night,” “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough”). There’s one old-school Michael solo song (“Ben”), and there are a number of songs either co-written or solely composed by Michael on Destiny or Triumph (“This Place Hotel,” “Can You Feel It,” “Lovely One,” “Shake Your Body [Down to the Ground]”).
Musically, Randy Jackson is also extremely prominent. Not only has Randy co-written the show closer, “Shake,” but he’s also the featured keyboardist on “She’s Out of My Life,” the concert’s emotional high point. Michael, who supervised the stage design and obviously influenced the song selection, clearly trusted his little brother. Overall, Michael was much closer to his young siblings (Randy and Janet) than to his older brothers, with whom he rarely collaborated musically.
With the exception of “This Place Hotel,” which features a dynamic, rhythmic guitar solo, dramatic brass arrangement, and a chamber music coda, the Jacksons’ material isn’t as intricately arranged as the songs on Off the Wall.“Things I Do for You,” “Lovely One,” and “Shake” are built around strong riffs but harmonically and rhythmically aren’t as interesting as “Rock with You,” “Off the Wall,” or “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” There is a richness to the musical palate of the Quincy Jones-produced tracks that’s clear even in concert.
What holds all the material from these different albums together is Michael’s voice, which is why this live album is so valuable. It allows us to study his instrument outside a recording studio (though Michael, perfectionist that he was becoming, probably overdubbed at least a line or two). What you hear is that almost the entire vocabulary of Michael’s mature vocal mannerisms are already in place. On “This Place Hotel,” the “whoo-hoos” that would become one of his trademarks are in place, used as transitions between lines in verses and occasionally before or after choruses. Hiccups are employed liberally on the song, as are the trademark “he he hees.” Just as the song’s paranoid subject matter and production point toward Michael’s future, so does Michael’s vocal approach, which makes this performance a preview of greatest hits to come.
On “She’s Out of My Life,” keyboardist-arranger Tom Bahler’s look back at his failed relationship with singer Karen Carpenter, Michael sings carefully, with great respect for the lyric’s meaning and lots of soft vibrato. He holds phrases like “laugh or cry” and “live or die” by extending, but never distorting, them. The performance is looser than his dramatic interpretation on the Off the Wall album (where Michael cried after every take), but works beautifully for the screaming girls in the crowd.
At the end of a medley of Jackson 5 hits, the Jacksons launch into “I’ll Be There,” which Michael sings in a light, confident manner well supported by his brothers’ harmonies. Like on the record, the performance is very controlled until the end, when Michael becomes the kid who could convincingly sing like Ray Charles. He begins by extending the words, adding a serious church preacher vibe that excites the crowd before flowing into his “he he hees” and then a run of percussive vocal sounds like a violin being plucked by nimble fingers.
This fun riffing then leads Michael to say, “I wanna rock,” and drummer Jonathan Moffett kicks off the groove of “Rock with You.” However, the missing vocal element in this performance is aggression. Whereas soul music encouraged a rough, nasty-edge quality in its singers, Michael’s R&B style utilized elements of that old edge, but balanced it with his natural sweetness and feel for rhythm. The new music Michael was recording didn’t really demand that he tap into that gritty side of himself. Neither of the two Jacksons albums or Off the Wall featured songs of a traditional soul structure, probably because it was increasingly anachronistic in the 1980s.
Guitars play a prominent role in much of this new music, but the riffs played here by Tito and the supporting band are mostly rhythm. Even the guitar solo on “Heartbreak Hotel,” while tasty, doesn’t have the roughness of rock. So Michael had yet to record anything in this new phase of his career that pushed him vocally or musically in a more aggressive direction. Despite the success of this show, Michael Joe Jackson was still a work in progress.