Monday, July 6, 2009

Still "Off the Wall" 30 Years Later, Michael Jackson's Masterpiece

Music was the reflection of Michael Jackson. It was with this music that he enraptured us in life and lives on past his untimely passing. Many have tried to pry apart the music from the man while peering at his legacy, this has proven to be an impossible task. An important anniversary proves this without fail. The progenitor to Thriller (1982) and his later albums, Off the Wall (1979) on August 10th, 2009 turns exactly 30 years old. This album launched Jackson into the stratosphere of music evolution, and in Jackson's mind, had been years in the making.

Clearly not satisfied with the pleasant, but diminutive solo output during his Motown tenure, now at Epic Records Jackson sought to make an impact worth remembering outside of the context of being a charter member of The Jacksons. Enter Quincy Jones, the production maestro Jackson worked with on the film adaption of The Wiz two years prior. Hitting it off personally and professionally, each had a unified vision for what became Off the Wall, Jackson's fifth overall long player.

It was 1979, the year disco, a dance offshoot of R&B, had taken hold of the mainstream music world after years of amassing power in the underground. With Jones and Jackson in head of production, they drew together a collection of talent that criss-crossed songwriters, session musicians, and singers.

Writers Rod Temperton (Donna Summer, Anita Baker, Aretha Franklin, Heatwave), Paul McCartney (of The Beatles), Carole Bayer Sager (The Carpenters, Phyllis Hyman, Diana Krall), Stevie Wonder, and former Wonderlove and Supreme Susaye Green all brought special songs to the proceedings.

The musicians, also integral, boasted talent like George Duke, Greg Phillinganes, Louis Johnson (of The Brothers Johnson), Jerry Hey, John Robinson (the drummer from Rufus), and David Foster were some of the figures present.

Everyone drew together on a synergistic note to propel Michael Jackson into the pumping pulse of contemporary disco and R&B, without making him a slave to it. Off the Wall fit into the period perfectly and outlived it as well. The preciseness of Jones' R&B know-how, complimented Jackson's exuberance, making the album enjoyably addictive with each listen.

Danceable, groovy, and downtempo elements all cohered on Off the Wall. The bursting "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" was filled to the brim with cascading strings, throbbing bass, varied percussive elements. Through all of this, Jackson whooped, crooned, and sang his heart out. The vibrancy that characterized the searing "Get On the Floor" and "Workin' Day & Night" was muscular instead of the prototypical R&B macho-fuel that drove a few of Jackson's male colleagues. The springy "Rock With You" further found Jackson well-mannered, but not any less enthused.

The arrangements stayed succulent on the slow jams side too. Quaint and sparse described the poignant "She's Out of My Life," a staple for decades in Jackson's live shows. Partnered with Jones' goddaughter, Patti Austin, she and Jackson duetted on the valentine "It's the Falling in Love." Here you hear Jackson humoring some of the last bit of his Motown innocence. The mesmeric "I Can't Help It," penned by the aforementioned team of Wonder and Green, was a living, breathing lush sound of romantic proportions.

If Thriller was the visual and crossover watermark for Jackson, Off the Wall was the pre-MTV, pre-crossover solidification of Michael Jackson as a modern, R&B magus. Off the Wall when released on August 10th, 1979 was an immediate win across the board.

Five singles were released, with the first four reigning as Jackson standards. All four singles were U.S. Top 10 hits, a first in American music history. Off the Wall also gave Jackson his first solo Grammy win in 1980 for "Best Male R&B Vocal Performance" for "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." The record would certify platinum seven times in America and globally moved over 20 million copies. On October 21st, 2001 the record received a generous remastering, tacking on several demo tracks and interview segments with Rod Temperton and Quincy Jones.

"Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"
Directed By: Nick Saxton

I've always preferred Michael Jackson with an urban slant, his energized vocalizing sounded better against colorful R&B. While R&B's grit and groove was never too far from Jackson as he moved throughout the '80's, in the '90's and early '00's his work turned back to the hearty urban sound he started with. With Michael Jackson's tragic departure, celebration of his music is necessary. It was the medium he used to share joy with all of us. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: Off the Wall is available at all music retailers: big box, indie, and online.-QH]


S. Flemming said...

I was at Wal-Mart with my folks over the holiday, and the 'DSTYGE' vid came on in electronics. These little pre teen girls were standing there dancing and singing their butts off ... that's a testament to the power of MJ and his music. Those girls were not even born then! God bless him ... Very nice piece.

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