As one of those people who think that Michael Jackson’s masterwork Off the Wall was superior to everything he recorded afterwards, I was thrilled to read about Spike Lee’s upcoming documentary celebrating the album. Awkwardly titled Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall, the film recently previewed at the Sundance Film Festival and will be broadcast on Showtime beginning February 5. In addition, Sony Records will be reissuing the landmark album on February 26, in a package that will include the documentary.
Lee’s film features interviews with people who knew and influenced Jackson, including Quincy Jones—who produced Off the Wall after befriending Jackson on the set of The Wiz—Berry Gordy and Stevie Wonder. The filmmaker also talks to various folks who were inspired by M. J.’s yelps, screams and pure singing, including The Weeknd, Kobe Bryant and Misty Copeland. Jackson’s 1979 classic defines what creators mean when they say they want their work to be eternal.
Off the Wall, which turns 37 this coming August, was a beautiful fusion of soul, disco, pop and funk that was able cross various lines, including color, class and time (sounding as great tomorrow as it did more than three decades back), while also appealing to everybody from projects to penthouses and everywhere in between. Musically, it was as connected to mama Africa (the opening of “Workin’ Day and Night” is straight tribal funk) as it was to the Mama Feelgood who was ready to do the Hustle whenever “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” came on at the club.
Listening to Off the Wall today, the album also serves an aural time machine that takes me back to an era before pop had a king, back when many thought the end was near for the former child star whose remarkable precocious talent made him a superstar before he even hit puberty. Back then, me and all my friends spent Saturday morning watching The Jackson 5ive cartoon and begging our parents to buy Super Sugar Crisp so we could get the J5 record off of the cereal box.
While we were well aware that the Jackson 5 was a family group, for us it was all about Michael. With so much musical talent wrapped in his brown sugar cuteness, the little girls swooned while the boys wanted him to be their brother.
In the bicentennial summer of 1976, my cousin Denise suddenly announced to me, “Michael Jackson is played out”—and she wasn’t the only one who believed that to be true. As an impressionable 13-year-old kid used to my older teenage cousin being the beat barometer guiding me towards whatever cool music I should’ve been listening to, her announcement of Michael Jackson “falling off” struck me like a heavy blow from some playground bully’s fist.
We were sitting in the gaudy basement of her parent’s Pittsburgh home, the same Tiki lit/wood paneled wall cellar where, a few years before, we played the Jackson 5’s debut Motown single “I Want You Back” over and over and over. It was in that basement where we once sang “ABC,” lip-synched “Lookin’ Through the Windows” for our parents and did the robot whenever “Dancing Machine” (still one of my favorite songs) blared.
Perhaps at 16, Denise felt that the so-called “bubble gum soul” the Jacksons were known for during their successful tenure at Motown was too immature for her, choosing to boot them in favor of seemingly more grown-up musical crushes. Throwing those memories aside, she spread out her new 45s on top of the bar: the mid-tempo balladry of the Brothers Johnson’s “Good to You” (she loved her some bass playin’ Louis); the grown-folks’ soul of the O’Jays jam “Livin’ for the Weekend”; and the White-boy funk of Wild Cherry’s bugged “Play That Funky Music.”
I usually followed Denise’s lead concerning whatever musical journey she choice for us, but there was no way I could turn my back on Michael Jackson. He wasn’t just another pop star; brother M. J. was like family. That same summer, Denise and I were watching TV when talk show host Mike Douglas introduced a new sibling group called The Sylvers. With their sky-high Afros and syncopated steps, they performed their hit, “Hot Line.” It was difficult to look at them and not think they’d stolen some of the Jacksons’ mojo.
Meanwhile, the Jackson brothers (with the exception of Jermaine) left Motown in hopes of more creative freedom. Forced to leave the “5” behind at the insistence of their bullying former label, in 1976 they released the self-titled CBS Records/Philadelphia International album under their new moniker, The Jacksons.
Though I was a fan of the Gamble and Huff produced disco ditty first single “Enjoy Yourself,” and the smoldering ballad “Show You the Way to Go,” it was becoming difficult to muster the same mania I had a few years before, when my courageous mom battled a New York City blizzard to take me to see the Jackson 5 live at Radio City Music Hall. Soon, I too let go of the Jacksons as my tastes shifted towards the more aggressive sounds of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.
Years ago, someone snapped a picture of a young Michael Jackson in the studio studying what his friend and mentor Stevie Wonder was doing behind the boards. As we’ve learned, Michael was a sponge who, like all the best artists, could absorb from the masters (James Brown, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye) and make it their own. The same way young M. J. stared at Wonder, he surely was studying just as intensely the other musical geniuses who crossed his path.
Still, Michael’s brothers might’ve respected him as their front-man falsetto singer, when but when they were finally producing themselves on Destiny in 1978, more than a few of his ideas got vetoed. After the record was released and Mike’s track “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” (co-produced with little brother Randy Jackson) became the group’s biggest post-Motown hit, he decided to go in the studio and record his first solo joint since Forever, Michael.
With the Off the Wall sessions beginning in the winter of ’78, Jackson would be in the studio for the next seven months. According to biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, when the rest of the family tried to bogart, Michael declared, “I’m doing this on my own. They’re just going to have to understand. For once.”
As we all know, Jackson didn’t really do it completely on his own. In fact, he had a lot of help. Recruiting Quincy Jones (much to his label’s dismay) wasn’t just about the superior sounds the maestro achieved in the studio, but also having access to the arsenal of talent at Jones’s fingertips. “Nobody ever said no to Quincy,” producer and former Q engineer Phil Ramone told me in 2007. “If he called, you were there.”
In the days when liner note studying was a part of the listening experience, the Off the Wall roster was a who’s who of session gods: guitarists Phil Upchurch and Larry Carlton; keyboardists Steve Porcaro and Greg Phillinganes; synthesizer specialists George Duke and David Foster; songwriter Rod Temperton; percussionist Paulinho da Costa; backup singer Patti Austin; and my cousin’s main man Louis Johnson (he co-wrote “Get on the Floor”) on bass.
As M. J. said many times in his career, his choices weren’t about color or race, but talent, and L.A.-based studio sessions often looked like a Benetton ad. But in the beginning, according to the producer, Michael’s shyness was a factor. Jones would later describe 20-year-old Michael as “very, very introverted, shy and non-assertive. He wasn’t at all sure he could make a name for himself on his own. Neither was I.”
The summer of 1979 was a big year for both me and Michael Jackson. He would be 21 come August and I had just turned 16 in June. Having moved from Harlem to Baltimore a few months before, one night I sat in our Monroe Street living room watching Midnight Special when suddenly the video clip for Jackson’s first single “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” started. Randy, who played percussion on the song, was the only Jackson bro on the album.
To put the video for “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” in pop culture perspective, this was two years before the launch of MTV, and I’d never seen a video before. But there before my eyes was M. J. clad in a tux, looking simultaneously uncomfortable and like the coolest kid in class.
As strange images were projected behind him, the pulsating percussion kicked in (“Fever/ Temperature’s risin’ now”), the pure ecstasy of the song makes you “melt like hot candle wax.” When Jackson sang on the chorus—“Keep on with the force, don’t stop,”—some thought he was making a reference to Star Wars, but I think he was simply talking about himself. As he would soon prove, when it came to making pop records in the upcoming 1980s, he was the force. The video clip for “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” was tacky and revolutionary, and the perfect advertisement for his upcoming album.
A couple of months later, it was that song’s irresistible groove that got my usual wallflower booty on the dance floor at Baltimore’s renowned club Odell’s, where I was a slave to rhythm. In retrospect, it’s ironic that the same season White boy rockers were declaring “disco sucked” and detonating 12-inch singles in Chicago, Michael Jackson released one of the best dance tracks of his career.
That summer, I worked for a local youth program that served young folks in the community. Reporting to the North Avenue offices at nine o’clock, there were about 30 Black teenagers assigned to the clean the streets and alleyways. Every day, we left with push brooms and plastic bags. As we worked, a radio was always playing, and Jackson’s soulful falsetto became the soundtrack of the entire season. One hot July morning, as we swept cigarette butts and broken glass, the DJ “Workin’ Day and Night,” which became our official theme song.
It was impossible to switch on the soul stations WEBB or V103 and not hear the Hustle inducing “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” the mid-tempo boogie of “Rock with You” or the infidelity anthem, “Girlfriend.” Written by Paul McCartney (who first recorded the song with Wings for 1978’s London Town), Jackson’s voice was sweeter than the sugar in my coffee, but the song was actually about betrayal and deceit. On Off the Wall, “Girlfriend” (featuring legendary guitarist Wah Wah Watson) was followed by the heartbreaking break-up track, “She’s Out of My Life,” one of the saddest pop songs on the planet.
After having a good cry, Mike returns with his voice floating over a soft bed of Moogs (courtesy of Greg Phillinganes) as the moody brilliance of the Stevie Wonder-written quiet storm groove “I Can’t Help It” plays. The song was originally penned for Wonder’s own masterpiece, 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life. Subsequently, “It’s the Falling in Love” takes us back to smiley face happiness before M. J. jets to the club again on the horn heavy into of “Burn This Disco Out.” Released August 10, 1979, Off the Wall (some say his blackest album) was critically acclaimed and would go on to sell millions.
Buying the album at Modern Music record store in Mondawmin Mall that week with friends, we returned to my crib ready for the boogie to capture our souls and never let go. Thirty summers later, June 25, 2009, when it was announced that Michael Jackson was dead, I sat with my friend Patricia that sad afternoon as she downloaded our favorite songs and played them on her laptop. When the title track for Off the Wall came on, we momentarily put our misery up on the shelf and just enjoyed ourselves.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also a columnist for soulhead.com. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.