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マイケル・ジャクソン、不世出のマスターピース『Off The Wall』が何度目かの旬を迎えている理由とは?

【特集:マイケル・ジャクソン『Off The Wall』】Pt.1

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WRITIN' ON THE WALL

【Special Feature】Michael Jackson "Off The Wall"
Off-the-wall and out-of-the-box creation of soul, but yet, the golden standard of pop for decades after… It’s time to relive the greatness of the ultimate piece of art!!

 


WHEN THE GROOVE IS DEAD AND GONE
The reason the rarely-seen masterpiece “Off The Wall” is in season… for the umpteenth time 

Written by: Koji Dejima

 

There is absolutely nothing that surpasses “Off The Wall” out of any Michael Jackson album, in terms of which album one should revisit in 2016. Just for the record, the context of the profession is rarely different from when the album “Xscape” was released 2 years ago, of which ‘to contemporize’ was the slogan. As was also mentioned in the June 2014 issue of the music magazine [bounce] that ‘there could be nothing that surpasses “Love Never Felt So Good” out of any Michael Jackson song to be released in 2014’, putting it extremely broadly, these are rather the attempts to produce [the true figure of Michael Jackson as the roots in times where reappraisal and modern interpretation of soul/disco/bogie/funk continues to progress]. Taking that into consideration, perhaps we can agree that it did seem to take a while from the ignition of the trends in 2013, so well symbolized by Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories” or Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, for this to happen. Though, over the course, an increased number of cheap and light examples of small fry calling themselves soul or boogie have been seen emerged. To touch on this golden standard that was born in ’79 may become just the perfect opportunity to scrutinize where the true nature of these sounds lies in or who the keyperson in spreading the sounds were etc. 

"Love Never Felt So Good" from the album "Xscape" (2014)

 

The premise of the repeated reappraisal

The made-luxurious reissue of “Off The Wall” was actually a project that was rumored to have seen itself on the calendar of 2009 as his '30th anniversary special' when Michael was still alive. Another special anniversary disc “Thriller 25” that included collaborations with Akon, Kanye West and will.i.am, along with some other remixes released a year before, acted somewhat as the curtain-raiser. Given that, the artist was most probably feeling the need to sort out his numerous accomplishments, and draw a line for once, in anticipation of his last concert, [This Is It]. The latter half of the noughties was just around the time when self-confessed MJ kids like Justin Timberlake, Usher or Beyonce were standing at the very forefront of the pop scene, when Ne-Yo saw the great hit of his “Because of You” (2007) which was considered the act of homage to MJ, and when Chris Brown or Rihanna, who were heavily manifestative of their adoration to Michael, were still young puppies. Furthermore, it was a time when manifesting respect to Michael-ish methods of expression seen until today was rising widely to the surface. As indicated in facts such as his naming Justin or Chris as ‘followers he considers truly talented’, perhaps it was the time when Michael himself was pleasantly realizing and feeling the power of the influence he directly had on the current urban~mainstream scene. 

The fact that the said '30th anniversary special' never got off the ground need not be mentioned as we know, but neither needs to be mentioned is how perfectly suit it is to see the release of “Off The Wall” this year. The past several years has witnessed the said upsurge of boogie/funk, the come-back(?) of the Pharrell craze on the extension of that upsurge, the come-back of Janet Jackson or popularity of Tuxedo, and more than anything, the wonderful homage paid by The Weeknd. The presence of “Love Never Felt So Good” in the year 2014 has served to further accelerate the attention gathering toward the release of “Off The Wall” in this year 2016.

"No Sleep" from Janet Jackson's album "Unbreakable" (2015)

 

That said though, “Off The Wall” is already the absolute foundation when later generations show their acclaims to Michael, and cannot be denied being regarded as the unshakable masterpiece, especially among the American-African community or fans of black music. Every time and any time, it had been “Off The Wall” that reigned supreme when it came to re-evaluation by the post 90s hip hop generations or from the perspective of AOR or black contemporary scenes. Of course, it is needless to say that the accomplishments after “Thriller” were what made Michael the immortal. Still, if by any chance “Off The Wall” never existed at the first place, the way Michael is currently loved and looked up to may even had changed… That’s the degree of what we’re talking about. 

MICHAEL JACKSON Off The Wall: Deluxe Edition Epic/ソニー(2016)

This latest release of “Off The Wall: Deluxe Edition” unfortunately does not come with any new drawing cards such as made-public-for-the-first-time recordings or new collaborative works. The newest documentary by Spike Lee, [Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall] on the bundled DVD/BD is an impressive film product of high value in itself, but considering that the release follows “Michael” (2010) or “Xscape” that were basically built on unpublished new material, there may be deeper fans lamenting over the makeup of this album. Still, given that “Xscape” bestowed an “Off The Wall”-leaning feel to “Love Never Felt So Good” even though practically the core of the song was the sound source recorded after “Bad” (’87), maybe it was just that they couldn’t find any outtakes they could stretch enough to make the finished piece sound modern (, or are we to wait for the 40th anniversary special?), so for now, I guess that means that we are to sit back and fully savour the 10 selective classic masterpieces in front of us this time. 

Performance of "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough"
from documentary [Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall]

 

The indomitable spirit and intensity

Off The Wall” was released on August 10th, 1979 as Michael Jackson’s 5th album and his first solo album after moving to Epic Records. Because past productions works were always label-led in his days at Motown, in his mind, the artist must have had the enthusiasm as strong as if he were working on his very first album. The sense of accomplishment of finishing off The Jacksons’ “Destiny” (’78) and its commercial success would have also added fuel to his elevated motivation. “Destiny” was the album the group was allowed to produce their own material fully for the first time, and with Michael leading the brothers, unleashing his creative urge and brilliance, and also marking a major hit with “Shake Your Body(Down To The Ground)” that was co-written with younger brother Randy, the group eventually found themselves receiving a platinum disc certification for the album. It was inevitable that Michael would deepen his confidence of the justness of his acumen.

Sharing an apartment in New York with La Toya prior to that also played a big part. The stay in New York was associated with the filming of [The Wiz] (’78), a film adaptation of [The Wonderful Wizard of Oz] by Motown, and touching the forefront of trends at celebrity-gathering urban nightclubs or discos like the Studio 54 must have been tremendously exciting and inspiring for the under-20 Michael back then. And this [Wiz] that was produced by the fated Berry Gordy, Jr. of Motown and that starred his idol Diana Ross, was also the very fateful event that brought him to Quincy Jones who was serving as the musical producer of the film. That the production decided to hire Quincy as the producer and rejected the proposal from the label that included Maurice White and Gamble & Huff is a well-known episode, but at the same time, part of it must be true that as Epic Records pointed out, (at the time,) to hire a veteran who had credential in the jazz field from as early as the 50s simply did not feel ‘contemporary’. Only now is it absolutely evident that Michael’s insight proved right, but actually it is only after “Off The Wall” that Quincy builds his unchallenged status as a hit-maker in the mainstream scene. Whatever the case, the intensity and the team spirit born from the almost-stubborn indomitable spirit of Michael and Quincy who took each other’s hands when they were still living in uncertainty about the future, were precisely what made this unforeseen epic happen.  

The recording started in December of 1978, about the very same time that “Destiny” made its first appearance. Michael was inevitably touring the world as a member of The Jacksons, which hardly stopped him from the recording that took place parallel to the tour, only demonstrating the superhuman vitality and single-hearted devotion of the 20 year-old artist. And this over-forty veteran producer lives up to this devotion, pushing himself intensely to bring out the greatest of outcomes. According to Quincy, the job of a producer is to ‘find a good song, good arranger(s) and good musician(s), and have it sung by a good singer’, and to prove it, the production credits lists an incredible powerhouse of talents, ranging from regulars such as Louis Johnson (bassist), Paulinho da Costa (percussionist) or John Robinson (drummer) of Rufus, to Greg Phillinganes (keyboardist) who was also actively involved in the making of “Destiny”, and a number of ace musicians from the west coast including the horn section of Seawind led by Jerry Hey, Bobby Watson, David Foster, Phil Upchurch, Larry Carlton and George Duke.

While the tracks lineup lists 3 songs written by Michael himself (including a co-work with Louis), added to them were a number written by Paul McCartney, a mellow tune “I Can’t Help It” co-written by Stevie Wonder and Susaye Greene, the AOR-styled “It's The Falling In Love“ co-written by Carole Bayer Sager and David Foster, as well as “She's Out Of My Life” by Tom Bahler (also involved in [The Wiz]) that had been kept away for the right time. Quincy’s penetrating insights extended to the appointment of the Briton, Rod Temperton who used to play in the funk band, Heatwave in West Germany. It was the time when Rod was still in the production of his own band’s album “Hot Property” (’79), and all the three songs he wrote on Quincy’s request during his crowded schedule, were included on the album.

 

Beyond the wall

The album reached completion in June 1979, and as the lead single, “Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough” written by Michael, was released the following month. This track that combines percussive spontaneity and sophistication rose high in charts all over the globe, finally making its way to the top of the all-American chart. It was the first No. 1 rank ever since “Ben” in 1972 for Michael, and the song ended up being an explosive hit, running alone at the top of the R&B chart for 5 consecutive weeks. A quick look at the American charts of the time tell us that the upsurge of disco songs at the commercial front was at its peak in the year 1978 when the Bee Gees, Donna Summer or Chic were competing for the top. (The Rolling Stones also won No.1 in the same year with their song “Miss You”.) The following year 1979 also sees major hits like Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” or Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” or Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?” helping to prolong the phenomenon, but during the time “Off The Wall” was being recorded in the studio, plane and flat four-on-the-floor beats became the mainstream of ‘disco’, making disco no longer the ‘hip’ word. Just imagine how tremendously innovative and fresh the songs of Michael Jackson that bore this non-4/4-beat funky groove, while still incorporating the feel of ‘disco’,  would have sounded in the ears of people. 

Entering the 80s, it was those very key players who participated in the making of “Off The Wall” that orchestrated the new era of pop that overstrode genres of black contemporary music, jazz, fusion, AOR, all the way to rock. In essence, “Off The Wall” was the piece that took a few steps ahead to design the grooves of the 80s while seeing off the closure of the 70s. Just for the record, tracking back the toppers of the R&B charts after “Don't Stop Til You Get Enough”, the genius, Prince of the same age as Michael, reaches No.1 with “I Wanna Be Your Lover” for the first time 2 months after “Don’t Stop~”. 3 weeks in a row from the following week sees the Quincy-produced “Do You Love What You Feel” by Rufus & Chaka Khan at the top, followed by the comeback of an “Off The Wall” song, “Rock With You”, the second single released from the album that reigned as No.1 for 6 weeks in a row from the very beginning of the 1980. Quincy also celebrates a couple of other works he produced at the top of the charts in the same year, - “Stomp!” by the Brothers Johnson and George Benson’s “Give Me The Night”. Fairly obviously, the dominating power of the team contributed enormously in steaming up the music scene of the early 80s.

Rock With You” reigns at the top for 4 weeks in a row on the pops chart while the title track “Off The Wall” accompanied by “She's Out of My Life” rises to No.10, resulting in a record-breaking solo-act of 4 consecutive releases from one album making it to the US top 10. (The album that uncharitably broke that record was none other than the “Thriller”.) Fueled with the success, Michael takes aboard the producing techniques learnt from Quincy on to the next Jacksons’ album, “Triumph” (’80), while also bringing major success to older sister La Toya’s debut release “Night Time Lover”. There was no stopping the unleashed free creativity of the artist ―there was no one to deprecate him. Still, there was still a sense of unfulfillment in Michael. Made public this time in line with the release of this [Deluxe Edition] are the personal notes jotted down by the artist himself―

"MJ will be my new name.” “I want a whole new character, a whole new look, I should be a totally different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang ‘ABC’.“ "I should be a new incredible actor singer dancer that will shock the world.” “I will be magic.” “Take it steps further from where the greats left off."

This memo was written in November, 3 months after the release of “Off The Wall”. However, Michael did not find his name in any of the nominees of the major titles of the Grammys held the following year, ’80. Names listed were artists and songs such as EW&F “After the Love Has Gone” or Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” ―the so-called steady ones. Even though that was so typically Grammy, (mind you, he stole 3 titles at the American Music Awards the same year,) presumably, the reason he never turned his back on the authorities was to ‘take steps further from the greats left off’ as he had proclaimed to.

Considering that any following recordings had to be created under different kinds of pressure, the feeling radiating from “Off The Wall” is exceptionally crisp and fresh all the more. (Allow me to say this with no fear of misunderstanding,) so lively felt from this album is the image of Michael who, while receiving the masterly schooling from experienced veterans, is also using his own brilliance to actually bounce them off with his lively energy, and goodness, he certainly seems to be having a jolly good time doing that. So many young followers see this album as the ultimate goal, but there is this invisible something that no one, not even Michael himself, can exceed. Now, isn’t that what we call THE golden standard?

 

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