Category Archives: Michael Jackson

Rocks In The Attic #775: Michael Jackson – ‘Monsterjam’ (2017)

RITA#775I recently watched Quincy, the 2018 documentary about Quincy Jones, co-directed by his daughter Rashida Jones (with Alan Hicks). I was hoping it was going to be a feature-length episode about the Los Angeles medical examiner, but you can’t have everything.

Watching it, I was suddenly hit by the realisation that I’m not really a fan of Michael Jackson – I’m a fan of his partnership with Quincy Jones. I can take or leave most of Michael’s earlier material both with the Jacksons, and solo; and the same goes for most of his work after he stopped collaborating with Quincy, the 1930s-born producer who outlived him.

RITA#775aThose three classic albums – 1979’s Off The Wall, 1982’s Thriller and 1987’s Bad – are perhaps the perfect blend of artist and producer; maybe the greatest collaboration since Sir George Martin and the Beatles. Without Quincy, Michael would have continued making records; and vice versa. Neither would have had the same success though. Together, they made pure gold.

This unofficial release from 2017 is a lazy wedding DJ’s wet-dream: four 20-minute continuous mixes of the King of Pop’s hits over two LPs – one blue, one red. It’s a little Stars On 45 at times, but decent nevertheless.

Hit: Billie Jean

Hidden Gem: Scream

Rocks In The Attic #636: Michael Jackson – ‘Thriller’ (1982)

RITA#636Happy Halloween!

A couple of weeks ago, I spotted local Kiwi soap actor turned Hollywood bit-player Karl Urban in an Auckland shopping mall. After taking a surreptitious photo of him on my phone to send to my jealous wife (a big fan), I retreated with my kids up the escalators to the next level. Halfway up, I turned around to look back, and Urban was following us, a half dozen steps behind. We locked eyes, and I immediately saw the look of dread (dredd?) in his eyes. ‘Oh no…’ I imagined him thinking, ‘…another middle-aged Star Trek fan to make my life a misery. I just wanted to buy some underpants.’

I left him to his shopping (although I believe he was actually going to the cinema, probably the new Queen Latifah film† ), and went off with the kids. If I was any more of a fan, I might have approached him for a selfie, but I’d met him before – my friend asked for his autograph at the same event where I met Quentin Tarantino – and I didn’t get a good vide from him then.

A few minutes later, still buoyed from seeing a Hollywood actor in such a normal place, we stepped inside a shop. Michael Jackson’s Thriller started playing on the shop’s music system just as we walked in. It was the first time in a long time I had heard the song, and definitely the first time in a very long time I had heard it played at a decent volume. Man, what a song. I stayed in there for six minutes, holding my crotch with one hand, the back of my head with the other, and bending my knee in time to the beat, just so I could hear the end of the song. Unfortunately, I’m now banned from all branches of Bendon lingerie.

Often labelled as the best-selling album of all time – and rightly so, despite some strange reporting of sales numbers ranging between 66 million to 120 million – Michael Jackson’s Thriller is a beast of a record. His sixth solo studio record, it is the second album released on the Epic label following 1979’s Off The Wall, traditionally seen as the true starting point of his adult career.

Like Off The Wall, it is produced by Quincy Jones and where the earlier album was a marked departure from Jackson’s recording history with Motown, Thriller went a thousand steps further and turned him into a pop music phenomenon.

Prior to MTV landing in the UK – and light years before such things were readily available on the internet – my Dad would always try and seek out John Landis’ longform music video to Thriller, wherever he could. Every year, there was an American TV show, counting down the top 100 music videos, presented by Casey Kasem, and broadcast in the middle of the night on ITV. I recall my Dad waking me up in the middle of the night on more than one occasion just so we could go and watch the Thriller video in all its gory glory.

That 13-minute video is probably the reason I turned into such a big horror fan in my early teens, and is why I now spend so much time and effort on the internet pre-ordering horror soundtracks from Waxwork Records.

Thriller, the song, is worth the price of admission alone. But it isn’t even the biggest, most enduring hit on there. In fact, it was way down the list, the seventh and final single to be taken from the record.

Side two, song two, kicks off with perhaps one of the greatest locked–in grooves throughout all of pop, soul or funk. It’s such a groove, almost mathematical in its execution, that you can actually see it visually on the surface of the record, almost like a spiral that repeats on every rotation. The song, Billie Jean, is timeless, despite a music video that is – in contrast to the one for Thriller – heavily dated, with graphics and editing techniques showing the early days of MTV on its pastel-pink shirt sleeve.

Beat It, the other US#1 on the record (alongside Billie Jean), is another great song. Proving that Jackson can do hard rock just as well as he can do pop, the song’s centrepiece is a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen – the hottest guitar player at the time. Upon hearing of Jackson’s request to appear on the song, Van Halen initially thought he was being pranked – especially when Jackson phoned and told him, in his high-pitched voice, that “I really like that high, fast stuff you do.” He later recorded his solo in a separate studio to a tape of the backing track, for no charge.

Beat It is clearly the heaviest song on the record, forewarned by a series of ominous synthesiser gongs on the intro (lifted note for note from a demo recording of the Synclavier II synthesiser). The lyrics re-imagine Jackson as a street punk – an idea he would revisit on the title track of his next album, Bad. However, where Beat It genuinely sounds tough, Bad sounds like a pastiche of street violence – with the opening lyric “Your butt is mine” showing how far out of touch Jackson had become since 1987.

The other singles on ThrillerThe Girl Is Mine, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, Human Nature and P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) – are all very strong and individually could be the centrepiece of a lesser album. Personally I could do without the opening single, The Girl Is Mine, a duet with Paul McCartney. It isn’t a terrible song, but it’s easily the weakest of the seven singles, and pales in comparison to their other duet, Say Say Say, from McCartney’s Pipes Of Peace album. Released as a single during Jackson’s two-year promotion of the Thriller album, Say Say Say hit US#1; The Girl Is Mine had stalled at US#2.

I have such happy memories of the Thriller record. In terms of albums, I’d definitely choose it as one of my desert island discs. It has everything – songwriting, production and performance; a truly magical record.

Hit: Billie Jean

Hidden Gem: Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’

†  Queen Latifah gag, copyright Seema Lal 2017

Rocks In The Attic #410: Michael Jackson – ‘Off The Wall’ (1979)

RITA#410For many people, this is Michael’s debut record; in reality, it’s very far from that, being solo album number five. But just like Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From (and the later Music Of My Mind), it marked a departure away from the Motown hit machine – a kind of talent school / youth prison for both performers.

The big three Michael Jackson albums – Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad – are really the three pop albums of my childhood. My Dad was a big fan of his – introducing Thriller to me, and hungry for more I greedily consumer the two albums bookending it. Of the three it’s clearly the least adventurous – with one foot firmly placed in the disco camp, Michael isn’t a superstar yet but you can hear the DNA of his songwriting and melodies that would come to the fore on Thriller.

I would classify Off The Wall as ‘not quite enough’, Thriller as ‘perfect’ and Bad as ‘too much’. The three work great together to show his progression from a talented black singer to a white oddball superstar – and I loved every step of the journey. I could never get into his post-Bad material though; his version of reality went askew extremely rapidly and aside a few highlights like Scream with his sister Janet, I couldn’t really care less if he recorded anything after 1987.

I still miss his pop genius. There’s nobody who can write a bridge / middle eight with so much passion it makes it sound like he’s singing about the end of the world.

Hit: Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough

Hidden Gem: Off The Wall

Rocks In The Attic #164: Michael Jackson – ‘Bad’ (1987)

This was probably my first experience of hype – prior to this music was just something that other people listened to, for reasons I wasn’t sure of, then this album landed and things made a bit more sense.

Say what you want about Michael Jackson but Off The Wall, Thriller, and Bad are all timeless. Anything and everything that came later was sub-par and obviously less interesting than his private life. Bad is my least favourite of those three albums, but I still love it. The key changes in Speed Demon – and I’m usually the first person to turn my head and walk away at the mere hint of a key change – are out of this world, and as a fellow musician they’re humbling to the core.

I don’t know what happened to Michael after this record – it might be that he ended his very fruitful partnership with Quincy Jones, or that he just went a bit too weird and detached from reality – but this album is definitely his last peak before a very rocky stumble down the other side of the mountain. As a piece of work it might not reach the same highs as Thriller but it’s far more consistent (hit after hit after hit).

The vinyl version of this album removes Leave Me Alone, which is only available on the CD release. That’s a shame as it’s one of my favourite singles (just one of ten – yes, ten – singles taken from this album). If it was up to me, and sadly it’s not and never will be, I would have left Dirty Diana off the album in favour of Leave Me Alone, but hey, who cares?

Hit: Bad

Hidden Gem: Speed Demon

Rocks In The Attic #136: Huey Lewis And The News – ‘Sports’ (1983)

There’s an amusing spelling mistake on the cover of this album. You don’t tend to see typos like this on album covers, and probably for a good reason given the amount of money it takes to get an album out, and the considerable sum it is then expected to make back. On the album credits, the album is listed as being ‘recored’, instead of ‘recorded’ by Jim Gaines. Oh dear, I’m sure a young executive at Chrysalis Records felt the heat the day this record was pressed.

In the wake of Back To The Future, and their hit-single The Power Of Love, Huey Lewis And The News were my favourite band – at least for a few years until they fell of my radar and were replaced by the 1987 version of Michael Jackson. To my ears at least, their brand of rock n’ roll doesn’t sound too dated – even though on paper they should.

Any rock album of the mid-‘80s, especially one with saxophone and keyboards, runs the risk of now sounding irrelevant, but on this album, and it’s follow up, Fore!, they don’t sound too bad. Huey Lewis’ vocals soulful vocals definitely help, but perhaps it’s also because of Lewis’s background with ‘70s San Fransisco band Clover, and the fact that he was already an established recording artist, working through the ‘80s, not as a product of the ‘80s, and able to cleverly sidestep any of the now-dated clichés from that decade. I’m sure that the fact that this album was self-produced didn’t hurt either – away from the influence and gimmickry of the latest hot-shot ‘80s producer.

Hit: I Want A New Drug

Hidden Gem: Bad Is Bad

Rocks In The Attic #14: Stevie Wonder – ‘Hotter Than July’ (1980)

The 1980s weren’t very kind to Stevie Wonder. Commercially, he did great – The Woman In Red soundtrack, Ebony and Ivory, Part Time Lover – but his critical successes were largely left behind in the 1970s. I love his classic period, starting with 1972’s Music Of My Mind, and I’d put this album, Hotter Than July, in there as the final album of that run.

It’s a very happy album, and other than Happy Birthday which sounds very ‘80s, the rest of the album stands up to the best of his work on Talking Book or Songs In The Key Of Life. In terms of songwriting, you could put any of these songs on those albums, and the only thing that gives the album away as coming from a slightly different time is that the synthesiser sounds are starting to sound a bit 1980s. They’re not as ‘jolly’ as the synth sounds from songs like Ebony And Ivory, but you can sort of hear them going in that direction.

Looking at the album credits, Michael Jackson pops up as one of several backing vocalists on All I Do, although you can’t hear it’s him. As usual Stevie plays most instruments on most of the songs – all keyboards, drums, and of course vocals. You get the idea that if Stevie Wonder walked up to your house and rang the doorbell, it would be the funkiest sounding time you’d ever hear it ring.

Hit: Happy Birthday

Hidden Gem: Master Blaster (Jammin’)