Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Review of Michael Jackson's Off The Wall Album

Michael Jackson released his landmark album Off The Wall on August 10, 1979, just a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday. It was his first solo album release as an adult. It was also his first solo album that wasn’t released on Motown. Instead, it was released on Epic Records. Michael and his brothers signed with Epic following their acrimonious split with Motown in 1975. Jermaine—who was then married to Motown head Berry Gordy’s daughter Hazel—was the only Jackson brother to remain with the legendary label. Moving to Epic turned out to be a godsend for Michael and his brothers. The label provided them the freedom to spread their wings creatively in the studio, which not only recharged their careers but also their love of making music. The Jacksons had their most successful album to date with Destiny (1978), which they wrote and produced on Epic. The album features the funky dance-floor smash “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)." The song, which was co-written by Michael and his younger brother Randy, charted in the top ten in several countries and went on to sell over two million copies. 

This newfound artistic freedom opened the way for Off The Wall to happen. Michael would have never been able to make such a personal musical statement with Motown, which creatively hamstrung him and his brothers at every turn. The label prohibited them from writing their own songs or even choosing the songs that would appear on their albums. Producers and arrangers were also chosen for them by others. However, with Off The Wall, Michael was directly involved in every step of the album’s creation. He chose the producer (Quincy Jones), had a hand in song selection, and played a significant role in the branding of the album. Additionally, he wrote and composed two songs for Off The Wall–"Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Working Day and Night”–on his own. He co-wrote “Get On The Floor” with bass legend Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson. And Michael co-produced all three of these tracks with Quincy.

Since Off The Wall was Michael’s first solo album in which he had considerable creative input, he seized the opportunity to show that he was capable of making great music on his own terms; and those who doubted his songwriting and arranging abilities would have to eat crow. Also, Off The Wall was his first musical statement as an adult artist who was finally free of the creative shackles that Motown placed on him and his brothers. With this album, he shed his squeaky-clean teen-idol image for good and replaced it with a more mature, sophisticated artist who was prepared to explore more grown-up themes in his music.

The album’s lead-off single is the incredible dance/funk classic “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” It still sounds just as fresh and original as it did when it first hit the airwaves 43 years ago. The song nicely builds up tension at the beginning with Michael speaking softly over just the bass part and a shaker; and with a rousing “Whoo!,” the song erupts into an exhilarating rhythmic explosion with all the instruments whirring in brilliant syncopation. The energy coming from this track is palpable. Louis Johnson’s hypnotic bass line is the heartbeat of the song. Keyboard wizard Greg Phillinganes adds some synth bass on top of Louis' bass line, giving it a thicker funk sound. The track features a unique percussion-heavy rhythm arrangement, and Michael infuses his falsetto lead vocals with tons of energy and soul. The song is further elevated by Ben Wright’s superb string arrangement and Quincy Jones’ immaculate production. 

“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” was a massive hit. It topped both the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard's R&B singles chart. And it remained atop the R&B singles chart for six weeks. It peaked at #3 on the UK singles chart and landed in the top ten in several other countries. Also, the multiplatinum-selling single earned Michael his first Grammy. He received it for Best Male R&B Male Vocal Performance at the 22nd Annual Grammy Awards in 1980.

Title track “Off The Wall” is impeccably arranged and boasts a smoldering dance groove. Musically it’s sort of a precursor to “Thriller.” It has the same mysterious spooky vibe,” especially at the intro. It even has sinister cackling at the opening. However, thematically the two songs are very different. “Thriller” has a horror-movie theme, while “Off The Wall'' is about escaping the pressures and worries of daily life for awhile, whether that be cuttin’ loose on the dance floor or just getting wild and having fun with your friends: “Livin’ crazy that’s the only way.” Both songs were written by songwriter, musician and producer Rod Temperton and have his irresistible signature touch. “Off The Wall” features an indelible bass line, and Michael delivers a strong vocal performance. His harmonies on the chorus are smooth as butter. The song peaked at #5 on Billboard’s R&B singles chart and #10 on Billboard’s pop singles chart. It also saw significant chart action in other parts of the world, peaking at #4 in Norway, #9 in Sweden, #11 in Canada, #14 in New Zealand and #18 in the Netherlands.

The atmospheric, jazz-tinged “I Can’t Help It” was co-written by Stevie Wonder and singer-songwriter Susaye Greene. Stevie’s vibe is heavy on this song. It has that same dreamy flow heard on some of his classic mellow jams. Greg Phillinganes sets the mood with a haunting synth bass line. The song is beautifully arranged, and Michael serves up an exquisite vocal performance. This is definitely one of his most underrated vocals.

“Burn This Disco Out” is another great Rod Temperton-penned track from the album. The powerful groove sounds like a fleet of Mack Trucks hauling funk across the country. The track features some scorching rhythm guitar licks and a fantastic horn arrangement. And Michael keeps the groove hot with his fiery vocals. 

Louis Johnson unleashes some nasty bass-thumpin’ funk on the electrifying dance groove “Get On The Floor.” This track shows why he got the nickname “Thunder Thumbs.” Drummer John Robinson bolsters Louis’ extra-funky bass work with a sizzling beat. And Michael delivers a dynamic vocal performance that’s peppered with his signature whoops, hiccups, yelps and high-pitched squeals.

Michael and Quincy were really onto something when they brought Rod Temperton onboard for this album. All three of his songwriting contributions are straight bangers. And on top of that, he gave Michael one of his biggest hits with “Rock With You.” The track spent four weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and held the number-one spot on the Billboard R&B singles chart for six weeks. It peaked at #7 in the UK and performed extremely well on the charts in several other countries. The song is an absolute gem from start to finish. The soothing mid-tempo groove caresses the ears. The arrangement and production are simply flawless. And Michael effortlessly delivers an amazing vocal performance. Everything just clicks on this track, from the marvelous string arrangement to the rich harmonies to the gentle synth line that turns up in the latter part of the song.

Michael cranks up the funk on “Working Day and Night.” The song has him working around the clock in the hope of winning over the affections of a certain young lady who doesn’t seem to appreciate his tireless efforts. The hyperkinetic dance groove boasts a furious bassline, supertight horns and wicked guitar licks. And Paulinho Da Costa keeps things cookin’ with his percolating percussion work. The funk on this cut is nonstop, never once giving the listener a chance to come up for air. When this song comes at a party or club, people have no choice but to “Shake it over!” 

Michael serves up an impassioned vocal performance on the woeful breakup ballad “She’s Out of My Life,” written by musician/singer/songwriter Tom Bahler. He imbues the song with raw emotion. You can hear the sheer heartbreak in his voice on each verse. According to Quincy, Michael cried after every take, so he decided to just leave it in. The song peaked at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and climbed all the way to #3 on the UK singles chart. 

The Paul McCartney-penned “Girlfriend” is a delightful pop/R&B confection. The song possesses a sweet charm and is as gentle as a spring breeze. It's enhanced by Louis Johnson's great bass work and Michael's guileless vocals. It was originally recorded by Paul’s band Wings for their 1978 album London Town. Michael and Paul would go on to record two hugely successful duets together: “The Girl Is Mine” from Thriller and “Say Say Say” from Paul’s 1983 album Pipes of Peace

“It’s the Falling in Love” is an infectious slice of R&B that features talented singer-songwriter and performer Patti Austin. She and Michael's voices complement one another so well here that it's kind of surprising that they never did another duet together. The song was written by Carole Bayer Sager and David Foster. It boasts a splendid arrangement, and Quincy’s production work is topflight as usual. 

Off The Wall was a huge critical and commercial success. It drew high marks from noted music critics and has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide to date. And the album made Michael Jackson the first solo artist to have four singles from the same album make the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. In addition to his Grammy win for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” Michael won three American Music Awards for Off The Wall in 1980: Favorite Soul/R&B Male Artist, Favorite Soul/R&B Single for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” and Favorite Soul/R&B album for Off The Wall. That same year, he won Billboard Music Awards for Top Black Artist and Top Black Album for Off The Wall. Additionally, it has been included on a slew of best albums lists. In 2020, it placed at #36 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. And it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008.

No artist had their finger on the pulse of popular music like Michael Jackson did during the late ‘70s and throughout most of the ‘80s. And Off The Wall is a prime example. This amazing collection encapsulated the very best aspects of disco, pop and R&B music. It’s a dance-based album but with Michael's singular sonic stamp, which is why it has aged so well. With Off The Wall, Michael firmly established himself as a major force in the music industry as a solo artist. He was no longer the cute little kid with the big Afro and even bigger voice singing innocent bubblegum-soul songs. He was now a focused, assured and ridiculously talented young adult who knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish in his career and had the musical gifts and drive to reach his lofty goals.

The importance of Off The Wall is often downplayed or underestimated. For instance, there are many who think that the second chapter of Michael’s extraordinary music career began with Thriller and that it was solely responsible for him reaching stratospheric heights not seen since the Beatles conquered the music world in the 1960s. However, without Off The Wall, there would be no Thriller, full stop. Off The Wall laid the groundwork and did much of the heavy lifting for Thriller to happen. Its astronomical success didn’t happen in a vacuum after all. Off The Wall is also an extremely influential work in its own right, significantly impacting genres such as pop, R&B, dance, soul and hip-hop.

Additionally, Off The Wall marked the beginning of one of music’s greatest partnerships with the powerhouse duo of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones. Looking back, Quincy was the ideal choice to help Michael achieve his artistic vision for Off The Wall. Q already had years of experience as a producer and arranger under his belt and had worked with a slew of music legends from various genres; and he knew how to deal with many different personalities, temperaments and big egos, which for a music producer is almost as important as talent, experience and studio savvy. He was flexible and open to new ideas in the studio—for the most part anyway. And most importantly, Quincy always strove to bring out the very best in the artists that he produced and tried to create a relaxed environment where the full range of their talents could shine through on their recordings. He and Michael made three world-beating albums together that left a massive imprint on popular music and culture. 

Full Off The Wall album

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