By the early 80’s Jermaine,the middle boy of the Jackson family,had developed something of a reputation of being a very singular musical talent and a mentor for the band Switch-thereby inadvertently introducing the DeBarge family to Motown in the process. How fitting it was that,by the time his career at Motown was coming to an end that the DeBarge’s were becoming sort of a new Jackson’s for the then less then certain record label. Of course even he was noticing his future might benefit from being elsewhere and left the label during 1983. His final Motown album was Let Me Tickle Your Fancy,which produced a title track that was a good sized pop chart hit that featured new wave band Devo. That songs bluesy funk/rock made up one of Jermaine’s finest and overall most funk oriented albums of his fine and funky Motown musical career. Still one song from this album continues to stand out uppermost in my mind in the almost twenty years since I first heard it. It’s called “There’s A Better Way”.
It all starts out with the the slow funky disco-dance 4/4 beat accentuated by a similar tempo’d Afro-Latin timed rhythm percussion-as well as conga drumming from . This is soon joined by former a deep,bassy Salsa style piano. Jermaine himself soon picks up on this playing a hiccuping jazzy funk bass/guitar interaction. After Jermaine’s lead vocals begin,each vocal chorus is accompanied by…well perhaps a Clavinet style keyboard melody. Jermaine accompanies himself vocally Marvin Gaye style-responding to himself vocally in his middle range and ethereal falsetto. During the middle bridge of the song,there is a flamenco style guitar melody accompanied by a steel drum like electronic synthesizer tone. The song fades back out into Jermaine’s original lead chorus. This has Jermaine singing a full on call and response vocal based on the songs title between his two distinct vocal personalities. This all combines to give the entire rhythmic and melodic core of the song,with it’s mixture of live drumming,percussion and electronic effects an extremely afro-futurist bent about it.
On a strictly personal level? This is one of those Jermaine Jackson songs that truly captivated me musically when I first heard. it. And the further along my own musical knowledge grows? The more this appreciation of this songs musical virtues does. Musically the influence of Stevie Wonder’s sound textures are very strong here. It has that mixture of Afro Latin percussion,thick layers of bass sounds and jazz oriented electronic synthesizer accents. The melodic progression of this tune is almost all vocal. Most of the instrumental elements are based almost entirely in rhythm. So it’s almost as if Jermaine was metaphorically singing while he were walking along to the steps of the shoes on his heat-each rhythm and melody has some type of counterpoint. This gives the possible effect that Jermaine,a known multi instrumentalist,may have played every instrumental part on this song. Considering the confusing nature of the album jacket listing talented jazz and funk players such as drummer Ollie Brown,guitarist Paul Jackson,Stevie Wonder keyboardist Ronnie Foster and Jermaine’s brother Randy on percussion? It’s not really known to me if this was done by one man or a group of musicians. The interaction could almost go either way sometimes.
When it all comes down to it? What really brings this song so much to life is the way in which the lyrical themes of the song correlates with the music. Marvin Gaye used a slow,almost proto Reggaeton rhythm on his song ‘Third World Girl” the same year as this. Though on this song? Jermaine showcases a slow,deep Afro latin style post disco friendly funky soul groove that’s stripped down and rhythmically chunky to illustrate his views on poverty. Very much in the spirit of Stevie Wonder on “Living For The City” and his brother Mike’s “Man In The Mirror” from six years after this? Jermaine points to people in any position of authority turning a blind eye to human suffering. As an individual artist? Jermaine’s lyrical message is more earnestly pleading. The chorus after all spells out that “you don’t know how it feels to be without/I don’t care what they say/I know there’s a better way”. Surely a “people music” pretext to the entire song. By also pointing out that “talk about generosity/it’s been done in other countries”,it’s clear Jermaine that the inequities in the treatment of black Americans and the exploitation of foreigners,some black themselves,are not at all lost on him. More over,he also sees other nations as being capable of helping themselves without anyone else’s assistance as well. So that cultural understand,plus the like minded instrumental approach,make this one of Jermaine’s most unsung musical standouts.