Anatomy of THE Groove: “Sunset Driver” by Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson began the sessions for Off The Wall, his first solo album produced by Quincy Jones, with the idea that he wanted to separate his adult solo career from what he’d been doing with his brothers. This was a concept he’d already pursued on their previous album Destiny from one year earlier. Talking with my friend Henrique, the then current sound of Barry White interested MJ in 1979-his album The Man and its emphasis on live horns and strings. That is the direction he pursued on the finished album. Early on in the sessions however, the music MJ and Quincy were making was slightly different.

Of course, instrumentally the same West Lake studio crew that worked on this album also played on the Brothers Johnson’s Light Up The Night. That album was recorded during the same time as  Off The Wall, but was released in 1980. So musicians such as Greg Phillinganes, Paulinho Da Costa, Jerry Hey, Rod Temperton and Toto’s Jeff Porcoro likely switched off from one album session to another. Since  Light Up The Night has a more electronic flavor to its grooves, it doesn’t surprise me too much that an early song from the Off The Wall sessions has a similar flavor. And it was called “Sunset Driver”.

The intro features what sound like higher pitched synth horns followed along closely by the drum-beat by beat. The drums then settle into a straight up disco friendly dance beat pounding away. The melody is led by a thick polyphonic synthesizer, with a pumping synth bass underneath it. Chucking right along with it is a scratching wah wah guitar. On the refrains of the songs, the string arrangements ascend and descend with MJ’s vocals. On the choruses, the strings sustain along with the lead synth. On the bridge, the lead synth goes into a more descending pattern before an extended chorus fades out the song.

Upon hearing it shortly following MJ’s passing eight summers ago, “Sunset Driver” emerged as an unreleased song I had trouble placing into MJ’s vast recorded catalog. Its a lot closer to the post disco/boogie funk of a Brothers Johnson song such as “This Had To Be”. Especially with the synthesizer being a far more significant element than it had been on the final cut of Off The Wall. Still with MJ’s dialog near the end of the song saying “that’s it Jerry,that’s nice”, its clear now that this shows MJ in a different and cutting edge electronic dance/funk flavor at the beginning of his adult solo career.

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