Tag Archives: Billie Jean

Thriller At 35: The Michael Jackson Album That Started Something- The Roots Of An Iconoclastic Album

Thriller remains one of those generational milestones in my life. Its an album that millions upon millions of people around the world from the 60’s and 70’s generation can agree upon. Even people such as myself who experienced new while in the crib. And a day after its 35th anniversary, which my boyfriend reminded me of, still have a lot of questions to ask. Was its success based on its record breaking sales and marketing? And was it truly music that was so universal, everyone could love it? Now approaching its early middle years, Thriller probably stands somewhere in the middle of both questions.

One thing to understand was that Thriller came at a major crossroads of black music in America. There had of course been the post disco backlash/radio freeze out. And that also went along with a recession. Into that mix came MTV in 1981. With what turned out to be an anti black “just rock n’ roll” dog whistle policy to boot. Just over a month after Thriller  came out, the trajectory of Michael Jackson’s career changed. And it took MTV right with it due to the insistence of Jackson’s record label. What’s most important is that as disco “died”, Michael Jackson himself faced a prospect that impacted Thriller deeply.

Michael Jackson was always encouraged to aim high career wise. And he pushed himself to do the same-eventually at the cost of his own life. His Epic label solo debut Off The Wall was a massive success in 1979 and 1980. At the same time, it was caught up in the segregated music chart system America still deals with. Jackson even boycotted the 1980 Grammy Awards due to the racialist pigeon holing. He was used to near instant crossover. And he wanted to make measures to have that happen. The story of Thriller  therefore becomes the story of a songwriter and a band: Rod Temperton and Toto.

Toto were a band that epitomized the west coast AOR sound in the late 70’s/early 80’s. And after the release of their hugely successful Toto V (also in 1982), many of its members came into great demand as session musicians. Toto’s keyboardist Steve Porcoro, his drumming brother Jeff and its guitarist Steve Lukather were part of the Thriller sessions. In fact, Lukather played the lead melodic guitar on “Beat It”- itself an AOR number that became the first rock song on a Michael Jackson album. Of course, the song is best known for its solo from Eddie Van Halen on the bridge.

The most important element to Thriller’s sound was the late composer Rod Temperton. He was a member and creative mastermind of the disco era funk band Heatwave.  His compositions were contemporary. And generally utilized musicians who worked with Thriller’s producer Quincy Jones. People such as Greg Phillinganes, Paulinho Da Costa and Jerry Hey. At the same time, Temperton compositions always included jazz/big band style melodic licks within the disco/funk/soul rhythmic settings of his sound. This gave Temperton’s sound a multi generational appeal.

Between Quincy Jones’s production acumen and the musicianship of the members of Toto and Rod Temperton’s crew, the stage for Thriller’s musicality was set. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” opens the album on a theatrically rhythmic note-with its round bass hook, hand claps and Manu Di Bango-like Ebonic chant on the bridge. Baby Be Mine” has similar instrumentation. And is a classic, shiny Rod Temperton poppy funk number. It mixes swinging bass and guitar lick with both orchestral and grooving synthesizer riffs. And its one of my personal favorites on the album.

“The Girl Is Mine” is a slow swinging contemporary pop number. Its a duet with Paul McCartney-with him and Michael playfully vying for the attentions of one woman. The title song of the album originated as “Starlight Sun”. The lyrics to this song are a big ambiguous. But from what I came to understand, it had to do with an interracial romance. The lyrics were alter to focus more on a horror film performance send up. Musically, its actually a more polished variation on the sound of a jazzy funk Heatwave song called “The Big Guns” from the bands Current album, also from 1982.

“Billie Jean” is another strong performance send up, probably Jackson’s most iconic. And funky. The keyboards, the guitar and of course Louis Johnson’s iconic bass line all revolve around the beat of the song. My friend Henrique and I have had discussions about this song being so strong identified with MJ on the club scene, many dancers default to Michael Jackson dance moves when this song plays on the dance floor. The fact that the songs originally long intro almost hampered Thriller’s overall sound quality showcases to just what degree Jackson was in love with the song.

“Human Nature” is another of my favorites on the album. The rhythm is unusually hollow and reverbed. And the instrumentation is more electronic than what’s on most of Thriller. Best way to describe it would be a slightly jazzy boogie/electro ballad. “P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing)” started life as a beautiful Stevie Wonder like demo. Complete with completely different lyrics, melodies and another whole rhythmic approach. The released version is a lean boogie funk style number with a solid rhythm section, squiggly synth riffs and a hard rocking guitar from Steve Lukather on the bridge.

“The Lady In My Life” closes the album with one of two numbers on here that didn’t chart commercially. But it remains a Michael Jackson standard. Its the slowest ballad on the album. And everything from the Fender Rhodes piano, lead synth and bass line emphasize the melody. Its a showcase for Michael Jackson the singer. He’s doing call and response backups to himself here-with comes into play on the outro where he’s echoing  his lead with his bass voice. The song truly showcases what as elastic vocal range MJ had. Its melody even inspired jazz musician Stanley Jordan to cover it several years later.

The writer Rickey Vincent described albums like Thriller as modern day pop standards. To a number of musicians and dance music/hip-hop DJ’s today, these songs have the same type of resonance that the music of Lerner & Lowe, Johnny Mercer, Nat King Cole and Irving Berlin did on past generations of musical artists. Thriller lives on both in physical media and in the online world. Its streamed and downloaded across every major internet platform available today. And the music of the album has gone beyond massive sales success to became part of late 20th/early 21st century Americana.

Through looking back on Thriller now, I think there’s an answer to at least one of my earlier questions about it. And again Henrique already helped verbalize it. None of the songs on Thriller were totally new musically-coming right out of the blue. What it did do was bring together the different strains of black American music (even the racially co-opted rock style) from pop, jazz, soul and pop together in one album. And do so with the best musicians, producers, engineers and an amazing performer at the mic. And in the end, that’s probably why Thriller continues to be an iconic musical work of art.

 

 

 

 

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The Brothers Johnson-Stomping Thunder & Lightning

Brothers Johnson Artwork

Michael Jackson was likely the first artist who ever focused my attention on instrumentalists. While admiring the vocal,songwriting and performance ability of the Jackson brothers in general? My attention would focus on the liner notes of their albums. This came after watching The Jackson’s-An American Dream mini series on TV. And my parents loaning me their Michael Jackson/Jackson related albums. I personally wanted to know more about the musicians whose sound made the rhythms snap,crackle and pop with funkiness and soul the way they did. It has gone on to be a tremendous learning experience for me.

Two of these musicians that I noticed on the liner notes to Mike’s iconic Off The Wall album,from my mom and dad’s original vinyl copy,were guitarist George Johnson and his bassist brother Louis. Considering my interest in bass players even then? It was amazing to learn just what a bass icon Louis Johnson in particular was. Not to mention his enormous debt to the 1980’s by his iconic electric bass line on Mike’s “Billie Jean”. While I knew who Quincy Jones was of course? I had no idea of the breadth and scope of his musical outreach until learning more about the Brothers Johnson.

A few years later during mid adolescence? I was browsing the CD racks at the now defunct Borders Books & Music. I noticed a collection of four newly arrived releases by…The Brothers Johnson. The earliest one, 1976 album called  Look Out For #1 showed a photographically powerful image,take from below,of two super hip looking young musicians playing bass and guitar and singing with enormously enthusiastic expressions and stances. All of these album covers projected intensity. Album art is just art of course. But the best part was,as I veered toward adulthood, was discovering that these albums were musically just as energetically funkified as their cover art implied.

During my early 20’s? Something began to become uppermost in my understanding of the Johnson brothers musicality. Free jazz/bluesgrass/rock guitarist and writer for Allmusic.com Eugene Chadbourne perhaps worded it best about the revelation I had-when Mister Chadborne described the Johnson’s as coming from a period where musicians in the jazz/funk/soul genre were judged by the dues they paid in professional situations. As opposed to being judged by a romantic notion of street credibility. Since that latter notion totally defined the local understanding of musical appreciation around me at that time? This led me to more research,both through physical literature and my earliest experiences online, about the Johnson’s and other funk era instrumentalists.

By the time 2004 rolled around? And I was connecting with a group of local musicians/DJ’s as something of a local funk bands volunteer videographer? It was the story arc of how musicians such as George and Louis Johnson became musical icons that was fascinating me most. The brothers started playing with the Billy Preston band while still in high school. Quincy Jones then became taken with the duos talents. And he bought them in to record with his mid 70’s band on his 1975 release Mellow Madness-much of which qualifies as the earliest introduction of the Johnson’s duel playing and vocal harmonies. And the rest was history. In addition to success as a duo with their own albums? They would go from blistering session work with Herbie Hancock and George Duke to 80’s era work with Leon Sylvers and Slave’s Steve Arrington.

Looking back on it all now? The Brothers Johnson are the main reason why I have continued to focus so heavily on the instrumentalists relationship in the creation of the funk,soul and jazz music that has become such a source of creative and emotional inspiration for me. Getting back to the Michael Jackson angle? Now that the man sadly isn’t with us anymore? Whenever I hear his first two Quincy Jones produced solo records? It’s a lot more easy to tune into how Mike’s vocal hiccups take their turns popping right along with George and Louis’s instrumental licks on songs such as “Get On The Floor”,”Burn This Disco Out”,”Baby Be Mine” or the aforementioned “Billie Jean”. So among all the wonderful funky soul the Johnson’s have made? What I’d personally thank them for is helping increase my level of understanding of why playing in the groove works in music.

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Filed under 1970's, 1980's, Allmusic.com, Billie Jean, Billy Preston, Borders Books & Music, Brothers Johnson, Eugene Chadbourne, Funk, Funk Bass, George Duke, George Johnson, guitar, Herbie Hancock, Leon Sylers, Look Out For #1, Louis Johnson, Michael Jackson, Off The Wall, Quincy Jones, Steve Arringon, The Jacksons, Thriller

Anatomy Of THE Groove for 4/24/2015: “So Good” by Tuxedo

It was actually Issue 61 of Wax Poetics magazine that made me aware of the existence of this duo. During the first half decade of the 2010’s? It would seem as if funk,especially it’s analog synthesizer oriented cousin known as boogie,has been rediscovered as a vital template for contemporary soul, electronic, pop and hip-hop artists. And it’s really been healthy for instrumentalists in particular. And happily it’s emerged again from a source that has been drawn to it for over two decades at this point.

Stone Throw Records has really upped the ante in terms of celebrating live instrumental hip-hop and it’s offshoots. From the days of Peanut Butter Wolf,through the late J Dilla and Madlib. This was the beginning of hip-hop’s journey around to straight up funk again. Now Tuxedo has emerged from this brew. Staring the musical talents of Seattle native Jake One,producer for contemporary rappers such as Drake and Rick Ro$$ along with singer/songwriter Mayer Hawthorne? The duo have come out with a self titled album including songs such as “So Good” here.

Starting off with an insistent percussion accented drum beat out of the “Billie Jean”/”Ghetto Life” early 80’s “naked funk” school? A phat bass synth opens the door for a sharp,punchy and higher pitched melodic synthesizer. Both of these analog synthesizers dance and bounce rhythmically to the slow dragging funky drum of the song. This provides the musical core for Hawthorne’s vocals-assisted by an alarm like “video game” counter melodic line. A bridge of the song cuts out the bass synth and concentrates on the melodic one as an orchestral element-returning to the original electronic duet to the closeout of the song-with Hawthorne harmonizing with his own back-round vocals.

One of the things that I appreciate about this song is that it showcases the meatiest possible elements of boogie/electro funk. Jake One seems to possess a keen understanding of how much that style of funk and first generation commercial hip-hop of the early 80’s went hand and hand. The tongue in cheek video,recorded on VHS tape cable access style showcases Hawthorne,Jake One and the band performing the song in an expressionless manner. The actual song expresses a great sense of warmth and vitality in it’s melodic ideas-which lies in contrast to the loping rhythmic funk stomp underneath it all. A powerful example of modern day hard electro/boogie based synth funk.

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Filed under 2015, Billie Jean, Boogie Funk, electro funk, funk revival, Hip-Hop, J Dilla, Jake One, Madlib, Mayer Hawthorne, Peanut Butter Wolf, Stone Throw Records, synth funk, Wax Poetics magazine