Tag Archives: classic albums

78 On The Longplay: ‘Come Get It!’ by Rick James

Rick James always seemed destined to have a career at Motown.  From his work with the Myna Birds to being a member of the staff writing there. He had spent much of the 70’s a musical gypsy-recording a few records and performing with a few different rock bands during the decade before decamping back to Buffalo and forming the Stone City Band. He then returned to the record label that had seemed to provide a strong sense of security for him as an artist/band leader in 1977. And they dropped this debut album the following April of 1978.

“Stone City Band,Hi” opens the album with a live recording that adds a strong P-Funk horn based hump to it. “You And I” starts off with a rhythm guitar groove that swings into a full blown orchestrated female vocal gospel/disco chorus before going into a 7+ clavinet driven fast funk groove with some harmonically fluid jazz guitar accents by final refrains. “Sexy Lady” deals with a polished and precise jazz-funk number with a strong West Coast vibe about it. “Dream Maker” hearkens back to Rick’s doo-wop days with it’s spoken intro and piano based soul ballad shuffle.

“Be My Lady” is another melodically bright mix of bass/guitar/horn oriented funk with the disco beat and “woo hoo” chants. “Mary Jane” begins with an arena style guitar thump and orchestral synthesizer before going into a stripped down jazzy soul-pop ballad with a lyric that could be taken (in it’s time) in two different ways. “Hollywood” starts out as a tender ballad about Rick saying goodbye to his family, while leaving behind the ghetto environment he feels might destroy him, before ending on a reggae style coda. The album concludes with a reprise of the title song.

When I first got this album on vinyl, I remember not caring for it too much. Hearing it fresh today on CD helps me realize what a strong debut this really is. The steely punk funk sound Rick James would develop isn’t as evident on this album. He’s very much a live band styled funk/soul brother on this album-with little concern for crossover anymore than doing so on his own musical terms. Stone City Band were a strong outfit too-with a big band funk style that can switch years between monster humps and lush disco friendly sounds. An excellent debut from an artist and band still getting their legs.

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88 On The Longplay: ‘Giving You The Best That I Got’ by Anita Baker

Anita Baker’s music always felt (to my childhood self ) like what it might’ve been like to be an adult. The music and lyrics came off as so learned and experienced in life. This is one of the key qualities of Baker’s music that I share a common interest in with my friend Henrique. Another quality that Baker’s 1988 album Giving You The Best That I Got is that it presents a relatively small group of musicians. With a sound that’s immaculately produced and compositionally strong all at once. As the follow up to the blockbuster album Rapture this album often suffered from unfair comparisons.

After all, when you have an album like that? Its usually a nearly impossible act to follow. Now I’ve been hearing this album in one way or another since the day it came out? I have to say that this album is packed with great songs and as always Anita’s distinctive voice. Between the styles of Sarah Vaughn, and several years later with Toni Braxton, has any female vocalist been able to almost instrumentally work their way around a song the way Anita does on songs such as “Priceless” and the title cut.  These are vital R&B/jazz compositions.

These compositions are to strong grooves Anita made famous beforehand. But on tracks like “Rules”, the barrier that developed between jazz and R&B melted right away. The instrumental  sound of these songs are both concise and elegantly produced. And that’s no small feat to accomplish. Michael J. Powell, founder of Baker’s former band Chapter 8, did a masterful job in that regard for this album. Critic/writer Nelson George described the kind of music Anita Baker specialized in as “retro nouveau” in his book The Death of Rhythm and Blues. And I suppose it fits as well as any.

Songs such as “Lead Me Into Love”,”Good Love”,”Just Because”,”Good Enough” and “You Belong To Me” assure this album has no filler at all. The level of songwriting consistency is maintained throughout every one of these songs. Elektra was really and sound popping with some of the best fusions of jazz-pop, quiet storm and R&B/funk during the course of the 80’s. That tends to be what happens when musicians such as Omar Hakim, Nathan East and the late George Duke get together with a talent like Baker’s.  And if that period of music was a living being? It should be grateful to have had Anita Baker around.

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88 On The Longplay: ‘Stronger Than Pride’ by Sade

Sade’s first two albums Diamond Life and Promise were both enormous successes. Their respective hits being all over the place-that former album even ending up represented on a breakfast cereal premium sticker I had growing up. It was hard to believe that the band themselves-including the regal beauty of their lead singer Sade Adu herself, were very much unlike most hit musicians of their time period. They were straight out of the same UK jazz/funk scene that had spawned Loose Ends, Incognito, Level 42 and Spandau Ballet.

Despite succeeding on a level that perhaps exceeded the best that any of their contemporaries did, Sade always kept themselves just a little bit behind their own public face. Which was almost totally related to their music. And their music videos with a strong cinematic scope and stylish live performances. They had always possessed a very distinctive quality about their music-almost to the point where they deserved a genre all their own. When this third album, and final of their first decade, arrived in 1988 I have vivid memories of Sade albums somehow being an event.

Over the years I’ve actually had to do much growing into this album-somewhat like a pair of shoes that were just a tad too big for me. “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” itself is nothing like any Sade song I’d ever heard up to that point. There is a wide, empty void in the middle of the songs rhythm-extremely subtle percussion with only a stronger little heartbeat on the choruses. With its atmospheric,ethereal keyboards and sustaining melody it very much encompasses the feeling of a humid, sensuous encounter. Maybe even a mildly distant one at that.

Of course the rhythm is entirely absent from “I Never Thought I’d See The Day”,which flows right along with its moody melody as far as it can take it. “Paradise”,”Nothing Can Come Between Us”,”Keep Looking” and the closing instrumental “Siempre Hay Esperanza” all embody this grooving, heavily stripped down funk sound that has since become most strongly associated with Sade. They are filled with heavy percussion and some of the fattest and locked down bass lines Paul S. Denman has ever thrown down. And he’s thrown down many.

“Turn My Back On You” is a particular favorite of mine-built on a strong,subtle variation of the James Brown-like bass/guitar interaction following each vocal and instrumental chorus. “Haunt Me” is a pretty Flamenco flavored Spanish guitar ballad while “Clean Heart” takes a jazzier pop mid tempo ballad cue-a bit like a more stripped bare variation of some of the music on their debut. When I first heard this album? I didn’t really understand it. Though relatively intelligent by the age of 8, this album contains more adult oriented outlooks on romance. And melodies that were somewhat harder to hum.

During my earliest years of adulthood, I rediscovered this album By that time of course having absorbed a lot of Prince, Crusaders, Miles Davis and an entire myriad of jazz/Afro/Funk hybrids. So one day I found this album on CD,with my father having had the cassette for years and listened to it-as some point near or around the summer of 2003. All of a sudden this album leaped out at me in a way that it never had before. While present this album doesn’t focus in on the horns and piano as much as the first two Sade albums.

The entire album is very much oriented around a very spare type of funk. It was a groove which emphasized Sade’s singing as well as bringing the bass/guitar accents more out front. What I didn’t realize at the time was this Sade were laying the groundwork for all the music they’ve since created on this particular. And for the most part? That hasn’t been a bad thing at all. So in the context of where this took Sade rather than in comparison to what came before,this album is a resounding,romantic and hard grooving success.

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Funk & Disco Pops Of 1977: ‘Bridges’ by Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson

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Gil Scott-Heron released this album at a very key time for his particular creative bent. This came out during the beginning of the disco era and for many, outside the influence of the Philly sound, there just didn’t seem to be too much room for complex sociological dialog in the music. There were songs with MESSAGES, yes. But in terms of the deep poetic insights you’d find from someone such as Gil Scott? It all seemed to be getting away from us at a time when it was needed most.

Heron was intensely aware of these changes in music. And had every intention of maintaining his vision and style. Even in the face of so many uncertain changes in the music industry. This album was recorded using TONTO, the massive synthesizer complex that had worked miracles for Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers during their early/mid 70’s height. Even at this point,  it was all too easy for this huge instrumental complex to create a sound that was both very much in the now and futuristic.

And musically, Bridges is indeed futuristic sounding funk for the people . Aside from Brian Jackson’s multi instrumental talents, the Fender Rhodes as well as the sound of the massive TONTO weaves it’s electronic, bubbling chords and bass lines into the musical tapestry to create unique sounds. Just as much as what Stevie and the Isley’s had done with the same instrument. The mood it sets goes right along with the emotional accompaniment of Gil Scott’s vocal style. The bass oriented sounds in the production is pushed up front. And the improvised jazz-funk element gets the same effect.

Song wise the album ranges from uptempo, positive spirited melodic funk such as “Hello Sunday! Hello Road”, the amazing “Racetrack In France” and “Under The Hammer” to slower and richly varied in texture and melody type tunes such as “Vildgolia (Deaf,Dumb & Blind,”We Almost Lost Detroit” and “Delta Man”. The range of subject matter of these songs (as usual with Gil Scott) is densely layered-ranging from enlightening muses both the concept of prejudice itself to the escape from it. Along with the usual historical contexts.

Songs such as the acapella “Tuskegee #626” tackle a well known historical atrocity (in this case the Tuskegee Experiments) but does so with a very bright and almost sunny melody. This showcases Heron’s understand of the very sharp contrasts in the lifestyles of not only the African American culture. But how it also extends those contrasts into other aspects of life for Americans of other nationalities. This welcoming, humanistic album would be followed the more darkly reflective Secrets- also using TONTO for that as well.

Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson had certainly proved their meddle in terms of how they were able to continue adapting their art their own way during an era. An era when artists were losing more and more control of what they did. And when you listen to this, and realize the influence it’s had on so much musical poetry and the hip-hop world today, (and Gil Scott is for all intents and purposes a hip-hop artist anyway) than you know your in for something very special and meaningful.

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘Alphabet City’ by ABC

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Officially, this was not ABC’s final album of the 1980’s. At the same time it did a lot to some up these survivors of the 1980’s. In many ways, the 80’s had a few different pop cultural periods. And when each one was over,it was over. There was new-wave/synth pop early on, then it evolved into a more dance/pop sound. And by decades end, it was getting into different house/DJ dance music variations. ABC had seen themselves through the first two of those movements very cleanly. Even surviving a bit of a near miss with their second (and underappreciated) 1983 sophomore album Beauty Stab.

ABC  came back with vigor to spare on their follow up album How to Be a Zillionaire .  And stayed on track from that point on. Even if (as the decade wore on) pop music was becoming less and less fashionable, especially with more adult listeners, ABC remained on a roll after this. Even as pop music listeners found other things to listen to. But creatively and commercially, they remained at their peak when their  fourth album here. And it shows. Basically this album features songs that,both musically and lyrically are more balanced than anything since their debut The Lexicon Of Love.

Alphabet City is presented as something of a loose follow up to that debut- with bluish cover art and a movie poster like liner notes. And the songs here very much stick out as well oiled 80’s pop basically. And it brings in all their elements from the Motown inspired “When Smokey Sings”,with a similar rhythm to the Smokey/Steve Wonder track “Tears Of A Clown”, praising Smokey and (seemingly) Marvin Gaye as influences to the band. Excellent artists to be inspired by musically anyway. Especially for pop/soul oriented people.

“The Night You Murdered Love”, “Think Again,”Rage And Regret” and “Ark Angel” all have a more down to Earth pop/funk-dance sound without a lot of the heavy sound attack of the proceeding album. Rhythm and catchy melody are the key to these songs. “King Without A Crown”,”Rage And Regret” and “One Day” showcase a heavy contemporary (for 1987) sophistifunk. The album closes with one of it’s finest cuts “Minneapolis”. Needless to say,it’s totally a Jam-Lewis/SOS Band styled number musically,not dissimilar to what you might hear on a record such as Sands of Time.

To be honest. it’s kind of too bad Jam/Lewis didn’t produce ABC as they did Human League and Robert Palmer. Their style of polished, electronic sophistifunk would’ve been ideal for ABC’s stylized sound and probing melodies and lyrics. Over the years I’ve heard ABC’s singles and always been on the cusp of picking up a compilation of them. But being an album listener I had this feeling it might be the best way to deal with their particular musical bent. And it was an excellent choice too. ABC craft these wonderful little mini synth/pop/dance/funk symphonies,complete with strong arrangements and harmonies.

But they definitely carry that over into album length concepts as well. All of ABC’s first four albums are very strong musical affairs. Full of liveliness,energy and some extremely clear buts of writing. And to hear them all back to back..well at least on my end I know what I’ve been missing all this time. As my friend Henrique pointed out? The funk/soul music that 1987 produced balanced classic live and cutting edge electronic sounds in the audio equivalent of fine wine. On Alphabet City, ABC showcase how this musical ethic was strong and vital on both sides of the pond in its time.

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘Poetic Champions Compose’ by Van Morrison

Van Morrison followed his 1986 album No Guru, No Method, No Teacher  with one of his best albums of the decade. And perhaps one of the grandest achievements of his career. This album found Van reaching back into the flavors that has made his music such a treasure and creating a musical tapestry that will stick right to your soul. In fact there are elements of this album that do recall his breakthrough twenty years before this with the genre defying/defining Astral Weeks. The music is a mix of mid,down and uptempo songs with a strong jazz and classic pop flavor.

This man is not only someone mindful of blues/R&B. But on this album,  he is clearly bringing the breezy orchestral pop/jazz flavors of Nat King Cole and Burt Bacharach before him. Van plays piano,sax,harmonica and guitar throughout this album and on the back of the CD you’ll find little pictures of Van playing these instruments. That is kind of appropriate for this album as it starts of with a lushly orchestrated jazzy sax instrumental “Spanish Skies”,perfect for an evening at a really elegant cafe or night spot or just a stroll on a warm moonlit evening with a loved one perhaps.

The like minded instrumental “Celtic Excavation” showcases the same flavor and both tunes are significant highlights of this album. There are of course plenty of his classic mid tempo Celtic soul type tunes in “The Mystery”, “Queen Of The Slipstream”, “I Forgot That Love Existed”, “Give Me The Rapture” and “Allow Me”. These songs all have more of a jazz/nightclub type groove than anything on the more folk influenced arrangements on the previous album. And are very much a production update of Van’s classic sound he made so distinctive for himself during the 70’s.

His version of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” is  a  beautiful expression of the joy and pain of personal isolation. And the arrangement here carries the song right along from start to finish. “Alan Watts Blues” is one of the more rhythmic songs here that actually has a light jazz-pop-funk flavor to it. In some ways, it recalls some similarly styled music on his 1980 album Common One. One song that stuck out strongly to me was “Did You Get Healed?”. As soon as I heard the upbeat soul/gospel rhythm and the melodic female backup vocals I realized this is a song  before.

Had heard “Did You Get Healed?”  many times as young man, in fact. Played around the house by my father. It struck me as a hummable tune I’d enjoyed. And had  now found it’s way back into my life. . In terms of his output of this decade this album is one of his musically most  strong and rich. All of the songs on this album will likely take you into a musical experience-with their fluid sound and depth of soul. And along with the many great icons of soul, I cannot think of many artists I’ve listened to over the years who’ve been able to produce the same accomplishment seemingly at a whim.

 

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Funk Revelations Of 1987: “Just Gets Better With Time” by The Whispers

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In much the same manner as Earth Wind & Fire, The Whispers took a hiatus of several years after 1984. Those four years were ones where the Caterpillar of funk and soul were in an interesting chrysalis. And ready to re-emerge with a captivating butterfly of classic structures with contemporary dressing. This was 1987. The group were still on the Solar label and were about to burst out with something that was…not quite unexpected. But in terms of it’s impact? I have a feeling this was at least a little surprising.

“I Want You” is a pounding Minneapolis/Jam & Lewis style dance/funk jam while “Special F/X” is deep,pulsing synth based number with accenting rhythm guitars-funk that’s also very much informed by the groups choral vocal harmonies. “Rock Steady” is a big,synth brassy uptempo dance/funk monster with an irresistible melody and that hook that made it so famous. “No Pain,No Gain” is a pounding,gritty mid tempo synth funker while “In The Mood” and “Give It To Me” are soulful urban contemporary jazz/pop ballads while the title song and “Love’s Calling” have that doo-wop shuffle the Whispers were always renowned for in terms of slow jams.

One of the best things about this album is that,typical of Whispers albums,it was able to feature nothing but strong songs and performances that were moving forward in step from their time. With people such as Babyface participating in the writing? Many of the grooves on this album strongly benefit from the freestyle dance and new jack based uptempo approaches.

Those were the cutting edge  styles that were then beginning to add a heavy new muscle to funk oriented dance music of the late 1980’s. This album and it’s hits easily stands with the best of such releases of the 1987-1989 time frame. And did so from a thoroughly vocal group perspective. Definitely worth picking up for 80’s funk and dance admirers as well as Whispers fans!

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Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter Turns 40: Joni Mitchell In Dreamland

 

Joni Mitchell did something very special in the mid to late 1970’s. Something that impacted on me personally roughly 25 years later. She began to combine folk oriented singer/songwriter instrumentation with jazz chords and harmonies. Her approach at this evolved from working with Crusaders Joe Sample and Wilton Felder to fretless bass icon Jaco Pastorius-all between 1974 and 1974. In particularly on 1975’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns,  Mitchell’s music was her own unique hybrid. Neither jazz or folk. This all came to a tremendous head with her 1977 release Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.

It was an album where the cover art (as was typical done by Mitchell herself) drew me into its musical world. It depicts three images of herself. One seems to be a herself as a teenager. The other is a character she portrayed at a Halloween party named Art Nouveau. This was based on a black man she met who complimented her at that time. Mitchell describes her soul as “not being that of a white woman”.  And that she often writes from a black perspective. Embracing the jazz aestetic, from be bop style poetics to the music itself, all became a part of what made this 1977 double LP what it was.

The song “Cotton Avenue” starts the album with an overture, one where Mitchell is playing six differently tuned guitar tracks simultaneously. The song itself is a swinging number-heavily textured by Jaco’s atmospheric bass lines.  The faster “Talk To Me” and the slower “Jericho” both explore the approach of Mitchell’s guitar with Jaco’s bass-playing in an almost Salsa like rhythm on the former, and back to the jazzy swing on the latter. “Paprika Pains” is a 16+ minute cinematic number, showcasing Mitchell’s improvised piano with full jazz orchestration.

“Paprika Plains”‘s music also serves as the soundtrack to a first person description of a late night bar gathering of Canadian First Nations tribe’s people-poetically touching on matters of alcoholism and despair. “Otis & Marlena” is a fairly conventional country tinged folk number. Its based in the acoustic guitar. Its a character sketch of two people vacationing in Miami while “Muslims are sticking up Washington”. “The Tenth Worlds” is primarily the work of Puerto Rican percussionist Manolo Badrena, one which focuses only on his fluid Afro-Latin percussion and improvised vocal chants.

Weather Report member Alex Acuna joins in for “Dreamland”, my personal favorite number on this album.”Dreamland” merges an even broader (and somewhat slower) Salsa percussion sound with the highly hummable, Caribbean folk style melody of Mitchell’s. Chaka Khan provides a very tribal sounding back up vocalese right along with Mitchell’s on the song. The title song is somewhat similar to “Talk To Me” from earlier in the album-as well as “Coyote” from her previous album Heijra.  The more rocky “Off Night Backstreet” and the folk oriented “The Silky Veils Of Ardor” close out the album.

Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter represents the official birth of what could best be described as a Joni Mitchell sound. Its true that jazz always accommodated other musical styles into it. Mitchell wasn’t new at doing that. But she did manage to expand on the possibilities of jazz fusion at the same time as she did the same for her own songwriting style. That coalition of personal and overall creative intent would is likely a lot rarer a thing than it might seem. And just for creating a welcoming and enticing entry point into Joni Mitchell’s musical hybridizing makes this album one of her most iconic ones.

 

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Funky Revelations Of 1987: ‘Touch The World’ by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire had slowly declined in commercial success during the early 80’s. But even then? They still had enough momentum from their still recent classic run of the late 70’s to sustain them creatively and with the public. Still, the pressures of losing members due to creative differences, plus the effects of the post disco freeze out, was beginning to take it’s tole on a band who’d always been able to adapt to musical changes at every point.

In 1987 the bands core Maurice and Verdine White, Phillip Bailey, Ralph Johnson and Andrew Woolfolk were convinced by Columbia to reunite. They added guitarists Sheldon Reynolds, fresh from The Commodores and Dick Smith along with drummer Sonny Avery and a brand new horn section called the Earth Wind & Fire horns. The result is probably the first major comeback album experienced in my personal memory.

“System Of Survival” begins the album with with a very fast paced horn packed call and response type modern dance/funk jam dealing with the disintegrating effects of Reagan era trickle down economics. “Evil Roy” is an even harder edged,somewhat slower tempo’d groove with a strong bass/guitar interaction illustrating the slice of life tale of a drug pusher.

“Thinking Of You” is a kalimba-led melodic pop-jazzy jam with some creamy vocal exchanges from Maurice and Phillip.”You And I”,”Every Now And Then” and “Here Today And Gone Tomorrow” are all mid-tempo,melodic funk ballads that function as an update of the Charles Stepney era EWF school of balladry. “New Horizons” references samples of songs like “Shinning Star”,”That’s The Way Of The World”,”Reasons”,Serpentine Fire” and “Magnetic” before going into a fast paced,digitized synthesizer jazz-fusion led by an Andrew Woolfolk sax solo.

“Money Tight” is a stomping,electrified hard funk number dealing with the matter of unemployment. The title song is a shuffling mid tempo gospel number-featuring White,Bailey and Reynolds vocally illustrating how individual people’s lives of turmoil effect others. “Victim Of The Modern Heart” has a powerfully jazzy melodic exchange and another show stopping vocal from Bailey.

This album is one of those that I had the privilege to experience the moment it came out. It was an enormous family event when the cassette tape was bought into the this. “System Of Survival” and “Evil Roy” were showing up on the FM dial on car rides around the town while my father gave me the chance to tune into the music videos to these songs via Friday Night Videos. It was a proud experience for me, a young man growing up in semi rural Northeast Maine in the mid/late 1980’s, to hear music that not only had a strong social consciousness but offered hope for a better future.

It’s proud to know that this album might’ve been a successful entry point to EWF for people of the late Gen X age group living in areas that may not have had access to see them in a concert setting,and where funky music wasn’t as emphasized in the culture. Overall,a very successful entry for EWF into being able to fully integrate electronics into what amounts to a total revisit to their classic sound and musical spirit.

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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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