Tag Archives: Steve Lukather

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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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Waiting For Your Love” by Toto

Toto had a major part to play in the most significant music of the 80’s. In a soul/funk context,key band members in guitarist Steve Lukather and drummer Jeff Porcoro played major roles on Michael Jackson’s blockbuster album Thriller. Earlier that same year,Toto release their fourth album-itself given only a roman numeral title. The band consisted of top LA session players who had already become famous for backing up artists such as Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs. Even though their debut was successful with it’s combination of West Coast pop/soul and radio friendly rock,their next two albums didn’t do quite so well.

Their lead singer Bobby Kimball was the last to be brought into the group. His rangy voice,which could move its middle range to a quavering falsetto croon, went right with the bands musically eclectic range-from playing simple arena friendly rock riffs to more complex soul,funk and jazzy styles. Kimball was also apparently known as something of an inside cook for the band-especially when it came to sandwiches. That 1982 album IV was the final album Kimball a full participant in. And although its actually an album track,one of my favorite moments of his on it is a tune called “Waiting For Your Love”.

Jeff Porcoro holds down the rhythm with a percussion heavy,percussive beat. Brother Steve Porcoro provides a very jazzy three note melody-followed with the bubbly flamboyance of David Hungate’s phat bass line while Steve Lukather of course assists with an appropriately bouncy,liquid funk rhythm guitar.That represents the refrain and main choruses of the song-only done in different keys. There’s a transitional melodic change between those parts which features a scaling up keyboard part-than a synth brass flourish. Porcoro does an excellent improvised synth solo on the bridge before the choral/refrain part fades out the song.

Toto just happened to debut during a period when rock writers began to dismiss studio based groups made up of strong session musicians as “unauthentic”. Ironically,that may be way Toto’s music has withstood the test of time so well. “Waiting For Your Love” is a superb West Coast jazz/funk/pop number that’s right in the pocket of the groove. And this was coming from people who,together as a band or as session players,were one of the last rock era bands who could play all kinds of music as if it was their sole genre. Toto were both an arena rock and a West Coast jazz funk band all at once. And this song really epitomized that spirit.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Razzamatazz” by Patti Austin

Harlem born Patti Austin actually had a couple unique musical careers before her 70’s and 80’s breakthroughs. She was singing at the Apollo by age 4,and had a recording contract with RCA a year later. After her career as a child star,she became a teen queen of the commercial jingles during the mid to late 60’s. During the 70’s she began her career as a backup singer for Franki Valli and The Four Seasons as well as Japanese fusion artist Yutaka’s debut album in 1978. By then,she’d already recorded two solo albums of her own in End Of The Rainbow and Havana Candy.

First time I ever heard of her was through her work with Quincy Jones in the late 70’s and early 8o’s.  Big examples would be songs like “Its The Falling Love” and “Baby,Come To Me” from 1979 and 81-duetting with Michael Jackson and James Ingram respectfully. Austin has a plaintive tone and elastic vocal range. This alternating voice makes her adept in jazz,funk and pop. One of the few versatile singers with a truly distinctive style to her that I know of. One of her shinning moments was on Quincy Jones 1981 album The Dude in 1981,where she sang frequently throughout. The name of the song is “Razzamatazz”.

Greg Phillinganes,Steve Lukather and Herbie Hancock start off the song with some viruosic electric piano/guitar interaction before Jerry Hey’s horn blasts get the song going. The refrain consists of Hancock’s electric piano,Lukather’s rhythm guitar and the drum/Moog bass of Rufus’s John Robinson and David Hawk Wolinski. On the choruses,Phillinganes adds his own melodic synthesizer touch. There are three different bridges here. One showcases the horns and Paulinho Da Costa’s percussion,the other reduces down to Phillinganes synth solo,and another is Lukather soloing over the refrain.

The song itself actually fades out on its second refrain. Patti Austin really gives her all on this song. This Rod Temperton composition is a very busy number,with a thick sophistifunk groove encompassing a number of powerful musical ideas. Especially its brittle,boogie funk juxtaposition of live horn arrangements,percussion and synth bass. On the second chorus,there’s an entire symphony of multi tracked Patti Austin’s singing the line “make it better with a little bit of razzamatazz”. Its a very melodic jazz/funk/post disco number whose energy level truly lives up to the exciting sound of its title.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1980's, Boogie Funk, David Hawk Wolinski, electric piano, Greg Phillinganes, Herbie Hancock, horns, jazz funk, Jerry Hey, John Robinson, Patti Austin, Paulinho Da Costa, post disco, Quincy Jones, rhythm guitar, Rod Temperton, Steve Luckather, synth bass

Anatomy of THE Groove: “The Dude” by Quincy Jones

Quincy Jones has been on my mind a lot lately when thinking about music. Last week in fact,my friend Henrique pointed out something he read on the back of a vinyl album about how important Quincy was to the jazz world in general. And this was at the height of his career no less. From being mentored by Clark Terry in the 1940’s up to helping shape up and coming hip-hoppers 60 years later,the evolutionary nature of Quincy’s career had me wondering how to present his music here today. The question was would it be good to express that musical arc by overviewing several songs from several decades,or focus on one song that might tell it’s own kind of story about Quincy Jones.

Last year at this time,I posted up an older review I had done for the 1981 Quincy Jones release of The Dude. Albums released under his own name always had a specific flavor to them. For example,his early albums showcased him largely as an instrumental band leader. His releases since the 70’s have generally been showcases not only for his evolving production approach,but also with the different musicians and vocalists he was involved with or mentoring at the given time. In the case of this early 80’s album,the spotlight was on James Ingram and Patti Austin. And the title track of the album said so much about where the classic Quincy Jones sound was going to be at that time.

A pulsing,nasal synthesizer starts off the song before the drums and horns kick in. This is accompanied by opening backup that includes Syreeta Wright and Michael Jackson among a massive chorus. The horns lead into a stripped down percussion break  that’s accented by a slow crawling drum beat-over which a bluesy Fender Rhodes plays the lead keyboard line accented by Louis Johnson’s slap bass lines. The refrains start off with Austin and Ingram trading off vocals along. with Michael Boddicker’s Vocoder. Quincy himself provides a rap as the title character on several choruses after which the horns the male backup singers provide an accompanying chorus.

On the third of these choruses, the backup chorus led along by Austin sings a swinging variation of the chorus. Steve Luckather comes in to play a wah wah pedal heavy guitar line that mimics the low volume,bluesy solo on the Yamaha CS-80 synthesizer that comes out of Stevie Wonder on the bridge,which basically repeats the melodic theme of the refrain. After this the fanfarring horns that generally introduce Quincy raps instead segues into Austin’s swinging vocal choruses. There’s a repeat of the refrain after this. And the song fades out on a repeat of the chorus. Only on this one,Ingram accentuates the lyrics vocally before the song comes to an end.

Getting back to Quincy’s varied musical career,there are many qualities in this song that sum up everything he had done in his then nearly four decades of creative activity. The classic Westlake studio crew including drummer John Robinson,percussionist Paulinho Da Costa,trumpeter/arranger Jerry Hey and of course Louis Johnson play on this number. On the surface,this song written with Patti Austin and Rod Temperton has that sleek west coast production matched with the deep funk groove Quincy had been perfecting over much of the 1970’s. On that level,it’s alternately stripped down and boisterous depending on the mood the song is trying to project at a given time.

On the broader level,this song totally epitomizes the musical evolution of Quincy thus far. The accessory vocal harmonies on the chorus reflect the big band swing era as do the horns. And Stevie Wonder’s synth solo additionally brings the flavor of the blusiness that came from jazz to rock ‘n roll and onto funk and soul as well. The character of “The Dude”,represented as a stone sculpture on the cover and later to become Quincy’d mascot for his media production company,is basically an elder statesmen whose philosophy could be summed up by him stating “don’t put your moth around a check that your body can’t cash”. In this instance for me,this is Quincy’s most defining song overall up to this point.

 

 

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Filed under 1980's, big band swing, blues funk, Fender Rhodes, horns, James Ingram, Jerry Hey, John Robinson, Louis Johnson, Michael Jackson, Patti Austin, Paulinho Da Costa, percussion, Quincy Jones, QWest, rap, Rod Temperton, slap bass, Steve Luckather, Stevie Wonder, synthesizer, Uncategorized, vocoder, wah wah guitar, West Coast