Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Michael Jackson's Epic Sound
Why do the Michael Jackson/Quincy Jones collaborations sound so darn good?
WSJ's Jim Fusilli breaks down Michael's epic sound.
"At the heart of Michael Jackson's musical legacy are two albums that total less than an hour-and-a-quarter's worth of music. Both are rightfully considered among the best pop albums of their era. "Off the Wall," released in 1979, and "Thriller," issued three years later, turned Jackson from a teenybopper into an adult pop entertainer and ushered in his international superstardom.
Both were overseen by Quincy Jones, already a much-admired musician, composer, arranger, conductor and producer who'd worked with Count Basie, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton and Frank Sinatra.
The two first discussed working together while Mr. Jones was supervising the music for the 1978 film "The Wiz," in which Jackson played the Scarecrow. "I saw his sensitivity and his focus," said Mr. Jones, age 76, who called yesterday from London. "There was such an innocence, but he didn't miss a thing." Epic, Jackson's label, thought Mr. Jones was too steeped in jazz to produce what became "Off the Wall." But Jackson and his management team insisted, and Epic relented.
When the project began, Jackson had demos of two songs; Mr. Jones had a track from the funk band the Brothers Johnson that needed a melody and lyrics. Everything else came together once they became part of a team. "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," the album opener composed by Jackson, is set up by the syncopated percussion that Jackson, his sister Janet and brother Randy played on a casaba, cowbell and glass bottle and had recorded for the demo version. Suddenly, Jackson screams and the orchestra explodes: Sweeping strings; punchy horns; bass, drums and handclaps form the foundation under Jackson's vocal. Single notes plucked on electric guitar fold into the Jacksons' percussion, creating a signature sound for the singer. It's a busy track, but not cluttered. Mr. Jones told me his big-band experience helped him organize all the sounds.
"Workin' Day and Night," the album's third song, also rises from percussion that Jackson had recorded earlier with his siblings. Plucked guitars are its core too. Mr. Jones omitted orchestral strings this time, but Jerry Hey and Greg Phillinganes did the horn and rhythm charts, respectively, as on "Don't Stop."
The two remaining tunes on side one reveal a maturing Jackson. "Rock With You," written by Rod Temperton, a composer Mr. Jones still favors, and "Get On the Floor," built on a riff by bassist Louis Johnson of the Brothers Johnson. On the former, the mood is airy and seductive; on the latter, bold and assertive. Mr. Johnson dominates "Get On the Floor," which is also driven by Mr. Hey's horns, John Robinson's cymbal work and Latin percussion by Paulinho Da Costa -- and a forceful vocal by Jackson.
"Rock With You" and the title track are cut from comparable cloth. In "Rock With You," a trombone and two tenor saxophones add warmth to the bottom, while lilting synthesizers and chopping guitar chords fill the midrange. Once again, Mr. Robinson's drumming shines as he shifts the cymbal pattern to deliver the song to its chorus. A synthesizer plays staccato notes, recasting the plucked guitar notes of the opening song, one of the many pull-throughs that Mr. Jones preferred and that give the album its unity.
Hundreds of Michael Jackson fans circled the block around Harlem's famed Apollo Theater. The arrangement for "Off the Wall" foreshadows the title track of "Thriller," with its bass synth, cymbals, insistent backbeat and plucked guitar as the rhythmic platform. Mr. Temperton wrote both songs and had a hand in arranging their rhythm tracks.
While "Thriller" lives in the memory as the soundtrack to a long-form music video, it's also an expert piece of pop -- and so is its predecessor. Throughout the "Off the Wall" album, Mr. Jones challenged Jackson to expand his vocal range. "I wanted him to sing down low," he recalled. "A lot of his habits came from Motown. They wanted him to sing high, but by then we had a relationship of trust, an honesty with each other."
Of the remaining songs of Jackson's solo debut, only the Carol Bayer Sager tune "It's the Falling in Love" seems stuck in the late '70s. Johnny Mandel, who arranged for Basie, Sinatra and others, did the string charts for "She's Out of My Life," Jackson's successful attempt at a big, romantic ballad. Mr. Jones said he had intended to give the song, written by Tom Bahler, to Sinatra to record.
Jackson and Mr. Jones reunited for "Thriller," using key members of the "Off the Wall" team -- engineer Bruce Swedien (who Mr. Jones credits for what he still considers both albums' unsurpassed sound), Mr. Temperton, Mr. Hey and Mr. Phillinganes among them. "The collective is always more powerful than the individual," Mr. Jones told me. Of course, Jackson's enormous talent and unbridled ambition were the major drivers. By now, the bass synthesizer had become part of the pop vocabulary, and it introduces the album's opener,
"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." A dance tune with horns arranged by Mr. Hey that was originally proposed for "Off the Wall," it serves as a bridge from the earlier album, but it has a leaner, more biting feel. It ends with a long vocal recitation of a line from Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa."
After the pop gem "Baby Be Mine," written by Mr. Temperton, and the Jackson-Paul McCartney duet, "The Girl is Mine," comes a four-song stretch as strong as any in pop history:
"Thriller," which ends side one with its ghoulish narration by Vincent Price, "Beat It," "Billie Jean" and "Human Nature." A drum machine's steady rhythm introduces "Beat It," which was written by Jackson and is immediately cast as a rock song by Steve Lukather's guitar and a brief hint of the coming guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen, who Mr. Jones brought to the project. Jeff Porcaro, who, like Mr. Lukather, was a member of the band Toto, plays drums. Mr. Jones said that he and Jackson, determined to expand the performer's base, had their eyes on a rock audience. "Billie Jean" also was a Jackson composition. Sung with icy fire, its melody rests on what may be the deepest groove in pop history, formed by a battery of synths, N'dugu Chancler on drums and Mr. Johnson on bass. At the chorus, Mr. Jones opens the track, allowing in a chiming guitar to leaven the relentless, bottom-heavy rhythm. Lush synthesizers add movement to the backdrop. "When you come out of 'Billie Jean,' which is just three chords, you need a kaleidoscopic harmonic structure," Mr. Jones said. "You know, the ear wants that."
Steve Porcaro composed the music for the next tune, a lovely ballad. "Toto sent over a demo and Rod Temperton and I listened to it, but the first two songs didn't do much for us," he told me. "Then the third song came out and I said, 'Yeah!" The next day, Mr. Jones asked John Bettis to write the lyrics to what became "Human Nature." The performance floats on guitar and bass notes; at first, the brass is barely noticeable. Mr. Jones allows the chorus to arrive without additional fanfare, thus drawing in the listener. Jackson sings it beautifully, allowing his voice to meld with the whole.
"Thriller" concludes with the snappy "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," which brought Jackson together with his sisters Janet and LaToya, and "The Lady in My Life," a gorgeous ballad written by Mr. Temperton featuring Paul Jackson on guitar. Five years after the release of "Thriller," Jackson and Mr. Jones went on to make "Bad," with many of the same musicians who played and arranged parts for their breakthrough recordings.
By then, though, the template for presenting the music of Michael Jackson was set. He had become the King of Pop. "We put this all together behind Michael's energy and sensitivity," Mr. Jones said. "It was a team effort. I swear to you, it was like divinity put us all together."
Mr. Fusilli is the Journal's rock and pop music critic.
Posted by Bob at 2:49 PM