I’m sitting in my regular coffee bar, reading the latest John Grisham. It’s about massively important issues – strip mining, public health and workers’ welfare.
But that doesn’t stop my brain becoming alert to the music playing in the background.
I can tell it’s Michael Jackson. But it’s also Horse With No Name – the America song that sounds like Neil Young, but Neil Young with glossy makeup and a permanent wave.
I never rated Michael Jackson except as a singer and performer. Ooh, I can hear the multiple intake of breath from here!
But let me ask you, seriously – without Motown’s Corporation (a quartet of writers formed by Berry Gordy to write Jackson 5 material), the Holland brothers, Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton where would Michael Jackson’s reputation be?
And that’s not to mention Don Black and Walter Scharf who wrote the wonderful Ben, which gave MJ his first solo number one.
It was album five of his solo career before MJ even got one of his own songs on one of his own albums.
Off The Wall opens with Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. I’d hesitate to call it a song. It uses fives notes, in two repeated patterns, over two chords. That’s not a song; it’s a riff.
What Don’t Stop is, though, is a great track. And that’s down to Ben Wright’s thrilling strings and Quincy Jones’s arrangement and production. All those wonderful string and guitar riffs that stick in your head, the driving rhythm and the superb scoring for strings and brass.
Now before you get too far on your high horse and start sticking pins in my effigy, a little perspective.
Elvis Presley was 21 when he recorded Heartbreak Hotel, the same age Jackson was when he made Off The Wall. And, in a world where singers sang and producers produced, Elvis produced Heartbreak Hotel, as he did most of his records from there on. And he did it with musical giants such as Floyd Cramer and Chet Atkins in the room.
If you want to use phrases like ‘revolutionary’ and ‘ground-breaking’ (as have been used about MJ), let’s be sure we give them full meaning. What Elvis did with Hotel, and Blue Suede Shoes, and Teddy Bear, and Don’t Be Cruel, and Paralyzed – that was revolutionary. With only a couple of years studio experience under his belt, Elvis Presley turned the system and popular music on its head.
Mind you, I’ll grant you that Elvis never wrote a song that was worth a damn. So let’s look at another 21 year old and what he’d achieved by the age of consent.
Paul McCartney was born in 1942. Before his 22nd birthday he had recorded three albums with the Beatles, all but 13 of the songs written by him and John Lennon. They’d topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and – like Elvis before them – turned the music world upside down.
And every one of those chart toppers, and their B-sides, were written by McCartney and Lennon. In the next six years they wound up the gold standard to heights that have never been equalled, experimenting, pushing boundaries, testing their own abilities, testing their own sanity, and pushing everyone around them to previously unimagined heights of creativity and achievement.
Now – Michael Jackson.
Well, he’d been performing since he was six years old. He was an absurdly talented entertainer and right from the off – when he sang lead on I Want You Back at the age of 12 – you were clearly listening to a natural born singer.
He had his first solo release at the age of 13 and continued to make albums with his brothers.
But it’s eight years, five solo albums and 10 group albums before he gets to record one of his own songs.
You have to ask yourself: was MJ totally unambitious; or was he just a really slow learner?
Or was it the case, as I believe, that he just didn’t write terribly good songs?
Let’s not forget that his Motown stablemate, Stevie Wonder, was 15 when he cowrote his second international chart record, Uptight. He also co-wrote I Was Made To Love Her at the age of 17. Age 21, he wrote the entirety of his Where I’m Coming From album with Syreeta Wright. We know that Stevie had to fight all the way for artistic control with Motown. But he did fight, and he did win.
Go and listen to Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer. Did Michael Jackson ever in his life write such a gorgeous, technically accomplished song?
And he also never managed a ‘classic period’ such as Wonder’s, which started with Music Of My Mind (every song by Wonder, one co-write with Syreeta), continued with Talking Book and ended, arguably, seven years and six albums later with The Secret Life Of Plants. During this period, Wonder wrote, arranged and produced everything – with some help, but still …
Can anyone argue that Michael Jackson really ever did anything to match that? While you rage and fulminate, let’s talk about his dancing.
Fact: Michael Jackson was a great dancer. Really? If so, then what were Bill Robinson, Pearl Primus, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly? There aren’t the superlatives to cover the distance between MJ and their talent.
And, back to Elvis, who personally choreographed the iconic Jailhouse Rock sequence in the film of the same name. Look at that sequence again and tell me it wasn’t the prototype for every classic pop and rock posture.
MJ had about six moves, none of which he invented. Even ‘the moonwalk’ wasn’t his. Watch this clip if you don’t believe me. There’s Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, Cab Calloway, Bill Bailey and a bunch of others, some of whom you will recognise.
Maybe you’ve never seen some of these entertainers; but that doesn’t mean MJ hadn’t. He knew the move existed. He asked dancer Jeffrey Daniels to teach him how to do it.
So my point is, Michael Jackson was a great entertainer. But he was also vastly overrated as a musical artist, as a songwriter and as a dancer. He had a lot of help, and even by the time of Thriller he wasn’t able to fill an album with his own songs. Four songs out of the nine are by MJ. Thriller itself was written by Rod Temperton.
Thriller was released three years after Off The Wall; Bad came nearly five years after Thriller. That’s three albums in eight years. Stevie Wonder managed six classic albums in seven years, all self-written and co-produced.
Which brings me back to my coffee shop and this song that’s nagging in my head. Turns out it’s called A Place With No Name.
Horse With No Name/Place With No Name. I swear it’s even in the same key. By the stuff you leave on the shelf shall you be judged. It is beyond unoriginal, shamelessly filched and completely beneath a supposedly great artist.
And I find another song on the same album called Slave To The Rhythm. But it’s not the Grace Jones song. (I’m gonna write a song called Heartbreak Hotel – why not?!)
He was a magpie, Michael Jackson. He collected other people’s dance moves; other peoples riffs and song titles; he feathered his nest with great songwriters; and with Quincy Jones and, frequently, Rod Temperton. And only when this team had fed, raised and trained a new song was it allowed to leave the nest. At which point, MJ got all the credit.
So let’s celebrate a great entertainer and performer. But let’s cut down a little on the ‘genius’ side of things. And just to illustrate my point about how little of a ‘song’ there is in Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, have a look at this.