Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Michael Jackson - Off the Wall (1979)

What the hell is he doing with his trousers?

No-one is more surprised than I am. There was some documentary about the making of this album on the television, and I'd been eating steak and beans and had thus become too fat to reach the remote, and as I watched I realised that I've always liked Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough and Off the Wall even if I'm only now able to admit it to myself. Punk rock is probably to blame. Whilst it felt great - even liberating - to at last be able to say actually, I think Gentle Giant are shit, we threw a whole lot of babies out with that bathwater back in the days of our Cromwellian haste to reduce our chosen grooves to just the good stuff - which was mainly the Damned, obviously. Unfortunately, as often happens with primarily honkeycentric musical subcultures, there was a certain unspoken resistance to some aspects of black culture which make for uncomfortable viewing with hindsight - not quite the full-on xenophobia of disco sucks, but something in that direction, as demonstrated in the punk preference for those realms of black culture most closely resembling itself - reggae and sound systems rather than that gay stuff which was always on the radio, beloved of casuals, soul boys, squares, and other unenlightened wage-slave losers who'd probably never even heard of Mark Perry.

Of course, you don't seem to hear much Jonathan King on the wireless these days, and it can be similarly difficult getting past what Michael Jackson became - some creepy white dude with the emotional development of an eight-year old; but it's a testament to the quality of his music, at least his decent music, that it still sounds great, a wonderful piece of what was, rather than simply the formative efforts of a man with an illegal hobby. So, relegating the beastliness to the dying days, the deeds of a complete fuck-up who regrettably no longer mattered in any meaningful sense, truly a victim of his own success, let's go back to when Michael was just a young black dude with a great voice and anatomically improbable moves.

Off the Wall is still hailed as a classic, despite everything; and it's a classic providing you skip past Girlfriend and She's Out of My Life - awful balladic landfill of the kind which continues to blight many an R&B album. I don't know why they do it. Maybe some producer suggests a couple of ballads shoved in there. Let's have a couple of softer numbers, he suggests in my imagination, otherwise everyone's going to dismiss our masterpiece as just another disco record, and no-one will take it seriously.

Girlfriend was written by Paul McCartney, and you can really tell. It probably would have sounded okay in 1964 with all the moptop woooh and yeeeah embellishments, but in 1979 on Off the Wall, it wasn't even as good as the Wings version, if you can imagine that; and She's Out of My Life is one of those sappy songs turded out by some balding New Yorker with a piano who also wrote hits for other major stars you couldn't pay me to listen to.

Continuing on the negative tip, Off the Wall kind of sags towards the end, even without the two stinkers. Whilst the last few tracks are decent, it feels almost as though they could just as easily have been above average b-sides, and this is partially the fault of the album opening with such amazing material. Of course it was just disco music, but Jesus - with hindsight it all sounds so live and sharp and tight as fuck, with only a synth bass having derived from any button pushing. You already know how the strings sound, and the horn section, because you've heard Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough a million times; as have I, and yet direct off the record it may as well be the first time - it's that fresh. It sounds so and new and positive that it has me all hopeful as I look forward to the advent of the Sinclair ZX81. I doubt any of them would have admitted it, but this was what all those white guys in German vests with trumpets desperately wanted to sound like.

It isn't a classic, but it sort of is if you squint a bit and we pretend there are only eight tracks on the record rather than ten. Also, it's nice to recall that Jackson's once legendary status was not entirely unjustified, and so it's probably better to remember him as he was than as he became.

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