Off the Wall – Michael Jackson (1979)

Off The Wall LP cover
Off The Wall LP cover

If you were like me you grew up listening to Michael Jackson. From his robot dances with the Jackson Five to the Moon Walk as a solo superstar, Michael Jackson’s long career was marked by many important milestones. One of his most important and often overlooked transitions came in his metamorphosis  child star to adult superstar. It’s easy to blur the line with MJ, after all he had been doing adult caliber things at age 5. Jackson’s fifth solo album Off the Wall would be the milestone that marked the transition to manhood.

It also would be his biggest selling album up to that point in his career. The successful team of Jackson and producer Quincy Jones would be backed by first-rate session musicians like George Duke, Greg Phillinganes and Louis Johnson from the Brothers Johnson. Jackson and Jones had worked together with Diana Ross on the musical The Wiz a year earlier.

In the process of recording Off the Wall it had been said that Jones coached Jackson into lowering his voice for a more grownup delivery on some tracks. Whatever they did it worked, because Off the Wall was all over the charts and airwaves from the summer 1979 to well into 1980. Not only did the album go multi-platinum, it got rave reviews despite being a departure from previous Jackson recordings. In addition to the usual Jacksonian elements, Off the Wall featured quiet storm (‘I Can’t Help It’) and tear jerking ballads (‘She’s Out of My Life’). In short it offered something for everyone.

It was a near perfect blend of smooth funk and R&B that captured the essence of Michael Jackson as a R&B singer better than the blockbuster Thriller would years later. Some of the most infectious dance pop ever can be found on side one of the album that featured ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ and ‘Rock With You’. These were the kind of songs that made people like me with no rhythm or coordination want to dance.

Off the Wall had a lot going for it thanks to solid songwriting from an army of collaborators that included Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder among others. With a run of five singles, even the least successful, the downer  ‘She’s Out of My Life” cracked the top 50.

Jackson would later admit that during the time of the recording of Off the Wall, he was going through a difficult period of feeling isolated and lonely. Quincy Jones was able to channel Michael’s soft angst into one of the most popular of Jackson’s long list of albums. If there was any clue that this would continue, all one had to do was look at the glowing white socks on the back of the album cover (or the front of some CD re-issues). Looking very much like it could have been a promo still from ‘Billie Jean’, the white sock and high-water paints would become part of the MJ trademark later. The partnership was so successful that it would define a new stage of Jackson’s career that lasted until 1991’s Dangerous.

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