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This Week In…: Off The Wall

August 9th edition of “This Week In…” produced by Mikemetic for Wax Museum Vinyl

Artist Name: Michael Jackson

Release Name: Off The Wall

Release Date: 10 August 1979

The internet era has not been particularly kind to traditional pop music on just about every musical level. One of the music industry’s most powerful tools in the late 20th century, AM/FM radio, expanded to a digital landscape that had no boundaries and no real gatekeepers which has allowed more artists the opportunity to breakthrough towards commercial fame and pop stardom. But before that digital frontier opened up to creating stars out of ones and zeroes, there was no bigger pop star in the analog world than Michael Jackson. His breakthrough album Off The Wall was released 10 August 1979, and is one of the most celebrated pop music albums of all time as a bridge between the closing of the disco era and the opening of the glamorous eighties.

After spending a decade recording for the legendary Motown label, Off The Wall was MJ’s sixth solo album but his first one on Epic Records. The album also marked the beginning of his string of stellar recordings with legendary producer Quincy Jones who provided not just an elevated level of industry relevance through his involvement, but a solid foundation in song arrangement that had helped him create hits for a wide range of artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Aretha Franklin among many others.

But it is really the tracks that Jackson co-produced as songwriter, including the dancefloor burners “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” and “Workin’ Day And Night”, that established him as the premier pop vocal entertainer leading into the 80s. The third track he co-produced for the album was “Get On The Floor” which featured another Quincy Jones protege Louis Johnson, bass player of the Brothers Johnson, who is a standing pioneer of the slap bass playing style later emulated by many major stars including Flea, Victor Wooten, Thundercat, and Les Claypool. And while Q does get full production credit on the remainder of the tracks, songwriting credits reflect the involvement of a crew of veteran songwriters like Rod Temperton of the 70s disco funk group Heatwave, and Tom Bahler who’s slow-rolling ballad “She’s Out Of My Life” was originally written (but never recorded) for Frank Sinatra.

To add a bit more pop star power to the project, MJ was paired with his former Motown label mate Stevie Wonder to formally record his demo version of “Can’t Help It” with Jackson on vocals. And for a bit of crossover appeal the bass player for The Beatles, Paul McCartney, was brought in to pen the song “Girlfriend’ as The Beatles had their own run as the biggest pop band in the world in the 1960s. Unfortunately, that track ended up coming across as a not-so-low key extortion attempt by MJ to get his sneaky link “girlfriend” to leave her boyfriend by threatening to snitch on her. Not a good look but art imitates life, right?

Overall, many people consider Off The Wall to be Michael Jackson’s greatest solo album, even with his next album Thriller winning significantly more awards and having exponentially more commercial success. The album captured and presented the genius adlibs, harmonies, and falsetto power that went on to clearly influence the vocal and recording styles of Virginia artists like Pharrell Williams and D’angelo.

Off The Wall was such a deep influence on Williams (plus MJ occasionally recorded at Teddy Riley’s Future Studios in Virginia Beach where he served as an intern) that Pharrell wrote a whole series of songs to present to Jackson in the early 2000s. By then a very selective global megastar, Jackson passed on the opportunity to work with the emerging super-producer. However you can clearly hear the influence of Off The Wall era MJ in those songs that Pharrell penned, which he ended up giving to Justin Timberlake for the foundational tracks of his debut album “Justified”.

As an added bit of irony, I grew up in Virginia Beach and is where this copy of Off The Wall was played the most as it belonged to my older brother Paul who's name is penned on the front cover.

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