"Off The Wall" Turns 40, and There Has Been Nothing Like it Since

(August 11, 2019) There are times in our lives when an event, a person or, yes, an album, is such a symbol of pure bliss that it – even for a moment -- drowns out all of the negative countervailing forces of the time. For many of us, Michael Jackson’s seminal album Off The Wall, issued during a troubling period in our nation’s history, was one of those moments. And while it may seem to have been released just a blink of an eye ago, this week it is celebrating its 40th anniversary – incredibly, its release date was closer to World War II than to today.

(August 11, 2019) There are times in our lives when an event, a person or, yes, an album, is such a symbol of pure bliss that it – even for a moment -- drowns out all of the negative countervailing forces of the time. For many of us, Michael Jackson’s seminal album Off The Wall, issued during a troubling period in our nation’s history, was one of those moments. And while it may seem to have been released just a blink of an eye ago, this week it is celebrating its 40th anniversary – incredibly, its release date was closer to World War II than to today.

Michael Jackson was just a twenty year old kid when he was teamed with Quincy Jones to assemble Off The Wall. And success wasn’t a certainty by any means. Jackson was a young artist with virtually unlimited potential, but one who had been unfairly inhibited by record labels, radio, and even by his family, who saw him as a manchild still dependent on others to direct his career. Off The Wall was his emancipation, and he reveled in the freedom that it brought, expressing his glee via a project that, for my money, was one of the top five popular albums of my lifetime.

Divine providence brought Quincy Jones into the project. The workaholic producer and songwriter had collaborated with the greatest artists of the second half of the twentieth century, and his combination of experience, structure and access was key to overseeing a disc that would become nearly irresistible. That included bringing in the best material for the artist, from a stunning bevy of contributors: A past-his-songwriting-peak Paul McCartney delivered “Girlfriend,” a melodic trifle of a song that would have been odd for the 37 year old former Beatle to himself record, but which ultimately epitomized the innocent mischief of the project. On the other hand, an on point Stevie Wonder handed to his former Motown labelmate an all-timer: “I Can’t Help It” was so strong it would have worked in nearly any scenario (evidenced by the literally hundreds of subsequent covers), but with the moody, ethereal backdrop presented by Q and delivered via MJ’s breathy vocals, it is near pop-soul perfection.

Similarly stunning was Tom Bahler’s “She’s Out of My Life,” an emotionally wrenching ballad of love lost that was so absorbed by Jackson, he literally cried his way through it. And of course there was Q’s brilliant gamble of bringing in Heatwave keyboardist Rod Temperton and handing him the reins for three contributions that would define the dance floor cred of the album, “Off The Wall,” “Rock With You” (a song oddly turned down by Heatwave) and “Burn This Disco Out.”

For Jackson, the ultimate validation of the project was “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” his declarative statement that he had not only developed into a professional songwriter, but a writer of remarkable proportions. The composition and the clever arrangement were otherworldly in 1979, and sound just as fresh four decades later, a tribute to the infectious, hooky material, Jones’ creative production work, and MJ’s glorious falsetto vocal performance.

Of course, Off The Wall was not only a smash, it set the stage for one of the greatest commercial runs by any artist. But never again would Jackson capture the spirit of pure delight that was the secret sauce of Off The Wall. Both Thriller and Bad were brilliant in their own right, but their heavier rock-influenced sounds and their often suspicious lyrics displayed the complications – and emerging paranoia - of Jackson’s adult life. On both, Michael Jackson was dealing with the weight of King of Pop, Incorporated, and it showed. Off The Wall had no such incoming baggage, allowing artist and producer to simply swing for the fences without the burden of lofty expectations.  

When Prince died three years ago, I wrote that his too-early death, combined with those of Jackson and Whitney Houston, robbed an entire generation of their Sinatra, an artist who both defined his generation and was able to perform into his 80s, remaining in his fans’ lives through their own passages into old age. Jackson’s fans didn’t have that blessing, but I’ve come to see that great solace remains in the music itself, still popping joyously and youthfully out of the speakers years after his shocking death. And no release captures the elation of reconnection more than Off The Wall.

Ultimately, one is left with the question: when was the last time that an album of such transcendent quality was also a symbol of sheer pleasure to fans of virtually every age, race and culture? That may be Off The Wall’s greatest triumph; one that seems even more relevant now than it did forty years ago.

By Chris Rizik

 
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