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The Royal Family

Two New Reissues Present The Jacksons as They Existed Before Michael Eclipsed Them Completely

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 11/5/2008

Recently, Hip-O Select released The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 10: 1970, the latest in a projected series of 12 volumes. Six CDs long, it's full of fascinating failures: nothing B-sides, blatant fad jumps, misguided covers. (The Supremes' and Four Tops' "River Deep--Mountain High" is camp-worthy even before the recently deceased Levi Stubbs jumps in with an ultra-hammy, "Did you ever have a rag doll?!") And then there are the Jackson 5's second, third, and fourth singles. "ABC," "The Love You Save," and "I'll Be There" make plain where Berry Gordy's resources were focused that year--to argue with those records is to argue with the universe. Clearly, Gordy's strategy for the coming '70s was five kids from Gary, Ind., named Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael.

The Jackson brothers did indeed help define the decade, but not quite in the way Gordy intended. As Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder shifted to making albums under their own supervision, the J5 were stuck with decreasingly inspired in-house producer/writers. Those initial hits established Michael as the greatest underage singer of all time, but once he hit puberty things grew less certain. That changed in 1974, when "Dancing Machine" went to No. 1 and keynoted an album that was one of the earliest to explicitly aim for the newly emergent discos.

Two years later, the group left Motown--Jermaine, who'd married Gordy's daughter Hazel (they later divorced), was replaced by youngest brother Randy--changed their name to the Jacksons (Gordy owned the "5"), and took their new disco leanings with them, signing with CBS and recording first for the label's Philadelphia International imprint where they worked with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff to no one's great satisfaction, then moving to CBS's Epic subdivision and taking over their own production and writing. Epic/Legacy has just reissued the first two albums under this new arrangement, and both 1978's Destiny and 1980's Triumph are fascinating for the simple fact that they're Jackson products of major renown that aren't completely ubiquitous. That honor, of course, goes to the two albums Michael made on his own during the period: 1979's Off the Wall and 1982's Thriller.

There's a sense in which it is odd to hear Michael Jackson singing over anything that isn't precision-tooled. His biggest hits have always had the air of the mechanical about them, even when the playing is patently live: Think of the flawless instrumentation of "ABC" or "I Want You Back," or the gargantuan clop of the drums on "Billie Jean." (Even "Beat It," for all its rock-song strategy, featured as its soloist the technique-obsessed Eddie Van Halen.) So the oddest thing about Destiny is how human it is. It's flawed, sure, but it's also loose in a way Michael would never allow himself to be on record again.

The two singles on the album are the best examples. "Blame It on the Boogie" is effervescent, with Michael clearly having a good time singing a lyric--"Don't blame it on sunshine/ Don't blame it on moonlight/ Don't blame it on the good times/ Blame it on the boogie"--that's clever, even cute, in the way of the early J5 hits, but fit the singer as a budding young adult. ("Boogie" was actually written by a wholly different Michael Jackson, a singer/songwriter who performed as Mick Jackson, along with his brother David and Elmar Krohn. The famous Michael wrote or co-wrote the rest of the album's songs.) "Shake Your Body Down (To the Ground)" is even better, guitar and piano riding a simple descending-note progression that rubs nicely against the insistent rhythm.

But both songs are a bit clumpy compared with the spring-loaded grooves Michael and producer Quincy Jones would cook up a mere one year later. Not only that, but the Legacy reissues include bonus 12-inch mixes by Boston DJ John Luongo--his retooling of "Blame" and "Shake" both improve on the originals, with intensified percussion and a greater sense of stereo spaciousness that allowed them to work better in clubs. And while on the album Michael sings ballads such as "Push Me Away" and "That's What You Get (For Being Polite)" beautifully, the songs themselves are slight, as is filler like "All Night Dancin'," a slight disco track as forced as its title hints it might be.

The obvious difference between Destiny and Triumph is that the latter followed in the wake of Off the Wall, and sounds it. The production on Triumph is far glossier, both bigger and more detail-oriented, than on Destiny; it had to be in order to breathe the same air as Off the Wall, an album so sparkling that even its minor cuts became classics. Where Destiny has the brothers feeling their way into their own artistic maturity, Triumph flaunts it, much the same way Off the Wall did for Michael alone.

Yet Triumph, like Michael's album, wears its humongous ambition lightly. Michael was pals with Freddie Mercury, and "Can You Feel It" is the Jacksons' version of a Queen-sized stadium anthem, from the churchy opening chorale to the everything-on-the-beat arrangement. Yet it's never overbearing: Throughout the album, the rhythms are both subtler and more forceful than before. All five brothers contribute to the writing, with Jackie's hand in five of nine cuts--Michael is credited on six--and Randy and Marlon singing co-lead on "Can You Feel It" and "Give It Up," respectively. The results are genuinely celebratory: In lesser hands, the busy horns of "Everybody" and thickly layered strings of "Walk Right Now" might seem ostentatious. Instead, they communicate an unassailable confidence that matches the irresistible rhythm-guitar licks and Michael's still-yearning vocals.

In the wake of 1982's Thriller, Michael had eclipsed his brothers completely, and by the time of 1984's tepid Victory, the group, once one of the biggest around, began to seem like a mere adjunct. Jackie, Tito, Marlon, and Randy may have been minor talents in comparison with their brother, but one listen to Destiny confirms that their talent was still real. It's hard not to wonder what might have been had they been able to stay on equal footing with their most famous sibling. Maybe his continuing participation would have juiced their later work; maybe their input would have leavened his records' hubris. If Destiny is something of a lost classic, it also represents a lost opportunity.

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