Friday, 26 June 2009

'And when the groove is dead and gone...'



So, where were you when you heard Michael Jackson had died?

It was about 11pm, and my girlfriend had turned in for the night. I'd just told her about the report on TMZ that Michael Jackson had suffered a heart attack and been rushed to hospital. It had been a strange day, one that had already brought news of several deaths; iconoclastic music journalist Steven Wells, actress/70s icon Farrah Fawcett and psych legend Sky Saxon. Not necessarily major figures in the grander scheme of things, but all people who'd made enough of a mark on my life to prompt a Facebook status update saying, 'can the great and the good please stop dying now?' The thought that such a day might end with the sudden and unexpected death of one of the 20th century's landmark artists didn't seem worthy of consideration. I was all set to chill out for a while, watching Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World on the Discovery Channel, when the phone rang. It was my girlfriend's mother. 'Paul, turn on the news. Michael Jackson is dead.' I woke my girlfriend up and, for the next hour or so, we both sat on the sofa, stunned and in almost complete silence, as we watched the 24-hour rolling news channels struggling to fill their airtime as they waited for the inevitable confirmation.



The first time I saw Michael Jackson was on The Andy Williams Show in 1970, and it was absolutely spine-tingling. I couldn't believe that this kid, hardly older than me, was able to sing and dance so expressively and soulfully - as much as any adult, if not more so. And the song. Man, what a song. Almost 40 years later, I struggle to think of too many songs as full of joy and life-affirming energy as 'I Want You Back'. Even in my pre-adolescence, I still had a sense that I'd just had my first sight of a major talent and, as the 70s progressed, this was borne out by a succession of glorious singles, both from the Jackson 5 and Michael himself. When the Osmonds - like the Jacksons, another family group who got their first break courtesy of Andy Williams - hit their peak in the early 70s, the Jackson 5 became the cool kids' alternative, the teen-girl pin-ups it was OK to like. Even as their first wave of success began to plateau and the pop hits became less frequent, they were still coming with gems like 'Dancing Machine' or 'Mirrors Of My Mind', and a disco-era move from Motown to CBS (leaving Jermaine behind) seemed to galvanise them once more as they ended the 70s on a high. However, at the end of the 70s, Michael was about to leave his brothers, and everyone else, far behind.

I bought one of the 20 million copies of 'Off The Wall' in late '79, some five or six months after it had first came out. Punk was still a significant musical force, and a few of my friends sneered at me, wisecracking about how they didn't know I was into disco now. 'Fuck that, it's just a good record', I said. And it still is; for me, arguably his best. This was where he became an adult as an artist, where all those idiosyncratic ad-libs - the little whoops, squeals and hiccups - that had peppered his vocals on songs like 'Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground) or 'Show You The Way To Go' had developed into an arsenal that was to mark him out as one of the great vocal stylists of the era, as unique and original as James Brown or Elvis. 'Don't Stop Til You Get Enough' was a thrilling two-chord jam that can still smash dancefloors to this day, and the combination of the songs, Quincy Jones' flawless production, and that voice, was the absolute zenith of turn-of-the-decade r&b. And then he fucking topped it. Christ, did he top it...



One of the things I remember most about 'Thriller', apart from the rapid-fire succession of dazzling hit singles, the groundbreaking videos, and its almost supernatural perfection, was that it marked the point where Michael Jackson ceased to be the best r&b singer out there, and became instead 'the biggest rock star (my italics) in the world'. It was as if, by virtue of breaking the MTV colour bar and getting Eddie Van Halen to play on 'Beat It', he was now deemed sufficiently important to sit at the big people's table. Never mind that he'd just released one of the richest, most vibrant albums of the decade, in any genre; he was now worthy of 'serious' analysis. The cultural and racial implications of his success, questions about whether visuals were becoming more important than music, and the whole MJ phenomenon, right down to those crummy LA Gear trainers, all went under the microscope. I don't think that's ever happened to a black artist, either before or since - at least, not to anything like the same extent. There used to be a lot written about how Ray Charles' innovative album 'Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music' did a phenomenal amount to dissolve racial barriers during the early days of the civil rights movement in the US, and it occurs to me that 'Thriller' did something similar - about 42 million times over. All those kids, particularly white kids, who wanted to look, dress and dance like - ah, fuck it, who wanted to be Michael Jackson. I think we might have forgotten just what a big deal that was.

It still amazes me that CBS execs actually rejected MJ's follow-up to 'Thriller'. Here was a man who'd effectively just put the next few generations of their families through school, and they were sending him back to the lab with a note saying, 'must do better'. Whether 'Bad' actually was better than what he first delivered, we don't know (although I suspect we'll find out before much longer). All the same, its release was An Event, and it lived up to its billing, even if it didn't surpass 'Thriller' in sales terms; five US number ones, a Scorsese-directed video for the title track, and the whole thing backed up by a wildly successful world tour that cemented his status as the biggest pop superstar in the world. 'Dangerous' actually managed to outstrip it; Quincy was gone, but as a parting shot, he'd put in a word for Teddy Riley, whose production nudged Jackson in a more explicit r&b direction than the one he'd taken for much of 'Bad'. It's a decent album, and it sold well - better than its predecessor - but just as it was peaking, the stories of Jackson's well-documented eccentricities and increasingly bizarre lifestyle began to take on a much uglier tone.

I suppose it's inevitable that a lot of the comment following his death will focus on the persistent allegations of sexual abuse that dogged his career for much of the 90s and beyond, leading up to the trial in which he was acquitted of all charges brought against him. There were already enduring rumours - which turned out to be true - that he was living beyond what must have been considerable means, and even after beating the rap in 2005, he still seemed to be facing certain artistic and financial ruin. But I think that, at some point, you have to try and separate the art from the artist. There's no end of testimony which suggests, for example, that Miles Davis, Alfred Hitchcock, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye and Pablo Picasso were all fairly unpleasant human beings, to say the least. But does such knowledge diminish the greatness of their art? Indeed, should we allow it to? Is it because we now demand so much more of artists, beyond just their work, that we end up learning things about them that we'd really rather not know? I don't want to seem as if I'm ignoring the less savoury aspects of Michael Jackson's lifestyle, but I can't help thinking what a shame it would be for someone as clearly troubled as he was, who'd been brutalised by his father as a child, and who'd lived virtually his entire life in the public eye to be remembered first for his transgressions, rather than for a body of work that, at its best, is at least the equal of anything in the realm of modern popular music. Y'know, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. I can understand why some people would feel differently, but equally, I can't help looking for whatever good there might be in the circumstances, if indeed any remains. Given that there's certain to be a plethora of books examining the darker side of Jackson's life, I see no possibility of an end to the debate for quite some time.

After he was acquitted in 2005, me and a few friends played a game of 'Fantasy A&R', wherein we talked about what we'd do if we were given the job of revitalising Michael Jackson's career. I suggested that he hooked up with the Neptunes and made a straight-up modern r&b record that would put him back on every dancefloor and radio station in the world, or perhaps followed Outkast's lead and struck out in an altogether more adventurous direction to see if he could turn pop music on its head the way he'd done in the 80s. Someone else came up with an absolute, can't-fail, shoo-in - an album of Beatles covers, something which, if he'd reined in his latter-day tendency towards lachrymose schmaltz, would surely have sold shitloads. Even though I struggled to see any way back for him after the trial, regardless of its outcome, I still hung onto the possibility that he might yet have had a career-saving comeback in him. The planned season of shows at the O2 could possibly have kickstarted a revival in his fortunes, but, equally likely, it could have pointed to a bleak vision of a possible future where an increasingly-isolated Jackson ran down the clock of his twilight years as a living jukebox amidst the buffets, slots and tables of some high-end Vegas resort like Caesar's or the MGM Grand, redeemed financially, but artistically a spent force. We'll never know.

Still, there's always the music...

The Jackson 5: Never Can Say Goodbye



The Jackson 5: It's Great To Be Here



Michael Jackson: Almost There



The Jackson 5: Mirrors Of My Mind



The Jacksons: Living Together (Ron Hardy Tribute Edit)



Michael Jackson: Rock With You




Michael Jackson: I Just Can't Stop Loving You




Michael Jackson: Remember The Time





Goodbye, Michael.