The Best Of – Michael Jackson & Jackson Five (Polygram 1997)
UK Chart Position – 5
Throughout the sixties Motown, nicknamed “The Sound Of Young America”, had been an unassailable force in popular music. The Marvelettes had scored the label’s first US#1 Pop single back in 1961 with “Please Mr Postman” and the rest of the decade saw a group of young African-American artists becoming household names worldwide and transforming the face of music on the way. By 1969, however, the label was looking just a little vulnerable. Major hitmaking writing and production team Holland, Dozier and Holland had departed, the label’s biggest money-spinning act The Supremes had split with Diana Ross facing a solo career where she did not know whether she would be be embraced or blamed. Marvin Gaye’s career was in the doldrums affected by the terminal illness of duet partner Tammi Terrell and the Temptations had sacked the disctinctively voiced maverick David Ruffin with some loss of identity. What was needed was an act which would inject a breath of fresh air into the proceedings to ensure the label’s relevance for the new decade and, boy, did they find it with five youngsters from Gary, Indiana.
Michael + bubblegum = worldwide hits
One of the most successful musical trends in 1969 was bubblegum pop. This is best personified by two of the year’s biggest hits “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe and The Shondells and, especially, “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies. This type of youth-orientated pop was often recorded by session musicians which meant there was not a great deal of identity going on. In fact, the Archies were a cartoon group based on the long-running comic characters. The planning behind Motown’s new signing was genius, to produce music in this genre with a strong identifiable group and who knows, maybe get a cartoon series of their own! So at the end of 1969 to an unsuspecting record-buying public came “I Want You Back” by The Jackson Five. These were no session singers. This group, and especially the lead singer were singing for their lives. It explodes from the very first note, never lets up and is one of the greatest pop singles of all time.
“I Want You Back” is the opening track of 20 on this 1997 Polygram compilation which showcases the early years of this musical phenomenon, the six years they spent on Motown as The Jackson Five and the solo tracks of one Michael Jackson. This period could be seen as a musical apprenticeship for one of the biggest recording stars ever but it is more than that because a number of these tracks represent his and his band of brothers’ best work.
“I Want You Back” is Motown’s best hit single both in terms of sound and what it represents. Saleswise it was no slouch either topping the US charts and getting to number 2 in the UK. It was written and produced by “The Corporation” which may have been Berry Gordy’s attempt at bubble-gum anonymity or a response to Holland, Dozier & Holland’s sound becoming bigger than the artists – anyone making demands could be slipped out of “The Corporation” without the upheaval of HDH’s departure. The Corporation was later revealed to be Berry Gordy alongside Motown staffers Frank Mizell, Freddie Perren and Deke Richards. This track began a golden run for the group as their next three singles would also top the American charts and the two after that would get to number 2. They would get their own TV cartoon series and inspire at least one other chart-topping act, the former Barbershop family group The Osmonds who created a close an approximation to the Jackson sound as possible and got their first hit, the chart-topping “One Bad Apple” thus beginning the other musical dynasty of the 70’s and beyond.
Hearing these first five singles one after the other in chronological order on this CD is a joy to behold. The energy invested in these tracks is sensational and the powerhouse behind it is the amazing vocal of the best child star ever, Michael Jackson. On “ABC” (UK#8), “The Love You Save” (UK#7) and “Mama’s Pearl” (US#2,UK#25) his performance is exhausting. Even if you do not like this sort of music the achievement of this pre-teen has to be applauded. If pop-soul and bubblegum pop is seen as anodyne here is the antidote –a boy who is singing as hard as any James Brown or Jackie Wilson and of course the live performances of these numbers, with the group bedecked in 70’s flares and bright patchworks of colour are absolutely mesmerising. Somebody in Motown, was thinking ahead and amongst these pop stormers were released a couple of excellent soul ballads which showed a whole other side to the group. “I’ll Be There” gave the rest of the group a chance to have their moment in the spotlight and topped the US charts for 5 weeks (UK#4). The Corporation were temporarily abandoned as Gordy worked with two other Motown staff writers and producers Hal Davis and Willie Hutch. This track became the biggest Motown song to date which was a real indication that this group would have longevity. “Never Can Say Goodbye” was a song written by Clifton Davis for the Ross-less Supremes. The decision was made to give it to the Jackson Five. Although it got to number 2 in the US it became their smallest British hit to date (#33). It was up to later acts such as Gloria Gaynor and The Communards to take this song up to the higher reaches of the chart.
After this run of five hits there was huge demand to record Michael as a solo artist. The first choice for single release seems so inappropriate that it is a joy. Who thought a good song for a twelve year old boy would feature lyrics that stated he was intending to be around when his love woke up in the morning with the implication that he would be there in bed with her? Lyrically dubious, this is one of the first examples of the naivety of the group and those surrounding them. Luckily, the song (and the exemplary performance) was good enough to get such thoughts out of our grubby minds and “Got To Be There” reached #4 in the US,#5 in UK. The follow-up seemed more age appropriate and may have been a nod to the old-song revivals that Donny Osmond was recording as “Rockin’ Robin” had reached #2 Stateside for Bobby Day in 1958. It had not been such a big hit in the UK (#29). Jackson’s version matched Day’s chart position in the US and reached #3 in the UK. If you remember this track as being amazingly twee, have another listen. The tweeness is not in the fact that it’s recorded by a child (get “Long Haired Lover From Liverpool” out of your mind straight away) it’s actually the flute line that gives it a sugary coating. Jackson’s vocal which is bordering on raspy certainly does not. In the UK Jackson also scored a big solo hit with his version of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” (#8- 1972). The most notorious of the early run of Michael’s solo hits was of course, “Ben” hopefully the only hit song to be addressed to a rat. A tender love song from a horror film sequel this song showed really for the first time the vulnerability which Jackson could also convey with his voice which at times resembles his great friend and inspiration Diana Ross. “Ben” gave Jackson his fourth US Top 20 hit and his first number 1. In the UK it was also his 4th hit and reached number 7.
Meanwhile whilst Michael was topping charts things were not going so well for the family group. A run of under-performing singles from mid 1971-2 is represented on this CD only by “Looking Through The Windows” which became the first of their singles to do better in the UK than US (US#16,UK#9). This change of fortunes was cemented when their version of Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” only became a hit in Britain (UK#9). By mid 1973 it could seem that their days at Motown could be numbered. The attempt to get back the effervescence of their early hits led to the Freddie Perren produced “Hallelujah Day” a gospel-esque track from one of the few African-American groups of the time not to come from a gospel background. This reached #28 in the US and #20 UK. It’s very likely that anyone would say that this is their favourite Jacksons track. It is catchy and bubbles away but it feels like very cheap champagne after “I Want You Back” and ends up all rather inconsequential. This is something that might have been picked up by the Jacksons’ management as negotiations began for them to move away from Motown. I do have more of a soft spot for “Skywriter” with its distorted, aeroplane inspired vocals which took them to #25 in the UK. Their US career renaissance “Dancing Machine” which took them to number 2 in 1974 but was passed on by us Brits is not included on this CD.
So with Motown owning the name and Jermaine deciding to stay with the label as he had married the boss’ daughter Hazel Gordy, Michael and the remaining Jacksons eventually decided to take the plunge and move to Epic (a move that would be rewarded with their only UK number 1 the understated “Show You The Way To Go” from 1977, which is beyond the remit of this album). What we are left with on this CD, apart from the obligatory “I Want You Back” remix (a number 8 UK hit in 1988) are more examples of the solo Jackson. “Happy” is a lovely song which maintains Diana Ross connections both through Michael’s solo performance and the fact that it was inspired by the Oscar nominated vehicle “Lady Sings The Blues”. Written by Smokey Robinson, it was inspired by the instrumental love theme composed for the film by Michel Legrand. It does not appear in it and in fact there is not a lot “happy” about that particular film focusing on the difficulties of Billie Holiday’s life.
After Jackson made his spectacular comeback with “Off The Wall” which showed the transition of the boy star to the adult superstar he was to become there was a great demand for tracks he had recorded at Motown and they were prepared to come up with the goods. One of these “One Day In Your Life” gave him his first UK number 1 in 1981 despite being recorded six years earlier. Recorded in his mid-teens this is a sublime track and probably features one of his last great vocal performances – as his career progressed he became more of a vocal stylist than a technically proficient singer. For a while this opened the re-release floodgate in the UK – many tracks that had been languishing on under-promoted albums or in the Motown vaults whilst the group’s tenure on the label was looking dubious. This must have been frustrating for the adult Jackson trying to establish his new identity with “Off The Wall” and even up to the point of the release of “Thriller” where teen-pop fluff such as “Farewell My Summer Love” made #7 in 1984. There’s delights to be found here with “We’re Almost There” (UK#46 in 1981), a great track which sounds very much like the songs The Supremes were recording at the time, although admittedly it does run out of steam a little before the end and “Girl You’re So Together” which ended the Motown re-release run reaching #33 in 1984.
The Motown Years of Michael Jackson and Jackson Five cannot be brushed away as them learning their craft. Michael may have become bigger but he was not often better than in these songs and performances. The Jacksons also went on to have a solid career but the rest of the brothers were always going to be overshadowed by Michael. This is something that should not have caused them too much distress as it was evident right from when he was very young that he was extraordinarily special. As you might have gathered from my enthusiasm for this CD that we have not quite finished with the members of this family just yet……………………
The Best Of Michael Jackson and The Jackson Five is available from Amazon in the UK for £4.33 and used from £0.01. There are of course other compilations available but I prefer the separation of the Motown tracks from the later years. A UK release it takes some finding in the US. American listeners might wish to explore “The Jackson Five – The Ultimate Collection” as a fair substitute.