November 4, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Steve Knopper's MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson is a fascinating and meticulously researched biography of the enigmatic pop star.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"Reveals a complicated, workaholic, tortured, sensitive soul…One of the book's clear strengths is its immediacy, the result of more than 400 interviews…Knopper writes with verve…He conveys Jackson’s drive and brilliance while also being cleareyed about his demons…captures the inherent tragedy of the arc of Jackson's biography"
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
The absolute best part of writing MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson was listening to his songs over and over and over and over until they drove my family nuts. I probably delved into 1991's Dangerous most of all, since it's his most complex and mature album, a portrait of a powerful artist finally willing to lay down (cryptic) details of his personal life in song. He hadn't yet encountered the child-molestation accusations, so he was more contemplative than angry, like he'd be on much of the HIStory album, which is, in an unusual way, kind of punk rock. For the three years I worked on MJ, I'd suck up entire weekends on Prince's catalog, Fred Astaire movies, James Brown clips, albums by Rufus, Heatwave and the Brothers Johnson and, of course, All MJ all the Time.
Jackson 5, "ABC" — No MJ author can resist retelling the old "I Want You Back" story (involving star Gladys Knight, Motown founder Berry Gordy and songwriters Deke Richards, Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell). But in my interview with the late, great Richards, I focused more on the comparatively under-analyzed "ABC." Richards kindly told me how Michael's "Get up, girl! Show me what you can do!" shtick came together. (It first entered Richards' mind years earlier, when he was doing his own show-biz career in LA, jumped off a stage, landed on a woman and spontaneously dropped this line.)
Jackson 5, "Goin' Back to Indiana" — When my daughter was 3 years old, she happened to hear this song and insisted on repeating it 400 times per day. For a while, I thought I'd get the shakin', shakin' shakes if I heard "OK, Tito, you got it!" one more time, but it's one of the J5's most joyful songs. Later, while researching their TV appearances, I came across the '70s ABC special of the same name. It has an extraordinary sequence in which the J5 takes on NBA greats Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor and Elvin Hayes, with Tommy Smothers as the comic foil and Bill Cosby as the narrator. (Spoiler: Jackie saves the day.)
Jackson 5, "Dancing Machine" — I had more fun writing about this song than just about anything else in the book. Motown designed it, more or less, as a soundtrack for MJ to do the Robot, which became his first "holy crap" dance. Many of the Motown LA session musicians from the J5 era were available for interviews, and the great drummer James Gadson recalled how he created the impromptu bah-bum-ba-bum opening.
Jackie Jackson, "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)" — Deke Richards told me he had grand plans for breaking the other Jacksons' solo careers while at Motown. The songwriter and producer had to leave the label, sadly, before he could make it happen, but Jackie's 1973 self-titled album snuck out anyhow. It's not exactly Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," but I really enjoy isolating Jackie's underrated falsetto, which was usually in service of MJ's brassy leads. This funky cover of a Delfonics smash is perfect for him.
Rufus, "Do You Love What You Feel" — Disco still ruled the world while MJ and producer Quincy Jones were making Off the Wall, but neither wished to merely regurgitate the sounds of the times. Instead, they borrowed the most important rhythms and dance-hall spirit from the genre and forged ahead with their own unique thing. They had a few forward-looking, disco-ish albums to guide them -- Heatwave's Central Heating, the Brothers Johnson's Blam! and Rufus' Masterjam. One of my favorite "MJ" musical history lessons was delving into the inspirations for Off the Wall.
Michael Jackson, "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" — An obvious choice, but I reach for this joyful dancehall rocker whenever I need some emergency MJ. I agree with the Pitchfork 500 that it more than belongs on the same list as Television's "Marquee Moon," Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" and Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" from the same era.
Prince, "Controversy" — Prince was sort of the Rolling Stones to Michael's Beatles throughout the '80s, and musicians who worked on Thriller say MJ had a record player in the studio he used to play Prince hits for inspiration. They inspired each other, particularly when Janet hired longtime Prince collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to produce her groundbreaking late-'80s solo albums. I'd argue the production on Janet's Rhythm Nation 1814 was super-influential for MJ's Dangerous.
Michael Jackson, "Billie Jean" — During my 3-year-old daughter's MJ phase, this classic briefly slipped into our family playlist. I've always loved the song but there's nothing like a 3-year-old's repetition to make you listen to something closely. Everything about this song is built for eternity: Louis Johnson's bassline, the way the synths come in, Michael's not-quite-on-beat yet somehow immaculately timed oohs and aahs, the mystery of the lyrics. I asked a lot of sources for their favorite MJ songs, and got a lot of unusual answers, involving rarities and counter-intuitive non-hits, but "Billie Jean" is immortal.
Michael Jackson, "Give In to Me" — Like many MJ fans, I've come to appreciate the Dangerous album as one of the most fascinating of his solo career — Susan Fast wrote a superb "33 1/3" book about it last year. The album opens with those three killer new-jack-swing funk numbers, "Jam," "Why You Wanna Trip On Me" and "In the Closet," then takes many detours into self-confessional lyrics and inspirational balladeering. "Give In to Me" is the most complex song on the album, drastically shifting in tone from gospel shouting to spoken-word poems. MJ beautifully holds it all together.
Michael Jackson, "If You Don't Love Me" — Like many great artists, MJ over-recorded for every album, leaving fans to pore over his unreleased material. David Russell, artist manager and MJ fanatic, turned me on to this Dangerous-era barn-burner.
Janet Jackson, "What'll I Do" — "If You Don't Love Me" reminds me of perhaps my favorite Jackson song ever, Janet's whooping, stomping, transcendent 1993 version of the Stax soul classic "What'll I Do for Your Satisfaction." It belongs on every playlist ever.
Michael Jackson, "Earth Song." Joseph Vogel wrote an excellent short book on this song alone, which he calls MJ's "magnum opus." I believe it's the best Michael solo ballad, with more gravitas and complexity than something like "Heal the World" or "Childhood." (Scratch that, "Human Nature" and "She's Out of My Life" are pretty great, too.) And he smartly used it as a showstopper throughout the HIStory tour. The sad footnote is he was performing it while atop a bridge that malfunctioned late in his career, giving him ceaseless, chronic back pain, and perhaps hastened his long withdrawal from performing.
Steve Knopper and MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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