Back Tracks: Michael Jackson Part 2 – The Epic Years and Beyond
After poring through Michael Jackson’s Motown years, we commemorate the year anniversary of his passing with a look at the material he recorded as an adult for Epic Records. If the J5 material was platinum, much of this stuff is uncut diamond – and the world is eagerly waiting to see what Sony will do with this material for catalogue purposes. (A multi-album deal has been struck, with the first batch of material likely due for the holidays, alongside a new video game based on Jackson’s music.)
Again, this can’t possibly as thorough or comprehensive as anyone would like. But this is the meat and potatoes of anyone’s Jackson collection, and it’s never too late to start paying attention to this work (or rediscovering it, for that matter). Do your best to make sure it’s a part of yours.
The Jacksons’ LPs (Epic/Philadelphia International, 1976-1984 – some reissued Epic/Legacy, 2009)
As I’ve stated many times before, the most commonly favored MJ narrative is that Jackson disappeared through a time vortex after leaving Motown and didn’t emerge until Off The Wall. Hardcore fans, of course, will tell you that nothing could be further from the truth: Michael, Jackie, Tito, Marlon and youngest brother Randy (replacing Jermaine, who chose to stay at Motown, the label owned by his father-in-law) cut some damn fine albums for Epic. The first two – The Jacksons (1976) and Goin’ Places (1977) – were excellent slices of Gamble & Huff-produced Philly soul (and two albums begging for a digital remaster). Destiny (1978) was a self-produced effort that spawned big hits in “Blame It on the Boogie” and “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”; the whole album in and of itself set a foundation for Off the Wall a year later.
After MJ’s first taste of adult solo success, he retreated back into the fold for the equally stunning Triumph (1980) and a live record the following year. And even after Thriller, he couldn’t break his family ties; 1984′s Victory united all six Jackson brothers on one record (though Michael’s contributions are small and dated compared to his solo work). The ensuing tour would stay in the public’s collective consciousness more than the record, and Michael and Marlon only made fleeting contributions to 1989′s 2300 Jackson Street (notably only for its production by rising stars Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds).
Despite the fact that the public seems to have forgotten The Jacksons on Epic, Legacy delivered much-appreciated expansions of Destiny and Triumph in 2009, having sated fans with a 2004 entry in the Essential series and a Playlist title not long afterward.
The solo LPs, part 1 (Epic, 1979-1991 – reissued Epic/Legacy – 2001/2008)
Somehow, Michael Jackson did more with four records than most of his peers could accomplish with one. Off the Wall (1979) blends funk, jazz, pop and disco sensibilities into one of the tightest LPs ever assembled, thanks largely to the guidance of Quincy Jones in the producer’s chair. Jackson and Jones further perfected that vacuum-sealed pop sensibility into Thriller in 1982, less a record and more a multicultural, multigenerational statement. Seven Top 10 singles on an LP of nine tracks – and from a record that could have been just another go-round if not for all sorts of little cosmic happenings. Had Jones not pressed on to recruit Eddie Van Halen to play guitar on “Beat It” (Van Halen allegedly thought it was a prank call and hung up), had the then-wordless chorus of “Human Nature” not turned up on one of the many demo cassettes Jackson and crew pored through, had Jackson been less involved in conceptualizing “Billie Jean” (so in thought was he that he did not notice his car engine had caught fire), had Jones not made 11th-hour cuts to some of the songs to make the grooves deeper on the original vinyl pressing. Few other albums can prove so succinctly that music is a wonderfully mysterious thing.
The Jackson/Jones partnership lasted for one more record, 1987′s Bad. That one was more fine-tuned, and some use that notion to the record’s discredit. Not so, says your humble correspondent; whether Jackson knew he couldn’t top his predecessor is one thing, but hearing him confidently try to do so says a lot about the mind of this young genius. Dangerous, produced with New Jack Swing pioneer Teddy Riley and Bill Bottrell (who’d produce Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club), was arguably overstuffed with cliches – as though Jackson was trying to follow trends instead of create them – but constructed magic is still magic, and Jackson still had some tricks up those sleeves of his.
Surprisingly, Legacy has stayed away from repeatedly strip-mining these records. In 2001, just as Jackson’s final record Invincible was due to come out, Sony commissioned digital remasters of these four records with new packaging and (with the exception of Dangerous) a handful of unreleased demos and session takes. They’re unnecessarily padded with audio snippets of interviews with Quincy Jones and songwriter Rod Temperton (which would have worked better as text), but what’s most distressing is that they were at some point pitched as two-disc versions, with even more vault content (particularly in the case of Dangerous). Much of it would be released over the years, but some of it is still bootleg fodder. Off the Wall and Bad are rumored to be key releases in Sony’s new deal with the Jackson estate, so perhaps there’s more material due for release at some point.
Legacy reissued Thriller again in 2008 for the record’s 25th anniversary (a year late, natch). This version came with a DVD full of videos, a new old track (“For All Time,” likely not a track from the same time period as the package claims) and several dismal re-recordings/remixes that pair Jackson with Akon, Kanye West and those fools in The Black Eyed Peas.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: Original Storybook (MCA, 1982)
It’ll never come out on CD – it almost never came out on anything, after Epic sued MCA for trying to promote the set against Thriller – but one can hope. (In particular, this combines one of the author’s favorite musicians with his favorite film, so there’s that to consider.) It’s a wacky, vaguely crass tie-in – one of many during the height of E.T.‘s success – but hearing the eternally youthful Jackson read through Steven Spielberg’s film with untouched wonder is strangely compelling and touching.
The Twelve Inch Mixes (Epic, 1986)
Epic’s short-lived budget series attempted to put 12″ versions on CD for consumers. Often, it failed in part, and this set is no exception (three-fifths of the tracks are album versions; MJ rarely had 12″ remixes on vinyl). Still, it provides a legal way to get the longer mixes of “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” on CD.
HIStory: Past, Present and Future – Book I (Epic, 1995)
Jackson’s last truly great LP was totally overstuffed with angry, confused filler, but it’s a rare look into what MJ must have been thinking after weathering the bizarre allegations leveled against him in the early 1990s. When it’s good, it’s often better than Dangerous (“Scream,” “You Are Not Alone,” “Stranger in Moscow”); when it’s not (“Money,” “D.S.,” “2 Bad”)…well, let’s not focus too much on that. The real sticking point behind this record is that it was stuck with a greatest-hits disc that jacked the price up to $30 and up – and that disc got a standalone release (Greatest Hits HIStory in 2001), instead of the album itself. A deluxe reissue with a bonus disc of outtakes or alternates would be most welcomed, possibly including the underrated studio material that appeared on Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix in 1997.
Invincible (Epic, 2001)
The singles (or intended singles) – “You Rock My World,” “Butterflies” and “Cry” – were all pretty darn good. But this is Michael Jackson we’re talking about, and 15 minutes of brilliance on a record that’s nearly the entire length of the CD isn’t enough for anyone, let alone The King of Pop. One can only speculate what vault content there would be to rescue this record; it’s safe to guess that material from this period and onward will be one of the first catalogue releases Epic will produce as part of their new deal with Jackson’s estate.
Number Ones (Epic, 2003) / The Essential Michael Jackson (Epic/Legacy, 2005/2008)
Another MJ compilation, and one that’s not entirely accurate (not all of these tracks were chart-topping singles). But this set is worth it for hardcore collectors, as it’s the first bit of single edits and mixes making an appearance on CD. That output was increased a little with MJ’s entry in the Essential series, but not by much – in fact, some of the tracks are just attempts at editing the hits to fit the running order of the singles without paying attention to the original mixes. Still, that set is even more worth it, not only for its comprehension (one of a few Sony-era comps that licenses material from Motown) and, in the case of the “3.0″ version with bonus disc, a genuine rarity (Thriller-era B-side “Can’t Get Outta the Rain,” one of the few non-LP tracks of Jackson’s).
The Ultimate Collection (Epic/Legacy, 2004)
The trick with most of Legacy’s boxes is that they place any rarities right next to the hits, so you’re going to have to make a double-dip or two. But this is Michael Jackson we’re talking about, and you’d do worse to re-buy some of these songs. And you’re going to get some neat rarities, like the original demo of “P.Y.T.,” the rare 12″ mix of “You Can’t Win” (from Jackson’s star turn in The Wiz in 1978), a tune from the hilarious Disneyland attraction Captain EO and most of the Bad/Dangerous-era demos intended for those original reissues in 2001. Throw in some great liner notes by Nelson George and a DVD of Jackson’s Dangerous concert special recorded for HBO, and you’ve got an ultimate collection indeed.
This is It: The Music That Inspired the Movie (Epic, 2009)
While Motown put out a stellar rarities comp for Jackson in 2009 (I Want You Back! Unreleased Masters), Sony hung back and only released this brief compilation to tie in with the concert rehearsal film released last fall. And it’s a tough sell; at $15 and up, with only an EP’s worth of demos and that decent if incomplete-sounding title track to entice those who have everything, who can blame you if you only buy it when you have extra cash to burn? With any luck, though, future releases will match Motown in terms of enlightenment.