In posts marked “At a Glance,” I’m going to try to assess any particular movement among a particular artist’s back catalogue. To start, here’s a look at one of the most recently popular catalogue artists – Michael Jackson – as seen through his early work for Motown.
It is now nearly seven months since Michael Jackson died. His passing shocked the world enough to pay attention to his prodigious discography – the compilations Number Ones and The Essential Michael Jackson, both released by Epic, were hard to find in any record store that summer – and, with any luck, spurred the powers-that-be in the industry to think over some great catalogue titles to honor the King of Pop’s memory. Interestingly, though, while Sony’s Legacy Recordings has laid low in that time (opting only to release the halfhearted This is It companion album), collectors have seen almost no limit of releases from Jackson’s original label, Motown Records.
When Michael Jackson died last June, Motown was in an unusual position. The immortal label had been celebrating its 50th anniversary through a wide variety of catalog titles, including the Motown: The Complete No. 1’s box set and a handful of other reissues and compilations.
But 2009 also happened to mark another anniversary within the company: 40 years prior, in 1969, The Jackson 5 were signed and released their first single, “I Want You Back.” That record, as well as the next three singles the J5 would release (“ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There”) would hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, making them the first act to have their first four consecutive singles reach the top of the charts.
There was talk about commemorating 40 years of Jackson 5 longevity in some fashion, but the biggest project that year was Hello World: The Motown Solo Collection, a collector’s box set that collated all of Michael’s released solo work for Motown and a few other vault treasures. Preorders for the set were being taken through UMe’s Hip-O Select boutique label just in time for the series of London concerts Jackson was prepping for the summer.
Of course, we all know how the story played out: Jackson died, the concerts went unperformed, the world mourned – and Motown suddenly found a bigger audience for Hello World. It went from an online-order commodity to a full-blown release, selling copies all over the world. (The author saw a copy for sale in a shop in Bermuda, of all places.)
Then Motown immediately got crafty with their MJ product. Between July and October, there were about eight separate releases of Michael’s Motown material. Casual fans could pick up Michael Jackson: The Definitive Collection. Those who wondered what The Jackson 5 would sound as a coffeehouse act had The Stripped Mixes, a compilation of acoustic remixes of the early hits. Collectors had the digital release of The Original Soul of Michael Jackson, a 1987 odds-and-ends compilation with a few (very dated) remixes.
But by the release of the four Remix Suite digital EPs and Pure Michael: Motown A Cappella, one couldn’t help but wonder when the real gold – outtakes, demos, alternate mixes – were going to surface. After all, it was still the 40th anniversary of the J5; surely the geniuses at Motown were digging for gold in their fabled vaults, right? Finally, that need was somewhat satiated in November, with I Want You Back! Unreleased Masters. The 11-track compilation of all-new material was, by far, the best Michael Jackson tribute that any label put out in 2009, including some TV performances, coulda-been hits from the vault and a few striking alternate takes of classic hits. (As an added treat, four of the tracks were mixed by original Motown mixing guru Russ Terrana!)
But it’s a new year with new possibilities – and the fact that I Want You Back! was only 11 tracks means that Motown isn’t done bringing the Jackson 5 back from the dead. Last week, a good chunk of the J5 albums – everything from Goin’ Back to Indiana onward – were reissued. (Some of these albums, previously available as a series of 2-for-1 compilations in 2001, are more or less making their standalone CD debut.) And, in an interview with French music magazine Vibrations, Harry Weinger, the vice-president of A&R at Universal Music Enterprises and go-to guy for all things Motown, discussed some of the plans for the catalogue in 2010, including a potential expanded version of I Want You Back! and the release of a pair of concerts recorded at the L.A. Forum in 1970 and 1972. (My money’s on those seeing a summer release, timed with either the one-year anniversary of Jackson’s death in June or what would have been his 52nd birthday.)
Motown is going to play their catalogue to the hilt, like any good vintage label should. We, as collectors and music fans, can hope that the powers-that-be will put out the best product they can. (And, for what it’s worth, hopefully Sony/Legacy can catch up and do some vault-searching of their own.)
(Disclosure: when I interned at Universal Music Group in 2009, Harry Weinger was one of my supervisors. Regrettably, I never did much substantial work on J5 projects.)