Sometime last year, not long after I started following the Life Of An El Paso Woman blog, Lisa A. made a post about the 16 Albums That Changed My Life Challenge. She picked up the challenge from the But I Smile Anyway blog. I really wanted to write that post here, but I had way more than sixteen albums that I felt strongly about. The post itself didn’t want you to spend a lot of time on picking the albums, but I decided I would tweak that by taking the albums one at a time and doing posts about each one. For the first album I chose, the post can be found here. The second album I have chosen is Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall.
It may not look like it now, but Michael Jackson had a little something to prove before the release of Off The Wall. First of all, there hadn’t been a solo release from him in four years. Second, he was about to turn twenty-one years old; with most of his hits at Motown behind him for quite some time, people wondered whether he could keep the magic going that he had as a child star for the last decade. After he and his brothers left Motown and signed with Epic Records, they released three albums, and while they were fairly successful, none of them were as successful as they were when they started as the Jackson 5.
Three little words were about to change the perception of Michael Jackson, solo artist: Producer Quincy Jones. With Jones at the helm, and with some help from Rod Temperton—at that time a member of the group Heatwave, but an emerging songwriter—Jackson would start his grown-up solo career with an album that would open the door to the massive superstardom he would experience once Thriller became a worldwide phenomenon.
Released just nine months after the album Destiny with his brothers, itself a successful project that the group self-produced, Off The Wall contained four top ten pop singles: “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,””Rock With You,” “She’s Out Of My Life” and “Off The Wall.” At the time, that was considered a smashing success, but no one had any idea what was to come a few years later.
The first side was made for people to dance. Leading off with “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” once Michael finishes the spoken-word introduction to the song (which for years, I thought was incoherent mumbling), it becomes an invitation to dance. The song, written by Michael, has many of the production touches that Jones would use or had used with The Brothers Johnson, though he had a far more talented vocalist at his disposal for this one. Even today, this song ranks as one of my all-time favorite Michael Jackson songs of all time, on a par with the Temperton-written track that comes behind it: the sweet and smooth “Rock With You.” When you lead off an album with two all-time great songs, you figure there is nowhere to go but down; but this isn’t the case. “Working Day And Night” (written by Michael) and “Get On The Floor” both up the energy even more; the latter (co-written by Jackson and Louis Johnson of The Brothers Johnson) containing a bass line from Johnson that ranks as one of the best he ever put down outside of anything he did in his group. “Working Day And Night” also introduced many to some of the vocal tics that Jackson would be famous for and use going forward.
The second side may not be quite as good as the first, but the dip in quality isn’t very noticeable. “Off The Wall” deserved its top ten status, another Temperton track that with its eerie vocals from the beginning, suggest the “Thriller” track that was to come. After that track follows the cuteness and some would say schmaltz that Jackson that would use throughout his solo career. The first of several collaborations either sung with, written or co-written by Paul McCartney for Jackson, “Girlfriend” sounds full of joy and seems to be a part one of “The Girl Is Mine” from Thriller, while “She’s Out Of My Life” feels overly dramatic with Michael’s weeping at the end-yet has become something a favorite of many, even with its sadness. Following those two is another all-time great song, “I Can’t Help It.” Partially written by Stevie Wonder (with Susaye Greene and Julie Miller), it has become something of an R&B standard, having been covered by many artists since its release. “It’s The Falling In Love” features Jones’ stand-by vocalist Patti Austin on background vocals, and “Burn This Disco Out” brings the album full circle; back to the dancefloor for one more go-’round.
For me, Off The Wall was the launching point of Michael Jackson, mega-star. While Thriller would become his crowning achievement, all of the pieces were in place three years earlier. Because of this simple fact, I always tell people that I liked Off The Wall more than Thriller. Sure, the latter album had the bigger hits and a far larger impact on the culture as well as musically. It is my opinion, however, that there is no Thriller without Off The Wall opening the door.