Something You Can Feel
Twenty-five years into the CD age, the Jacksons are finally getting their due. Each of the albums they recorded for Epic between 1976 and 1984 were released during the first wave of CD issues in the mid-‘80s. The mastering, however, was criminally sub-par. After opening the red-letter spine jewel case with the distracting “compact disc” logo obscuring the cover art, the albums’ stellar production values sounded flat and listless. Without hearing the original vinyl or any of the songs on the radio, any unknowing listener could be forgiven for not bothering with a second listen. After many years of campaigning, Sony BMG’s Legacy series have finally given Destiny (1978) and Triumph (1980), the two crowning achievements of the Jacksons’ run on Epic Records, some long overdue refurbishing. The songs have never delivered such incredible pop and punch. Resplendent sound anchors these expanded and remastered editions, which is reason enough to dance, shout, and shake your body (down to the ground, natch!).
By 1978, the Jackson 5 name had ceased to exist for well over two years. Seeking more artistic control over the musical direction of their career, Jackie, Tito, Marlon, and Michael Jackson left Motown in 1976, while brother Jermaine stayed behind on the label to forge ahead with his solo career. Joined by youngest brother Randy, the newly christened “Jacksons” signed to Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International imprint, via CBS/Epic Records. Produced by Gamble and Huff, The Jacksons (1976) marked a more mature, sophisticated sound for the group. They landed two major hits, “Enjoy Yourself” and “Show You the Way to Go”, bringing the brothers back to the charts after their last album for Motown, Moving Violation (1975), failed to generate any substantial singles. However, Goin’ Places (1977), the Gamble and Huff-produced follow-up to the Jacksons’ eponymous debut, did anything but.
For their third Epic release, the Jacksons made a bold and yet completely natural decision, considering the time they spent in front of and behind the studio console over the years. Destiny was completely written and produced by the five brothers. They spared no subtlety to illustrate the gravity of the occasion. The cover art depicted the Jacksons sitting atop a stone dam, lightning striking from a dark and ominous sky over a treacherous sea. With their name spelled out in red neon script, the Jacksons parlayed their newfound artistic freedom into an album that, 30 years later, exemplifies the exciting possibilities of autonomy.
Half of the eight songs on Destiny reflect a substantial club music influence. Album opener “Blame It on the Boogie” remains a buoyant slice of disco with an unabashed strobe-lit ambience. Its sing-along chorus receives even more play on DJ John Luongo’s extended, seven-minute mix. Emphasizing more bass and percussion, that rare, sought-after version is appended to the set here along with Luongo’s mix of “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”. Predating the incessant, chant-driven grooves of Michael Jackson’s solo hits “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something”, “Shake Your Body” is significant for its cross-over success to the Top 10 pop charts from the clubs and R&B playlists. Luongo’s treatment of the track embellishes the Latin rhythm in his marathon nine-minute version.
The other dance-oriented cuts on Destiny include “Things I Do for You”, a punchy, funky track highlighted by Michael’s somewhat agitated vocal attitude and a brief but potent percussion break. The BPM count increases on the gospel-flavored “All Night Dancin’”. Its relentless rhythm is driven by the crafty work of bassist extraordinaire Nathan Watts. He’s the star of the song, inducing Michael to exclaim, “That’s the way I like it!” and “Yes, sir!” during the infectious breakdown. However, at six minutes, and with little melodic or rhythmic variation, “All Night Dancin’” feels a tad overlong.
Coupled with the four club-driven tracks are four pristine ballads and mid-tempo tunes. Author Ernest Hardy correctly opines in his liner notes that these are the most dazzling tunes on Destiny. The lush “Push Me Away”, written by all five brothers, is a stunning showcase for 20-year old Michael Jackson’s voice, bolstered by Tito’s understated guitar solo. Gorgeous string and horn arrangements add class and a celestial atmosphere to the tune. Decorated by Greg Phillinganes’ sparkling keyboard, “Bless His Soul” beautifully unites the brothers’ voices together.
“That’s What You Get (For Being Polite)”, which closes the album, finds the Jacksons in a pensive mood. Written by Randy and Michael Jackson, the song tells the story of Jack, a guy who “wants to be what he is not”. He cries alone, scared, overwhelmed by the world around him. In contrast to the light groove and sunshine-dipped melody, an aura of melancholy surrounds the lyrics. One can’t help but speculate how closely the words were inspired by Michael’s own life at the time, if not foreshadowing the years to come.
Three decades later, the title track is still the grand centerpiece of the album. Simple, acoustic guitar picking opens the song. Michael sings, “In this world there’s much confusion / And I taste the city life and it’s not for me”. The song’s contemplative lyrics are sung against a country-like melody before the brothers’ Michael McDonald-style harmonies kick in during the chunky sway of the chorus. The verse-chorus structure builds towards a towering crescendo mid-way through the song, with a one-minute, rock-tinged coda waiting on the other side. It stands as one of the most unique songs in the Jacksons’ discography.
Besides its musical excellence, the legacy of Destiny is that of a “bridge” album. It connects the relatively modest success of the Jacksons’ first two post-Motown releases with the blockbuster success of Triumph. All five brothers emerged as stronger songwriters, singers, and players, while stepping outside the confines of conventional R&B to dabble in disco and incorporate elements of rock and country into their palette.
Of course, something else significant happened between Destiny and Triumph: 1979’s Off the Wall. Michael Jackson’s first solo album on Epic established the fifth-youngest brother as a bonafide pop star in his own right. No longer was he the 13-year-old who warbled “Ben” and “Got to Be There”. At 21, he had an innocent sex appeal, sinewy dance moves, and a voice that brimmed with energy and elasticity. “Rock With You” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” were number one pop hits, and whenTriumph hit record store shelves, Off the Wall was still churning out singles.
Triumph arrived in October 1980, and triumphant it was, earning the Jacksons their first platinum album. The club-geared, nine-song set yielded no less than four hit singles and landed in the Top 10 of the pop album charts. The Jacksons enlisted many of the same players from Destiny (including arranger Greg Phillinganes, who appears on Triumph as an Associated Producer), guaranteeing stellar musicianship and tight grooves.
The album begins with the epic “Can You Feel It”. Backed by a 30-voice choir and brushed with majestic horns and strings, it elevates the Jacksons’ production standards to a new height. Written by Michael and Jackie Jackson, the song’s call for harmony between humankind is also an irresistible invitation to the dance floor. “We’re all the same / ‘Cause the blood inside of me is inside of you”, Michael exclaims, foreshadowing “Man in the Mirror”, “Black or White”, and other paeans to socio-cultural concerns that would define much of his later solo work. Even 28 years later, “Can You Feel It” remains a club staple, a tribute to its timelessness.
“This Place Hotel” and “Lovely One” represent the album’s most commercially successful tracks. Each landed at number two on the R&B charts and made a respectable showing on the pop charts, yet the two songs are markedly different from each other. Toiling ever so slightly in the macabre, Michael Jackson’s self-penned “This Place Hotel” (also known as “Heartbreak Hotel”) lays the blueprint for the paranoia that would furnish some of the more memorable grooves on Thriller two years later. With murky sound effects, including the screams of sister LaToya Jackson, it paints a dark and dour portrait of romance. “Lovely One”, however, is a sweet and sizzling horn-punctuated track dotted by Michael’s percussive vocalizations.
“Walk Right Now” is a scintillating high-energy workout that features the patented bass lines of Nathan Watts and a spunky kiss-off by Michael. Though it only charted in the middle of the pop and R&B charts, it’s a highlight of Triumph, evinced by not one but two extended mixes by John Luongo on this expanded edition.
Despite keeping company with a number of hits, the album tracks are less consistent in quality than those on Destiny. The ghostly “Your Ways” features Michael at his falsetto best, while he nearly plagiarizes the lyrics and melody of “Get on the Floor” from Off the Wall on “Everybody”. “Give It Up” is the best of the bunch. A delightful mid-tempo tune replete with marching drums and a string arrangement by Jerry Peters, it also brings Marlon Jackson aboard for vocal duties with Michael.
The one ballad on Triumph, “Time Waits for No One”, is adorned with dreamy strings. Written by Jackie and Randy Jackson, it’s not as essential as “Push Me Away” or “Bless His Soul” from Destiny, but Michael turns in an aching, if slightly melodramatic, performance. Jackie and Randy also contribute “Wondering Who”, which closes the album, but Jackie’s lackluster vocals underscore why Michael often took the lead on the songs.
Not insignificantly, Triumph was the last studio album to feature the Jacksons in that particular five-member configuration. Following the Jacksons Live (1981) album, Jermaine Jackson reunited with his brothers for the Motown 25 (1983) television special and on the Victory (1984) record and concert tour. By the time the brothers—sans Michael—headed to the studio to record 2300 Jackson Street (1989), Michael Jackson had become the “King of Pop”. The unprecedented success of Thriller (1982) and the hit-filled Bad (1987) ushered him into a league all his own.
Inevitably, the impact of Destiny and Triumph has been dwarfed over the years by Michael Jackson’s solo career, but neither album should be dismissed or forgotten. Incredible music was recorded on these two albums and though the merits of individual songs vary, Destiny and Triumph have withstood the cruel test of time. Those who missed them the first time around can now revel in these aptly named opuses. Can you feel it? Finally…yes!