Ain't no Jive with the Jackson 5...
The early part of the ‘70s was a convoluted mess of divergent musical genres and styles, all battling each other for record sales and radio airplay. Arena rock was plundering the landscape with the sonic maelstroms of the Who and Led Zeppelin; funk and glam were taking root with eccentric purveyors like Sly and Ziggy; psychedelia had run its course as the Woodstock generation reeled from the losses of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison; R&B continued to find a sizable audience; traces of disco and punk were slowly appearing, and syrupy teen idols began sprouting like crabgrass much to the dismay of everyone past the age of 17. Yet amongst the swirl of confusion, a quintet of talented brothers came forth from humble Midwestern roots and exploded onto the pop music scene. That band was the Jackson 5, and for the first half of the decade Jackie, Jermaine, Tito, Marlon, and Michael dominated the charts with an infectious blend of soulful singing and precise stage choreography. By today’s standards they’d be labeled as a boy band (a rather unfair categorization based upon others in that classification) but they were far more than that: The Jackson 5 was the product of an incessantly headstrong paternal figure and the creative brilliance of Berry Gordy’s writing team from Motown, and for several years was the hit-making, groove-shaking, heart-breaking act with the Midas touch. The brothers from Gary, Indiana also happened to be talented as hell, thus any luck associated with their stellar career was augmented by the fact that they were good… very good.
As successful as the Jacksons were, however, it is ironic that there are millions of fans who know Michael only from his Thriller days onward. Thankfully there is a remedy for this informational shortcoming, and it arrives in the form of a neatly packaged double CD, simply titled Jackson 5 - Gold. Although the twin disc set is a revised edition of 2000’s Anthology (which was distilled from the 1976 multi-LP greatest hits collection) there is still much value to be found in revisiting the 36 tracks. Spanning the group’s career in the Gordy stable from 1969 to 1976, Gold offers a potpourri of material (some classic, some less so) and showcases the Jacksons at their finest.
Disc 1 offers the most recognizable material (1969 - 1972) with a pre-teen Michael putting his definitive stamp on the title of child star. The songs run the gambit from the classic signatures “I Want You Back” and “ABC” to the poppy “Mama’s Pearl” and smoldering “Who’s Loving You”. There are airy love ballads (“I’m So Happy”) interspersed with Motown-influenced nuggets (“Darling Dear”), all of which bring listeners back 30-plus years to a joyfully innocent moment in pop music. With a wide swath cut across the first disc’s 21 tracks, it might seem difficult to pinpoint a single song that resonates louder than the rest… except for #8, which is quite simply one of the most exquisite pop songs ever recorded. Not only was “I’ll Be There” the fourth chart topper for the brothers (pairing Michael with Jermaine on vocals) but it ranks with the finest singles in the entire Motown catalogue, alongside those by the Miracles, Temptations, and Supremes.
Disc 2 traverses slightly different ground as the group (and specifically Michael) matured lyrically and stylistically. The Jacksons’ sound from 1973 forward took on a decidedly funk-infused flair, consistent with the changing times. “Get It Together” and “Dancing Machine” echo the parallel successes of Sly Stone and Isaac Hayes, while “The Life of the Party” and “Forever Came Today” hint at the approaching deluge of disco. There is a vast difference between the material generated during this part of the Jacksons’ career and that of their earlier years, but the discs provide a fascinating glimpse into the band’s rapid evolution (devolution?) from teen hit machine to pop/R&B veterans.
Despite the meteoric rise of the Jackson 5, the most important (and most overlooked) element of the group’s success was its ability to transcend cultural barriers. Unlike overtly white-bread ‘70s pop phenoms like the Partridge Family and Bay City Rollers (whose appeal was limited demographically), the 5 permeated everyone’s musical sensibilities. Through massive amounts of audio and video exposure (including an animated television program) they entered the collective household of America’s youth as friends and entertainers; if you were in the formative adolescent years during the ‘70s, you loved the Jackson 5 irrespective of your economic or ethnic background. The brothers possessed a charismatic persona and overall wholesomeness without appearing contrived, in much the same way earlier Motown superstar acts had done. Yet it was Michael (and to a lesser extent Jermaine) who propelled the group with beautiful vocals that evoked a varied spectrum of emotions.
Whether you’re interested in taking a crash course in pop history or simply looking to do a bit of sentimental time-traveling, Jackson 5 - Gold provides everything that is required. And the discs feature Michael long before he morphed into the King of Pop… back when he was merely a prince.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More