Counterbalance No. 104: Michael Jackson’s ‘Off the Wall’

Michael Jackson
Off the Wall

Mendelsohn: You know what I like about Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, Klinger? The album cover. Michael Jackson, the young man, looks so happy to just be making music. And that joy translates throughout the entire record. I like that. In fact, I like this record much more than I thought I would. After our controversial trip through Thriller, and me saying some things to enrage Michael Jackson’s legions of fanatical, fantastical fans, I was a little apprehensive about having to discuss this record, mostly because I was afraid I would end up saying something off-color and my house would get egged again. I’m going to try and avoid that pitfall this time around.

Back to the album cover. Off the Wall shows off a young Michael Jackson (sans the reconstructive surgery) wearing an exuberant smile, and the listener is met with that same exuberance on the opening track, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”. The up-tempo funk sets the tone for the record (and I found Jackson’s use of falsetto to be much more enjoyable than his normal singing voice). The high energy is hard to maintain throughout the album, but the tracks Jackson penned stand up much better than the stuff by Rod Temperton and the schlock Paul McCartney always turns in.

I’m glad we are talking about this record, Klinger. I knew it would only be a matter of time before we got around to another Michael Jackson album. I’m just happy we didn’t hit Bad first, I have all sorts of nasty things to say about that piece of crazy. But it seems, for the time being, I have nothing but nice things to say about Off the Wall.

Klinger: So you’re not just saying all this to keep MJ fans from showing up with torches and pitchforks again? Of course not, I can feel your sincerity in every word. And I can’t disagree with you one bit. Off the Wall teems with, yep, exuberance—the sheer joy of a preternaturally talented young man coming into his own. Jackson was 20 years old when recording started, and like a lot of 20-year-olds, he was in the process of reinventing himself. Only instead of moving into an off-campus apartment and wearing an ill-advised poncho, he set about making an artistic statement that would position him as the heir apparent of soul music. Shaking free of the shackles of his young stardom, his apparently quite mad father, and Tito (I kid! Tito not only performed the same dance moves as his brothers, but he also played guitar while he did them—props to Tito), Jackson happened upon the ideal mentor in Quincy Jones.

In the Jackson/Jones Off the Wall partnership, you hear a very deliberate attempt to create something much larger than a standard disco album. You mention “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”. and that’s appropriate. There is a ton of stuff happening on that song, from the swoopy strings to that devious little synth bass bit that pops up occasionally in the chorus.

And really all of side one stands as a funk/soul tour de force that’s by turns laid-back and gritty. My own ambivalence toward Thriller was based mainly on Jackson’s sheer ubiquity during my teenage years. But Off the Wall carries no such baggage for me—it’s just the sound of a guy bringing his incredible early promise to full fruition.

Mendelsohn: Self-preservation aside, I’m being completely upfront and honest. The uptempo funk on side one of this record is straight-up awesome. Of course, you can’t just make an album full of nothing but feel-good dance hits. You have to have a couple slow numbers and a couple of ballads. That was the only way record companies would let you make an album — you had to promise to write at least one sappy ballad for each rocking cut or vice versa. So when I hit side two of Off the Wall and stumble directly into “Girlfriend”, I immediately start to lose interest. But not before I curse Paul McCartney’s name. The one saving grace is “I Can’t Help It”. That jazzy, soulful number is sublimely beautiful and represents the passing of the soul torch from Stevie Wonder to the young Jackson.

Do you think Stevie Wonder felt a little conflicted giving Michael Jackson, his soul heir apparent, such a great song?

Klinger: Well, I doubt even Stevie Wonder could have sensed the phenomenon that was to come, but it’s interesting that his name has come up so often in this discussion. After all, as we’ve discussed Wonder’s albums in the past, I think we were both struck by how smooth and almost jazzy they get in places. We tune in for the harder funk and end up with a sort of Latin-y swirl of laid back groove. (Or outright balladry, which on Off the Wall takes the form of “She’s Out of My Life”, and the more I listen to that song the more it reveals itself as an absolutely stunning piece of vocal work on Jackson’s part.) There’s a lot of all that here on side two—which brings us this “Girlfriend” song that you seem to loathe with every fiber of your being for some reason.

OK, I admit that I am occasionally guilty of over-defending Paul McCartney, and I do maintain that he’s not gotten his due—especially where his post-Beatle work is concerned. And while it’s true that “Girlfriend” is a big pink cotton candy puff of a song, I’m tempted to think that that’s a function of the general perception that existed at the time vis-a-vis the once and future King of Pop. Let’s face it, if you’re 1979-era Michael Jackson and you’ve still got some hustling to do, you’re not likely to turn down a tune from a freakin’ Beatle. And if you’re Paul McCartney, you probably still kind of think of Michael Jackson as a little kid. Besides, “Girlfriend” does provide some of the sweetness that’s really pretty central to Jackson’s image.

Mendelsohn: Yes, those are all very valid points. But that won’t stop me from hating “Girlfriend”, or bemoaning McCartney’s incessant need to write such treacle. I mean, I’m as big of a fan of Wings as the next guy, but sometimes I think Paul was writing those silly little love songs just to piss off John Lennon. And maybe, just maybe, he got a little too carried away at times.

“Girlfriend” seems so contrived when compared to the other material on side two. I can see the reasoning in trying to tap into the sweetness that was Jackson’s image as he transitioned out of childhood—it is good marketing. But there is a stark contrast between “Girlfriend” and songs like “She’s Out of My Life”, “I Can’t Help It”, and “It’s the Falling in Love”, material that is much more adult, much more in line with the direction Jackson was trying to take his career.

That direction that swerved into overkill territory on Thriller, but for a brief second on Off the Wall, I can see an artist who had all the tools necessary to take artistic statement and commercial success to the next level, a level well beyond the reach of his contemporaries. Obviously he put himself well in front of everyone else in terms of commercial success with release of Thriller; I would question the true artistic merit of that record but we’ve already been there and it doesn’t end well.

Klinger: And who knows—maybe if we had considered Thriller as a function of Off the Wall, we might have felt differently about it and thought of it as a more natural extension of Jackson’s growth. But by the same token, you’re right that Off the Wallcomes across as a conscious move on Jackson’s part to be viewed as something more than just a child star. Really, that seems to be the dichotomy that drove Jackson throughout the rest of his career. Every time he made overtures toward expressing the darkness that was there under the surface (and given the horrors that were apparently visited upon him by his father, it’s surprising that he was able to keep any of that under wraps), he seemed to feel the need to revert back into a childlike persona. (It’s worth noting that in between Off the Wall and Thriller, one of his more notable projects involved narrating the E.T. soundtrack album.) Add in the fact that he very quickly came upon an unhealthy level of fame, and the isolation that is always a part of that, and his story becomes nearly impossible for us to fully wrap our heads around.

But when you hear Off the Wall, it’s easy to forget the complicated narrative that follows and just revel in the notion that a startlingly talented little boy could grow up and make just the sort of album you’d want him to make. That’s the beauty and the joy of this album, and in some ways it’s part of the sadness, too.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.