Albums That Made Me - Off The Wall
In this series of blogs, I will document a selection of albums that were pivotal in shaping my musical journey. I will focus on what made these albums special to me, as opposed to what makes them special in music, cultural or any other terms. Of course, every album I discuss can be considered as recommended listening, however, please keep in mind that whilst these albums are special to me, that doesn't mean they're particularly special and/or unique in their own right (although in most cases, I would argue that they are!).
Artist: Michael Jackson
Album: Off The Wall
Label: Epic / CBS
Genre: Disco / Pop
Michael Jackson – lead vocals (all tracks), background vocals (1-6, 9, 10), co-producer (1, 3, 4), percussion (1, 3), vocal arrangements (1, 3, 4, 6), rhythm and percussion arrangements (1, 3)
Patti Austin – lead and backing vocals (track 9)
Tom Bahler – rhythm arrangement (track 6), vocal arrangement (9)
Michael Boddicker – synthesizer (track 2), programming (5, 8)
Larry Carlton – guitar (track 7)
Paulinho Da Costa – percussion (tracks 1, 3-5, 8, 10)
George Duke – synthesizer and synthesizer programming (tracks 5, 6)
David Foster – synthesizer (tracks 6, 9), rhythm arrangement (9)
Jim Gilstrap – background vocals (tracks 1, 4)
Gary Grant – trumpet (tracks 1-6, 8-10)
Richard Heath – percussion (track 1)
Marlo Henderson – guitar (tracks 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 10)
Jerry Hey – horn arrangements, trumpet, and flugelhorn (tracks 1-6, 8-10)
Kim Hutchcroft – baritone saxophone, tenor saxophone, and flute (tracks 1-6, 8-10)
Randy Jackson – percussion (track 1)
Mortonette Jenkins – background vocals (tracks 1, 4)
Augie Johnson – background vocals (tracks 1, 4)
Louis Johnson – bass guitar (tracks 1, 3-10), rhythm arrangement (4)
Quincy Jones – producer (all tracks), rhythm arrangements (4, 6, 9), vocal arrangements (6, 9)
Johnny Mandel – strings arrangement (tracks 7, 8)
Paulette McWilliams – background vocals (tracks 1, 4)
Greg Phillinganes – electric piano (tracks 1, 3, 5-10), synthesizer (1, 2, 5, 8), clavinet (4), rhythm arrangements (1, 3, 6, 8)
Steve Porcaro – synthesizer programming (tracks 6, 9)
Bill Reichenbach Jr. – trombone (tracks 1-6, 8-10)
John Robinson – drums (tracks 1-6, 8-10), percussion (3)
Bruce Swedien – recording engineer and audio mixer (all tracks)
Rod Temperton – rhythm and vocal arrangements (tracks 2, 5, 10)
Phil Upchurch – guitar (track 3)
Gerald Vinci – concertmaster (tracks 1, 2, 4, 7, 8)
Bobby Watson – bass guitar (track 2)
Wah Wah Watson – guitar (tracks 4, 6, 9)
David Williams – guitar (tracks 1-3, 5, 10)
Larry Williams – tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, and flute (tracks 1-6, 8-10), alto saxophone solo (6)
Zedrick Williams – background vocals (tracks 1, 4)
Hawk Wolinski – Fender Rhodes (track 2)
Stevie Wonder – rhythm arrangement (track 8)
Ben Wright – strings arrangements (tracks 1, 2, 4)
I mean, who didn't grow up in the 1980s and 1990s without the music of Michael Jackson forming part of their childhood (whether they liked it or not)...
Off The Wall was released five years before I was born, and by the time I was old enough to be aware of my pop-culture surroundings, most of the songs from this album had already entered the Zeitgeist. Nevertheless, from what I remember, it was overshadowed by the enormous hits of Thriller and the world-stopping promotional audio-visual gargantuan that was Bad.
Therefore, whilst I was familiar with most of the songs from Off The Wall, I took them for granted, and didn't pay close attention to this album until my early 20s. At the time, I hadn't listened to any Michael Jackson since I was kid. Then one day, I don't remember which track it was, but I heard a track from this album on a TV show and my interest was piqued, as I noticed just how lush the arrangement was. I realised I'd been sleeping on this monster of a record and went straight out to town and picked up a copy from a music shop (remember them? They sold these things called CDs 🙄).
I was right! I really had been sleeping on this record. It's a pop, funk and disco powerhouse. Every tune is a stone-cold banger. Nothing was left on the table. No stone was left unturned. Every 32nd beat division (or 24th on the more swung tunes) is so meticulously orchestrated; and this is in 1979, five years before the advent of MIDI and digital sequencing. The musicianship is just astonishing.
There's a world of documentation already in existence about this album. I saw a 90-minute documentary about it a little while ago on the BBC, and even that only managed to scratch the surface. There's nothing I can really add of any worth, but I couldn't not include it in these Albums That Made Me blogs, because this album was pivotal in helping me shape and direct my own music. To this day it's still on very regular rotation in my car and it's an album I'll listen to whenever I'm feeling a little unsure, stuck or uninspired.
If I had to pick one thing to highlight, that perhaps doesn't get the discussion it deserves, it's the orchestration. Whilst it's primarily a Disco album, with formulaic pop songs, slightly cheesy lyrics and synthesisers, the arrangement work of Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton and Ben Wright harks back to techniques and musical devices more commonly found in the Great American Songbook. The orchestrations walks a line between an old Disney song from the 1940s and the sort of thing you might hear on a traditional jazz piece from the 1950. This shouldn't really be a surprise, as Quincy Jones was Sinatra's arranger for many years, but nevertheless, if you told me Leonard Bernstein had written the string and brass parts for this album, I could believe it, such is the magnificence of this work.
Coupling such lush, sublime and rich orchestration with grooves and rhythms that are so incredibly tight and in-the-pocket is not only impressive (in production terms), but the outcome is unparalleled and stands this record above anything else being produced in the pop/disco genre at this time (in my opinion). Furthermore, amidst all the funk and groove, there's a collaboration with Stevie Wonder that is steeped in 1970s lounge-jazz vibes. Seriously! Just thinking about this as I write, my head is spinning! It's such a wild ride; such a perfect melding of creative minds and talent.
What more is there to say? This album is an absolute masterpiece. It's pure, feel-good positivity, achieved by some of the greatest musicians, arrangers, producers and engineers of a generation (arguably of all time!). There's precise diversity in every minuscule beat-division and it's not there for the sake of it. Every moment and variable serves an important purpose. It's an absolute masterclass in how a great many tiny elements can create something truly amazing. If you're ever struggling to make your own music more interesting, listen to this album and pay attention to every fragment of the arrangement, and every note's articulation. There's not a hair out of place and it's all humans; not a sequencer in sight!