Happy 40th Anniversary to Michael Jackson’s fifth solo studio album Off The Wall, originally released August 10, 1979.
How does a child star reintroduce himself to a public intent on pigeonholing him? This was the issue Michael Jackson faced in the lead up to Off The Wall. He was no longer the cute little kid twirling around in the front of The Jackson 5. He had grown as a person and as an artist, and he wanted to bring this sense of maturity to his next project, his first solo album as an adult—Jackson had released 4 previous solo albums as a teen under the watch of Motown Records—and the first truly of his making.
In the lead-up to its release, Jackson was considered just another singer-songwriter-performer; talented for sure, but maybe his best years were behind him—and this at the ripe old age of 21. So for Jackson, Off The Wall was indeed a reintroduction of sorts.
After a staggering eighteen previous outings recording with The Jackson 5, as a solo artist, and with the rebranded Jacksons, Off The Wall represented the chance to guide his own destiny, to create his own sound and chart his own course. For the first time in his solo career, self-penned songs would be recorded, he would co-produce a handful of songs (along with the incredibly gifted Quincy Jones) and he would set about creating the perfect pop/R&B crossover album.
It’s fitting then, that the very first song to present a new, more mature sounding Jackson is one wholly written by himself (with an assisted middle 8 by keyboardist, Greg Phillinganes, who is given arrangement credit). With its percussion and bass intro, “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” beckons the listener in with Jackson delivering a teased out spoken intro. It’s as though we’ve caught him mid-conversation as he hesitantly asks, “You know I was... I was wondering, you know, if... if we could keep on, because the force it’s... it’s got a lot power.” These somewhat nonsensical mutterings conveyed a truth in the delivery, revealing an unsure, unconfident and shy Jackson.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this 15-second introduction is that on first listen you don’t know where the song will go. Then as a counterpoint to the shy, soft-spoken intro, the music kicks in and with it the uber-confident superstar version of Jackson lets out what would become a trademark scream and the track springs to life with a driving beat, lush strings, and teasing guitar. Jackson’s falsetto is pure perfection. Silky smooth, the lead and background vocals draw out phrases and add accents in a way that is immediately intoxicating.
It’s as though everything Jackson had learned in his career to that point, coupled with his own musical ideas, are presented here. The way “Don’t Stop” carries multiple hooks from the vocal melody to the jittering guitar lines to the blasting horns to the swirling strings says as much about Jackson’s ability to write a hit on his own terms, as it does his ability to masterfully weave together musical arrangements.
Of course, Jones’ masterful production is evident and helps elevate the track, though it shouldn’t be overstated. Jackson’s early demos recorded in his Hayvenhurst home studios present the song almost fully formed, with the wall of percussion grooving alongside the signature bass and key melody lines (right down to the bubbling synth outro), all there just ready to hook the ear.
The beauty in Off The Wall is that it was a chance for Jackson to present himself in a way he hadn’t before. A song like the pop-disco crossover “Rock With You” gives him the chance to step into a different set of patent leather loafers and spread his wings.
Rooted in a more traditional disco groove, “Rock With You“ allows Jackson’s voice to float through the verses in anticipation of a driving chorus. There is a sensuality here in his voice. A mix of pleasing and promise. Of desire and deliverance. Of passion and playfulness. He teases. He coos. He slinks over notes with ease and adds punch when needed.
And all that tease and promise is paid off when that bridge hits and his vocals carry you effortlessly. When he claims “When the groove is dead and gone / you know that love survives / so we can rock forever on,” you believe him. And since his unexpected passing in 2009, these words have become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, as 40 years later, we are still tuning in to the energy of his music that lives on.
Again the production and arrangement sees Jones bring his ability to sew together hints of jazz with a funk groove, all topped with Michael singing with a pure sense of joy and excitement. Whereas the majority of songs from the disco era now seem throwaway and soulless, “Rock With You” offers a richness that drips from the slow delivery of the lead vocals, to the oh-so-sweet backing harmonies. It manages to perfectly capture a moment in time and yet remain timeless and eternally captivating.
Frenetic and pulsing with energy, “Working Day And Night” bristles with pure funk. From the opening percussive groove complete with Jackson’s scatting and heavy breathing beat boxing, the song is grounded in the inescapable intensity of the rhythmic track. Jackson’s sweet falsetto conveys the plight of a man so busy trying to please his lover that there is little time left over for actual loving. With blasting horns and piano stabs, the track is a dizzy, hypnotic journey through the pains of unobtainable love that is too good to sit still to.
Anchored in its propulsive driving beat, ‘Working Day And Night’ proved an effective dance floor filler as it did a stadium joint. It is perhaps the purist representation of Jackson fully immersed in the funk (followed closely by follow-up album track “Get On The Floor”).
The production on the song (co-produced by Jackson) has everything sitting perfectly in the jingle jangle pocket that commands the listener to get up and groove. The song also gives us a stronger shaping of Michael’s vocal prowess with the emergence of his soon-to-be trademark ad-libs and percussive delivery.
Building on from “Working Day And Night,” the funkfest continues with “Get On The Floor.” Structured around the sublime bass work of Louis Johnson (co-writer on the track with Jackson) whose hands run all over the fret, Jackson builds the song into a flurry of funk with a sparse arrangement of bass, strings and vocals anchored on a percussion infused groove that fills the song with pure energy. At the center of it all are Jackson’s vocals and multifaceted harmonies that blend both his upper and mid voice.
At the glorious breakdown, Jackson uses his voice as a percussive instrument, whispering and grunting as the section builds and builds to its climax, kicking the track into next gear. The oft cited joy of Off The Wall as an album is completely evident here especially at the 3:38 mark, when Jackson is captured laughing, caught up in the moment. It’s a spontaneous act that in later years would have been removed and sacrificed for a more polished take.
Closing out Side A with “Get On The Floor” (this was a time when the sequencing of songs on the side of an album mattered, kids) gives Off The Wall pop’s most perfect first side. Its brief run of four songs (and over twenty minutes of music) gave it the perfect party album feel with a juggernaut of funk that just won’t let up.
If Side A was the funky, playful Jackson, Side B was designed to paint him as a man of many colors and moods. Kicking off with the title track, Jackson keeps the party going with an anthem for giving in to the power of the music and leaving your worries on the edge of the dance floor. Although penned by Rod Temperton, Jackson imbued the lyrics to “Off The Wall” with his own passion for losing oneself in music and dance.
“When the world is on your shoulder / gotta straighten up your act and boogie down,” Jackson sings as he pays homage to the escape and release he found in dancing, whilst also giving a nod to the wider community of “party people” of the era who lived for the moment with a true sense of carefree abandon. It is this whimsical nature that is imbedded in the song. The groove is uplifting as it shimmies to a classic disco beat accented by bright and sparkly harmonies delivered with a true sense of joy.
A pop hymn for the party ethos of the time, it captures the vibrancy and blissed-out love that was key to the lifestyle. Here the dance floor is your sanctuary. Yet, due to its strict adherence to the disco sound, “Off The Wall” is perhaps the song that suffers most from the distance of its surroundings. Whilst offering a nostalgic hit to the golden days of the era, it does come off sounding slightly dated. But if one can cast aside images of silver lamé jumpsuits and spinning disco balls for a moment, there is still enough power in the song to uplift the spirit 40 years later, due largely in part to Jackson’s heartening performance.
Originally recorded by Paul McCartney for Wings’ 1978 London Town album, “Girlfriend” (depending on who is telling the story) was written by McCartney with Jackson in mind. McCartney’s original take on the song has him singing in a somewhat strained falsetto with equally helium-filled falsetto backing vocals that strongly hint to a Jackson 5 inspired arrangement. As a somewhat obscure McCartney track, it comes as no surprise that many in the Jackson camp were unaware that this was even a cover. And in a weird kind of cross pollination, McCartney’s more Jackson 5 inspired arrangement falls by the wayside as Jackson and team give it more of a traditional McCartney arrangement complete with little throwaway Beatles-esque “woo hoos.”
Slightly unremarkable overall as a song, “Girlfriend” no sooner begins as it is ushered off to a quick fade out. The shortest track on Off The Wall, it gives the album a bit of a reprieve from the onslaught of the preceding dance oriented tracks, shifting things to a more decidedly middle of the road feel. This downshift works nicely as the perfect lead-in to the latter half of the record. And for that, all is not lost.
Heartbreak has never been captured on record quite like it is on “She’s Out Of My Life.” With its melodramatic string and synth intro, the song takes on a haunting quality not yet present on the album. If Off The Wall is an overall joyous undertaking, then here is a moment of melancholy to provide balance.
Showing maturity in his vocals, Jackson delivers an impassioned performance filled with warmth and reflection. Wisely, the instrumentation is kept to a minimum to offer a modern take on a simple piano and vocal torch song.
The final phrase of the song is now legendary, with Jackson shedding real tears and a break in his voice as he draws the song to its heart aching conclusion. Rumored to be unable to complete the song without finishing in a flood of tears, the decision was made to keep the breakdown in the track presenting a vulnerability and authenticity somewhat lacking in other music of the time.
With its smooth jazz vibe, “I Can’t Help It” sees Jackson taking a Stevie Wonder penned track and making you forget who wrote it from the very first note. The rich and silky fretless bass opening coupled with dreamy jazz inspired chords creates a feeling of sensual delights just beyond our reach. The production on the track is second to none. Drawing on his wealth of experience in the jazz arena, Jones applies just the right mix of accompaniment, and holds back from overlaying Jackson’s voice with dense harmonies letting him just double track his lead in the chorus. A great example of restraint where less is more.
Similarly, rather than over wash the song in extra instrumentation for the solo, Jones lets the best instrument—Jackson’s voice—take centerstage as he scats with precision and passion. With such ease, Jackson’s voice trails up and down his register, scats here and there before gathering pace and urgency in the chorus. And just when you think there is nowhere else to go, he soars in the closing minute before floating back down to earth.
If anyone ever questions Jackson’s vocal ability, this is the track to leave them awestruck. It shows his light and shade, his effortless grace and his ability to blend genres. As the second (albeit obscure) cover on the album, “It’s The Falling In Love” is a prime example of the exemplary production of Jones and vocal stylings of Jackson.
Written by Carole Bayer Sager and David Foster (who Jackson would come full circle with again and work with on his final studio album, 2001’s Invincible) the song was submitted to several artists before being featured on Sager’s ...Too album of 1978. The following year, jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater recorded her take on the song in the months prior to Off The Wall for her disco crossover album Bad for Me. That same year saw yet another version emerge as Australian singer Samantha Sang released her own take.
It’s interesting then to contrast the various versions of the song that came out the same year and were aimed at the same audience, as it highlights how a great song is a wonderful starting point, but it is the production and performance that make all the difference. Whilst both Bridgewater and Sang’s versions veer more to the disco side of the equation, Jackson’s version retains more of the intentions laid down by Sager in her original. With more of an organic feel to it, Jackson and Jones set out to make “It’s The Falling In Love” their own.
Duetting with Patti Austin on the track, Jackson brings a sensuality to the song that is lacking in the other versions. Furthermore, structuring the song as a duet provided another point of difference and shifted the song’s narrative, refashioning it as a tale of two star-crossed lovers.
With Jackson kicking off the first verse, his maturing voice and strength in the mid register gives his lines a sense of energy and desire, whilst Austin’s delivery is smokier and alluring. If you contrast Jackson’s first chorus to the final, you can track the surrender to the rush of love through the building excitement of each pass. And by the time he is trading “yeah yeah yeah” tags with Patti, he has truly given into it. Despite not being one of the stronger, more standout tracks on the album, “It’s The Falling In Love” does feature some of Jackson’s most soothing and soulful vocals, and for that, it was worthy of inclusion.
Closing the album with “Burn This Disco Out” was both a fitting way to finish the record as well as a fitting farewell to the Disco Era that was drawing to a close at the end of the decade. Encapsulating all that was good with this once flourishing genre, it blends a bouncing disco beat with a harder funk and soul edge. Perhaps the track most reminiscent of The Jacksons on the album, the stars of the show here are the richly layered backing vocals that counter the lead, harmonize on the chorus, and the bass vocal that underpins the soaring high notes of the pre-chorus.
Once more Jackson sings with a sense of ease and sheer playfulness. One can almost see him dancing in the booth as he lays down his vocal, especially when you hear little utterances of throwaway ad-libs and the start of what would be become his signature vocal ticks. Special mention should be paid to Jerry Hey and The Seawind Horns who provided the blistering horn section for this and the other album tracks. Their sharp accents and sweeping flurries give the track extra vibrancy that seems to encourage Jackson to lift his performance up a notch or two.
Despite the callout in the title, the song owes more to the energy of funk and soul than pure disco and as such has allowed it to weather the storms of time more gracefully than some of the other decidedly disco tracks on the album. For what has been described as “the perfect party album” by critics, finishing on such a joyous high struck just the right note. It was the best way to end the party, with a feeling of it ending on a high and leaving you wanting to go round and relive it all again.
Forty years after its release, it still leaves you with that impression. The sequencing of the album, along with its sublime collection of songs and faultless production, not to mention pure talent in vocal delivery, is what has made Off The Wall a classic album. It was proof that Jackson had the goods, and for those not paying attention to his artistic development as a songwriter and performer through his work with The Jacksons, it ensured that he could no longer be ignored.
And whilst the mega success of its follow-up Thriller (1982) is often pointed to as the blueprint for how to execute a multi-genre album, the initial sketches of such lofty goals can be found here in Off The Wall, with a collection of songs that blend funk, disco, R&B, soul, pop and jazz and intertwine them in the thread of a true artist.
With this release, and through subsequent recordings, Michael Jackson changed the musical landscape forever. Free from lofty expectations, Jackson was allowed to flourish and stretch himself, to play and explore and find his sound. He was allowed just to be. It’s that purity, that authentic presentation of his talents and who he is as an artist that makes Off The Wall such a rewarding listen.
To hear Off The Wall now, 40 years later, it’s easy to forget the obstacles Jackson faced. Success seems a fait accompli. But it’s a rare moment in his career where he was out to prove himself rather than top himself. There’s a true sense of joy evident in the recording and in every performance. He was where he was meant to be, doing what he was meant to do, and loving every moment of newfound creative freedom. It’s his nothing-to-lose but something-to-prove album. His coming of age album. And his first step toward true, unprecedented superstardom.