The Jackson 5 were Motown’s last hurrah, a boy band to rival the Monkees but with the wholesome family ties of the Partridge Family. They also grew up on record, and their popularity in the mid-to-late-seventies mirrored that of Motown, their flagging label. A few scattered hits and lack of creative direction led the group’s manager and father Joe to split for CBS in 1976, fetching the group a record contract and short-lived variety program on the television network. The band’s first two albums for CBS, Destiny (1978) and Triumph (1980, as “The Jacksons”), re-established the group’s chart success and spawned two incredibly successful world tours. Epic/Legacy have remastered and rereleased both albums, hoping to capitalize on the incredible success of their reissues of Michael’s solo albums, Off the Wall and Thriller.
The Jacksons’ narrative is of course all their own, but there are many familiar elements. For Destiny, the brothers expressed their strong desire to write and produce their own material for the first time. While the results can’t compare with their pop heyday and the songwriting consortium of Motown, Destiny is a slick, densely produced but still light collection of timely pop songs. The album draws from Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s lush, string-laden Philly Soul aesthetic as well as Earth, Wind & Fire’s take on funk music, with the inclusion of a few schmaltzy ballads (“You Push Me Away,” “Bless His Soul”).
The centerpiece of Destiny is its second and most successful single, “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).” An eight minute club cut (whittled to four minutes for radio) penned by Michael and Randy, “Shake” proved that the group could, on its own, tap into the still-ascendant disco market—the track reached number seven on the American pop chart. “Blame it on the Boogie” is equally lithe and arguably just as catchy, but stalled in the mid-fifties on Billboard. The title cut and third single, however, is Destiny‘s most ambitious moment, opening with a lone acoustic guitar before segueing into one of Michael’s more world-weary lyrics, capped by an ever-so-brief refrain that could have been pulled from a Doobie Brothers or Christopher Cross track. Destiny is a disco record through and through, and a reasonably successful one, but tracks like this make it clear that the group had designs well outside of the dance floor.
Between Destiny and Triumph, the Jacksons, especially Michael, lived up to the grandiose titles of their records. The Destiny tour was a worldwide success, launching the Jacksons back into the popular imagination. Michael, however, had been tapped for a starring role in The Wiz, producer Quincy Jones’ all-black remake of The Wizard of Oz starring Michael’s former advocate Diana Ross as Dorothy. Michael and Quincy’s relationship blossomed, leading to their collaboration on Off the Wall, which cemented Michael’s reputation as a solo star. “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” (written by Heatwave’s Rod Temperton, who would later collaborate with Jones and Jackson on Thriller) were better songs than anything on Triumph, and stand as two of the best moments from the disco era. Much of this was due to Jones’ wrangling of some of the best studio hands of the time, including Temperton, Jeff Porcaro, Larry Carlton, George Duke, and Greg Philligaines. Michael took the opportunity to work on his dance moves and visual style for Wall‘s music videos as well, a notion that would pay off rather well a few years later.
Though Michael was clearly on a star bound trajectory in 1980, he was still devoted (and contractually-bound) to recording and touring with his brothers. Triumph moved away from disco toward the realm of stadium-sized electronic pop, topping Destiny‘s sales and reaching platinum status. The lead track, “Can You Feel It,” with shared lead vocals by Jackie and Michael, reflected the group’s stratospheric ambition and self-regard. The video (released the same year MTV launched, and three years before the network committed to playing black music videos) positioned the group, quite literally, as emerging from prehistoric cosmic forces and standing larger than life. “Feel It” stalled in the ’70s on the pop charts (though it charted much higher in Europe). The first single, “Lovely One,” essentially a retread of the horn-and-string-laden, groove-based Destiny singles, reached no.12.
Though it didn’t succeed as a single to the extent of “Lovely One”, the Michael-penned “This Place Hotel” (changed from “Heartbreak Hotel” to avoid a lawsuit) signaled his clear separation from the group, as well as his obvious admiration for another former teen idol who moved toward making “adult” music, Paul McCartney (whom Jackson met during Off the Wall). “This Place Hotel” was in many ways a precursor to Thriller‘s “Billie Jean”: a narrative of being “done wrong” by a mysterious woman. The lyrics suggest as much: “We came to this place, where the vicious dwell / And found that wicked women run this strange hotel.” After Triumph, Michael would reconnect with Jones, McCartney and others to record 1982’s Thriller. Though the Jacksons would reform for the 1984 LP Victory, Michael’s moonwalk during the 1983 “Motown 25” special, coupled with a few groundbreaking music videos of his own, meant that the longstanding star of the Jackson family had finally broken off on his own.
These new “expanded editions” do much to clean up the poor digital mastering from the original CD pressings of the albums, but they do not contain much else in the way of essential bonus material. The five extra tracks include four remixes from the same era by noted DJ and producer John Luongo, and the liner notes—by critic Ernest Hardy—speak in very romantic language about the impact of the Jacksons on pop culture, pop music, and African American art in general.
Posted by Eric Harvey