Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall Was the Perfect Pop Record

Die-hard Michael Jackson fans know that before Thriller, Off the Wall—released 35 years ago this week—was his signature achievement.

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Off the Wall

EPIC RECORDS

What is Michael Jackson’s greatest album? The answer helps establish whether you were introduced to Jackson via Thriller, the crown jewel of his commercial legacy, or whether you were riding with him long before he donned the sequined glove—since Off the Wall, the classic album released 35 years ago this week, that represents Jackson at his most brilliant musically, and that may be the most perfect pop recording of the late 20th century.

Off the Wall is remembered as the first in a series of collaborations between Jackson and producer-arranger Quincy Jones that would redefine pop. Yet when Jackson and Jones first began to work together, on the set of The Wiz, Jones was actually focused on another young black male vocalist, Luther Vandross, who had contributed “Brand New Day” to The Wiz soundtrack and who was featured on Jones’ 1978 recording Sounds ... and Stuff Like That.

That Jackson’s youthful professionalism impressed Jones—himself a veteran of the same chitlin circuit that produced Jackson and his brothers, in the form of the Jackson 5—is no surprise, but Jones also detected a certain something that Jackson possessed—charisma, genius, brashness—that would allow them to push music forward. And “You Can’t Win,” from The Wiz, was the first fruit of their partnership.

Off the Wall, Jackson’s first solo album since his days at Motown, was also the first project he worked on without Berry Gordy, his brothers, superproducers like Gamble and Huff, and, to some extent, his overbearing father. It was a true career reboot—an attempt to grow him up in the face of a public that remembered him as a cherub-faced little boy who had aged out of his cuteness. Though the Jacksons had released their most successful post-Motown album, Destiny—which featured hits like “Blame It on the Boogie” and “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”—the year before, Michael Jackson was adamant that he didn’t want his new solo album to sound like Destiny 2.0.

Jackson’s label, Epic Records, balked at the choice of Jones, best known for working with jazz and blues artists like Count Basie, Dinah Washington and Frank Sinatra, but Jones was crafting a unique sound that borrowed from the full range of American popular music, most evident in his multi-Grammy winning album The Dude (1981). As Joseph Vogel writes in Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson,Off the Wall did for R&B what the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds did for rock,” in reference to an earlier sonic revolution.

Indeed, Jackson’s decision to work with Jones was a product of his own growing independence. Off the Wall was released only weeks before Jackson’s 21st birthday. At the time, he was living in New York City under the watchful eye of Diana Ross and was hanging out in all the late-night dance spots, including Studio 54. Jackson got the chance to see the disco movement up front, but Jones helped give his sound a sophisticated sheen. 

With Jones came a slew of collaborators, who would work intimately with Jackson for more than a decade, including keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, who also served as Jackson’s musical director on tour; and songwriter Rod Temperton, known for his work with the band Heatwave, especially their blue-light-in-the-basement classic “Always and Forever.”

From the opening track and lead single, the Jackson-penned “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” (with that precoital purr in the beginning), Off the Wall was a timeless endeavor in pure pop pleasure. Drawing references to Star Wars (“the force”) with a pulsating rhythm that can still move an ass—or a thousand—35 years later, “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” was the ideal reintroduction for Jackson, finding a spot on both the pop charts and the dance floor. The song earned Jackson his first Grammy Award as a solo artist for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.

“Rock With You” also topped the pop charts—notable at a time when the slick type of R&B production of Off the Wall was having difficulty finding an audience on pop radio amid thinly veiled racist and homophobic notions that “Disco sucks.” There’s an argument to be made that “Rock With You” and the title track (also a top-10 pop hit), both written by Temperton, are the templates for the black crossover sound of the early 1980s. Indeed, that Temperton magic gave George Benson a top-five pop hit the next year with “Give Me the Night.”

Even without those hit singles, Off the Wall is a seamless listen. “Workin’ Day and Night”—a metaphor for Jackson’s work ethnic—was as “smelly jelly” as anything Jackson ever recorded. Stevie Wonder contributed the mature stepper “I Can’t Help It” to the project. The song was likely initially drawn from an earlier aborted session that Wonder did with the Jackson 5 that also produced “Buttercup.” 

That Wonder, who was at the peak of his creative powers, contributed a song to Jackson’s album speaks volumes about the gravitas Jackson held, as was also the case when Paul McCartney provided the sweet little ballad “Girlfriend.” The song was a precursor to “The Girl Is Mine,” the lead single from Thriller that featured McCartney on vocals. And “Girlfriend” wasn’t even the best ballad on the album; “She’s Out of My Life” remains one of Jackson’s most mature and affecting vocal performances.

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.

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