The Year of the Jacksons

posted in: by Sean Ross | 2

When Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever was taped on March 25, 1983, “Billie Jean” was in its third week at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and “Beat It” was top 25 after four weeks. By the time the special aired on May 16, “Beat It” had just fallen out of No. 1 and “Wanna Be Something” was about to debut at No. 41. By then, the excitement about Michael Jackson’s Thriller was such that each single was a revelation and radio was trying to keep up, even at an overall time of plenty for pop and R&B.

Thriller was already phenomenal by May, of course, but Motown 25 still represented a line of demarcation in Michaelmania — moonwalking him into the consciousness of those who didn’t follow the charts. What followed over the next year — the combination of four more hits from an album that had already spawned three; the Jacksons’ group album and the accompanying Victory tour; a new side project seemingly every week — was amazing to watch unfold. In honor of the 35th anniversary of Motown 25, here’s how Michaelmania played out, song by song over the next year or so.

Michael Jackson, “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” (May) – It debuted May 28, on the heels of the TV appearance, but by then, it probably didn’t need any more topspin than following “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” At this point, it was impressive that Thriller, like Off the Wall, had gotten to four hits, since Hotel California had stopped at three (even as radio was playing other cuts like a single). But there was no sense of the project being in any way done.

Michael Jackson, “Human Nature” (July) — There were still remnants from the mushy early ‘80s on the charts in 1983 — “Tonight I Celebrate My Love” by Roberta Flack & Peabo Bryson; “All Time High” by Rita Coolidge; the original Laura Branigan version of “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You.” “Human Nature” could have as easily been on Quincy Jones’ The Dude, somewhere between “Just Once” and “One Hundred Ways” two years earlier. But it played differently when the previous singles were still on the radio and there was more to come.

Michael Jackson, “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” (October) – A colleague once commented that some of the songs on Thriller couldn’t have been hits for anybody except Michael at that particular moment. “P.Y.T.” might have seemed like a trifle at the time, especially punctuated by Smurf-like voices (who showed up on at least one major R&B hit every year between 1981-84). But it’s actually one of Thriller’s most enduring songs now, which is saying something. And since it peaked at No. 10, perhaps it’s one of the many songs that endure now because people didn’t get a chance to get sick of it at the time. Up until now, the hits have all been Michael solo projects. Now the spinoffs begin.

Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson, “Say Say Say” (October) – Debuted two weeks after “P.Y.T.” and quickly upstaged it on the charts. “Say Say Say” is itself lightweight fun, but after “The Girl Is Mine” and the earnestly painful McCartney/Stevie Wonder duet, “Ebony & Ivory,” I remember a lot of excitement about this one actually being good. Still, it doesn’t test now, so “P.Y.T.” has long gotten its own back.

Musical Youth, “She’s Trouble” (January) –  There was also surprise and delight that the teen reggae act behind “Pass the Dutchie” had shown up with a grown-up, non-reggae song, with no whiff of novelty. That’s because this was a song cut from Thriller (and later revived for a deluxe edition.) I don’t remember how widely publicized the MJ connection was (lest it make the song seem like damaged goods), and this altogether solid single was eventually lost among the other side projects.

Rockwell, “Somebody’s Watching Me” (January) — Michael was unbilled. Kennedy “Rockwell” Gordy was still, briefly, trying to protect his identity as Berry Gordy, Jr.’s son when I first heard it on R&B AM KGFJ Los Angeles. And a year or so after “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” paranoia had just started to establish itself as a running theme of Jackson’s hits, and not the thing that propelled them into self-parody (e.g., “Scream” a decade or so later). What seemed like a novelty/in-joke at the time still endures at AC and Classic Hits today, basically as “just another playable Michael Jackson song.”

My oddball memory of this song at the time was seeing it performed in one of the music shows at Disneyland with the “hey, hell, I pay the price” line modified to “hey, hey … ”  Then the same band did Berlin’s “No More Words” but left the third verse untouched. One more trivia footnote: The now-forgotten Andy Fraser cover of “Do You Love Me” on the charts at the time means that both Gordy father and son were represented as songwriters at the time.

Michael Jackson, “Thriller” (February) – There is an actual discussion among Classic Hits and Urban AC stations about how to treat “Thriller” now. No matter how well it tests (and it does), some PDs believe it should be played only around Halloween, which is easier to do since Jackson pretty much rewrote that song as “Bad,” which tests as well. But this was a hit in winter ’84, and the combination of the video and the onstage mishap where Jackson’s hair ignited during a commercial taping propelled this well past its own content and into legend. By being the seventh hit from Thriller, it would create an expectation that any superstar album that couldn’t go at least four songs deep was a failure, thus ensuring that we would get Lionel Richie, “Se La,” or Huey Lewis & the News, “Doing It All for My Baby.”

Weird Al Yankovic, “Eat It” (March) Thriller was phenomenon enough to give Yankovic something he hadn’t had yet, an actual chart hit driven by radio. Debuted at No. 59; got to No. 12 in six weeks.

LaToya Jackson, “Heart Don’t Lie” (May)Thriller was not phenomenon enough to give LaToya Jackson an actual hit — this peaked at No. 56 pop. It did put her in the consideration set for the first time after four or so years of R&B mid-charters. And Musical Youth supplied the backing vocals.

Jermaine Jackson, “Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming” (May) – Back in the era when artist “features” were still novel and acts actually worried about being overexposed, Arista couldn’t get the rights to officially release this Michael duet as a single, but it was still the unofficial album kickoff, and that was how radio played it anyway. Feels like a pleasant enough throwaway now, but Robert Palmer, who had pretty good taste in R&B covers in that era, liked it enough to remake it.

Michael Jackson, “Farewell My Summer Love” (May) – These days, it would take a lot for an artist’s former label to expend any promotional energy or budget on a song from the archives. It was a more common occurrence in the ‘70s and early ‘80s (especially in Country). Motown had already done it on the heels of Off the Wall with the equally treacly “One Day in Your Life.” By the time this sweet-natured trifle resurfaced, the edgier Michael had taken shape on record, and this Michael was as distant a memory as, say, the old Taylor Swift. But this went to No. 43.

Jacksons, “State of Shock” (June) – I often think that hourly first-day airplay hurts most superstar releases, rather than helping. KIQQ Los Angeles actually went for a hoary Top 40 stunt, playing this song repeatedly for hours, but backselling it as a different song each time. By then, it would have been hard at this point for any Michael Jackson/Mick Jagger duet to live up to expectations. Gleefully controversial WZAK Cleveland PD/morning man Lynn Tolliver actually released a parody with the song’s traded lyrics of the verses becoming something like “neither of us can sing/but you’ll buy anything.” Event records before (“No More Tears” by Streisand & Summer) and after (“Look What You Made Me Do”) have gone to No. 1, even when radio was dubious. This one went to No. 3.

The songs that held “State of Shock” out of No. 1 were Prince’s “When Doves Cry” and Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters.” Prince had obviously been a cottage industry unto himself of hits, B-sides, side projects, related artists, and soundalikes. But Purple Rain — the album, movie, and related tour — exceeded expectations in a way that the Victory album and tour did not. And just as the Victory album faded, Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” hit.

Also, if I had kept this timeline going through the fall, the next Jacksons single would have been “Torture,” proof that Tolliver’s assertion to the contrary, radio would not buy anything from the Jacksons. That one was allowed to peak at No. 17.  Some major Top 40s played brother Marlon’s “Body” as their effective second single from Victory.  That song was a triviality, but an energetic one, and might have reinforced the group’s bench strength. But Epic went for the Michael/Jermaine duet instead.

That said, the side projects continued through the fall. One was Rebbie Jackson’s “Centipede,” with Michael’s picture-sleeve dedication “to my mannequin friends,” probably also a turning-point moment in focusing people away from Jackson’s music and on to his eccentricities. There were two more hits from Jermaine. There was Janet Jackson’s R&B-only “Don’t Stand Another Chance,” an unsatisfying moment between the excitement of her debut and finally taking Control 15 months later.

And whatever over-exposure might have taken place for Jackson in 1983-84, radio had pressed a reset button by the time of Bad. “Torture” may have set the tone for the minor-chord anguish and sameness that started to plague Jackson’s records in the ‘90s. But in between, there was “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and “Man in the Mirror,” all showing that Jackson had not exhausted the ability to come up with something different. Bad had to carry the weight in 1987-88 of not being Thriller, but that didn’t stop it from creating an impressive number of songs that endure now. (And by that time, Prince was in the process of spending out his hot streak as well.)

As some major artists visibly struggle in the 15th, or even 10th, year of their hit-making careers, it is worth considering that by 1979, a decade after “I Want You Back,” the Jackson 5/Jacksons and Michael seemed to have exhausted their hit streak as well. The best-remembered J5 hits are from the first two or so years of their career. After that, there was a string of relatively forgotten singles punctuated only by an occasional “Dancing Machine” or “Enjoy Yourself.” When “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” launched a comeback in 1979, it was the second single from the third album under the group’s CBS deal. The entire phenomenon that followed was extra innings — something to consider when evaluating any artist’s hot streak today.

2 Responses

  1. Joel Robert Murphy

    On a recent trip to Florida, I heard 105-9 Sunny FM/Orlando play both “PYT” and “Say, Say, Say” in about the span of :90 minutes. In fact, I heard “Say, Say, Say” again later that week. Maybe it’s finally making a resurgence?

  2. Brett Alan

    The Rockwell/Berlin thing is nothing. I once had to segue on the radio from Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” to a censored version of Kid Rock & Sheryl Crow’s “Picture” which began “Living on and whiskey….” That’s right, they had censored the word from the song even though we were playing an uncensored song with that as the title! The same station played “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” that cut off at the false ending. The joys of working at a station whose PD is in another market.

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