Their first two albums on Epic weren’t especially successful, and legend has it that the brothers were actually about to get dropped from their contract by CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff (Epic was owned by CBS) when Joseph and Michael met with label brass and got the group one last reprieve — and the opportunity to write and produce their own material. The Jacksons took that ball and ran like hell with it, scoring their biggest hit album in half a decade with 1978’s Destiny. Michael’s solo profile was also raised around that time due to his co-starring role in the film The Wiz. The adaptation of the classic story The Wizard of Oz was already a hit on Broadway, and despite weak box-office numbers, Michael’s turn as the Scarecrow received critical acclaim. The film was notable for one more big reason — the movie’s set was where Michael renewed his acquaintance with Quincy Jones, who was The Wiz‘s musical director. When Michael decided to renew his solo singing career, he called on Quincy and the rest, as they say, is history. Or HIStory.
We’ll get to that stuff in a minute. First, though: a run through the Jacksons’ Epic discography.
The Jacksons (1976)
Minus Jermaine (and the “5”) and plus youngest brother Randy, the Jacksons landed on Epic Records, in search of higher royalty rates and creative freedom. They didn’t find the freedom they were looking for at first — Epic attached them to the Philadelphia International subsidiary. Finding them joining forces with Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and their team of songwriters, producers and musicians, The Jacksons is a fairly decent Philly soul album. “Enjoy Yourself” kicks up a funky storm, but the winners on this album are the ballads. The wistful “Good Times” could be heard as an open letter of sorts to Jermaine and Motown, while “Show You the Way to Go” finds Michael testifying like Teddy Pendergrass on helium. The brothers received their first songwriting credits on a group recording thanks to the deceptively breezy “Blues Away” and the simmering “Style of Life.” Songs like “Think Happy” and “Living Together” were in line with the Philly team’s socially conscious lyrical style, but what’s good for the O’Jays wasn’t necessarily best for the Jacksons, and the result is an album that only excites intermittently.
Goin’ Places (1977)
The Jacksons went back in the studio with Gamble and Huff, and the fact that Goin’ Places wound up being a flop probably made a lot of people wonder why the group had left Motown in the first place. Not only did their new label home seem to have misgivings, it’s hard not to imagine the brothers having doubts as well. Musically, the focus is more on love songs, but the material’s still incredibly generic. That said, Michael sings every lyric like he believes it; it’s hard to imagine any other singer making a gimmicky song like the title track (which was a minor hit) listenable. The brothers again manage to write and co-produce two tracks — the easygoing “Do What You Wanna” and the insistent disco jam “Different Kind of Lady,” quite possibly the first song to musically suggest the direction Michael and his brothers would end up finding the most success with.
Released in December 1978, Destiny was the album that re-established the Jacksons as a force to be reckoned with. The brothers wrote and co-produced all but one track on the album, and every song is a keeper. The string-laden ballad “Push Me Away” is one of Michael’s all-time best vocal performances, and “All Night Dancin’” and “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” are irresistible rhythm numbers. It amazes me, however, that more people didn’t listen to the lyrics of many of these songs and interpret them as a cry for help on Michael’s behalf. “Things I Do for You” is a plea for reciprocity. “Bless His Soul” and “That’s What You Get (for Being Polite)” both paint portraits of a person who feels as though he’s being used for the benefit of others. The James Taylor-ish title track (complete with space-rock coda) is the story of someone who yearns for a simpler way of being. Think Michael was trying to tell us something, maybe? Or am I just reading too much into the lyrics?
THIS is the album that should have been called Victory. The brothers were experiencing their highest level success in years, and within a year, Michael’s Off the Wall was (at the time, according to the RIAA) the biggest selling album of all time by a black artist. They’d proven their commercial and critical viability in spades, and Triumph projects a confidence that had been absent from any previous Jackson release. Jackie, Marlon and Randy all get opportunities to shine individually, but the star of the show is undoubtedly still Michael. Lots of characteristics that would come to define him came into view on this release: his emotional fragility (“Time Waits for No One”), his paranoia when it came to the fairer sex (the excellent “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Walk Right Now”) and his desire to save the world (“Can You Feel It”). These conceits were still fresh at the time — he wouldn’t run them into the ground for another decade. Even though the hit single “Lovely One” and the danceable “Everybody” are fairly obvious retreads (of “Shake Your Body” and Off the Wall’s “Get on the Floor,” respectively, they’re damn good retreads. This album gets a very slight edge over Destiny as the best album made by the brothers.
Michael went back to the family roost after the success of Thriller, and by most accounts he participated in the recording of Victory and the accompanying tour against his will. The album gets a worse rap than it deserves, probably due to the backlash against the brothers that had begun to brew at that time. Despite not being as bad as most people say it is, Victory still pales in comparison to the two group albums that preceded it (to say nothing of Michael’s solo work). It came across as more of a showcase for the individual brothers than an actual group project. Despite all the hoopla about Jermaine returning to the group, he only sings co-lead vocals on two tracks, while Michael sings on four. Two of those are throwaway tracks — and while the Mick Jagger duet “State of Shock” is at least somewhat fun to listen to, the (literally) weepy “Be Not Always” is one of the few tracks made by an adult Michael Jackson that I refuse to listen to ever again. Marlon, Jackie and Tito get one lead vocal each, while youngest brother Randy proves with his two tracks (“One More Chance” and “The Hurt”) that he could have been a major talent in his own right.
2300 Jackson Street (1989)
Strangely, after the Victory tour ended, Michael was not the first Jackson brother to leave the group — it was Marlon. Michael followed suit shortly after. The remaining four brothers took a break and then decided to soldier on, releasing one last album before splitting for good. With Jermaine and Randy splitting lead singing duties, 2300 Jackson Street was a decent, if fairly anonymous late-Eighties pop/soul album. The brothers were back to working with outside producers, and their choices show that they at least had a finger ahead of the curve. Hell, they snagged Teddy Riley two full years before Michael grabbed him for Dangerous. Riley’s banger “She” and the first single, L.A. and Babyface’s “Nothin’ (That Compares 2 U)” are the album highlights, and there’s actually a decent midtempo Diane Warren track (“Private Affair”). The remainder of 2300 isn’t bad, just bland, and not even the presence of Michael, Marlon, Rebbie and Janet on the title track can help matters.
Although there are now several Jacksons compilations on the market, the first one didn’t appear until maybe six years ago. You’d be wise to go with The Essential Jacksons, which rounds up all of the group’s Epic hits with a live version of “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” tacked on. Universal’s The Jacksons Story serves as a decent sampler of Jacksons hits with some old J5 stuff thrown in, as well as a few selections each from Michael and Jermaine’s solo careers (with the most recent track being “Billie Jean”). Completists will also want The Jacksons Live. Released in 1981 after their tour to support Triumph, it’s the only live audio document of an adult Michael Jackson in existence.