By the time Michael Jackson had started work on what would be Off The Wall rumours about the demise of his band of brothers had been circulating. This was off the back of big success as The Jacksons’ LP Destiny had produced the R&B hit “Blame it on the Boogie” and the Top Ten mega-hit “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)”, written by Michael and Randy. The album itself peaked at number 11 on the Billboard Pop Albums Chart and number 3 on the R&B chart and was the first platinum seller by the group. Despite this unprecedented success, Destiny would be the last time that the brothers would enjoy Michael’s undivided attention.
Michael had released four solo albums with his first label Motown: 1972’s Got to Be There and Ben, 1973’s Music & Me, and the last solo effort under the imprint 1975’s Forever, Michael. But with The Jackson’s new label Epic, Michael seized the opportunity to turn the page. Following the path the record company had projected for him, Michael set off on his own to start afresh and create an album that reflected who he’d become, both personally and musically as he entered his twenties.
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Music journalist Steven Ivory recalled, “Even the Jacksons had ideas about who should produce Michael’s solo album. They felt they should do it, and told Michael as much in front of me one afternoon in September 1977.“
“We been waiting to produce our own stuff for a long time, man,” Jackie proudly said, when the cassette ended. “After this album, Michael’s doing a solo record. He’s talking to different people, but he’s thinking about keeping it in the family and letting us produce HIS album, too. Right Mike?” Michael looked away, as if he didn’t really hear it, his silence speaking volumes.
It was during 1977 while filming The Wiz alongside Diana Ross, that Michael met Quincy Jones who was musical supervisor and producer for the film. In the film, Michael played the Scarecrow and received critical acclaim for his performance.
The album was recorded between December 1978 and June 1979 in 3 different studios in Los Angeles with Quincy Jones as producer. Amongst the writers and performers in the album were Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Rod Temperton, Patti Austin, and more.
Off The Wall wasn’t Michael’s first solo album, but it was the opportunity to start from scratch–to put the Motown years and childhood star behind and become arguably the greatest performer in history. Lyrics in the album touched upon a number of themes including escapism, liberation, loneliness, hedonism, and romance.
This was Michael pushing the past aside, his father’s abrasive strictness, and the insecurities of growing up in the spotlight as an incredibly shy and sheltered artist. The infectious melodic quality and rhythms were celebratory, joyous, and infused with the R&B and disco-era sounds that made dancers flock to nightclubs. But according to producer Quincy Jones, “Our underlying plan was to take disco out. That was the bottom line. I admired disco, don’t get me wrong. I just thought it had gone far enough.”
Unlike later Jackson releases, Off The Wall featured no gimmicks—no rock songs meticulously designed to appeal to a demographic that wouldn’t normally listen to Jackson’s music; no star musician cameos recruited purely for show. Michael’s emotional intelligence, immaculate sense of rhythm, and introverted nature show his drive and dedication to introducing fans to a mature star who was just beginning to show what he would soon become.
by Barbie Bertisch, Classic Album Sundays New York City