Until I Find My Destiny
Joie: Hey Willa, do you ever just look over Michael’s very impressive body of work and think, ‘Wow!’ I do that quite often and I always marvel at the fact that he was in the business for so long. And I like to go back and listen to some of that early work; I think it’s fascinating to listen to the progression from cute little child star with the Jackson Five to adult superstar as the King of Pop. But I have to say that I really enjoy the sort of in-between stage – the work he did with his brothers as The Jacksons.
Michael made six albums with his brothers as The Jacksons. One of them was the incredible Live album (in 1981) and one was the Victory album (in 1984), which doesn’t really count, in my opinion because Michael wasn’t all that involved in the whole project.
Willa: Oh, but Joie. It has one of my favorite Michael Jackson songs …
Joie: What song is that?
Willa: “Always / Please, be not always / And if always / Bow our heads in blame / ‘Cause time has made promises …” Oh, man! I love that song.
Joie: Really? That is one song that I can honestly say I don’t love.
But, getting back to the other four albums – The Jacksons (in 1976), Goin’ Places (in 1977), Destiny (in 1978) and Triumph (in 1980) – are what I want to concentrate on. More specifically, I want to zero in on Destiny for a while, if we can.
The Destiny album was very unique because it was the first album they had ever recorded where they were responsible for most of the creative content. They wrote nearly the entire album, with the exception of the song, “Blame It on the Boogie.” It is seen as the album that re-established the brothers as a top-selling group and it became their first certified platinum album. This is significant, I think, because for years they had tried to persuade the powers that be to let them record their own music. In fact, wanting more creative freedom was a major issue for them and one of the reasons that they left the Motown label when they did.
Willa: You’re right, Joie. Destiny was a huge album for them creatively. It proved to the record industry, the critics, the public, and most importantly themselves, that they could write and produce their own work. And you can hear it. I don’t know musical genres very well, and I don’t know how to describe what I’m hearing very well, but the Jackson 5 songs sound like Motown to me. I love them, and they’re obviously the Jackson brothers singing, of course, but they have that Motown sound. And then The Jacksons and Goin’ Places have the Philly sound.
But Destiny sounds like the Jacksons. I feel like I’m not explaining this very well, and I’m overstating things to make a point – the transition isn’t as abrupt as I’m making it out to be, and you can still hear a lot of different musical influences in Destiny. But it really sounds to me like they’ve come into their own, in some way.
Joie: You’re explaining yourself great, Willa. And you’re absolutely right! The Jackson 5 did have that very distinctive Motown sound; it was infused into each and every song they recorded. But when the group left Motown for CBS, they left that “bubble gum pop” sound behind. They had no choice. And really, I don’t think they wanted to hang onto it any longer anyway. They weren’t those chubby-cheeked, adolescent boys anymore, they were growing up. They were all young men by then and they wanted their music to reflect that. However, when I listen to their first two albums with CBS, I sort of get the feeling that the creative team there wasn’t entirely sure what to do with them or which direction they wanted to take them in. You know, it’s almost like the first two albums attempt to straddle the fence between that sweet, bubble gum pop sound and an older, slightly more sophisticated sound.
Willa: I see what you’re saying, Joie, but you know, in some ways it feels just the opposite to me. A lot of their songs at Motown seem too old for them. It’s like the Motown management liked the irony of kids singing adult songs, so you have a 10-year-old Michael Jackson singing “Who’s Loving You,” and Jermaine singing “I’m Losing You” (“Ah, woman, your touch has gone cold … I can feel the presence of another man”). And the Motown sound was developed for adult vocalists – groups like The Supremes and The Temptations and The Four Tops. I don’t mean to sound critical – I love the early Jackson 5 at Motown. But as a kid just a couple years younger than Michael Jackson, my favorite songs were the ones that were more age appropriate, where they didn’t sound like kids pretending to be grown-ups – songs like “Ben” and “ABC” and “Rockin’ Robin.”
So one of the things I like about Destiny is that, in some ways, they sound younger to me. Or rather, they sound like who they are – a group of very talented young men having a good time and finding their own sound.
Joie: Well, you’re right, a lot of the Motown stuff was way too old for them at the time. But to me, it still had that saccharinely sweet, bubble gum quality to it. Whether the songs were age appropriate or not. In fact, sometimes I think the fact that the song isn’t age appropriate only makes it sound sweeter and more schmaltzy because of the play on age (like the spoken intro of the live version of “Who’s Lovin’ You” when Michael exclaims ‘I gave her my cookies!’ – meaning that little exchange was the physical proof of his love, as if he had given her a diamond ring).
And with those first two CBS albums, sometimes it feels as if they are sort of stuck in the middle to me. Take the first album, The Jacksons, for example. With the first three songs on that album, you’ve got “Enjoy Yourself” – a fun, easy dance tune about young people out at a party, and he’s trying to persuade a girl to dance with him. Track three is “Good Times” – a really soft, sweet song about a young man thinking back over a love affair that’s ended. Both of those songs sound very age appropriate, and grown up to me. But sandwiched in between them is “Think Happy” – a song that, to me, sounds as if it could have been left over from some of those Motown recording sessions. It sounds very much like it could have been recorded by those fresh-faced adolescents who burst onto the scene with “ABC” and “I Want You Back.”
It’s like The Jacksons and Goin’ Places are both suffering from a little bit of an identity crisis. But then, once the brothers are allowed the creative freedom that they’ve been craving for so long, they are finally able to come into their own and introduce their own sound to the world. With Destiny, they finally have a distinct, cohesive identity. It’s like the brothers were saying, ‘Ok, let’s show ’em what we can really do.’ At least, that’s how it feels to me.
Willa: Well, that’s interesting, Joie, because I definitely agree that Destiny is more “their own sound,” but I’m not so sure about the “cohesive identity” part. What I mean is, they didn’t create a distinctive sound by sticking with one formula or one style or even one genre. There’s a lot of experimentation on Destiny.
For example, the title track has a strong country flavor, I think – or at least it starts off country. It’s much funkier by the end. And country music is not what you’d expect from a Jacksons album, though apparently they came by that naturally. They mentioned in several interviews that the first songs they ever sang together were country songs. Their mother liked country music and liked to sing along with it on the radio, and they started joining in. But “Destiny” is one of the few songs where you really hear that influence.
Joie: I see what you’re saying, Willa, about the use of more than one style and genre – something Michael would continue to do as a solo artist – but I’m not really talking about the “sound.” What I said was that they finally had a distinct, cohesive identity. I’m talking about … the attitude, I guess. Maybe I’m explaining myself really badly but, what I’m getting at is that, with the Destiny album, the brothers finally graduated from a cute little kid act to adult music stars. Gone were the sweet, bubble gum, playing-it-safe songs like “Think Happy,” and “Living Together,” and “Music’s Takin’ Over,” and “Jump for Joy” that populated those first two CBS albums. The “safe,” adolescent stuff was finally replaced by songs with a much funkier edge to them, songs that really made you want to move to the music. Songs that made you think about life and love. Songs that the brothers were incredibly proud of because they had written and produced them themselves. They were adults now and their music was finally reflecting that.
They had been telling everyone at Motown for years that they could do it and begging for just a chance, but no one would listen. And they were promised that chance at CBS, but it was slow in coming. Everyone knew that these boys were immensely talented singers and dancers, but nobody wanted to hand over the reins of writing and producing to them. They were untried in that area and it was a risky prospect. But the brothers kept insisting that they could do it; that they were ready. And they were proven right when Destiny peaked at number eleven on the Billboard Pop Albums chart and number three on the Billboard Black Albums chart. It eventually went on the sell over four million copies worldwide and became their first RIAA certified platinum album. That had to be very rewarding for them.
Willa: Oh, I agree. And speaking of charts, here’s some interesting trivia – as you mentioned, Joie, the Jackson brothers wrote every song on Destiny except one, “Blame It on the Boogie,” and that song was written by … Michael Jackson. Not Michael Joseph Jackson but Michael George Jackson. He’s listed as Mick Jackson on the credits and that made me curious. Was he a cousin? So I looked into it and found out he’s no relation – he’s British but was born and raised in Germany and still lives there.
And here’s the interesting part: he recorded his own version of “Blame It on the Boogie” before the Jacksons picked it up, but his version had a delayed release for some reason, so both his version and the Jacksons’ version were released in England at basically the same time, and they both did very well. The Jacksons’ version reached #8 on the charts, and his version reached #15. Apparently Britons really liked the idea that there were two “Blame It on the Boogie”s by two different Michael Jacksons on the charts at the same time, so it set off a competition called the “Battle of the Boogie.” Mick Jackson’s son, Sam Peter Jackson, made a documentary about it a few years ago. Here’s a interview where father and son talk about the two releases and the “battle” between them:
And here’s Mick Jackson’s version:
Joie: Yes, I’ve heard the Mick Jackson version before. Wild to hear the differences between the two, isn’t it? But I wasn’t aware of the ‘Battle of the Boogie’ that ensued because if it. That’s a fun fact. And that’s an interesting clip about the documentary; thanks for sharing them, Willa.
Willa: It is interesting, isn’t it? And you’re right, it’s interesting to compare the two versions also. I mean, the Mick Jackson version is a well-sung, well-received pop song – it was #15 on the charts, after all. But then I listen to the Jacksons’ version, and wow! To me, it’s so much more compelling and dramatic. And I think a lot of that drama is simply Michael Jackson’s skill as a vocalist. In fact, I wonder if that’s one of the big differences between Destiny and the earlier albums – simply Michael Jackson’s growth as a vocalist, and the freedom he now had to explore what all he could do and convey with his voice.
I’ve been listening quite a bit lately to those first two albums you wanted to talk about, Joie – The Jacksons and Goin’ Places – and one thing that strikes me is that you don’t hear nearly as many of Michael Jackson’s non-verbal vocalizations that we’ve mentioned a couple of times in the past – his yips and yelps and the high-pitched “woo!” and “whoa!” and “ow!” (I love that high playful “ow!” that he does sometimes.) You also don’t hear his voice changing textures nearly so much, from rough low growls to crystalline falsettos. And those textures and vocalizations add so much to the character and drama of his songs.
Then along comes Destiny, which kicks off with “Blame It on the Boogie,” and the very first thing we hear him sing is “hee-hee-hee-hee,” starting high and falling like water. Those vocalizations are so expressive, and they let us know from the very beginning that this is a very different sound than we’ve heard from them before.
Joie: You’re right, Willa. And the fact that we don’t really hear all of those non-verbal ticks that we all love so much until the Destiny album is actually very interesting and also very telling, in my opinion. To me, that more than anything else, shows the creative oppression that he and his brothers must have felt before they were given the creative freedom to write and record what they wanted to instead of always having to do things “the established” way. Now that they finally had control of the reins, they felt free to let some of their real personality shine through in their music. And we can really feel that on the Destiny album in each and every song.