Dancing With Michael Jackson: Music Video Before MTV

During his late teens and early twenties, Michael Jackson was no longer a prodigy and not yet a phenomenon. The disco era, roughly 1974–1981, served as his runway to superstardom. It was Michael’s transitional phase, marked by awkward spots and gigantic growth spurts. He made vital music during this period, nominally with his brothers though Michael’s input became increasingly dominant on these records released under the group name. Consider the following flashes of his latent genius.

“Get It Together”

“Hum Along And Dance”

Guitar-driven funk from the Motown studio crew pushes a new, heavily syncopated emphasis to the forefront (think Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”) on these tracks from the 1973 Get It Together album. Even though his voice is still changing, Michael confidently negotiates these tricky rhythms.


“Dancing Machine”

“I Am Love”

These magnificent singles from 1974’s epochal Dancing Machine album imported the new disco sound from the underground club scene to the mainstream, reviving the brothers’ flagging career along the way. Urban club favorites such as Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” and “Jungle Fever” by Chakachas had already penetrated the Top 40, while the orchestrated groove of Philly Soul was familiar to radio listeners. Still, “Dancing Machine” raised the innovation stakes by substituting a mid-song rhythmic surge in place of the usual strict verse/chorus/verse structure. This climatic tension-and-release — the break — became a disco signature on and off the dance floor, supplying the underpinning for subsequent pop hits such as “Love Hangover” by Diana Ross and “Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. Stretching out for nearly eight minutes on the album version, “I Am Love” starts off as a sticky-sweet romantic ode and then unleashes the full thunderous fury of the dance-fever apocalypse looming on the horizon.


“Show You The Way To Go”

Moving from one disciplined hit factory (Berry Gordy’s Motown) to another (Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International) in late 1976 didn’t provide the creative freedom that Michael wanted. The plush trappings of Philly Soul perversely worked to deaden the brothers’ rebooted dance sound. But this 1977 R&B chart hit, from the renamed (for legal reasons) group’s The Jacksons album, shows our just-post-adolescent front man coming into his own. He sings rings around himself in a double-tracked chorus. Michael’s soaring voice(s) resemble nobody else on earth.

“Blame It On The Boogie”

“Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)”

Finally producing themselves and collaborating on songwriting, The Jacksons (with Michael firmly, and audibly, at the helm) stake their post-Motown claim on 1978’s Destiny. This new turf encompasses pop-soul and disco, with traces of rock and the kiddie-funk that first made them famous. Michael’s mature vocal style is front and center here; he owns these two hit singles. His skittering, intense singing makes disco dancing seem like very serious business, even on the light-hearted “Blame It On The Boogie.”


Those records only registered in the dusty corners of my consciousness during the late 1970s (though “Dancing Machine” was always a car-radio favorite). The release of Off The Wall in late summer 1979 was a different matter; just as my interest in black music re-energized, Micheal Jackson’s first adult solo album smashed through the glass ceiling of disco, beginning the elevation of his music to a new level of mass appeal. Encountering “Rock With You” in the streets of New York City during my college spring break in 1980 forever rearranged my music molecules.

Thanks to Michael’s precocious charisma and supernatural dancing ability, The Jackson 5 routinely tore it up on various television appearances through the first phase of their career. They even hosted a brief and ill-fated variety program (The Jacksons) on CBS during the 1976–77 season, not to be confused with their cartoon series The Jackson 5ive, which ran for two seasons in 1971 and ’72. Worth noting is a prescient (in more ways than one) recurring feature on The Jacksons. Titled “Off The Wall” (!) the segment allowed guests the privilege, or challenge, of dancing alongside Michael, after signing in on a brick wall. The less said the better about this whole enterprise, perhaps; even Michael more or less disowns it in Moonwalk, his 1988 autobiography. But the visual component of his appeal, so important in retrospect, had been evident right from the beginning.

There’s a somewhat crude (by MTV standards) music video for “Rock With You” where Michael sings and dances (more or less in place) amid vertigo-inducing green lasers. The sequined jump suit he wears is not that far removed from what a civilian might’ve worn in a real-life disco. More notable is Michael’s pre-transformation visage. He appears to be relaxed, all smiles and smooth steps, as if he’s relieved to be dancing by himself.


The true precursor to his Thriller era breakthrough, in terms of virtuosity and grandiosity, is the little-seen video for The Jacksons’ “Can You Feel It.”


The introduction resembles one of Roger Dean’s stoner fantasy-scape cover illustrations on early Yes albums, and from there the video proceeds outward into the cosmos: sparkles, star-showers, nebulae, rainbow, rising sun, solar eclipse, flames…peacock feathers. The booming (and catchy) chorus is almost lost in the spectacular visual onslaught. Alternately high-tech (for the time) and breathtakingly odd, this seven-minute, $100,000 plus video clip pauses near the end to feature a multi-ethnic group of people holding hands and looking vaguely spiritual.

One reason this astonishing mini-movie went largely unseen at the time: in 1980 there were few if any outlets for it. Music video wasn’t yet “a thing.”


MTV launched on August 1, 1981, not long after I moved to NYC. Since suburban Cincinnati was a test market for the new cable channel, my mother witnessed MTV before I did. However I saw what was on MTV — music videos — before the network officially existed. But not long before.

In the period just before MTV launched, music videos were already a presence in the cavernous Manhattan clubs known as “rock discos”. When I started going out to see live music in spring 1981, larger venues offered an entertainment form I’d never encountered: strange little song-movies displayed on strategically placed TV sets. At The Ritz, closer to a concert hall than a club, videos were projected on 15 by 30 foot screen that rolled down like a curtain in front of the stage, before and after the bands played.

To my untutored eyes, these now-familiar three or four minute clips registered as a novel distraction (at best) or totally beside the point (at worst). Still, like me, most club-goers hadn’t witnessed them before. Up till then, music video meant TV broadcasts such as American Bandstand, Soul Train, Solid Gold, Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.

Watching television in a night club (as opposed to a bar) felt wrong. Disorienting. But the quirky visuals and eclectic sounds were captivating, especially if you didn’t know anybody and were less-than-confident about chatting people up on the fly. As MTV was compelled to do in its infancy, New York clubs curated music videos from a shallow pool of new wave and post-punk artists. There was a decided prevalence of English accents.

A handful of these clips form a loop in my memory, instantly recalling those early mornings where I’d hang out alone, nursing an overpriced Budweiser or Heineken, impatiently waiting for the band to take the stage.

Yoko Ono “Walking On Thin Ice”


John Lennon’s murder still haunted New York City in early 1981. Recorded on December 8, 1980 (the day before he was shot) and released after the Double Fantasy album, this single is John’s last recorded performance as well as Yoko’s most (only?) accessible and satisfying piece of music.

Nervous funk bass, ominous synth sighs, calmly obsessive vocals and Lennon’s harsh, snaking guitar lines: it works as an epitaph even if it wasn’t intended that way. This video, put together after the tragedy, contrasts footage of the Lennon/Onos (with toddler son Sean) in bucolic repose alongside shattering sequences of Yoko solo, silent and grim, walking through the city with her memories and the shattering words and music.

I met a girl…who tried to walk across a lake…of course this was winter…when all this was ice

Of course, since this is John and Yoko, there is also an extended and embarrassing scene of the iconic couple making love. Their naked on-camera romp is so tender by today’s standards it barely qualifies as prurient, let alone pornographic. Yet it’s worth noting these pioneering media artists might have felt at home in the bare-all atmosphere of reality TV and social media. Too Much Information was an important part of their repertoire.

Blondie “Rapture”


Back in the day, the term hip-hop signified not only rap music but the surrounding street culture: DJs, breakdancers, graffiti writers. All these elements are fully displayed in Blondie’s “Rapture” video. Since the song reached #1 on the Billboard Top 40 in February 1981, perhaps it’s the first time many Americans (outside of New York) heard rap. Yes, I agree “Rapture” isn’t a real rap. It’s a catchy approximation. The “Rapture” video, unsurprisingly, became a staple in the pre-MTV Manhattan club scene.

Debbie Harry struts her stuff around a low-budget set, nods to the “DJ spinning” (played by a spaced-out Jean Michel Basquiat), watches artists Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy spray-paint graffiti, cavorts with her bored-looking band mates, window-shops upscale department store displays.

That last moment transports me to the New York City of past times, where the vast gaping disparity between rich and poor living on the same tiny island was always visible. Silk stockings and sweatsuits, side by side.

Talking Heads “Once In A Lifetime”


Another primal clip in the pre-MTV video club scene, “Once In A Lifetime” is arguably Talking Heads’ best-known and best song. Of course MTV dropped the video into heavy rotation pretty much from day one, making it hard to believe now that “Once In A Lifetime” garnered almost no radio airplay at the time and never even dented the Billboard pop charts.

Visually and musically, the elements are as singular and arresting today as in 1981: David Byrne’s twitchy and convulsive “dance” (choreographed by Toni Basil of “Mickey” fame), searching and vaguely existential lyrics (including phrases lifted from radio and TV preachers), the fluid and funky backbeat (inspired by Hamilton Bohannon’s rolling disco grooves). As a devoted swimmer then and now, I absolutely relate to the aquatic theme. “Water flowing underground” equals life progressing along unpredictable and barely detectable currents. And as a middle-aged man, I lately find myself wondering how did I get here? And how did young (not yet 30) David Byrne channel something so profound and well, elemental? Apparently, hydrogeologists consider ”Once In A Lifetime” an anthem too.


Devo “Jocko Homo”


Along with David Bowie, Devo paved the way for MTV with their early videos; especially the short film that would eventually be released as the clip for “Jocko Homo.” Created when the group was an art school project rather than a working rock band, this video won a prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1976. Seen in the 21st century, “Jocko Homo” is still crude, more than a little creepy and completely mesmerizing.

Devo’s satirical aesthetic upended the lingering utopian ideal of the ’60s counterculture; the human race wasn’t progressing it was going backwards. Devolving. Another subversive element surfaces here as well, a goofball populism amplified in subsequent Devo videos and albums. “We’re Through Being Cool.” And right from the start, Devo’s music (as well as the accompanying visuals) was both prescient and hugely influential, foreshadowing and then defining new wave with its synthesizers, herky-jerky beats, affectless vocals and catchy chanted choruses. The Future Is Now, as a later title put it, so why swim against the technological tide? Dive right in and enjoy because we’re all DEVO.

In 1981, the original “Jocko Homo” video was a staple of NYC nightclubs’ video playlists. I always felt a nostalgic rush at the opening scene, set in an Akron parking lot: the great grey industrial Midwest. I didn’t really miss it all that much. And Booji Boy’s slithery geek dance predicts and segues into David Byrne’s shock-treatment twitch in “Once In A Lifetime” (see above). Representing as a nerd, in certain circles, soon became downright trendy.

Spandau Ballet “To Cut A Long Story Short”


In 1981 new bands from England invaded Manhattan every week or two. But Spandau Ballet made a big splash that spring with their so-called New Romantic fashion and vaguely funky dance grooves. (The lachrymose pop hit “True” came two years later.) I clearly remember reading about their gig at the resolutely unfashionable Underground club on Union Square, and deciding not to “dress up” in order to gain admittance. At that point I hadn’t acquired the black jeans and thrift shop finery so beloved by Lower East Side hipsters, nor did I own anything resembling a kilt, tunic, toga or Star Trek uniform. But I confess to being intrigued by the debut Spandau single “To Cut A Long Story Short” with its chilly synths and wooden rhythms.

Dark and moody, the candle-lit video looks like it was shot in the basement of a castle. The band members aren’t exactly adept at mimicking the act of playing musical instruments. Naturally the costumes still look ridiculous. And yet, a couple years later, thanks to MTV, Spandau Ballet and kindred souls like Duran Duran and Culture Club flaunted their fashion sense on national television. But in 1981, the New Romantics were more like a rumor, or warning, of the brave new pop world on its way. How could I have anticipated the crucial role these groups would end up playing in my professional life? In 1981, anyway, I didn’t have a clue about the future.