Blame It on the Boogie: Michael Jackson’s Early Creative Process
In the heart of the disco era, MJ’s visionary talents led The Jacksons to rediscover their groove
Michael had to make another album with his brothers. In 1977, after The Jacksons and Goin’ Places had essentially tanked, CBS executives were ready to abandon Jacksons Inc. One of Epic’s newest executives, Bobby Colomby, felt compelled to step in. His underling, an inexperienced A&R man named Mike Atkinson, called Colomby one day and said, “Hey, boss, I got a song!” They listened to “Blame It on the Boogie,” by a white, bearded British singer named, of all things, Michael Jackson.
This led to a surreal Top of the Pops competition in which two Michael Jacksons had the same hit on the British charts at the same time. “There was wonderful confusion everywhere,” says the U.K. Michael Jackson, popularly known as Mick. “The press came out with this title: ‘The Battle of the Boogie.’”
The lyrics to “Blame It on the Boogie” were happy and strange — “Sunshine! Moonlight! Good times! Boogie!” went the chorus, oblivious to the fact that those four things were not quite related — but the song had enough lighthearted funk to reintroduce the Jacksons to disco dancers.
Colomby liked Randy Jackson, who had replaced Jermaine after joining the group onstage in Vegas just before they’d signed with CBS Records. He had a useful low voice and was, Colomby felt, and underrated songwriter and keyboard player. He thought Marlon could sing. He took in Tito’s bizarre habit of licking a guitar pick and sticking it on his forehead. He considered Jackie a fun-loving womanizer. They started to record at Dawnbreaker Studios in San Fernando, California.
Their father Joe dropped by from time to time, and Colomby didn’t like his interrupting the band’s generally happy vibe: “The plants would wilt,” he says. One day, the door to the studio was locked, and Joe made such a commotion outside that the police showed up. Colomby went outside to talk to them. “Tell him I’m the father!” Joe shouted to the police. “I never saw him before,” Colomby declared, deadpan.
What Colomby noticed most at the Destiny sessions was the blossoming leadership of Michael Jackson. It was hard to miss. Rick Marotta, a session drummer called in to play on “Push Me Away,” remembers listening to playback while the Jacksons discussed what they thought of the early mix. Michael was still in the vocal booth in another part of the studio. Finally, one of the brothers hollered, “Wait, wait, wait — ‘Hey, Mike, can you dance to it?’”
“Yeah!” Michael shouted from the distance. “It feels really good!”
“If Michael can dance to it, it’s good,” the brother said.
In the middle of recording “Blame It on the Boogie,” Michael abruptly flung off his headphones and rushed out of the studio. Colomby feared a blast of volume had come through his phones. When he found him in the hallway, Michael was dancing frenetically. “I have to get this out of my system,” he said. “I can’t hold still and sing.”
For the distinctive “Sunshine! Moonlight!” bits in the “Boogie” chorus, Colomby decided to try a vocal technique he’d learned from Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker — instead of asking the musicians to sing their parts individually, more than once if necessary to “stack” the vocals onto the track, he set the boys up to sing them as a choir. They’d do one syllable at a time — Sun! Shine! Moon! Light! — to create a thick, layered effect that sounded energetic and bright on the record. One of the brothers, possibly Marlon or Tito, according to Colomby’s memory, didn’t sign on: “That’s not the way we’ve done it.” But Michael won. “Guys, let’s just try it,” he said. “What’s your problem?”
One day, Colomby showed up at the studio to find Michael directing keyboardist Greg Phillinganes and drummer Ed Green on the same repetitive funky groove, with no variations, for twenty minutes. This wasn’t how Colomby did things. It didn’t sound like a song, just a groove, over and over. (“It was a very strong, memorable melody,” recalls Phillinganes, who had come up with the original beat while dabbling on drums. “It wasn’t just a groove that rambled on and didn’t have anything to connect with.”) But Colomby went with it.
After the musicians had cut the track, the producer called in Tom Washington, a well-known horn arranger who went by Tom Tom 84, and asked him to create a horn part for a staccato, Earth, Wind, & Fire-type contemporary-soul feel. Over that, Michael sang the first line. Colomby considered it okay. Then he sang the second one — a tense, dissonant, subtle countermelody that fit perfectly. Colomby thought that was genius. The song because an eight-minute jam called “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” a shorter remix of which turned into a huge hit.
“I would have said, ‘It’s too long,’” Colomby recalls, “but they were building something.”
Destiny, which came out in December 1978, was another one of those Jacksons albums with lyrics dealing exclusively with dance. The difference between it and The Jacksons and Goin’ Places was the dynamism of those dance songs — “Blame It on the Boogie” is a post-Saturday Night Fever nursery rhyme, sunny and goofy. But Michael’s enthusiasm adds rock & roll anarchy to what might have been a disco cliché. “I just can’t control my feet,” he sings repeatedly. “In ‘Things I Do for You,’ a midtempo song typical of lighthearted R&B of 1978, Michael delivers the first line like this: “Ah-people over the world-ah! Are the same everywhere I go — ah! ah! I give in to THIS-uh. I give into THAT-eh. Every day it bothers me so — cha!”
These percussive verbal tics, which became an improvisational instrument for the first time on any Jacksons album, are derived from James Brown, but they are more than that. They are evolving into a crucial part of Michael Jackson’s musical identity. Of course the album’s centerpiece is “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” which opens with that incredible Phillinganes-Green groove, then one of those Michael whoops. It became a dance-floor smash, hitting No. 7 and selling more than two million copies at the time.
“If I could go back in time,” says Mike Sembello, a guitarist for the Destiny sessions who studied MJ closely, “I would take Michael Jackson out of the limelight and put him on an island. With all the instruments.”
Excerpted from MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson by Steve Knopper, available now in paperback from Scribner.
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