I had a dream about the Jackson 5. I was addressing the audience at a luncheon of somesort but all I said when I stood up was that I was hungry. The Jackson 5 were at one of thetables and Tito came up to the podium with a sandwich of American cheese and lettuce on whitebread, open-faced on a plate. I told him that rather than eat the sandwich I would preserve itand he asked me if I did that with all my food. Only when it comes from the Jackson 5, Isaid.
There’s nothing particularly appetizing about an American cheese and lettuce sandwich,but the Jackson 5 are the only group left at Motown, and one of the few anywhere, who provide thesort of elemental, unrefined, even faintly silly stuff that made Motown so accessible, soirresistible from the beginning. Not elemental like The Blues, but like a cheeseburger, frenchfries and a Coke. Or like Wonder bread and a bright yellow square of American cheese — the dietaryequivalent of Top 40 radio. Yet the Jackson 5 are far from trashy like, say, the wonderful ArchieBell & the Drells or the Shangri-Las; the age of innocence is gone, there is no moreexquisite trash (although Betty Wright has her moments) and J5’s boyish brashness has beenpolished to a fine semi-gloss. But the sophistication they’ve acquired is remarkably vital andwithout pretense; I mean who else could do both “Doctor My Eyes” and “Little Bitty Pretty One” onan album and make them seem not only perfectly natural but actually inspired choices? Clearly theJackson 5 are not simply the pop phenomenon they once appeared to be; not just the cute boys with73 pinups in every issue of Right On!; not only the one-dimensional idols of millions (sigh,scream). But they don’t pretend to be anything else. So while everyone else is out here in hotpursuit of High Art or merely artiness (both of which seem to be determined, locker-room style,by the length of your album cuts), the J5 are still giving us the Real Thing — not quite the oldMotown Sound but as close as you’ll come to it these days — the sort of music that is not aboutextended bass lines or blues tradition or new synthesizer techniques. As Michael said (in “ABC”),”Get up, girl, show me what you can do.” And no bullshit: If you can’t do it in three minutes youcan’t do it.
Of the Jackson 5 “product” brought together here, Looking Through the Windows isthe group’s eighth LP. As usual, the album is a fine, creatively varied collection ofmaterial — mostly originals this time, but including the two covers mentioned above and one MotownSongbook selection, Ashford-Simpson’s “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” For the first time, however, production has not beencompletely under the supervision of “The Corporation” — who’ve been responsible for the J5 soundever since “I Want You Back” — and Hal Davis, who joined as co-producer with the second LP.Between them, The Corporation and Davis take production credits on seven of the 11 songs, but,presumably to spice things up, a few other producers have been brought in. Executive producerremains The Man himself, Berry Gordy; don’t ask me what he actually does.
Anyway, kids, it’s just a fine album, although accepting it as such means accepting thefact that the fevered ecstacy of “I Want You Back” and “ABC” have passed. It’s hard to sustainthe pitch of explosive youth — Stevie Wonder never made another “Fingertips” — and, besides,shrillness gets grating. The Jackson 5 have matured, softened and pretty much abandonedgrade-school simplicity or any obvious reference to their own youth. (Exceptions:”E-Ne-Me-Ne-Mi-Ne-Mo,” one of the brighter, more exuberant songs here, announcing, “Gone are thegames of yesterday/now the name of the game is love” and chock-full of references to children’sgames; and a rather throwaway message song, “Children of the Light ” — “We’re gonna build a worldthat is right/We can be the children of light” — whose platitudes crush a flimsy production.) Butthe group never outpaces its audience or itself and in gaining subtlety, they haven’t lost a bitof their punch.
A delightfully sharp-edged “Little Bitty Pretty One” still stands out here. The J5remakes of rock classics — like their earlier “16 Candles,” a tasty “Rockin’ Robin” on Michael’sfirst solo album and Jermaine’s audacious “Daddy’s Home” — have all been done with heavy flash anda certain sense of exaggeration that cuts right to the heart of the song. “Little Bitty” beginswith that gorgeous build, all that percussion and handclapping, and gives Jermaine, Jackie andMichael a verse in turn. It’s full of energy but … after playing the single constantly forseveral days, I found it lost nearly all its appeal, simply did not hold up. And I’m at a loss toexplain this, since I still think, on an immediate level at least, that it’s a very successfulsong even if I avoid playing it now.
On the whole, side one is much more satisfying. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” islush and gutsy and quickly overcomes its trivial opening.
As throughout, the vocals are shared mostly by Michael and Jermaine, setting up adelicious contrast between the one’s sharp, aching, still very young voice and the other’swarmer, deeper style — together, like a raw diamond set in velvet. “Doctor My Eyes” is outrageousand brilliant, very jumpy and upbeat with frantic vocals that are quite a shock after JacksonBrowne but finally win you over. The rock & roll device that has the group filling in with”buh-buh-buh-buh” here and there is so irrelevant to the spirit of the original song that youhave to love it. The song’s been totally remade in the Jackson 5 image and it works on thoseterms; but I still don’t understand it. “To Know” floats off on a series of clouds but takesfirmer shape toward the end to become one of the group’s strongest, most convincing lovesongs.
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With the tremendous success of the group, solo albums by individual members were ofcourse inevitable — Jackie and Toriano (Tito) are reportedly forthcoming — how couldMotown resist the temptation to produce not just one hot chart album but five of them. If youexpected the solo product to be whipped up and pasted together, all pinup and no substance,you’ve underestimated Motown’s devotion to the Jackson 5. Both of Michael’s albums, Got to BeThere and Ben, and Jermaine are slick, artful and every bit as good as theregular J5 product, sometimes better. Although The Corporation and Hal Davis are listed asoverall producers for only one of the three albums (Michael’s first, released earlier this year),they continue to predominate on all three and, as above, have set the tone for the othercontributing producers. That is, bright, dancey, with special attention to chorus work and denseorchestration but always with an eye to showcasing the lead voice; no matter how dramatic theproduction, you have the feeling the singer, even little Michael, is riding it and in completecontrol — quite an illusion to create.
Even the inconsequential songs on Michael’s albums have their appeal — yeah, it hassomething to do with his being a cute, young boy with a sweetly touching voice but he’s not justa lovable jukebox baby. After “I Want You Back” nobody should need convincing, but — hand me acigar — has this kid got talent? Look, anyone who can make me listen to — enjoy even — yetanother version of “You’ve Got a Friend” has got talent. On “Got to Be There,” Michael’svoice echoes and swirls, whispers and cries out with this unbelievable purity: “Oo-oh what afeeling there’ll be/ the moment she says she loves me.” It’s a weird combination of innocence andutter professionalism, real feeling and careful calculation that’s fascinating and finallyirresistible. Got to Be There also includes a perfect “Rockin’ Robin,” a slightlyoverwrought “Ain’t No Sunshine” a stylishly revamped “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” andanother of Michael’s best cuts, “I Wanna Be Where You Are”: a supreme production, withshouting from Michael that equals his early work and a finish that always has me screaming loudenough to alarm the neighbors.
Ben, the cover of which Michael shares rather incongruously with a monstrous,lunging rat, contains a good deal more original material and, while it has nothing as luscious as”Got to Be There” or “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” — it’s on thewhole a much stronger album than the first. The title song is lovely, no doubt, and Michael packsit with a surprising amount of feeling (his delivery of “They don’t see you as I do/I wish theywould try to” still tears me up) but it’s all a little too thick for my tastes. I much prefer”What Goes Around Comes Around,” a sort of “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time,” full of hurtbitterness for the girl he is finally strong enough to renounce — but very danceable. That Michaelcan carry this combination off so smoothly and passionately (the contradictions!) is a sign ofever-increasing maturity. He also does real well by “My Girl,” thanks to a lively arrangement andproduction job, and turns out an impressive “People Make the World Go Round” (the Stylistics’song with entirely new verses by Thom Bell and Linda Creed). In an album full of nicesongs, “We’ve Got a Good Thing Going” is perhaps the nicest — very sweet and relaxed, Michaeldeftly conveying the wonder of love with undertones and something more; the Corporation’s lyricsare fine: “Every day in every way she makes my motor purr/and I reciprocate, my life I dedicateto lovin’ her.” Note: “In Our Small Way” is repeated here fro