From the Voice Archives: Nelson George on the Jacksons at MSG in ’84


In honor of Michael Jackson, we’re raiding our archives. Here’s Nelson George, reviewing a show Jackson and his brothers played at Madison Square Garden in 1984.

Chocolate Chips at the Ice Capades

By Nelson George

August 7, 1984

Three years before the Jacksons’ current magical mystery tour (the magic is Michael, the mystery where you can buy tickets), they rolled into Madison Square Garden with one of the best pop concerts since Earth, Wind & Fire at its mid-’70s peak. The boys rose out of the floor, backlit by blinding white lights that themselves rose up to hover above the stage; clips from the messianic The Triumph video and Ed Sullivan show heightened excitement; and a Doug Henning now-you-see-Michael-now-you-don’t illusion during “Don’t Stop (‘Til You Get Enough)” boogied that dance classic right through the Garden roof. The Jacksons, in the midst of what was then their most lucrative national tour, were in peak form. Randy’s rumbling piano intro to “Shake Your Body,” Tito’s (yes Tito’s) re-creation of the jagged “Heartbreak Hotel” guitar solo, and Marlon and Jackie’s capable if static harmonies were more than adequate. Michael was in exquisite voice: thrilling on “Can You Feel It,” soap-opera sentimental on “She’s Out of My Life” and “Ben,” and just as smooth and gritty as he needed to be on “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Rock with Me.” The Jackson boys did their usual pointing they-went-thataway steps. Even occasional hit-and-run mugging attacks couldn’t undercut the positive feeling. The predominantly black teen and young adult crowd had grown up with Michael, and watching him stride so confidently across the stage, a young man no longer a boy, was an affirmation of our maturity. The Jacksons had been introduced by Motown as a great black family and despite some rough spots–Jermaine remained behind when the family skipped to Epic for big money–they had survived 10 years in the entertainment business, dignity intact. They were black royalty, sort of like the Kennedy kids except not fucked up.

Though from the beginning they had white fans (you don’t get four number-one singles in a row without penetrating the allowances of suburban America), there was never any question in the minds of my black contemporaries that they were, in a very special way, ours. Admittedly this was probably not a view shared by Michael, a staunch integrationist in the Roy Wilkins mold, but America being America I thought he’d never fully escape the constraints of his color. It was his heritage, his tradition, blah-blah-blah. But on Off the Wall, aided and abetted by Hollywood’s favorite producer Quincy Jones, Michael succeeded in creating colorblind cinemascope hits. On Triumph’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” he found a voice that integrated soul, rock, funk, and classical pretensions into his peculiar paranoia. “Beat It,” Billie Jean,” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” turned the gloss of Off the Wall and the passion of “Heartbreak Hotel” into a fascinating combination of fury and ear candy that took him as far as he wanted to go. His brothers? Despite improved musicianship and some good songs on Destiny and Triumph, they were basically just going along on a very strange ride. Strange because that paranoid trilogy on Thriller, the dazzly of his videos and sales of his vanity documentary; the stunning star turn on Motown 25; the adulation of Brooke Shields, Emmanuel Lewis, and Yul Brynner; his ascendance into tabloid heaven up there with Elvis, Dynasty stars, and weight loss programs had all led to the supernatural sales of Thriller, which in turn led to the amazingly white-bread crowds that have attended every show on the Victory Tour since the first one in Kansas City July 6.

As that concert testified, Michael is the first black star of his generation to follow Bill Cosby and Mr. T. into the kindergartens and bridge tournaments of our vast country. For those Americans Victory is like going to the Ice Capades. No dangerous adolescent lust or unbridled urban anger ripped through the crowd that beautiful still evening in the heartland. Instead we had kids spending much of the time looking at a huge TV screen to ascertain whether the doll-like stick figure wiggling in the distance was indeed Michael. Parents like the ones sitting behind me getting loudly drunk and spilling beer on my shoes enjoyed the spectacle of it, though the only non-Thriller material they seemed to know came during the Jackson Five medley. They were looking for family entertainment: a little sentiment, a little fantasy, a little dancing, a little nostalgia, a lot of glitter. And they got it, though not as much as they should have. For this was just the first show of a long tour, and the first show of any tour is always, to some degree, a glorified rehearsal. In basic content, what we got in Kansas City was pretty much what we got in the Meadowlands Sunday night, but a few technical differences made the earlier show problematic and the one we’re seeing now a triumph of arena-rock. Drummer Phillip Moffitt often rushed the tempo, messing up the delicately modulated rhythms of “Off the Wall,” and “Billie Jean.” Minus the sidelined Jackie and plus the reclaimed Jermaine, the harmonics weren’t up to the multilayered majesty of Michael’s solo material. The band started slowly, though by “Beat It” and the show-closing “Shake Your Body” they were falling into some sweet groves. And disappointingly, the staging had changed little since 1981, and what was new wasn’t necessarily fresh. Michael had picked up some new break-dance glides, but the choreography was basically right out of Motown 25, and the corny battle-of-good-and-evil opening was distressingly similar of Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1982 tour.

All of which wouldn’t have mattered so much if the Jacksons had played music from Victory, putting these familiar items in updated context. But the only new song was from Jermaine’s Arista album. The Jacksons explained later that they wanted the audience to be more familiar with the material before doing it live, but this reasoning undermines the avowed purpose of both album and tour, which at least according to Marlon, Tito, and Randy is intended to showcase the “other” brothers.

Taken in that context, Victory is a mixed bag. As the youngest, best-looking, and most musically gifted Jackson, Randy is in the perfect position to fill the teen idol shoes Jermaine once wore. His past songs, including a collaboration with Michael on “Shake,” suggested a writer of promise, and that promise is realized by the track to “Once More Chance,” on which he plays almost all the instruments. It is coolly supple, filled with intricate guitar and keyboard parts that support a cute melody. But here as in “The Hurt,” Randy’s voice betrays him; he sounds studied and dull, not up to his own music. Marlon’s “Body,” written with veteran West Coast session keyboardist-arranger John Barnes, is a melodic dance track reminiscent of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” by without the polish or passion. Things pick up considerably with Tito’s (yes Tito’s) “We Can Change the World,” an overly reggae, densely arranged, lyrically vague “social commentary” with a quietly cooking groove. Though synthesizer-laden, as are most of Victory’s tunes, Tito’s arrangement has a warmth complemented by singing that is surprisingly relaxed compared to Randy’s. In fact (heresy) I’d compare it favorably to Michael’s “Be Not Always,” on which Michael is so “sensitive” he becomes a parody of his own image. Both songs are pleas to, well, save the world blah-blah-blah. Michael just tries to be so damn heavy it’s funny. No, this isn’t Thriller. But for Jackie it is a real victory. His two songs, “Torture” and “Wait,” are easily the album’s best. Under Jackie’s guidance, “Torture”‘s touching Jermaine-Michael duet accentuates the troubled feel of the synth-bass and strings and the tense melody. The song’s air of tragedy suggests a range of emotion the rest of Victory lacks. Though the Jacksons’ backing vocals sound slightly off-key, that disjointed quality enhances the melancholy mood. And where “Torture” is a grim gem, “Wait is a buoyant fun romp reminiscent of “Lovely One” and “Things I Do for You” only better. Written and produced by Jackie with Toto’s Paich and Pocaro, it’s slicked up neo-Motown with more than a touch of the Thom Bell Spinners–the bass and bits of the horn chart are lifted whole from “Rubberband Man.” With Toto sprightly and immaculate and the Jacksons cutting loose vocally in a bright, trebly mix, “Wait” jumps. Jackie’s speaking voice is higher than brow Michael’s, but here (in the studio) he has more bottom and turns in a remarkably swinging lead vocal. A brief spirited solo turn by Michael doesn’t hurt, but it is Jackie who carries “Wait.”

Unfortunately, Jackie’s only appearance at the Meadowlands Sunday night was on crutches before the show. And, no, the Jacksons still didn’t do any songs from Victory (but, like wow man, Jagger may come on for “State of Schlock” at the Garden). Despite this frustrating conservatism, the Jacksons gave the decidedly chocolate-chip crowd in Jersey a hard, lean, mean show. Drummer Moffitt and rhythm guitarist David Williams anchored a supertight rhythm section, with the laser lights and smoke providing an effective backdrop for the music and some fresh bits of choreography.

Michael? Well Peter Pan was nowhere to be seen, but James Brown and Jackie Wilson were, for Michael was as aggressive, fiery, and macho as any ’60s soul man. With a sneering intense scowl on his face, Michael shook his pelvis, moon-walked, and sang with heart and a whole lot of deep-fried soul. The contrast with Kansas City was stark. There he seemed a fairy prince off in the distance, far removed and detached from his subjects and even the show itself. In Jersey he walked the waterfront with a chip on his shoulder, moving and singing with real blood in his eye. This was particularly true of the show’s first half, when even during “She’s Out of My Life” he threw in some break-dance movements signifying that on this night all sweetness must be cut with funk. It might have been that Jersey swampland air, but more likely it was that Michael, like his band, was now in midtour form and fully ready to justify to the skeptical just how much he was worth. I wondered, looking at the family of four in front of me, whether Mom and Pop were quite ready for this Michael, a cat who would have just as soon have kicked the ass of those gang leaders in “Beat It” as started a chorus line. Springsteen may be the boss and Prince the royal contender, but guess who still wears the crown.