Michael Jackson ’81: Publicly Cutting the Apron Strings

Yesterday I talked about the once-removed cultural impact of The Jacksons Live!, their 1982 LP of their 1981 tour. Even though they were ostensibly promoting their critically-acclaimed 1980 LP Triumph, it could also be called Michael’s Off the Wall tour. They did five songs from that LP, which had been out for two years already but (I think) hadn’t been performed live. Definitely Michael Mania was in place and in ascent. He sounds better than ever (up to that point), and he knows he’s about to conquer the world.

But the whole album is a treat and all the brothers shine. And they are a band (I’m reminded of the Beach Boys’ early 70 LPs Sunflower and Surf’s Up), and that’s one of the nicest surprises: as good as “Rock with You” and “Working Day and Night” are on the original LP, these live versions benefit from the Jacksons harmony, a sound Michael was trying to put behind him. These versions, with all of those familiar voices behind Michael make these songs sound like a Jackson 5 tune with Michael on lead vocals. It’s really something.

The Jacksons as a touring unit in the late 70s stayed clear of their early hits, aside from the ubiquitous three-minute medley. I’ve heard a show from 1979 tour and that medley begins simply: Randy says, “Hey, Michael, should we do some old stuff,” and Michael says, “Sure. Let’s go.”

But two years later, Michael was in a different place than his brothers. They hoped they’d have a future in show business, but Michael knew he would—and he knew their audience was ready to go with him. Subsequently, the medley now had a long, scripted intro, tailor-made by Michael, making it clear where he’s heading.

It’s easy to put yourself in the audience, full of screaming teenagers who were raised on “I Want You Back,” but were ready for “Billie Jean.” And yet this playful intro preys on a sense of nostalgia the audience didn’t even know it had. It’s funny, it gets you cheering along (silly, but that’s how I felt the first time I heard it), and Michael sounds so strong and hellbent on the Now.

The Jacksons – Medley ’81 (5:22, right-click to download)

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