Rod Temperton RIP – Michael Jackson’s secret weapon

Rod Temperton wrote many of the hits on Jackson's Off The Wall and Thriller albums

Rod Temperton wrote many of the hits on Jackson’s Off The Wall and Thriller albums

With the death of Rod Temperton, Getintothis’ Shaun Ponsonby puts a spotlight on his contributions to some of the greatest pop records ever made. 

We are firm believers that once something has your childhood by the balls, it has you for life. Admit it, you still get a kick out of old Disney movies, or Looney Tunes cartoons, and why else has Pokemon Go just completely taken over the world?

For this writer, my childhood was owned by Michael Jackson. I was born in 1988, so my earliest memories are soundtracked by his 1991 album Dangerous, the promotional campaign for which lasted until 1993 (which is an interminably long time when you are under five). Any time he was on TV, I was watching.

Naturally, as I grew older and started developing my own music collection, Jackson’s albums were pretty high on my list of priorities. My folks had them, but I wanted my own copies. I don’t like some of these records as much today as I did when I was eight, but I still listen to them. I can’t help it, they have my childhood by the balls.

Like the rest of the world, the ones that I go back to more than any other are the ones Jackson made with Quincy Jones, the holy trinity of pop; Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad. Each of them was a blockbuster success, selling in excess of at least 20 million apiece.

On the former two, there is one name that cropped up in the credits as often as Jackson and Jones; Rod Temperton. I thought nothing much of it at the time, but the older I got, the more intrigued I was. You would see Jones cropping up on documentaries and news reports about Jackson quite a bit, but never Temperton. When I looked at the songs he wrote, I thought that was a bit odd.

He finally spoke in 2001. There were special editions of Off The Wall and Thriller released. When I heard his speaking voice, it just got weirder. How could the guy who wrote Rock With You quite clearly be from Yorkshire?

Temperton initially made his mark in Heatwave as the group’s principle songwriter. The British funk scene often came up short when held up against their American counterparts, but Heatwave were in a small group of bands that could hold their own, making waves on both the American and British charts. There was an authenticity to their sound that was so intoxicating that I was shocked that Temperton was a skinny, white English bloke.

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Of all their albums, their debut, 1976’s Too Hot To Handle, still stands up as a delicious slice of funk. Despite the coming onset of disco, it still sounds closer to Earth Wind & Fire than it does to KC & The Sunshine Band. In fact, the title track easily could have come from the former’s Spirit album from the same year. The biggest records of their career come from this album, including of course the disco standard Boogie Nights, but if there is one truly enduring song on the album, it is the epic ballad Always and Forever, covered by everyone from Luther Vandross, to Diana Ross. If there is someone known for big ballads, the chances are they have sung this at some point.

Heatwave’s success was such that Temperton found himself in demand as a songwriter; Rufus with Chaka Khan, The Brothers Johnson and George Benson all had hits or even entire albums written by Temperton concurrently with his work with his own band.

Quincy Jones had become a fan of Heatwave, and asked his engineer Bruce Swedien to check them out. Swedien recalled; “Holy cow! I simply loved Rod’s musical feeling – everything about it – Rod‘s arrangements, his tunes, his songs – was exceedingly hip.”

This obviously led to Temperton writing a couple of tunes for Michael Jackson’s first solo album for Epic. Rod submitted three songs to Jones for possible inclusion, the intention being that they would pick one, maybe two. They ended up using all of them, and Temperton even gave the album its title. No mean feat when you consider that the album was produced by jazz legend Jones and featured contributions from Paul McCartney (Girlfriend) and Stevie Wonder (I Can’t Help It).

Of all Jackson’s solo records, Off The Wall is by far this writer’s favourite. In contrast to his work from Thriller onwards, it feels less contrived, less self-conscious. As much as he has clearly matured on this record, he hasn’t lost that sense of youthful abandonment that was prevalent during his days with the Jackson 5, and Rod Temperton’s songs on the record are a major part of this. Off The Wall is as perfect as pop can get, and it remains as thrilling as ever. For Jackson and Jones, he was their secret weapon.

The title track itself is one of the songs with a bassline right out of the Heatwave rule book, but the rest of it is a very different beast. If there is a way to describe it, it would be Los Angeles. It’s always struck this writer as the perfect record for cruisin’ down the LA coastline. It is funky, but laid back at the same time. It gets the balance just right.

Jackson was always a great interpreter of other people’s material, which is why there are still listeners who seem shocked to learn that he didn’t write all of his material. But it feels like there was something more going on between Jackson and Temperton; almost a Townshend/Daltrey relationship. Temperton wrote incredible songs, but Jackson’s performances are just as vital to the success as the music itself.

In the Soundcloud clip below, ?uestlove from The Roots discusses the making of Off The Wall, and plays out Temperton’s original demo of Rock With You.

What is striking is that the song is basically there. The lyrics haven’t been written yet, but the melody is there and many of the little flourishes with the strings and horns are more or less fully arranged, only to be tweaked prior to release. The tweaks worked though, and to this day Rock With You stands as perhaps the smoothest song Jackson ever released. It shows what a master arranger he was, alarming considering his working conditions, as producer Barry Blue once said; “He had a very small flat, so everything had to be done within one room and he had piles of washing, and had the TV on top of the organ. It was a nightmare…he had trams running outside…but he made it, he just absorbed himself in the music and Rod seemed to come up with these amazing songs.”

The final track Temperton submitted for Off The Wall was Burn This Disco Out. In hindsight, it would be very easy for this song to have aged badly, purely by the inclusion of the word “disco” in the title. Even in 1979, disco was on the outs.  But the idea that we are going to “burn this disco out” is the key. This is the end of disco, and black music is about to move on. In this context, it could be argued that this is Jackson’s declaration for the coming decade. He alone will be the next major movement in black music.

In comparison, the songs Temperton wrote for Thriller aren’t quite as spectacular, but then Jackson was developing further as a songwriter at this point, and you’ll be damned if you think you can top Billie Jean. There were only two songs on Thriller that weren’t singles – both Rod’s. But, once again, he gave the album – the biggest selling of all time – its title.

Truth be told, the song itself is a bit of a novelty.  But, and this is important, it is a very good novelty song. In fact, it manages to fool you into thinking it isn’t a novelty song, one that you can comfortably listen to with zero guilt.

Temperton wrote the song as Starlight, but was changed when Jones challenged him to come up with a title for the record. “Originally, when I did my Thriller demo, I called it Starlight. Quincy said to me, ‘You managed to come up with a title for the last album, see what you can do for this album.’ I said, ‘Oh great,’ so I went back to the hotel, wrote two or three hundred titles, and came up with the title Midnight Man. The next morning, I woke up, and I just said this word… Something in my head just said, this is the title. You could visualize it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as ‘Thriller’.”

The ending of the track, the famous spoken word section from horror legend Vincent Price, was also an idea of Temperton’s. Jones often says that Price wasn’t sure how to react as he had never done anything like this before, which is far from the truth as less than a decade earlier, Price similarly appeared on Alice Cooper’s Welcome To My Nightmare, and even appeared in a TV special with The Coop. His over the top performance suited the tongue-in-cheek nature of both Cooper and Thriller down to a T.

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Comedian Chris Rock has often compared the Thriller album to Prince’s Purple Rain, joking that “there’s no Baby Be Mine on Purple Rain”. But that’s a little unfair to Temperton’s composition. Sure, compared to Thriller’s big hitters, it is considerably lightweight, a fluffier counterpart to Jones’ superior P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing), especially given that it comes directly after monstrous opener Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. But let’s be honest, the weakest link on Thriller is by far the next track, Jackson’s cringe-worthy, self-penned duet with Paul McCartney on the mawkish The Girl Is Mine.

Though it is widely considered one of Thriller’s skippable moments, it is still a breezy slice of post-disco fun that is necessary for balancing out the darkness of songs like Billie Jean. Don’t skip it next time you listen to the album, you may be surprised.

The album’s final track is The Lady In My Life, which seems to have become a major Jackson fan favourite, possibly due to its relative obscurity. It comes just two tracks after the – in this writer’s opinion – superior ballad Human Nature, so it’s often fell a little bit flat for me, if still a nice way to end the album. Again, this is another example of Jackson’s delivery being as important as Temperton’s writing. His pleading delivery almost suggests that there was something cosmic going on between the two of them (if you believe in that kind of thing). It is definitely one of the more sampled songs in Jackson‘s catalogue, with Mya, LL Cool J, Boyz II Men and Angie Stone amongst those to have lifted it.

It’s a little disappointing that the two of them never collaborated further. Sometimes it felt like Jackson was trying to re-capture Temperton’s style in various forms. Think of latter day songs such as Remember The Time and You Rock My World, which are definitely a little reminiscent of Rock With You. With the re-emergence of 70s funk over the last few years, it would have been cool to see a surviving Jackson to realise this and re-connect with Temperton to hammer out some classic, funky dance songs. Not necessarily to reclaim past glories, but to update that sound with modern technology in a way that Jackson was never tuly able to do on his own.

Temperton continued writing for other artists after he ended his association with Jackson, with artists as diverse as Herbie Hancock, Mica Paris and posthumous releases by Karen Carpenter. He also worked on soundtracks for The Color Purple and Running Scared. Ultimately, though, he stayed hidden. Never one for glory, he was known as The Invisible Man for his reluctance to appear in public.

But was there need for him to show himself? It’s hard to believe that he would have imagined he would have achieved half of what he did. Perhaps this is best summed up with what Gilles Peterson said when the news of Temperton’s death from a short battle with an aggressive cancer reached him today; “Apart from Lennon and McCartney no one from the UK has written more gold plated songs than Sir Rod Temperton… a huge loss. RIP“.

It means his contributions are often overlooked, when really they should be spotlighted.