Monday, June 20, 2016

Young Love: Janet Jackson - The Early A&M Years - Part 1 of 2

Janet Jackson and Alanis Morissette share something in common: their first two records within their official discography are often ignored. Although Jackson's first two albums for A&M are not at the same level of abandonment and ridicule like Morissette's pop-dance fueled albums, they are continuously overshadowed by her colossal breakthrough album CONTROL (1986), an album that would emancipate her form the shadows of her performing brothers, and establish her as a household name...thanks to heavily rotated music videos on the MTV network, as well as her newfound musical relationship with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (Fly Tyme Productions), a partnering that would span two decades, and rekindled for the upcoming UNBREAKABLE album.

But before hitting this musical stride, Janet was under the management of her father, Joe Jackson, who arranged and secured the contract she received with the joint Herb Alpert & Jerry Moss label, A&M records, in 1982. Janet was only sixteen at the time, but already amassed ample exposure through TV work (The Jacksons variety show, Good Times and Diff'rent Stokes), and for being associated with one of the most (if not most) musically-talented families: The Jacksons. With Joe Jackson at the helm, her musical career was inevitable, and with him in control (pardon the pun), he would oversee all musical collaborations that were committed to wax on the first two (of four) outings: Janet Jackson (1982) and Dream Street (1984).

Janet Jackson's self titled album, released in September of 1982, was a two-sided musical affair. What was special about the vinyl days, which is evidently lost in digital format, was the ability to create separate pieces of work on opposite sides of the wax. For example, Rick James protégée group, the Mary Jane Girls' 1983 self-titled album was constructed by upbeat tracks (labeled as the "Party Side") on one side, and down-tempo ballads (the "Cool Side") on another. In the case of Janet's first album, it was the male/female duo Rene & Angela overseeing writing and production credits on Side One, and Side Two was occupied by the writing and production talents of fomer Sylvers band member Leon Sylvers III, who was, at the time, achieving a successful streak of success with Ken Griffy's label Solar Records (The Sounds of Los Angeles), and it's roster. Acts like Dynasty and Shalamar were part of his musical resume. His had the midas touch when it came to slickly produced boogie/funk tracks. "A Night to Remember" is a testament to this statement, which over the years has became an old-school favourite, and a widely sampled tune that still generates attention through various nostalgic outlets.
Official album cover.

The best way to describe the sonic experience of the first three tracks on Face A of JANET JACKSON is "salvaged remnants of the disco-sound". Although the term "disco" was considered unfashionable by the early 80's (particularly with the general public) it's "sound/formula" was beginning to take shape, metamorphosing into sub-genres as "Boogie" (Prince, Patrice Rushen) or "Hi-NRG" (Sylvester, The Flirts), or venturing into the "R&B/Funk/Soul"classification, but discarding the heavily orchestrated production that was synonymous with the disco sound and employing a production that was predominately built around the synthesizer, an instrument that was rapidly dominating and defining the early part of the decade. "Say You Do", the opening track, is an amalgamate of percussive and synthetic sounds. Shimmering strings, horns, and rhythm guitars are accompanied by drum machines, weighty moog-bass, hand-claps and elevating electronic sounds. The subsequent tracks on Side One of the 1982 self-titled album are perfectly tailored to Janet's vocal capacities. "You'll Never Find (A Love Like Mine)" and "Young Love" reinforces this statement, as Janet's vocals seamlessly flow around these symphonic arrangements, while Rene & Angela's background vocals produce a mellifluous addition to the production.  However the album takes a detour from the lavish upbeat production with "Love and My Best Friend", a minimalist ballad that heavily places Janet's vocal in the foreground, backed by delicate strings and electric keyboards. An interesting fact: American Jazz-Fusion artist, Jeff Lorber, is credited for playing the synthizer on this track.

Harry Langdon photographed Janet in the swimming pool of the Jackson family home. She took inspiration from a photograph she had seen of actress Elizabeth Taylor, submerged in a swimming pool.
Face B begins with probably one of the most overlooked gems in Janet's reportoire: "Don't Mess Up this Good Thing", an incredibly funky and infectious number with a irresitable dance beat and spacey elecronic programming. Producer Leon Sylvers III was at his prime during the early 80's, responsible for the Funk/R&B classic album FRIENDS (Shalamar, 1982), an album that should be on every music enthusiast shelf. "Don't Mess Up..." is not instantly irresistible as, say, Shalamar's "A Night to Rememeber", however with repeated exposure, it will definitely ignite an immediate poping and locking reaction. Unlike the Rene & Angela-produced tracks, which adhered to a consistency in style and sound, the remaining Sylvers-produced tracks are distinctly different from the opener: "Come Give Your Love to Me", the albums closer, is a unique gestalt of twangy & electric guitars, gated drum beat, heavily reverbed keyboards and unconventional beats. It's hard to classify this particular type of sound, however that is what makes it an instant draw to the listening experience of this album. Preceding this track, "The Magic is Working", sounds like it could have been a discarded track from the Rene & Angela sessions...a slightly slowed-down tempo, however  the post-disco esthetic is ever present on this track. Intersting to note, this was the track that she performed to a pre-recorded instrumental on an episode of Diff'rent Strokes, shoulder pops and all. Lastly, "Forever Yours", is the strongest ballad on the record (of the two), beautifully arranged and harmonized. A testament to how great this track was; it is often cited by fans as one of the album highlights. As a non-single album track, for it to be picked up and regularly spun by a local radio DJ reinforces the stament of its perpetual appeal...mind you, it was a Portuguese radio station during the mid 90's, nonetheless, it momentarily rose to the surface and recived the exposure it deserved. 

Alternate back cover
Memories run rampant whenever I play this album...Acquiring it at a young 13 years of age at a local HMV, which was during Janet's return to prominence with her 1993 smash album, JANET. I still play it to this day, and perhaps like a fine wine, it does get better with age. I have owned it on every musical format known to man (cassette, CD, vinyl, digital). It is was reinforced my interest in "old school", and enabled me to broaden my horizons and discover other incredible artist of that time.

Unfortunately for the casual listener, "you will never find" a single track from this album on any Janet compilation. However, "Young Love" did appear on the bonus disc of the European release of DESIGN OF A DECADE 1986/1996. Aside from this minor acknowledgement, forget the possibility that these tracks might appear on any future compilation...unless, if the label that currently holds the rights to these recordings (presumably the Interscope-Geffen-A&M) decides to capatalize on the Janet comeback with reissues and remasteres of her A&M back catalogue. Perhaps that might happen...but in the meantime, scout your local used record shops for a copy of this gem of a record. It is scarce on vinyl format, however there are always the digital options: The CD album is traceable, but more conveintietnly, it is available on iTunes! 

K  E  Y    T   R  A  C  K  S:

"Don't Mess Up this Good Thing" - produced for Silverspoon Productions

"You'll Never Find (A Love Like Mine)" - produced by Rene & Angela

"Young Love" - produced by Rene & Angela


NEXT POST:  Destination, Dream Street: The Early A&M Years - Part 2 of 2

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