Book Review: The Invisible Man (The Story Of Rod Temperton) by Jed Pitman

How many British songwriters have made their living exclusively in soul/funk/R’n’B? If you can come up with more than one name, you’re doing pretty well…

It shows just how singular and important Rod Temperton’s career was until cut short by his death in 2016. Though never ‘flavour of the month’ (i.e. not ‘rock’), he has to be in the pantheon of great songwriters, Brit or otherwise.

Jed Pitman is first out of the traps with a biography of the Cleethorpes-born melody maestro who came out of the somewhat unprepossessing mid-’70s Midlands soul scene to somehow write (or co-write) ‘Thriller’, ‘Rock With You’, ‘Sweet Freedom’, ‘Give Me The Night’, ‘The Dude’, ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’, ‘Ya Mo Be There’, ‘Love X Love’, ‘Always And Forever’, ‘The Lady In My Life’, ‘Razzamatazz’ and ‘Boogie Nights’.

Pitman’s book evolved from a BBC radio programme and as such does at times feel somewhat like a transcription, with lots of verbatim interview material but fairly limited authorial insight. But that’s nitpicking when one considers his interviewees: Quincy Jones, Siedah Garrett, Michael McDonald, Herbie Hancock, Bob James, Bruce Swedien. The only major absentee seems to be Michael Jackson.

It has to be said, the constant theme of these interviews is: I can’t believe Rod wasn’t black. But once he’s got over that elephant in the room, Pitman builds up a more vivid picture of this rather geeky guy writing his funky, hook-laden tunes on a cheap keyboard in the weird town of Worms, Germany.

The groundbreaking disco/funk band Heatwave were of course the first recipients of his signature tunes, but the book’s great success is forging a line through all of Temperton’s work, identifying common traits and signposts. All those little synth and vocal motifs were clearly planned well in advance – it’s also clear that he worked from the bassline up. And what fabulous, much-sampled basslines they were. Even Public Enemy nicked from Heatwave’s brilliant ‘The Groove Line’ for their ‘Sophisticated B**ch‘.

The other really pleasing aspect of ‘The Invisible Man’ is discovering some of the more obscure avenues of Temperton’s career – collaborations with Herbie Hancock and Bob James, ‘The Color Purple’ soundtrack, ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ theme music. The book also places a lot more emphasis on his arranging work than is commonly known.

But we never quite work out what makes Temperton tick musically. Who were his main influences? The anecdotes seldom go beyond: ‘He was the real deal’. And Pitman rather glosses over the leaner last 20 years of his career – it would have been interesting to find out more about his view on the more technology-led/minimalist R’n’B of recent years.

But on the whole this is an extremely readable, valuable book, and the world is a better place for it. It certainly had me scurrying to various streaming services to check out everything in Rod’s illustrious songbook. The Heatwave albums, in particular, have been a revelation. (Incidentally, the cover of ‘The Invisible Man’ is pretty ghastly but apparently a very accurate portrayal – almost every interviewee speaks of his obsession with the cigs…)

‘The Invisible Man’ is published now by The History Press.

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The Sonic Secrets Of Michael Jackson’s Thriller

14th April 1982, Westlake Studios, Los Angeles: the recording sessions for Thriller commence. Producer Quincy Jones gathers his ‘crew’ – including mixing engineer Bruce Swedien, MJ and chief songwriter/arranger Rod Temperton – for a pep-talk. ‘We’re here to save the music business’, it begins…

It might sound a bit dramatic but the global recession of the 1980s was very much impacting a post-disco, pre-Madonna/Prince recording industry too. The team-talk worked: Thriller – released 35 years old today – is by far the biggest-selling non-greatest-hits album of all time.

For some, it’s bland, over-familiar and inferior to Jackson’s previous album Off The Wall. For this writer it’s the last truly great example of song-led, musician-crafted, post-disco R’n’B, beautifully produced, arranged and mastered. And Jackson was absolutely at the top of his game and still relatively ‘normal’.

Thriller was the soundtrack to 1983 and 1984 in my corner of London, loved by geeks, sporty kids, BMX riders and B-Boys alike. But sometimes it feels so familiar that it defies analysis. Here are a few aspects that jumped out during a recent reappraisal:

13. Michael’s lyrics. These are disturbing, ominous visions. ‘You’re a vegetable!’ he sneers on opener ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’. ‘Billie Jean’ is about a deranged stalker, though Jackson claims she is a ‘composite’ of many obsessive fans. Is it any wonder he struggled with fame?

12. The African chant in ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’, stolen from Manu Dibango’s superb ‘Soul Mokassa’.

11. Paulinho Da Costa’s African percussion and cuica on ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’.

10. Jerry Hey’s string arrangements on ‘The Girl Is Mine’ and ‘Billie Jean’. He supplies superb horn parts throughout Thriller but his strings are often neglected.

9. Tom Scott’s Lyricon interjections during the chorus of ‘Billie Jean’, a contribution that has sadly been left off the credits of many subsequent reissues.

8. The brilliant rhythm guitar playing throughout from David Williams, Paul Jackson Jr. and Steve Lukather.

7. For me, ‘Beat It’ is the weakest song on the album by some stretch (despite the great guitar riff and brilliant solo), but intriguingly it was apparently Jackson’s response to a Quincy remark that Thriller needed a ‘black version of “My Sharona”’!

6. Rod Temperton’s compositions throughout, and also his superb vocal arrangements – check out how he uses Michael’s stacked background vocals.

5. Greg Phillinganes’ superb Rhodes and synth bass work, particularly on the title track.

4. Ndugu Chancler’s drums, enhanced by Bruce Swedien’s sonic mastery. Have there ever been better-recorded drums than on ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘PYT’? According to Swedien: ‘I ended up building a drum platform and designing some special little things, like a bass drum cover and a flat piece of wood that goes between the snare and the hi-hat’.

3. Steve Lukather’s gorgeous guitar counterpoint throughout ‘Human Nature’, particularly in the closing 20 seconds.

2. Michael’s vocals. On ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’, he sounds like three or four different singers. His backups throughout are also pretty special, and he takes ‘The Lady In My Life’ out.

1. Quincy knew that every song would have to be a killer, covering all styles. Around 30 compositions were considered. Among the many demo’d but scrapped included ‘She’s Trouble’, ‘Niteline’, ‘Carousel’ (only binned at the eleventh hour), ‘Got The Hots’ and ‘Hot Street AKA Slapstick’. These were all new to me until this week, but I’ve developed a particular liking for the Quincy/Jackson co-write ‘Got The Hots’: