The Jackson 5

Song Review by Bill Janovitz

A stop and start bass line and drum part, and propulsive percussion -- congas, tambourine, shakers -- horns, a fuzz-box guitar, dual Afro-Cuban-influenced piano parts, and, of course, the adolescent call-and-response vocals of the Jackson 5 brothers drive this Motown classic and one of the sweetest and simultaneously most satisfying confections of the 1970s. The song displaced the Beatles' "Let It Be" in the number one spot on the pop chart. Opening with the fuzz guitar, an off-beat percussive piano note, and a "doo-dooh" vocal hook line, the drums kick in on the down beat with Michael Jackson, then all of 12 years old, who starts in on the school metaphor: "You went to school to learn girl/Things you never knew before/Like "I" before "E" except after "C"/And why two plus two makes four/Now, now, now I'm gonna teach you, teach you, teach you/All about love girl, all about love/Sit yourself down, take a seat/All you gotta do is repeat after me." The school scenario was no accident; Freddie Perren, a member of the Corporation, the writing/producing collective behind "ABC," was a former school teacher. He has noted in interviews that producing -- especially a group comprised of teens and preteens -- is much like teaching: outlining a plan and having the students execute it until the teacher is satisfied. The similarity of the song's groove to the Jackson 5's first hit single, "I Want You Back," is also no accident; "ABC" is essentially the chorus of the former single (and by theory a pop song's catchiest part), repeated and looped for the body of the newer single. The walking bass line forms the backbone -- bass having always been a top priority in Motown recordings. The arrangement builds to a rowdy drum breakdown in the middle of the song, Michael Jackson shouting out to the object of his young heart's desire: "Sit down girl! I think I love you!" He is egged on by his brothers, "No! Get up girl! Show me what you can do!" At which point, the brothers start to harmonize on "Shake it, shake it baby." Through the whole arrangement, the brothers share the lead vocals, trading lines, Michael taking the lion's share. The urgency in Michael's young voice is befuddling; this is no child novelty act -- a youngster propped up and made up to look and sound like an adult; Jackson just belts it out as soulfully as an adult, yet still sounds natural, effortless, and untrained, simply gifted. One wonders why such gifts became watered down and squandered to the extent that they did in the 1980s and beyond. For, while this early stage of his career was often called bubblegum soul, the emphasis must surely be placed on soul. There is little cuteness beyond the knowing school metaphor and Michael Jackson is not handled with kid gloves in the arrangement. The resulting recording avoids a ham-fisted, over-processed, and produced child act. As with their previous hit, the Jackson 5 are clearly influenced by the Temptations, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and Sly and the Family Stone. And one would be remiss not to mention a distinct Stevie Wonder vibe here, another boy wonder. But the Jackson 5 do not sound like any of them; they end up sounding completely unique. The collaborative group called the Corporation was made up primarily of Berry Gordy, Motown founder and president; Perren; Fonce Mizell; and Deke Richards. There was some speculation that the group was formed to sublimate individual identities and, thus, egos, and possibly avoid future legal wrangling. The three aside from Gordy had known each other for years and had written "Love Child" for the Supremes and then "I Want You Back." The recording features two of the Corporation's members, Perren and Mizell on piano, as well as top sessionmen, assuring the funky soul groove.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
ABC 1970
Motown 2:55
Motown for Kids 2008
Various Artists
Motown 2:57