1979’s Off The Wall proved to be an incredibly strong debut, brimming with hits including ‘Rock With You’ and ‘Don’t Stop ’Till You Get Enough’ that would remain fan favourites for decades afterwards. The closing track from Michael’s first solo album is a bona fide disco stomper penned by Rod Temperton, keyboardist of Heatwave (you know ‘Boogie Nights’ even if you’re not consciously aware of the band) and writer of other MJ hits including ‘Thriller’, ‘Off The Wall’, ‘Rock With You’ and ‘Baby Be Mine’.
Fun Funk Facts: Rod also co-wrote ‘Stomp!’ with The Brothers Johnson, George Benson’s ‘Give Me The Night’ and Quincy Jones’ ‘Razzamatazz’; he had an unusual amount of groove for someone from Hull.
Louis Johnson’s playing on Off The Wall represent some of the finest contributions of any pop sideman, and (in the author’s humble opinion) should be held in the same regard as Anthony Jackson’s recordings with Chaka Khan, Jaco’s work with Joni Mitchell and Pino Palladino’s numerous fretless exploits. ‘Burn This Disco Out’ is a prime example of what made Johnson an in demand session player; a mixture of foundational groove playing and technical prowess that propels the song and excites the listener in equal measure.
The song opens with the disco equivalent of a fanfare; the horns are playing a pentatonic sequence that uses a neat trick of 3 note descending groups while ascending through the scale – it sounds to me like Louis doesn’t play the whole line, but rather plays the first Bb note and rejoins the horns for the last scale fragment; I’ve included the whole line in brackets if you fancy a bit of a workout.
Eb minor isn’t a particularly eye-friendly key, although I prefer it to D# minor… fortunately, the main groove of ‘Burn This Disco Out’ revolves around a 3 note descending figure that uses different syncopations to create a 2-bar pattern. This main line is interspersed with frequent 16th note anticipations and it sounds to me like LJ is ‘bouncing’ off the open A string into each phrase – the use of non-diatonic open strings as approach notes is a device that James Jamerson also employed frequently.
There are occasional popped notes which necessitate shifting rapidly between fingerstyle playing and slap – this also occurs in each of the pre chorus sections (bars 22, 40 and 67) and can be troublesome if you’re not well acquainted with playing in the ‘half-slap’ style. Speaking of the prechoruses, the slapped fills in these sections show that Louis Johnson is developing his lines, increasing the complexity of the fill with each time the song returns to this section; it’s also worth paying attention to the slap and pop directions in the notation – much of his sound hinges on having a solid thumb tone on the D string, which can be a tricky technique to develop if you’re used to the typical slap bass methodology of splitting the right hand and allocating thumb for E and A strings and popping the D and G.
The middle 8 section (bars 49 – 57) features the classic ‘galloping’ octave bass pattern that Jamiroquai’s Paul Turner refers to as ‘The Disco Pony’ – note the use of slides from Gb to Ab which prevents the line from being too much of a disco cliché. Although the fills in bars 51 and 54 can definitely be played in one position, I find myself running them up the A string and using the open string to provide the ghost notes, which lends the line a little more ‘bounce’.
The outro (bar 90 onwards) develops the main groove that was previously used for the verse and chorus sections and adds new rhythmic and harmonic twists – a 2/4 bar and a reharmonisation of the main line.