In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Berry Gordy had a good thing going, and he was not about to jeopardize it. Gordy had just moved Motown Records from its Detroit home to Hollywood, and his label was entering a new phase of its evolution. And he’d just struck gold with the Jackson 5, a group of ridiculously talented Indiana children. “I Want You Back,” the Jackson 5’s first Motown single, was an instant sensation and a #1 hit. It was also a perfect song. So when they put together the follow-up, Gordy and his braintrust pretty much just rewrote “I Want You Back” as closely as possible, adjusting things a bit because now they knew they were writing for kids. The result: Another #1 hit, and another perfect song.
“ABC,” the Jackson 5’s second Motown single, is a totally, shamelessly formulaic work. Its melody isn’t too far-removed from what they’d done with “I Want You Back.” The arrangement wasn’t much different, either. Both songs are fast and jittery and joyous, and both of them are driven by the overwhelming, exhilarated yawp of the 11-year-old Jackson and by the way that Michael and his brothers would euphorically bounce their voices off of each other. Gordy was one of the four members of the Corporation, the songwriting and producing team who’d given “I Want You Back” to the Jacksons. And the Corporation also wrote and produced “ABC.” Pretty much everything about “ABC” is an attempt to replicate the success of “I Want You Back.” In most cases, that would be an artistically bankrupt move, a diminishing-returns stumble. But Gordy was working with magic, and he must’ve known it.
Gordy had known how well formulaic pop music could work. With the early Supremes singles, Gordy had insisted that Holland-Dozier-Holland stick to the script, using the same familiar elements over and over. That approach succeeded wildly. And it succeeded again with the Jackson 5. In fact, they might’ve improved on it. I love those Supremes singles, but I’d put the first two Jackson 5 singles up against any two Supremes hits.
Is it possible to maintain a bad mood when “ABC” is playing? I’ve never managed it. It’s a ridiculously funky confection, with fuzzed-out guitars and berserker bongos and a nagging piano riff that keeps the song airborne throughout. The Jackson kids layer their voices in fun, goofy ways, and all of them get quick little chances to show off. Jermaine, in particular, comes off; his vaguely gritty howl nicely complements Michael’s exuberance. There’s a zonked-out little breakdown — signaled by a bunch of the kids yelling “hiiii-yah!” — that plays out like a delightful (and short) kiddie-pop take on the dubbed-out orgasm segment from Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” The song even uses crowd noise perfectly.
And all of it is there to back up Michael, who spends the whole song sounding like the teenage Superman at the precise moment that he figured out that he could fly. Where “I Want You Back” was originally intended for Gladys Knight & The Pips, “ABC” was expressly written for these kids, so it’s based around the goofy idea that learning about love is like learning the alphabet. But it honestly doesn’t matter what it’s about. Michael is technically singing words, but the joy in his voice goes beyond language. He’s just surfing on this effervescent bubble-funk, letting his voice dance through everything.
The shit that Michael yells is just glorious, and much of it comes off as pure ad-lib: “Sit down, girl! I think I love you! No! Get up, girl! Show me what you can do!” Is it possible that someone actually wrote that down? Or is it just a case of an 11-year-old child with lightning in his veins? Does it even matter? “ABC” is a miracle, and maybe it’s best not to question miracles. Maybe you should just let them show you what they can do.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the video Naughty By Nature’s 1991 single “O.P.P.,” which was built on an “ABC” sample:
(“O.P.P.” peaked at #6. It would’ve been a 9.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In Kevin Smith’s 2006 movie Clerks II, we are meant to buy Rosario Dawson, quite possibly the most beautiful woman who has ever walked on the planet, and the older version of the guy from Clerks as a plausible couple. This is completely fucking ridiculous throughout the movie, but it’s never more absurd than it is during the scene where we see the two of them dancing to “ABC.” Here’s that scene:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: A pre-Nickelodeon Ariana Grande recorded a cover of “ABC” in 2009, and she shared it online on the day that Michael Jackson died. Here it is:
THE 10S: Norman Greenbaum’s glorious fuzz-rock ramble “Spirit In The Sky” peaked at #3 behind “ABC.” It’s a 10.