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.
Bear witness to the awesome power of a formula at work. The Jackson 5 struck gold with “I Want You Back,” their very first single and one of the all-time great #1 hits in pop-music history. And then they did it again. And again. With “ABC” and then with “The Love You Save,” their second and third singles, the Jacksons basically sang the same song, with slight variations. And all three times, they tapped into something giddy and joyous and overwhelming.
“The Love You Save,” like “I Want You Back” and “ABC” came from the Corporation, the four-man songwriting/production team that included Motown founder Berry Gordy. Like those two songs, “The Love You Save” had a springy and intricate arrangement, full of staccato guitar-squelches and percussive push-pulls and sugar-rush strings. Like those two songs, its lyrics were a squirmy combination of precocious relationship-talk and borderline-gibberish kids’ stuff. Like those other songs, “The Love You Save” bounced the force-of-nature squeak of 11-year-old Michael Jackson off of his brothers’ intricately layered backing vocals. And like those other two songs, “The Love You Save” is a miracle.
Of those first three Jackson 5 singles, “The Love You Save” is probably the worst, which really just means that it’s only a minor masterpiece. It’s a bit faster and more restless, almost to the point of being fidgety. And it’s got the most ridiculous lyrics of the three. In this one, Michael wants a girl to settle down with him and stop running around with other guys. He’s worried that things are like “when we played tag in grade school,” when the girl in question would chase boys. He’s worried about her. He thinks maybe these boys will label the girl a flirt, or turn her name to dirt. It’s a serious situation.
It’s not a serious situation at all. The song is full of tongue-in-cheek references to historical figures: “Isaac said he kissed you beneath the apple tree / When Benji held your hand, he felt electricity!” The group also attempts to explain the word “stop” like it’s an acronym: “S is for ‘Save it!’ T is for ‘Take it slow!'” It’s not an acronym. The best part is when the whole group chants the phrase “slow down!” while it feels like the song is speeding up. Nobody involved in the song takes it the least bit seriously. It’s just another way for Michael Jackson to unleash that helium howl upon the world.
But one thing about “The Love You Save” does stand out for me, and that’s Jermaine Jackson. Jermaine was never the focal point of the Jackson 5. He was always the foil, the one doing the call-and-response lines with Michael, his own (slightly) gravelly voice offsetting Michael’s yip. The other three Jacksons were basically backup dancers who did great deep-in-the-mix backing vocals. They were an essential visual part of the group’s equation, but they were never threats to be stars.
Jermaine could’ve been a star. You can see it in the old footage of the Jacksons. He’s right behind Michael, grinning huge, broadcasting confidence. He’s devastatingly handsome, he’s got his shit together, and he at least gives the impression that he’s OK with being a supporting player. But in some alternate reality, there’s a timeline where Jermaine, not Michael, is the Jackson 5’s frontman. His voice — strained and convincingly adult — exists on the songs to help push Michael forward, to give him a base that will allow him to fly off into the stratosphere. The tension between those voices is one of the foundations of all three of those songs, “The Love You Save” in particular. Without Jermaine, there’s no way the young Michael could’ve been as great as he was. But in his little solo bits, we can hear just how great of a singer Jermaine is, too.
Jermaine never was a star, but he at least flirted with stardom. Jermaine was getting steady radio play for his solo singles from the early ’70s and into the early ’90s. He had two songs that peaked at #9: the vaguely creepy 1972 doo-wop throwback ballad “Daddy’s Home,” a 5, and the nasty 1980 disco-funk workout “Let’s Get Serious,” an 8. But by the time LaToya started posing for Playboy, Jermaine was probably the fourth-most-famous Jackson kid. He’s not a punchline these days, but he’s not a revered figure, either. And yet one of the all-time great singles runs never could’ve happened the way it did without him.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cover of “The Love You Save” that unjustly forgotten New York dream-poppers Madder Rose released in 1995:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: And speaking of 1995, here’s grainy VHS footage of Hanson covering “The Love You Save” while performing in a Tulsa mall, two years before they got famous:
THE 10S: The Temptations’ everything-is-fucked psychedelic soul rager “Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)” peaked at #3 behind “The Love You Save.” It’s a 10.