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.
The day after Michael Jackson died, it was beautiful out. Walking around Chicago that day, I heard Jackson’s music coming from everywhere — cars, open windows, boutique speakers. That day, I walked to Sultan’s Market, the Middle Eastern takeout spot in Wicker Park, while listening to Off The Wall on my iPod. I was working at Pitchfork at the time, and the office was only a few blocks away. As I walked into Sultan’s, I’d only gotten as far as “Rock With You.” When I walked in the door and pulled my earbuds out, I had one of those weird experiences where, for a few seconds, I wondered if I was hallucinating. “Rock With You” was playing over the speakers in Sultan’s, too. It was almost at the same point of the song. For just an instant, I was totally unmoored, not sure if what I was hearing was real. The music on my headphones was almost exactly in sync with the music in the outside world.
Something like this probably happened to a whole lot of people on that day in June of 2009. That day, everyone was listening to Michael Jackson; it was all anyone wanted to hear. In an increasingly atomized media atmosphere, the death of the world’s biggest pop star was a unifying force, a monocultural last gasp. I love that I had my little two-second psychedelic trip to “Rock With You.” It’s not my favorite Michael Jackson song, but at least in some way, it’s the purest of them, the one that cuts right through to what made millions of people love the man.
Michael Jackson’s legacy is vast and complicated. But for all the bad things that Jackson may have done in the world — and, at the risk of turning every single Michael Jackson column into a referendum on the allegations at the man, I believe that he really did molest kids — I still have a hard time thinking of “Rock With You” as anything other than a force for good in the world. “Rock With You” hits like helium. It’s a lush and frictionless and joyous sunset-cloud of a song. For those of us who were mourning Michael Jackson on that day in 2009, “Rock With You” worked so perfectly because it’s very, very difficult to be too sad when it’s playing.
“Rock With You” came from the songwriter Rod Temperton, who’d previously been the keyboardist in the UK disco-funk band Heatwave. Temperton had written Heatwave’s biggest singles, including “Boogie Nights,” the 1977 jam that had peaked at #2. (“Boogie Nights” is an 8.) Temperton left Heatwave in 1978 to focus on songwriting. He initially offered “Rock With You” to Karen Carpenter, who at the time was working on the solo album that would only see release years after she died. Carpenter turned the song down. But Quincy Jones loved “Boogie Nights,” and he flew Temperton to Los Angeles to work on Off The Wall.
Temperton wrote three of the songs that made it onto Off The Wall: “Rock With You,” “Burn This Disco Out,” and the title track. (“Off The Wall” peaked at #10. It’s a 9.) Temperton also did the rhythm and vocal arrangements on “Rock With You.” Jackson multi-tracked his own vocals, backing himself up with a whole team of Michael Jacksons. Jackson and Quincy Jones recorded the track with many of the same ace session musicians who had played on Jackson’s previous #1 hit “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” On the Off The Wall album, “Rock With You” shows up right after “Don’t Stop,” and it immediately expands on that song’s sound, pushing it into sleeker and subtler directions.
“Rock With You” is a neat trick. It’s clearly a disco song — a four-four strut that fits right into the regular club BPM range. Like “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” and like plenty of other disco songs, “Rock With You” is about dancing, but it’s also pretty clearly about sex. And yet because of the song’s all-encompassing lushness and Jackson’s feathery delivery, “Rock With You” feels like a ballad, not a banger. Like KC & The Sunshine Band’s “Please Don’t Go,” the song that preceded it at #1, “Rock With You” could almost be a reaction to the moment when disco was plummeting off of the charts but easy-listening love songs were holding strong. It’s just that “Rock With You” is an infinitely more sophisticated take on that dance-ballad approach.
Quincy Jones layers hooks all over “Rock With You.” There’s the opening hard-crack drum-roll, always a great way for a song to announce itself. There’s the bubbly and expensive-sounding synth line. There are the strings, which swoop jubilantly down on a track that barely has any room for them. There’s the intricate and ever-evolving bass from session musician Bobby Watson, putting in the same kind of quiet work that James Jamerson had done on so many Motown records. There are the handclaps, the liquid guitar-scratches, the horn-stabs on the bridge. All of it risks the too-muchness inherent in pop maximalism. And yet all of it hits at exactly the right moment. Somehow, against all odds, all those elements never clutter or crowd out the song. They just breathe with it. All of those moving parts are there to support Michael Jackson, whose vocal performance is a thing of beauty.
Lyrically, “Rock With You” is a pretty trite and obvious song. Jackson’s character wants to dance you into the sunlight, and it’s pretty clear what that means. He wants to feel that heat, ride the boogie, share that beat of love. But Jackson is so soft and vulnerable that “Rock With You” never comes off as the obnoxious come-on that almost any other singer would’ve made it. Back in 1979, Jackson was all starburst potential, and he hadn’t yet acquired the hard and paranoid edge that he’d bring to all of his records from Thriller on. The two main things that Jackson brings to “Rock With You” are his rhythmic grace and his gentle vulnerability. He kept that rhythmic grace for his entire life, but the gentle vulnerability wouldn’t last long.
On “Rock With You,” Jackson is delicate like chiffon. When he tells you to close your eyes and let the rhythm get into you, it’s a shy request, not a command. He floats euphorically over the song, never even hinting at the smug eyebrow-waggling innuendo that was the default setting for so many of his ’70s contemporaries. Even the word “rock” becomes soft and fragile in his throat. Maybe Jackson thought the song really was about dancing, or maybe that’s just how he decided to play it. Either way, it’s masterful stuff.
“Rock With You” probably wouldn’t have been a great Karen Carpenter song. It probably wouldn’t have been a great song for anyone but Michael Jackson. The melody is sugary and ingratiating. The beat is disco boilerplate. The lyrics are straight-up stupid. But Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones heard the potential, and they made “Rock With You” into something magical. Nobody could’ve done it better.
With “Rock With You,” Michael Jackson scored his second straight #1 single. All four of the singles he released from Off The Wall made it into the top 10, a feat that only Fleetwood Mac had previously managed. (Other than “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Rock With You,” and “Off The Wall,” there’s the ballad “She’s Out Of My Life,” which peaked at #10. It’s a 5.) But in terms of sheer pop-music dominance, Off The Wall was nothing compared to what Jackson would do over the rest of the decade. He will be in this column many more times.
Rod Temperton kept working with Michael Jackson as Jackson made his stratospheric pop leap. Temperton wrote Jackson’s 1984 single “Thriller,” which peaked at #4. (It’s a 9.) Temperton also went on write a lot of hits for other stars in the ’80s. His work will appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: House music deities Frankie Knuckles and Masters At Work both remixed “Rock With You” in 1993. Here’s the Frankie Knuckles remix:
And here’s the Masters At Work reworking:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Quincy Jones released his own slick version of “Rock With You” on his 1995 album Q’s Jook Joint. That version featurs a lead vocal from Brandy and a guest rap from Heavy D. Here it is:
(As lead artist, Quincy Jones has never had a top-10 hit. His highest-charting single, the 1981 James Ingram collab “One Hundred Ways,” peaked at #14. Heavy D never had a top-10 hit, either — 1991’s “Now That We Found Love” peaked at #11 — but Heavy co-produced Soul For Real’s 1994 single “Candy Rain,” which peaked at #2. It’s an 8. Brandy will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The video version of “MVP,” a 1995 single from the late Harlem rap hero Big L, features a “Rock With Me” interpolation. Here’s the video:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Burial’s 2005 single “Nite Train,” which samples “Rock With You”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Janelle Monaé’s 2010 track “Locked Inside,” which samples the “Rock With Me” drums:
(Right now, Janelle Monaé has no top-10 hits; her highest-charting track, the 2015 Jidenna collab “Yoga,” peaked at #79. But she’ll eventually appear in this column as a guest singer.)
THE 10S: Smokey Robinson’s soft, lush, effortless quiet-storm air-kiss “Cruisin'” peaked at #4 behind “Rock With You.” It’s a 10.