Should the Rod Temperton biopic ever happen, there can surely only be two candidates for potential titles. One would be the name of the song which gave him his breakthrough hit; the other would be the song which lent its title to the best-selling album of all time. Given that there’s already a film called Boogie Nights, I guess it’ll have to be Thriller. And, thinking about it, Thriller would be a good fit: an amusingly declamatory title for a film about a frozen-fish factory employee who wrote most of his early songs in his Cleethorpes bedsit on a keyboard called Betsy whose stand was actually an ironing board.
What those of us growing up with Michael Jackson’s music didn’t realise was that the persona of he presented to us with Off The Wall and Thriller – the cocksure young lothario ready for a night on the town – was built out of the songs that Temperton wrote for him. Slight, sad-eyed, chain-smoking Rod was the Cyrano de Bergerac to Michael’s Christian de Neuvillette. To understand what Michael and his producer Quincy Jones saw in Rod Temperton is to chalk up a few vinyl hours with the 1976 album that propelled Temperton into their orbit.
The incredible thing about Heatwave’s Too Hot To Handle is that it’s all there from the outset. Released at a time when boogie was still a quaint byword for disco, its breakout single ‘Boogie Nights’ bore all the hallmarks of a Temperton classic. In keeping with his unshowy personality, the cleverness of his arrangements was meant to be felt rather than noticed. Radio programmers underestimated his method at their peril. When ‘Boogie Nights’ was released to radio in the US, its syncopated jazzy harp intro was removed. It was only when DJs started to play the full album version that the song became a hit over there.
It was no fluke, either. Save for Hot Chocolate, no bands to emerge from Britain had cracked the formula for an R&B sound that opened them up to American success. In his younger years, Temperton had been as fixated on prog-rock as funk – and it was the intricacy of the former that he drew upon, overlapping myriad interconnecting melodies onto a bassline that would brook no resistance. Strip the ornamentation away from the rhythm section of ‘I’ll Beat Your Booty’ or ‘Ain’t No Half-Stepping’ and what you’re left with isn’t so different to what George Clinton and Bootsy Collins were doing on Parliament’s contemporaneous Mothership Connection album.
To suddenly have access to a superb funk band – and, in particular, Ohio siblings Johnnie and Keith Wilder on vocals – must, for Temperton, have been like being able to travel outside of his own body. Sudden, total freedom. He could pen a ballad for the ages such as ‘Always & Forever’ and see it through, fully utilising the psychic synergy of the Wilders’ harmonies. On the ensuing album, Central Heating, it was a freedom he pushed into uncharted territory with the imperious glide of ‘Leavin’ For A Dream’, the cosmic soul rapture of ‘The Star Of A Story’, and ‘The Groove Line’, for me the ultimate joyous distillation of Temperton’s songwriting in just a shade over four minutes.
Just imagine the young Michael Jackson singing those early Heatwave songs and you can understand why Quincy Jones spent two hours on the phone to Temperton – who, in 1979, was still loyally honouring his obligations with Heatwave – trying to persuade him to contribute even just one song to the Jackson project. The astonishing thing about ‘Rock With You’, ‘Off The Wall’ and ‘Burn This Disco Out’, the three songs he wrote in quick succession for Jackson, is that it’s not like Rod Temperton had to change anything. Jackson was the expedient by which the Heatwave sound went global.
No matter who you were, the appeal was the same. We didn’t know what platonically perfect nightclub his songs were describing, but we dearly wanted to go there. So, presumably, did Rod Temperton. And by writing these songs, he could do just that – taking us with him in the process.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill