There's a song on Michael Jackson's new album, "HIStory," in which he asks, "Have you seen my childhood?"
No, but we sure did hear it.
Michael Jackson has been a part of the national consciousness from the moment the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" first crackled across the radio in December 1969. He may only have been 11 years old, but he sang with greater skill and conviction than competitors two or three times his age; even better, his boyish good looks left adults doting and other children dazzled. (The "teen idol" role was left to brother Jermaine, whose soulful secondary vocals left adolescent girls swooning).
It helped that those first singles -- "I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save," "I'll Be There" -- were among the finest work Motown did at the time. At once knowing and naive, the songs were equally accessible to pre-teens and grown-ups, while the group's stage show artfully combined expert choreography and youthful abandon. It's no wonder Jacksonmania quickly swept the country.
If that all seems to have happened ages ago, it's because it did -- and no better proof exists than "Soulsation! The 25th Anniversary Collection" (Motown 314 530 489, arriving in stores Tuesday).
A four-CD set drawn from the group's tenure at Motown, the 82-song collection traces the J5's development from precocious cover band to pre-disco dance act. Also included in the collection are a smattering of Michael's solo hits -- including "Got to Be There," "Ben" and "Rockin' Robin" -- as well as a couple of Jermaine's solo efforts and a raft of rare and unreleased performances.
It also boasts remarkably clear and detailed sound, something that adds enjoyment to even the most familiar singles. It's a joy finally to have a clear picture of which instruments do what in hits like "I Want You Back" and "The Love You Save." Even the ambitious psychedelia of "I Am Love, Pts. I & II" comes through with unexpected clarity.
Viewed from an historical perspective, "Soulsation!" is an invaluable resource. Because almost a quarter of the material was previously unreleased, we're offered a rare insight into what kind of material Motown deemed unacceptable for the group, as well as a few of the missteps that were taken on the way to finding the J5's musical identity.
These weren't the group's first recordings, though. Two years before "I Want You Back," the group cut two songs for the Gary, Indiana-based Steeltown Records. "Big Boy" (Inverted 1228) puts both on CD for the first time, though given the murky sound and unmemorable material, it's hard to imagine the disc being of interest to any but the most devoted collectors.
The rarities on the fourth disc of "Soulsation!" are much more revealing. It's interesting to hear Jermaine applying his best Levi Stubbs growl to "Reach Out I'll Be There," if only because he's the only one of the five who seems at home in the song; likewise, it's instructive to note how closely the Jacksons mimic the Temptations' vocal blend on "Can't Get Ready for Losing You."
Of course, a fair amount of what was originally issued by Motown showed the group to be unabashedly derivative. The group's first two albums, "Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5" and "ABC," were heavily larded with cover material, and "Soulsation!" dutifully mirrors that reality. But given that the J5 never had any say in generating its own material -- a reality that eventually led to the group's departure from Motown -- covering Sly & the Family Stone's "Stand!" wasn't appreciably different from cutting original Motown material like "I Found That Girl."
"Soulsation!" does have its failings, the most notable of which being the inexplicable omission of "Hum Along and Dance," a dance-club favorite that laid the foundation for singles like "Dancing Machine." On the whole, though, the set makes a welcome companion to the hits segment of Michael's "HIStory."
Now if only someone would anthologize the Jacksons' Epic albums, we'd really have a handle on history.