Each week, Frequency Rotation probes a different song with a speculative-fiction theme. Genre, musical quality, and overall seriousness may vary.
“Remember Michael Jackson,” the headlines have been screaming over the past couple weeks. The anniversary of the pop icon’s death is upon us, and fan and hater alike had better get used to the exhaustive media tributes (and fresh rounds of reissues, lawsuits, and Jackson family drama) that will be popping up every summer from now until the end of existence.
Personally, I don’t mind. I love spectacle, and I love Michael Jackson—and the two, after all, go hand in hand. His video for “Thriller” fricasseed my tender brain when I was a kid, and his revamping of trashy genre tropes was uncannily in sync with my own warped development at the time. Michael, though, isn’t the only Jackson with geek cred: Behold the secret science-fiction life of Jermaine Jackson.
From “Thriller” to Captain EO, Michael Jackson’s flirtation with science fiction was well documented last year by Annalee Newitz over at io9. Even in the SF world, Michael overshadows his brothers—but it’s worth noting that Jermaine was originally the co-lead singer of The Jackson 5 alongside Michael, and he had a million-selling solo hit, “Daddy’s Home,” way back in 1972. In an alternate timeline, Jermaine could have just as easily been the group’s breakout superstar. When Thriller came out in 1982, though, Michael’s older brothers were relegated to the backseat—that is, when they weren’t riding his coattails, as Jermaine unapologetically does on his 1984 song, “Escape From The Planet Of The Ant Men.”
It’s easy to dismiss “Ant Men” as a cheap “Thriller” knockoff. But in many ways it’s infinitely cooler. Featuring backing vocals from Randy and Tito Jackson, the song starts with a spooky, spoken-word intro that blatantly tries to emulate Vincent Price’s legendary bit in “Thriller.” “Escape while you can!”, intones the wannabe Price with a maniacal laugh. “Run, run, go now, run! /This is the planet of the ant men!” Eerie synthesizer noises whiz by like laser beams or the buzz of insect wings. “Thriller” is almost quaint in its celebration of horror flicks, but in the first few SF-glorifying seconds of “Ant Men,” it’s obvious Jermaine isn’t just trying to copy his more famous brother—he’s trying to one-up him.
From there, things get really strange. “They came from outer space, I was kidnapped,” explains Jermaine as a sparse, future-schlock track of robo-funk pumps away beneath him. “Outside my cage there`s an army of ants / Brought me a mate today, love at first sight / Now we’ve decided to put up a fight.” Here the full scope of Jermaine’s ambition becomes clear: He not only wants to show the world that Michael isn’t the only geek on the block, he wants to musically fuse Escape From The Planet Of The Apes and Slaughter-House Five. With a little bit of Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse mixed in. (Okay, so maybe that’s a stretch.)
After establishing this groundbreaking concept, “Ant Men” builds to a predictable climax and resolution: Man and mate break out of zoo, find a spaceship “and a wasp who will drive” and gaze philosophically at “that Earth marble” as they zoom home. But there’s nothing predictable about the song as a whole. Or is there…? In 1976, Jermaine had already established his love of SF with a single titled “Let’s Be Young Tonight”—which was backed by the song “Bass Odyssey,” a tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey. In case the reference isn’t blatant enough, Jermaine appears on the cover of the record playing a bass in outer space while riding, Silver Surfer-style, on a full stack of amps meant to look like the ominous Monolith from 2001.
But that’s not all. Two years prior to the release of “Ant Men,” Jermaine collaborated with the high priests of SF-music kitsch, Devo, on his quirky 1982 single “Let Me Tickle Your Fancy.” Hell, he even invited Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale—billed as Bud and Spud Devo and acting typically android-like—to perform the song on television with him. There are stranger moments in ’80s pop-culture history, but not many.
“Ant Men,” of course, never made the impact it was apparently supposed to. Despite the fact that it was released in February of ’84, a month after “Thriller” hit the charts as a single, no one made the connection, and the song was lost to the mists of spacetime. But Jermaine’s dalliance with SF doesn’t end quite there. The album that “Ant Men” appears on, known both as Dynamite and Jermaine Jackson, was reissued soon after with the bonus track “When The Rain Begins To Fall.” A duet with squeaky songstress Pia Zadora, it was recorded for the soundtrack of the campy SF-comedy film Voyage Of The Rock Aliens. Perhaps frustrated that “Ant Men” was never made into a video and given the same chance as “Thriller,” Jermaine then starred in an extended, post-apocalyptic video of “Rain” that wound up looking like Thunderdome on a shoestring. Or on crack. Or maybe both.
Jermaine finally gave up his fruitless, decade-long love affair with SF by the end of the ’80s. Maybe he was just ahead of his time. Maybe he had no idea what he was doing. Either way, he’s responsible for some of the most inspired, fearlessly geeky, SF-themed music ever foisted on the masses. So while millions this summer scream “Remember Michael,” I say, “Remember Jermaine”—the man who was, in his own clunky, humble, non-facially-mutated way, equally as weird.
Jason Heller writes for The A.V. Club, plays guitar, and would love to collaborate with Jermaine Jackson on “Conquest Of The Planet Of The Ant Men” (call me, J.J.!).