“Dancing Machine” was notable because after 18 months or so of J5 singles that weren’t exactly big hits, “Dancing Machine” (which turned out to be the brothers’ highest charting single in three years) seemed to right the ship. Turned out that “Dancing Machine” was only a temporary fix, and the Jackson brothers departed Motown less than two years later. Although their Epic tenure brought them better sales (and of course turned Michael into MICHAEL), the brothers never had a subsequent single chart higher.
Musically, “Dancing Machine” pointed the way towards the dance/funk fusion that the brothers would perfect late in the ‘70s on songs like “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)”. It’s not too shiny from a production standpoint, it’s danceable but there’s some grown-up grit to it. The pre-pubescent charm that Michael laid on with “I Want You Back” and “ABC” was replaced with something that was just as charming, and still boyish, but less gimmicky. The song’s hit status was crystallized when the Jacksons performed it on Soul Train and Michael broke out his first iteration of the robot. Allegedly (this performance predated me by a couple of years), Michael’s dancing created a sensation that has teenage tongues wagging several days later. Was the first time he’d do that, but wouldn’t be the last.
Watching the performance now, I still find it pretty interesting. Michael was 15 when this was taped, and stuck somewhere between the cute little “I Want You Back” kid and the tall, gangly late teen he evolved into by the end of his stay at Motown. His movements are razor sharp, and it’s kinda cool to see Marlon and Jackie feigning shock at Michael’s robotic movements. Adult Michael wouldn’t have cracked a grin at the end of the routine, though.
One more fun fact: “Dancing Machine” is the only J5 song that appears on two individual studio albums. It originally appeared on 1973′s Get It Together, but once it became a hit in 1974, Motown released an entirely new album called Dancing Machine. Both albums are pretty damn good.