Book Review | The History Press | Review by Liam Wilkinson
There’s a timeless charm about Cleethorpes. If you look beyond the garish facades of the Lincolnshire seaside town’s amusement arcades, fish and chip takeaways and gift shops, you’ll find a few alluring treasures of decades passed. There’s the ornate balustrades of the shops along Alexandra Road, the Art Deco-style architecture of Darracotte’s Ice-Cream Parlour, the beautiful Victorian pier and the adorable Cleethorpes Coast Light Railway which, for a small fare, will transport you to The Signal Box Inn, more commonly known as the smallest pub on the planet.
But, as you stroll along its quietly pleasant promenade, there is little to suggest that Cleethorpes might be in any way connected to the King of Pop. Look a little closer, however, and you may spot the plaque that informs us that this humble little town gave birth to the man who wrote “Thriller”.
Journalist Jed Pitman has provided us with a much-needed and deeply fascinating book on the subject. The Invisible Man tells the story of the late Rod Temperton, the Cleethorpes-born songwriter who rose to a modest level of fame as the keyboardist with soul band Heatwave only to find himself writing hits for such superstars as Michael Jackson, George Benson and Aretha Franklin.
Written in a documentary-style, with extensive and notably affectionate dialogue from such eminent interviewees as Quincy Jones, Michael McDonald and Herbie Hancock, Pitman’s biography delves engrossingly into the series of events that took Rod from the Humber Estuary to Germany, where he would write his first successful song “Boogie Nights”, and from there to Los Angeles where Rod began furnishing Michael Jackson with the songs that would come to define his solo career.
Whilst chain-smoking over a beat-up keyboard, this shy and gentle white man with an unshakable Lincolnshire accent wrote “Off the Wall”, “Rock With You” and “Burn This Disco Out” for Jacko’s 1979 breakthrough album Off the Wall, followed by “Baby Be Mine”, “Lady in My Life” and the earth-shattering title track for the 1982 album Thriller. And, thanks to his unique ear and gift for arrangement, Rod worked closely with Quincy and Michael to craft the distinctive sound of both LPs.
Pitman whisks us back to the early 80s for several vivid scenes, including the day that Rod quickly scribbled the ghoulish rap for “Thriller” in the back of a taxi, only minutes before Vincent Price recorded it in just two enchanting takes. The book also brims with engaging and heart-warming tales of a man whose shy and unassuming nature seemed to contradict his enormous impact and success. “He had this Cleethorpes accent that didn’t fit in with the stuff he was writing at all,” remarks fellow composer John Cameron, the man behind the soundtrack to Ken Loach’s Kes, whilst Quincy Jones comments that he was always happy when Rod and his wife Kathy showed up and “showed us how to do shepherd’s pie because I love shepherd’s pie!”
The book is also littered with praise for Rod’s prowess as a songwriter, noting the methodical, often painstaking way in which he structured his compositions and his almost otherworldly gift for sumptuous basslines and exquisite melodies. Indeed, by the middle of the book it’s clear that Rod wasn’t lucky to work with the aforementioned Jackson, Benson and Franklin as well as Patti Austin, Chaka Khan and Donna Summer – they were lucky ones to get to work with Rod.
Rod Temperton sadly passed away in 2016 at the age of 66. Whilst the musical world mourned the loss of one of its most cherished songwriters, the general public may have inadvertently overlooked the death of this invisible man. We’re extremely fortunate, therefore, to have Jed Pitman’s wonderful book which stands as a monument to this most unique of men.