Featured Album – Thriller – Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson towered over the 1980s the way Elvis Presley dominated the 1950s, and here’s why. On Thriller, the child R&B star ripened into a Technicolor soulman: a singer, dancer, and songwriter with incomparable crossover instincts. – Rolling Stone

By 1982, Michael Jackson had been performing publicly for almost twenty of his twenty-four years. According to the book, Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story, at the age of five he sang “Climb Every Mountain” a capella for his class. He got a standing ovation. His teacher sobbed. Michael took over the lead singer role in his brothers’ band. And never looked back.

In 1969, The Jackson 5 had become a force in music with the release of their great single, “I Want You Back.”  They followed up with a string of Top Ten hits and had their own crazed “Jacksonmania.”

But by the late ’70’s, the bloom was somewhat off the rose. They were now called the Jacksons because after a not-so-amicable departure with Motown, they were contractually forbidden to call themselves the Jackson 5. And while the guys were still very much together (family is everything to the Jacksons), the hits weren’t coming as frequently.

Michael (his family called him Mike) had for years been the star of the show. And as he got older, he started to become restless with just being one of the band. He was writing songs and increasingly wanted to be master of his own fate. (You gotta read about Michael some time. For all his personal problems that we know all too well, he was one savvy SOB when it came to business. And he was driven.)

In 1979, Michael hooked up with noted producer Quincy Jones and released an album called Off The Wall. This album sold like crazy all over the world and established him as a solo star in his own right. There was only one problem: Michael was pissed off that Off the Wall had gotten only one Grammy nomination. “I sold five million in the US, six million foreign…. It was totally unfair that it didn’t get Record of the Year and it can never happen again. (Italics mine.)

So, fueled by what he saw as his not being taken seriously enough or getting his due, in 1982 he and Quincy Jones began work on his sixth studio album, Thriller. (They fought so much it’s a wonder they got anything done.)

He and Jones picked nine songs (ah, vinyl), from about three hundred. (!!) Michael was, I think, leaving no stone unturned, trying somewhat to please the disco audience, the funk lovers, the rock audience, (Paul McCartney sings and Eddie Van Halen plays a blazing solo on “Beat It”) as well as his own muse.

The first song on the album, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” is listed in Wikipedia as post-disco and funk. I don’t exactly know what post-disco means. But it is a funky, upbeat tune and a hell of a way to kick off an album. The lyrics reflect Michael’s bitterness about gossip and rumors.

This is the song that has the famous “Ma Ma Se, Ma Ma Sa, Ma Ma Coo Sa” ending. Both Michael and pop singer Rihanna “borrowed” the refrain from a song called “Soul Makossa” and settled out of court:

Spotify link

In seeking a nice ballad for the album, Quincy remembered a song he had gotten from keyboardist Steve Porcaro of Toto. (Toto famously was a band comprised of studio musicians all of whom play on this album.) Porcaro had written the song because his daughter had gotten pushed around in school.

Among other reasons for that happening, he told her, is it’s just human nature. And so a song was born. Michael turned it in another direction:

Spotify link

Michael officially states that the song “Billie Jean” is based on a composite of his and his brothers’ experience on the road. His biographer reports that no, there was a real woman who was essentially stalking Jackson, claiming he was the father of her baby. If you read the passages, it has the absolute ring of truth and is entirely plausible. But the Jacksons, like all corporations, liked to preserve an image.

“Billie Jean” was one of the absolute landmark songs of the MTV era. The fact that it was played on there at all is a story. The fuckheads who ran the plantation, I’m sorry, the station, decided that it was a rock and roll network and so, weren’t playing any black artists. (Since they, of course, get to define what is and is not rock and roll.)

According to the Michael Jackson book, “Of the over 750 videos shown on MTV during the channel’s first eighteen months, fewer than two dozen featured black artists.” (As the author notes, no problem having Phil Collins cover Supremes songs.)

CBS threatened to pull all their videos from MTV unless they played “Billie Jean.” MTV capitulated and, well, the rest is history.

One of the most significant and greatest music videos of all time. And just a fucking great song. (I still remember Motown’s 25th-anniversary show. Michael electrified the crowd. That yelling you hear is real. These people are – to coin a world – genuinely thrilled):

Spotify link

A British songwriter named Rod Temperton had been mulling over an idea for a song. Quincy Jones asked him to try to come up with a title for the album itself. Per Temperton, “The next morning, I woke up, and I just said this word…Something in my head just said this [Thriller] is the title. You could visualize it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page.”

So the song really started out as a marketing idea but then morphed into a macabre zombie story. (Michael was ahead of the zombie craze here. Although one could argue that Night of the Living Dead beat them all.)

Actor Vincent Price was a friend of Quincy Jones’ then-wife, actress Peggy Lipton. And so they enlisted him for the speaking part of the song. Michael wanted director John Landis to make the video, having seen his 1981 movie, An American Werewolf in London  (Michael had the disclaimer inserted as he was a devout Jehovah’s Witness.)

Spotify link

The choreography in this video is so celebrated that to this day, groups of people will attempt it. Nowhere was this done more famously than (for rehab purposes??) at a prison in the Philippines in 2011.

I see Thriller as somewhat analogous to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run in this sense – Bruce was driven to get a hit album. He knew if he didn’t, he could be spending a lotta time in Jersey bars. Michael had already had several smash hits and was coming off of one. But he too was driven. Not by fear of fading into obscurity but of not being the biggest star in the world. Which, of course, he became.

And Thriller? The label thought MJ would be lucky to sell a couple million copies. Try this – it sold one million copies PER WEEK at its peak. Long-term? I can do no better here than to quote from Wikipedia:

“In just over a year, Thriller became—and currently remains—the world’s best-selling album, with estimated sales of 65 million copies. It is the best-selling album in the United States and the first album to be certified 33x multi-platinum, having shipped 33 million album-equivalent. The album won a record-breaking number of eight Grammy Awards in 1984, including Album of the Year.

In 2003, Rolling Stone placed the album at number 20 on their list of  The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Thriller was also included in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry of culturally significant recordings, and the Thriller music video was included in the National Film Preservation Board’s National Film Registry of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films.””

Michael Jackson, the “King of Pop,” died of cardiac arrest at the age of 50 on June 25, 2009. He is recognized as the Most Successful Entertainer of All Time by Guinness World Records. His legacy? Turn on the radio.

Sources: Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story. J. Randy Taraborrelli. (The author knew MJ since they were kids); Wikipedia, etc. 

27 thoughts on “Featured Album – Thriller – Michael Jackson

  1. I’m shocked that you reviewed this record, Jim. Are you selling out, now that you’ve won an AWARD?? (just kidding). Seriously, you gave a good overview of a pop culture phenomenon. However, despite critics jumping over themselves to praise Mr. Single White Glove and “Thriller,” this ’80s techno-pop leaves me totally cold. He’s a great dancer, has a sweet voice, and made some interesting music videos. But Jackson’s an average songwriter, at best, and there are much better vocalists. He was a skilled self-promoter, and his single-minded obsession to win a (God forbid) Grammy speaks for itself. And speaking of Monterey Pop Festival… give me OTIS REDDING any day over this cotton candy. (This critique is directed at Jackson and “Thriller”… not your article!).

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    1. No I dig the album Pete. I won’t put him in Otis’ league but I think it’s a really good album. It’s funky and (God forbid I should dance) danceable. What led me to post about it was that I’m reading a book about the Jacksons. I thought I might do a series because their story is really interesting. But I realized I don’t care for enough of their music to want to post it. A few here and there, but not sustainable. But trust me, I only post about stuff I like. If I don’t like it, generally speaking I don’t even mention it.

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    2. Pete, one other note on this if I may. You say you’re “shocked” and noted the other day that our tastes appear to be similar. Similar, but not exactly the same. I bet you a brewski if we could sit down in a room with our respective record collections there would be times I might look at one of yours and say “Really?” and you’d look at some of mine and say “Really?” So, expect curveballs over here at ME at least some of the time. Vive la difference, I say! 😀

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      1. Well said, vive la difference. Believe it or not, I liked the Jackson 5 when I was a pre-teen. I remember buying the 45 “Maybe Tomorrow,” and actually read a quickie paperback bio of them. I thought Jermaine looked pretty snazzy.

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        1. Poor Jermaine. A not untalented guy, he was the one Michael replaced as lead singer. Then later, he married Berry Gordy’s daughter and got caught in the middle when the Jacksons split Motown. I guess he later had some hits but I’d frankly lost interest by then.

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  2. What it falls largely outside the music I listen to these days, “Thriller” is an absolute masterpiece – there’s no question! Michael Jackson was one of the most talented artists of our time. His dance moves were out of this world. And he wrote some amazing songs, especially on the “Thriller” album.

    All the tunes you highlighted are top notch. They still sound great today, almost 35 years after they were released. In addition to these songs, I like the duet with Paul McCartney, “The Girl Is Mine” (though McCartney may have mixed feelings about it!) and the closer, “The Lady In My Life.”

    Between these tracks and the songs you noted, it’s pretty much the entire freaking album! Thanks for reminding me of it. I think I’m gonna give a spin!

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    1. Yeah, and I could just as easily have put “Beat It” in the post. That’s a terrific song. I like VH’s solo. Not only was this album groundbreaking in its music, it also helped break down racial barriers between R&B and rock. “Walk This Way” with Run-D.M.C and Aerosmith did the same with rock and hip hop just a few years later.

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  3. Interesting post. I can’t say I’ve every enjoyed Jackson’s music but there’s no denying the dominance he had over music and MTV during that period – perhaps that’s one of the things that made it a lot of ‘meh’ for me, especially when coupled with the ‘personal probelms’ you mentioned.

    Maybe interesting tidbit: To hear EVH tell of Beat It (I don’t think I’ve ever touched on Van Halen on my blog) it was Quincy Jones that asked him if he wanted to play on it and EVH actually rearranged the song as there were no chord changes in the part he was to solo over. He took no money for it as it was “20 minutes out of my life”- but the rest of the band held it against him as Jackson’s album and single kept theirs off the top of the charts.

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    1. My own ‘Jackson progression’ is interesting. I was very much done with the teen bands when they came around. But their first song, ‘I Want You Back’ is great and I even blogged about it. From there, pretty much hit or miss for me. Liked one here, one there, certainly not a band I’d buy but I’d sometimes listen to on the radio. When Michael did ‘Off the Wall’ I didn’t even know it was out. It was disco-y and we were well into the new wave era. When ‘Thriller’ hit, the album was inescapable. Between the radio and MTV, we were inundated. But it was the first (and, I think) last time I really liked any Jackson anything in years.

      But I wanna say this – Michael did some disco and that stuff in the late ’70’s, to be polite, a genre I have little time for. But so did the Grateful Dead, The Who, and the Stones. So everybody, to some extent, capitulated back then. But Michael was, at heart, an R&B guy. (The Jacksons performed at the Apollo and won.) Take away the flash and that’s what he was.

      Too bad EVH didn’t ask for royalties. He’d still be pulling them in. As to Van Halen the band, I haven’t written about them either but I definitely will. The band is fun and Eddie is far too significant a guitar player for me not to write about. (Although that said, he’s not always to my taste.)

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      1. When Rock Goes Disco is a dodgy story waiting to be told. I seem to recall Keith having some expectedly craggy take on Mick’s disco jollies in Life.

        Van Halen…. it’s an interesting one. COMPLETELY ignored by me for a long time – with the obvious exception of the inescapable ‘Jump’. I am fascinated by the VH saga now especially as it’s still going on. I know I sit on the Hagar side of the fence – Sammy seems like a lovely chap whereas Roth seems like a complete knobhead. There’s something very strange about EVH’s playing and songs that I can’t quite put my finger on (pardon the pun), perhaps because I’ve no technical understanding but as amazing a player as he is there seems to be a lot of riff but no melody, does that make sense? Like the riffs and overflowing ideas never actually resolve.

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        1. Yeah, Keef was amused by Mick’s disco/Bianca/star flirtation. He also admitted ‘Miss You’ was a disco song – but a good one! Yeah, Keef but it ain’t fucking Robert Johnson is it?

          As to Eddie, here’s my take: I imagine myself listening to a speaker and that speaker’s words are mellifluous and his use of language fits tradition. Then the next speaker gets up and talks like he’s from Mars. I don’t get his language, I couldn’t possibly duplicate it – and yet there’s something oddly compelling about it.

          The first speaker is Eric Clapton; the second Eddie Van Halen. So that’s my short take on it. Eddie IS all flash and technique – but what flash and technique! He made guitarists who were (guilty!) trafficking in blues cliches at the very least think about it.

          Note – Eddie’s first favorite solo was Clapton’s in “Crossroads” which he can still play note-for-note. (I will here brag that I can too.) And so he and Brian May got together and recorded some blues for EC. Clapton basically said it’s nice but it ain’t blues. Brian May apart, Eddie knows the notes of blues but he never got the feel.

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        2. One other thing -‘Jump’ might have been inescapable there but it was far from the only Van Halen song that was popular here and not really even all that representative of their sound. You want a (for me?) great, great VH song? ‘Hot for Teacher.’ Brother Alex’s drumming is stunning and the whole song showcases them well. (Even your bad guy Roth.)

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        3. Hot for Teacher is strong. 1984 is chock full of em – Panama and Top Jimmy…. I have Best of Both Worlds on my iTunes but it’s the Hagar era I burned to disc for the car. Oddly my little boy keeps asking for “the power drill one” (Pound Cake) and insists that I lay it loud. I think Right Now is pure 90’s gold personally and I think EVH’s ability to find the right tone (the solo on Love Walks In) is just achingly good…

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  4. (Poor Michael getting pushed aside by Van Halen here!). I remember VH as being HUGE in the states in the late ’70s and early ’80s, from the ’77 debut ( with “Running With the Devil”) through the 1984 album. Eddie didn’t have the soul of the great ’60s blues guitar gods, but he was a master technician and incredibly influential on heavy metal guitar (for good or bad). “Knobhead” might be apropos for Roth, but I prefer his vocals to Hagar’s. I thought they were much more distinctive.

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    1. No worries about veering away from MJ. That’s how conversations flow in real life anyway. “I remember VH as being HUGE in the states in the late ’70s and early ’80s.” Right? You got it, Pete. They hit like a thunderbolt. That was the four right guys at the right time with the right sound. Love him or hate him, Eddie shook the guitar world up mightily. I was just trying to learn a little bit of his stuff the other day. Damned hard. I’m so invested in playing blues and jazz it would almost be like playing a new instrument. As to Roth, yeah, somewhat of a dickhead. But totally the right guy for that band.

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  5. Thriller and Billy Jean came along at a particularly bizarre and surreal time in my life. Nothing felt right or normal for me at the time and then along comes this weird album full of unfamiliar sounds and rhythms. Also, the visuals in the video for BJ which seemed kind of other-worldly back then didn’t help me connect at all.
    I remember you couldn’t go into a pub anywhere in the UK without hearing Billy Jean blaring out of the jukebox. And so that record is so entangled with what was happening in my own life at the time that I find it impossible to be objective about it. I know it’s good but it also seems bleak and disturbing on a lot of levels.
    Just a personal observation.

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    1. The funny (or not so funny) thing about this album is that there are several cuts that are both catchy and disturbing. Behind the scenes, Michael was still living at home and dealing with his control freak father and passive/aggressive mother. He was – by his own admission – lonely as hell, even at the height of his fame. (How many times have we heard that cliche?) He used to walk the streets alone at night. Adding all that in with his (totally missed childhood), media frenzy and his own general peculiarities, much of it starts to make sense. I’ll give him this credit – like many of the artists we enjoy, he didn’t turn away from the dark side, instead using it to fuel his music. What sometimes sounded candy-coated was in fact, a level of anger and frustration right below the surface. He is a classic case of what all too frequently happens to a child star. For the record, I have no personal memories of “Billie Jean” other than my wife saying, “Did he say Billie Jean is not my lover?” and “will MTV never stop playing this fucking record?”

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        1. Very interesting. I bought it with the intent of doing a series on Jackson 5/MJ. But I like my series to have two things: Interesting story, music I like. With the Jacksons, I definitely have the first one and (for me) not enough of the 2nd one. Of the Jackson hits, only a few are of interest to me. And Michael’s pre-Thriller output was disco-y. So I’m thinking, why don’t I just do a ‘Thriller’ post? I can tell some of the story and get behind the music. Jury is still out on whether or not to do the series.

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        2. You’re probably right. If I put anything even vaguely disco-y on my site, not only will the tectonic plates shift but my head will explode. Forty years of railing against it out the window. Hey, at least people can read the book if they want. In and of itself yet another cautionary tale of the perils of show biz.

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        1. I had to go watch that video. Couldn’t remember it. Now how could anyone think that a video where a woman is stalked by a group of guys and then hugs her stalker is inappropriate? 😀 Holy cow. I hope they don’t make something like that today. Was it only 35 years ago?

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