Thriller appraisal

summer 2005

This piece was published in the book 100 Albums that Changed Music (which its publishers seem to have forgotten existed - it's nowhere to be found on their website), and was edited and commissioned by Sean Egan. Thanks to Sean, I got to write about quite a few records I really care about but would otherwise probably never have got to tackle. The book is now out of print, meaning I'm contractually entitled to publish the material again, so if anyone's desperate to find out what I think (or, at any rate, thought in 2005) about Hank Williams Sings, Stand!, Talking Book or Born to Run, all you've got to do is ask.


Michael Jackson

Released: December 1982 US / December 1982 UK

Produced by: Brian Banks, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones

Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'/Baby Be Mine/The Girl Is Mine/Thriller/Beat It/Billie Jean/Human Nature/P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)/The Lady In My Life

His second collaboration with Quincy Jones, Thriller turned Michael Jackson's life upside down. Already one of the most famous figures in pop music, after a childhood either enriched or destroyed (depending on your perspective) by an abusive relationship with his father and years spent on the road, in the studio and in the public eye with his four brothers, Thriller took him to a level of superstardom that remains unequalled in the history of popular music. Among numerous other awards, the album garnered Jackson 14 Grammy nominations, and eight wins: a record he now shares with Santana. Reliable figures are impossible to obtain, but by most reckonings, Thriller is by some margin the biggest selling album of all time, the Guinness Book Of Records guesstimating its current sales at in excess of 51 million, though there is considerable scope for this to be considerably smaller than the true total. (It's worth bearing in mind that even at the height of his huckster powers, Colonel Tom Parker dared only dream of 50 million Elvis fans.) In the US it was, as of April 2005, certified a staggering 27 times platinum; it stayed in the Billboard top 10 for an entire year; seven tracks - there are only nine on the album - were released as singles, and all made the Billboard top 10. The word "godlike" is bandied around in pop writing as lazily as "genius": but Thriller gave Jackson the sort of numbers even some major religions don't have. Any impact or influence it may have had on music, music-making or, perhaps even more pivotally, on the marketing of music (the videos from Thriller shattered MTV's unofficial colour bar once and for all) is all just so much hot air: Thriller is important because nobody before or since ever smashed things so hard.

Recording began in April 1982, but the genesis of the record went back way earlier, to the first time Jones and Jackson worked together on The Wiz soundtrack album. The pair got along famously, in no small part because the experienced and gifted Jones, who had worked with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Aretha Franklin, was able to respond to the growing former child star, with his need to find self-expression contained within an uncertainty about saying it, as both equal and mentor. Jackson had to demand that his label, Epic, sanction Jones as producer for his 1979 album, Off the Wall: the suits were concerned that the veteran, with his background in jazz only recently augmented by producing platinum dance hits for the Brothers Johnson, would provide Michael with a sound out of step with the disco era. Instead, Jones and the team he dubbed "the Killer Q Posse" - the songwriter and former Heatwave member Rod Temperton, engineer Bruce Swedien, keyboard virtuoso Greg Phillinganes, trumpet player Jerry Hey, Brothers Johnson bassist Louis Johnson, drummer John Robinson and percussionist Paolinho Da Costa - fashioned a discofied masterpiece, probably Thriller's better in terms of overall quality, a record that sold ten million copies in quick time and became the biggest-selling album by a black artist. 

In the middle of the sessions for Thriller, Jackson and Jones found themselves diverted by an offer from Stephen Spielberg to write and record a song for an album to tie in to his film E.T.. What initially began as a small side-project soon mushroomed, with disastrous consequences: clearance for Jackson to appear on the record - which would be released by MCA, the record label associated with Universal, the studio Spielberg was making the film for - had not been obtained, causing legal chaos, and the filmmaker was now asking for more than the initially requested one track. The logjam was eventually broken, though Jones and Spielberg fell out for a year, and the financial settlement excluded payment for Michael or Quincy. The drama had also shaved all but two months off the time frame for making the already pressured follow-up to Off the Wall.

Temperton and Jones went through an astounding number of songs to find suitable material - Jones maintains the number of ideas considered was in excess of 600 - and Jackson was writing too. Under pressure of the imminent deadline, and in response to Jones's urging him to try his hand at a pop-rock song in the vein of The Knack's My Sharona, Jackson reluctantly played Jones a demo. The song, Beat It, not only made the album, it almost caused a conflagration in the studio, Swedien noticing flames coming out of a studio speaker during one of Michael's vocal takes. Eddie Van Halen supplied a guitar solo, during final desperate sessions where three studios were working simultaneously: in one, the hirsute rock star was holed up with a stack of amplifiers and a crate of beer; in another, Jackson was singing the vocals to Billie Jean through long cardboard tubes.

The desperation had been ratcheted up several notches by the release of the album's first single, The Girl Is Mine, and the Killer Qs did not put the album to bed until the last possible moment, 9am on deadline day. Three hours later they were distraught to discover that the mastered record sounded, in Jones's estimation, like "24-karat sonic doo-doo". They had over-filled the vinyl on the album's two sides, and had to hastily edit several tracks - excising chunks from Billie Jean's intro, and an entire verse from The Lady In My Life. It worked.

The story and the sales figures are good enough, but nobody would remember Thriller had the music not been of the strength it is. This is a record with something for everyone - from the taut, confrontational funk of the opener, Wanna Be Startin' Somethin', through Beat It's rock dalliances, and the Paul McCartney duet The Girl Is Mine; the lengthy title track, written by Temperton to his Boogie Nights template, and featuring a rap by Vincent Price; and, perhaps best of all, Billie Jean. According to Jones' autobiography, Michael claimed that the inspiration for Billie Jean's lyric came after a female fan had broken in to his garden and subsequently tried to sue him for maintenance payments for a child. Jones reputedly thought the title should be altered - because people might think the song was about tennis player Billie Jean King. None of which bothered the record buying public, or altered this record's triumphant place in pop history.

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