Celebrating…Thriller (40 years old today)

Thriller by Michael Jackson LP and cover.

Album: Thriller
Artist: Michael Jackson
Released 30 November 1982

The success of the biggest selling album of all time began three years earlier. Prior to 1979’s Off The Wall, Michael Jackson was most famous for being part of The Jacksons, even though over the course of the 1970s he had released four solo albums and 13 singles, including the US #1 international hit Ben. However, Off The Wall was Jackson’s first “adult” record, the 21-year-old keen to produce something grown up that sounded different from the music he was making with his brothers.

Off The Wall was released at the tail end of disco’s reign—ironically the final track is called Burn This Disco Down. While the record does reflect the musical times it also plays with soul, jazz, pop, and soft rock. The album was a huge success, giving Michael two more solo US #1’s (Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough and Rock With You) and two more top ten singles (Off The Wall and She’s Out of My Life) making him the first solo artist to produce four top tens from one album.

When building Thriller, Jackson chose again to work with his Off The Wall producer, Quincy Jones. Jackson also again chose to experiment with musical styles, aiming for even more “crossover” success. In 1982 the fledgling MTV and many pop radio stations had yet to fully embrace Black singers. Further, the backlash against disco had equally been a backlash against Black artists who had dominated the format. Even a star like Jackson found it hard to get traction in this market.

Thriller changed that, but it was not an easy process, especially getting played on television. President of CBS Records at the time Walter Yetnikoff was forced to warn MTV “I’m not going to give you any more videos and I’m going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact you don’t want to play music by a Black guy.”

Thriller’s success was also not immediate. Lead single The Girl is Mine was released on 18 October and peaked at #2. Its failure to reach the summit, not to mention the fact that it’s a slightly goofy mid-tempo song, caused some to doubt Thriller’s potential. This was compounded by the fact that when Thriller was released a month later it did not immediately top the charts.

Jackson knew exactly what he was doing, however. He had already worked with McCartney (Off The Wall’s Girlfriend was written by McCartney) and had seen the multi-audience success McCartney and Stevie Wonder achieved with another “silly” song—Ebony and Ivory. The Girl is Mine did exactly what it was intended to do—showcase Jackson to white listeners. Having gained their attention he unleashed Billie Jean upon everybody in January 1983 then, surprisingly, Beat It in February. Thriller hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 200 on 26 February after which it spent a total of 37 weeks in the top slot.

For an album that set so many chart records, that is so important in musical history, Thriller is relatively short, with only nine tracks. Jackson and Jones worked on three times that number but edited them down to the most commercial. They aimed for an album where every song was strong enough to be a single and in the end seven of Thriller’s tracks were released, all reaching the US Hot 100 Top 10, making Michael the first artist in history to achieve this feat. Only Bruce Springsteen and Michael’s sister Janet Jackson have since done the same, Janet going one better and scoring seven Top 5s from 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814.

Thriller made Michael Jackson red hot, the Summer blockbuster of musical artists. We Are The World would be his next major project. After that he was faced with the job of following the biggest selling album of all time. Just as Thriller built on Off The Wall, Jackson built on Thriller with 1987’s Bad. How do you follow up an album that set a new record for most top ten singles? By releasing an album that set a new record for the most #1 singles—five. Jackson wanted to start something, and he did.

Wanna Be Startin' Something - 45 single cover.

1. Wanna Be Startin’ Something (Writer: Michael Jackson)
Jackson was such a talented performer that it is easy to overlook his skills as a songwriter. He wrote four of Thriller’s songs including this one, something critics describe as “post-disco” but which is actually just “disco-funk” of the type Jackson had already perfected on his previous album. Of all the record this sounds the most like Off The Wall, which probably helped elevate it to album opener, Jackson thinking listeners would welcome something familiar. Also there is a certain logic to leading with a song that has “start” in the title.
Fun fact: The distinctive “mama-say, mama-sa, mama-ko-sa” refrain, and Startin’s bass-line, was lifted from Soul Makossa, a 1972 song by Manu Dibango.

2. Baby Be Mine (Writer: Rod Temperton)
The reason for the choice of Baby Be Mine as the second track becomes obvious as soon as it begins. It’s another slice of disco that feels as though it could have appeared on Off The Wall, Jackson again aiming to keep fans comfortable. Writer Temperton had penned some of Off The Wall’s best songs, including the title track and the mega-hit Rock With You, so he was a sensible choice to provide three songs for Thriller. While Baby Be Mine was one of the two tracks not released as a single it definitely achieved Jackson and Jones’ aim of being “single-worthy”.
Fun fact: While Thriller’s first single The Girl Is Mine was in the top 10 so was #1 single Come To Me by Patti Austin and James Ingram. Come To Me was written by…Rod Temperton.

The Girl is Mine - 45 single cover.

3. The Girl Is Mine (Writer: Michael Jackson)
Here is the first track that truly represented a departure from Off The Wall. Listening to Thriller in order, The Girl Is Mine comes as an easy-listening shock after the two opening disco tracks. It’s such a change of pace that it had to be intentional. Here Jackson was saying to the audience “you knew I could do disco, but I can also do this, with a Beatle!”. While it contains a rather anaemic spoken piece (“Paul, I think I told you, I’m a lover not a fighter.”) Jackson and McCartney somehow sell the entire low-key drama, transcending the corniness to create a middle of the road classic. The song peaked at #2 on the US Hot 100 but it spent three weeks there, stuck behind Maneater by Hall and Oates and then Down Under by Men At Work.
Fun fact: Jackson and McCartney finally reached #1 together with Say, Say, Say a song released after The Girl Is Mine but that was actually recorded first, in 1981.

Thriller - 45 single cover.

4. Thriller (Writer: Rod Temperton)
This appeared as the final song on Side A of the original LP and was also released as the album’s final single. Another disco tune, perhaps designed to provide comfort to listeners reeling from the previous track, Temperton says he was inspired by This Place Hotel, a song from The Jackson’s Triumph album. Michael himself wrote that track and you can hear the genesis of Thriller in it, especially since Hotel features some spooky sound effects. Temperton knew he wanted someone providing a narration at the end and it was Quincy Jones’ then wife Peggy Lipton who suggested Vincent Price.
Fun fact: The song was originally titled Starlight, with the chorus hook being “Give me some starlight, starlight sun.” Fortunately Temperton came up with an alternate title prompting a lyrical change to “Cause this is thriller, thriller tonight”.

Beat It - 45 single cover.

5. Beat It (Writer: Michael Jackson)
Looking to include some rock and roll on the record, Jackson composed Beat It. “I wanted to write a song, the type of song that I would buy if I were to buy a rock song…” The lyrics are about being brave in the face of hostility, said to refer to Jackson’s treatment at the hands of his father. “They told him, ‘Don’t you ever come around here. Don’t wanna see your face. You better disappear.’” The “him” of the title chooses to fight back not with force, but music—“Showin’ how funky strong is your fight”. The guitar solo is by Eddie Van Halen who recorded it free of charge.
Fun fact: The distinctive knock-knock-knock just prior to Van Halen’s solo was rumoured to be someone knocking on the door of the studio, but it’s actually Michael on a drum case.

Billie Jean - 45 single cover.

6. Billie Jean (Writer: Michael Jackson)
Unless you were there, it is impossible to describe the effect Billie Jean had upon popular culture. The song, and video, blanketed the world in early 1983, spending 7 weeks at #1 in the USA and becoming one of the first songs by a Black artist to be played on MTV. In fact, MTV was relatively new at this point and the Thriller juggernaut videos—Billie Jean, Beat It, and eventually Thriller—helped drive viewers to it, cementing it as a channel, a huge irony given how it had sought to exclude him.
Fun fact: Billie Jean was released on 2 January 1983. Beat It was released on 14 February, only six weeks later. Frank Dileo of Epic Records apparently convinced Jackson this was a good idea. Rather than cannibalising each other, as was the prevailing logic, the singles seemed to feed off one another. Moreover, this assault on the charts drove album sales—it was two weeks after Beat It’s release that Thriller finally hit #1.

Human Nature - 45 single cover.
7. Human Nature (Writers: Steve Porcaro, John Bettis)
 The last song to be selected for the album is a reflective smooth ballad, providing a quiet respite after the one-two punch of Beat It and Billie Jean. Member of Toto David Paich sent Quincy Jones a demo tape, hoping to get a song included on Thriller. Toto bandmate Steve Porcaro had included a throwaway lyric and melody snippet on the tape and it’s that snippet that drew interest from Jones and Jackson. They enlisted songwriter John Bettis to help and he and Porcaro finished the track in three days.
Fun fact

Human Nature ousted the song Carousel from Thriller. Carousel was co-written by Michael Sembello who would have his own US #1 hit in 1983 with Maniac.

PYT - 45 single cover.

8. P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) (Writers: James Ingram, Quincy Jones)
Along with The Girl Is Mine, P.Y.T. is often regarded as the weakest of the tracks on Thriller and, peaking at #10, it is the lowest charting single from the record. Described as “forgettable” and “fluff” by reviewers that’s precisely what it was intended to be, something light and frothy that would balance the three earlier tracks on Side B. The song includes the lyric “Tenderoni, you’ve got to be”, tenderoni being slang for a pretty young girl. This is possibly the first use of “tenderoni” in popular culture, pre-dating Bobby Brown’s famous use of it in 1988 in his song Roni.
Fun fact: The “pretty young things, repeat after me” back-up singers providing the “na na na” replies are Michael’s sisters, Janet and LaToya Jackson.

9. The Lady In My Life (Writer: Rod Temperton)
Thriller’s final track is another Temperton “post-disco” song, providing a velvety, sensual finish. As with Baby Be Mine, this song was not released as a single. But Baby Be Mine had actually featured on a single, as the B-side to Human Nature, meaning The Lady In My Life is unique on the album in appearing on none of Thriller’s single releases.
Fun fact: Lady In My Life has been covered by George Benson, Herb Alpert, Lou Rawls, Silk, Al B. Sure!, and Mýa (who gender swapped the lyrics to Man In My Life).