‘Thriller’ made Jackson the biggest pop star of his time

It’s May 16, 1983. The TV show Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever celebrates 25 years of Motown music. Marvin Gaye sings ‘What’s Going On’ and gives an impassioned speech about black music. The Temptations and The Four Tops have a music battle and Diana Ross is back on stage with The Supremes.

The song that Michael Jackson (1958-2009) plays is certainly not a Motown classic. He sings ‘Billie Jean’, a single from his latest long-playing record, released on November 30, 1982 Thriller about an obsessed woman who claims he is the father of her child. The video clip in which the singer dances on illuminated sidewalk tiles was already special. Live in front of some 47 million television viewers, Jackson during the bridge of the song has another sophisticated treat in store. It takes four counts at the most, but his buttery smooth, backward sliding dance steps to the irresistible beat (later: the moonwalk) take everyone’s breath away.

Half a year later, he surprises again. Jackson brings the title track of the same Thrilleralbum like an almost 14-minute long horror movie. In a red leather jacket, the singer first becomes a werewolf, later he is a dancing zombie in an intriguing group choreography among living corpses. “You know it’s thriller, thriller night. You’re fighting for your life inside a killer, thriller. Oh!”he sings.

The high-quality video of the unorthodox pop hit ‘Thriller’, a theatrical funk song with sound effects such as footsteps, howling wind, a creaking door and even a very sinister spoken part by Vincent Price, is a sensation. Music channel MTV sometimes plays the long song twice an hour.

Magical actually, how as a child of the eighties I still remember exactly how it felt when I received that record from the Sint. Michael Jackson lying on the fold-out cover, cool-glorious look in white suit with black zipper sweater. And oh yes, that tiger so casually on his knee. That horror in the aforementioned video clip by the way: terrifying.

Just one funky snap of the fingers Thriller suddenly four decades old.

A special double celebratory issue coming Friday will feature old forgotten Jackson demos and previously unreleased songs like “Who Do You Know.” At the end of this month, various fan events, including Tuschinski in Amsterdam, will screen a documentary by filmmaker and music historian Nelson George about the origins of Thriller.

How Jackson revitalized pop music with this album in the early eighties has often been described. How the immense sales buoyed up a recession-distressed industry. How Michael Jackson transformed from teen idol to biggest pop star of his time with this album. A modern performer, a role model for black pop music.

The sliding dance steps at ‘Billie Jean’, the moonwalktake everyone’s breath away

After Thriller followed the album Bath (1987). Legion of hit singles made Jackson even more popular if possible. There was a dark side to that status: the singer, surrounded by gossip, became increasingly alienated and lived in isolation on his estate Neverland – the place where he could remain a child. There were still tours and hits, but revelations about the eccentric artist dominated: he had a pigment disease, underwent facial operations, his father had loose hands, there was financial chaos, and there were wonderful engagements.

Allegations of child sexual abuse by the pop star were increasingly emphatic. They were not silent after his sudden death, a cardiac arrest, in 2009. The penetrating documentary Leaving Neverland (2019) resulted in a brief boycott of his music. But the question of whether we can still listen to Jackson’s music quickly evaporated.

The singer was a weirdo but he was never found guilty. So fans remained loyal, and old hits are uncancelled. See the exorbitantly high number of streams of ‘Billie Jean’: played more than 1 billion times on Spotify. And also see the celebration of Thriller 40 years.

Michael Jackson receives a gold record for ‘Thriller’ in London in 1983 Photo Terry Lott/Getty Images

8 reasons why ‘Thriller’ is still undisputedly top quality

1. Thriller is a ‘sonic statement’

Play Thriller and marvel at how the direct, transparent and accessible sound blasts from the speakers. Punchy mixing, a razor-sharp distinction between the instruments. Jackson wanted to make a ‘sonic statement’, blowing listeners away with extreme musicality. And that still works.

That didn’t happen right away, though. After a first listening session with the record label, Jackson and his producer Quincy Jones are disappointed with the still lukewarm enthusiasm. All songs are remixed and boiled down to perfect lengths with renowned technician Bruce Swedien. The final composition of the album was also a point. At the last minute ‘Beat It’, ‘PYT’ and ‘Human Nature’ were added anyway.

2. Thriller is a melting pot

It is still one of the most striking elements of Thriller: the mixing of musical styles. Jackson, with the help of producer, composer and arranger Quincy Jones, blurred all lines and extended R&B and soul to rock, stretched disco funk to pop. In two ballads and quite a few dance hits, the eighties sound from an arsenal of synthesizers dominates. It is now fully embraced again. And no Jones production without brass instruments: the sharp dots on the i.

3. Thriller is of a creepy perfection

With the illustrious words “Okay guys, we’re here to save the record industry from destruction”, Quincy Jones started the recordings. It was quite a promise. The producer and arranger, who since musicalfilm The Wizz and Michael Jackson’s solo debut Off The Wall had a fatherly bond with Jackson in 1979 (he called him “Smelly”), pushed the young singer to extremes in eight weeks. Beautiful, Jones could say after every take. But do you have any more at home?

Listen back to the vocals – online they can be found ‘isolated’ from instruments. You can hear the singer’s effort, the bendy voice, the vocal power, all those shrieks. Jackson, Jones and engineer Swedien re-recorded song after song over and over, well into the night. Jones would then pick out the ‘good’ parts – a phrase, a cry – which he welded together to almost clinical perfection.

4. Thriller has ‘killer songs’

Of the nine songs, ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Beat It’, ‘Wanna Be Startin Somethin’ and the title track ‘Thriller’ became instant classics. But also a disco song like ‘PYT (Pretty Young Thing)’ forces you to dance. Although there is no clip of it. (By the way, PYT was perhaps the first ‘afko’ I ever learned myself).

These are songs, each with its own unique look, which was further enhanced with imaginative, narrative video clips. Like the clip for ‘Beat It’, an R&B song with heavy hard rock elements that calls for violence to be avoided: rival gangs come together for a duel.

Striking: the very first single ‘The Girl Is Mine’ is the weakest song on the album. Called up on a whim, Jackson’s duet with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney seemed on paper to be an incredibly beautiful collaboration between two big names. ‘The Girl Is Mine’, however, turned into a sickly sweet duel for a girl (“I am a lover, not a fighter”). Unbelievable.

British songwriter Rod Temperton also provided a smoother and sweeter work with the interchangeable ‘The Lady Of My Life’ and the nice swinging ‘Baby Be Mine’. But of course it was his ‘Thriller’, initially called ‘Starlight’, that stood out. Funny: the title ‘Starlight’ was dropped because it had to be more ‘mysterious’, fitting Jackson’s new tough star persona.

Michael Jackson Photo Ron Galella/Getty Images

5. Thriller is a mountain of records

The story of Thriller, made for $750,000, is superlative upon superlative. You can’t escape the records. Eight Grammys. Platinum in sixteen countries. One of the best-selling albums of all time. According to record label Epic, now Sony-BMG, it was 104 million copies. The Guinness Book of World Records puts it at 67 million.

6. Thriller was the starting point of the music video market

The music video was a new phenomenon in the early 1980s and Jackson understood how it worked. Refined, advanced videos all emphasized his idiosyncratic, decisive dance art. They became promotional vehicles for his singles. The slick group choreographies were later often seen with artists.

7. Thriller is overflowing with musical inventions

During the recordings, between April and November in 1982 at the Westlake Recording Studios in Los Angeles, everything was done for unique sounds. For example, the signature beginning of ‘Thriller’ itself is the sound of a ‘shooting star’ – a falling back pitch in the synthesizer. And the echo phrase arose “don’t think twice” in “Billie Jean” due to Jackson singing through a cardboard pipe in the bathroom.

Another recognizable sound: the isolated bass drum. With literally a wool cover on the drum with a microphone in it, the very dry drum beat of ‘Billie Jean’ was created.

The best anecdote is of course Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo. Play what you want was the request for ‘Beat It. And he did – as a favor, of all things. Studio legend wants his solo to be so loud it blew up the monitor. The flames burst out. If you listen carefully, you will hear an accidentally recorded door knock from Van Halen just before the solo. According to producer Quincy Jones, it was “exactly what was missing”.

8. Thriller relies on big names

In addition to rock god Eddie Van Halen, almost the entire band Toto also played on this album, including guitarist Steve Lukather. The fact that cult actor Vincent Price lent his low voice to the spoken ‘Thriller’ intro – (“Darkness falls across the land…”) made the song even more ominous.

The ‘Human Nature’, which was later also widely covered in jazz (Miles Davis), was written by Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro. It was a comfort song for his daughter that accidentally ended up on a demo. Jackson said it was the “most beautiful melody he had ever heard.”

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