‘Every song should be a killer.’ The menacing words Michael Jackson came up with forty years ago when he Thriller wanted to make with Quincy Jones, linger to this day. The record became the best-selling album of all time and immediately transformed the entire music industry. But how did that actually happen?
More than 70 million copies sold
Reached Platinum 34 times in the United States alone
Won eight Grammys, a record number
Sixth solo album by Michael Jackson
Shooting budget of $750,000
Spent 37 weeks non-stop on the US charts
Seven of the nine songs became singles
black or white? Michael Jackson broke down all racial boundaries
The success of Thriller cannot be measured solely by gargantuan sales. As Michael Jackson made his way into music history, Thriller a new benchmark for blockbusters. The record raised the bar for video quality, but also for how superstars market themselves.
The success of Thriller gave Jackson an unprecedented reputation. The cultural significance to every black American is unprecedented, but he was also a great hero in breaking racial barriers in popular music. Thriller was the lubricant for generations and colors.
The record earned Jackson regular airplay on MTV, but also led to a meeting with US President Ronald Reagan at the White House. Thriller was one of the first albums to use music videos as a promotional tool, bringing the record to white TV audiences in droves. The videos for ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Beat It’ and ‘Thriller’ are also considered today as the butter to consider music videos as a serious art form.
“Our whole idea was to make music for the masses and part of the big picture was to take the record company to a mass market,” said Ron Weisner a few years back. During Thriller he was Jackson’s co-manager. “If you were a black artist, you were put in a black music department. That meant the marketing campaign happened with an ad in it jet and Ebony. Our attitude with Jackson was let the public decide, don’t just present it on a black market.”
From the moment the pop and R&B promotion teams of record label Epic Records played the opening track ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ from the previous record, Off the Wall they knew they had a big chart hit on their hands. That single meant the unprecedented step of bringing singles to white and black radio stations at the same time to promote. Actually, ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ gave the impetus to Thriller.
The gluttony of the industry was fed
Thriller was the first major album release to happen simultaneously worldwide. And also the first record that took almost two years instead of the usual six or eight months. Even more, Thriller was too the first album to deliver seven singles to radio – more than double the usual figure.
Gradually redefined Thriller the expectations for blockbuster releases. Beginning in 1984, Columbia also released seven singles from Bruce Springsteen’s album Born in the USA, all of which entered the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100. Around the same time, Warner Bros. five singles from Purple Rain from Prince. Mercury purged seven singles Hysteria from Def Leppard, who all went on to hit the charts. All three albums eventually sold more than 10 million copies in the United States alone.
The industry’s gluttony was generously fueled by Thriller. In early 1984, when Epic Records executives presented their list of new releases at the CBS Records convention in Hawaii, they couldn’t resist adding to the success they already had. In between sales pitches for new albums, epic truck stock footage was shown worldwide, with a thundering voiceover announcing, “Here goes another load of albums from Michael Jacksons Thriller!”
Who The Wolf of Wall Street you’ve seen, don’t be surprised. All others, of course. Thriller gave a much-needed boost to the music business, which was suffering from its second slump in barely three years. At the time, Billboard reported that album sales had declined seriously between 1980 and 1982. After Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club and REO Speedwagon also delivered major blockbusters.
Disappointment leads to a new sound
Jackson and Quincy Jones’ working relationship mostly revolved around creativity, despite the success. “You don’t make records to say how many you’re going to sell,” Jones says today. “That is not in your control. You make something that touches you and hopefully touches someone else.” All told, they spent four months analyzing more than 700 demos. In the end they ended up with nine songs. On the final cut, four of those were replaced by “The Lady in My Life,” “PYT (Pretty Young Thing),” “Human Nature,” and “Beat It.”
What Jackson and Jones envisioned was to Thriller balance between R&B and pop, disco and rock, funk and ballads. “At one point we thought we were done,” remembers Greg Phillinganes, who played the keys on Off the Wall and Thriller. But Quincy Jones stopped him. Phillinganes: “We needed certain missing elements. Michael was quite disappointed with the record at the time, but that’s how we got extras like ‘Lady’ and ‘Beat It’.”
That last song came about with Eddie Van Halen because they wanted to make a black rock ‘n’ roll song, says Jones. “’My Sharona’ by The Knack was number one in the charts at the time and we wanted to survive the disco hype at the same time. We actually wanted to find a way to transcend all that. With God’s blessing we climbed out of that valley with a world number.”
MTV was not the only engine, but an important one
Screen time was what changed the course of Jackson’s career. On May 16, 1983, NBC Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever on which he performed an instantly iconic rendition of “Billie Jean.” His sequined glove and James Brown-inspired moonwalk brought fame to eternity. The next day, Fred Astaire called Jackson to congratulate him. “That was staggering,” Weisner recalls. “Everyone sometimes forgets there were so many other Motown legends on that show. The next day everyone was just talking about Michael.”
By that time the demand for Thriller got so big that Weisner said factories had slowed down the pressing of other albums to make more copies of them. And that was before the video for the title track itself. The videos for “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” catapulted Jackson to stardom, but it was the fourteen-minute clip for “Thriller” that became a pop culture sensation. It was made for the sum of 1 million dollars and canned by a film director, John Landis.
“Most of the videos we made with $30,000 or $40,000,” record peeps recalled at the time. Most executives reportedly fell off their seats when they saw the budget. MTV eventually paid more than $1 million for the exclusive rights to broadcast the clip. It was the first time it paid a label for a clip. Of course they were right on target: Jackson’s label boss, Walter Yetnikoff, once threatened to publicly denounce MTV as big racists for not bringing ‘Billie Jean’.
‘Thriller’ jeopardized the milking of radio singles
As essential as MTV was to the success of Thriller, the radio was even more important. In front of Thriller came out, record companies promoted only three or four singles for most albums. The label also did not want to release singles unless they had a chance to reach the top ten.
As long as the promo guys thought that was possible, songs from the record kept appearing. In the end it became seven, of the nine songs. Unseen. They also all ended up in the top ten of the American charts. Even more notably, between the release of ‘PYT (Pretty Young Thing)’ and ‘Thriller’, sister label Columbia released ‘Say, Say, Say’, another duet between Jackson and McCartney. It immediately hit number one.
Finally stood Thriller 122 weeks on the Billboard 200, leading record label Epic to one of its greatest periods of prosperity. Given the decline in album sales and the rise of digital downloads, it is unlikely that another album will ever again dominate radio, video or the collective consciousness as Thriller did.
The influence of this record remains unparalleled
Dawn FM of The Weeknd is clearly through Thriller inspired. “Michael is someone I admire,” the Canadian artist told The Weeknd GQ. “He’s not a real person, you know? When I started music, I aspired to be him.” He’s not alone: from Bent Van Looy who swears by ‘Human Nature’ to hard rock bands and hip-hop acts who envy the buttery smooth beats, many contemporary artists and producers try to capture the sound of Thriller copy or match.
Although that is not given to many mortal people. “Before ‘Beat It’ we worked five days and nights without sleeping. It got so bad that at one point the studio speakers overheated and caught fire,” recalled Quincy Jones in the magazine Rollingstone. Since then it has been a dilemma that the magazine sometimes presents to its interviewees. But no artist who wants to venture into that possible death experience.