Michael Jackson’s album, Thriller, was released 30 years ago this week, and his second musical effort became the best-selling album of all time, selling over 70 million copies… and still counting.
But Thriller came before Jackson’s life became a madcap and flustered soap opera; way before his troubles descended into ignominy and eventual death three years ago. \
The album, Jackson’s greatest and most definitive compilation, achieved for him what no other release has ever done for an artiste in the history of music — and there have been towering greats, including, give or take, four global superstars: The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Bob Marley and MJ himself.
The rest arrived, but were not there to stay. Or did not have the staying power of the aforementioned fab four.
Before Thriller, though “The Gloved One” was an apple-cheeked, prodigious adolescent from Gary Indiana.
But after Thriller, his second album since Off the Wall, Jackson became bigger than Elvis, bigger than The Beatles, bigger than any recording artiste. His success redefined the very meaning of “success”.
Any artiste would thank his/her lucky stars if an album goes platinum, meaning it sells over 750,000 to a million copies. Thriller went platinum 70 times over, making Michael Jackson bigger than pop music itself.
But Jackson’s greatest triumph was also his greatest tragedy: The success isolated him from the ordinary human contact he so craved.
He became a financial prey to hanger’s-on, leading to his gradual eccentric descent. He started sleeping in hyperbolic oxygen chambers, procuring plastic surgeries that turned him from a cute black boy into an old white woman, and then came the sordid child molestation scandals that so stained what remained of his reputation.
That aside, this Friday marks the 30th anniversary of Thriller, which still sells over 150,000 copies annually, according to Billboard.
So, what made ‘Thriller’ so successful?
Well, a combination of factors. Time magazine reported that the music industry, at the time, was floundering among the “ruins of punk and the chic regions of synthesiser pop”. It needed a messiah.
And Thriller it was.
The album’s choice of sonic imagination raised the bar in a way not done since. Thriller banked on Jackson’s capacity for rhythm and melody, and boldly blended the synthetic elasticity of pop, heavy rock and syncopated thrust of rhythm and blues.
Thriller boasted grassy orchestrations, chorals, world music beats and harmonised structures of jazz that made the album the “last blast of the smiley face of pop music”. Throw in the then novel entry of music video, and you understand why the album was unstoppable.
Over the next three years to 1985, seven of its nine tracks were released as singles, chalking up 20 million, notes Billboard.
The album had four cornerstone anchor tracks: The blistering Beat It, the sublime ballad Human Nature, the dance sizzler Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ (which Kenyans turned into the official song of the mid ’80s break-dance craze), and Thriller, made more popular by its accompanying horror-themed video.
Thriller, as a music album, was perfection made manifest. Albums take, on average, six to eight months to produce. Thriller took two years of hark studio work, with Billie Jean — which featured a solo guitar by Dutch maestro Eddie Van Halen — being mixed 91 times. Even then, producer Quincy Jones wasn’t satisfied, and only included it at Jackson’s insistence, MJ recalls in Moonwalk, his bio.
Other tracks in Thriller included The Girl is Mine, a pasty, syrupy duet with former Beatle Paul McCartney. It was the only sugary song, the rest were moodily themed pop numbers.
At the crest of the wave was Thriller, with its long, sinuous bass-line intro, a paranoiac, hiccupping vocal, creeping disco loop and sonic exploration of fear that made it a “crossover dream that was both timely and out of its time”.
The Thriller video made Jackson the James Bond of music: sexy, suave and licensed to dance. The New York Times noted that, by the end of ’83, Thriller “had become a nine-track stimulus package for the entire music business”.
The video, the first to sell more than a million copies, catapulted Jackson into unprecedented pop stardom — completely at variance with his later image of diffidence and psychosis.
But it wasn’t Jackson’s single-handed effort. There was Rod Temperton, the now 65-year-old British songwriter and keyboard ace. He wrote three tracks, including Thriller itself. Jackson wrote four. Then there was legendary producer Quincy Jones, now 79, ready to record an album whose “every song was a killer”.
Yet, Jackson in Moonwalk laments, “Thriller sounded so crappy to me that it brought tears to my eyes”. But in the words of the Daily Telegraph’s Neil McCormick, Thriller “is not a soft and cuddly album; it is deeply strange and affecting, ripe and emotionally explosive. It needed a confluence of factors to turn Thriller into a global sensation”.
“Jackson was a performer who had been honing his craft and was really ready as a dancer, singer and songwriter,” said Quincy Jones at the time. “The crest of video and Michael rode each other in.”
In May 1983, Motown was celebrating its 25th anniversary with an American TV special, where Jackson introduced the “Moonwalk” dance punctuated by static tiptoes at improbable angles.
Moonwalk sent Thriller to the top of the charts for a second year running. By 1984, the album had thrilled its way into the Guinness Book as the best-selling album of all time, where it has stayed ever since.
The choreographer, Vincent Paterson, who directed Jackson in several videos, recalled watching him rehearse a dance sequence for four hours in front of a mirror until it felt like second nature.
“That’s how he developed the moonwalk, working on it for days, if not weeks, until it was organic,” he said. “He took an idea that he had seen some street kids doing and perfected it.”
John Landis was another important figure in this thrilling pop tale. He directed the 14-minute Thriller horror video, with choreographed zombies performing with Jackson, who transforms both as a zombie and a monster cat.
The video, like the song, features a spoken-word performance by horror film veteran, Vincent Price, in what later became the most expensive video of its time.
It cost $500,000 (Sh40 million at current exchange rates), but sold 15 million copies, sending Jackson back to the charts, making him the poster boy of pop music who was to scoop all the world’s major music awards.
Michael Jackson, the “King of Pop” closed his gate via a heart attack occasioned by complications of drug overdose aged 50 in 2009.