Too High To Get Over: Thriller Turns 40

Why Michael Jackson’s smash 1982 LP remains the biggest selling album of all time

Thriller ad for HMV (Image: eBay)

The mission was simple — craft every song as a hit single.

As it turned out, the lofty ambitions of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones were met. Thriller, released 40 years ago today, is the best-selling album of all-time, producing a whopping seven top ten singles.

How unprecedented was that? Before Thriller, no album had produced more than four. Only two other albums — Born in the USA and Rhythm Nation 1814 — would equal Thriller’s total in the pre-streaming era when fans actually had to buy the singles. 

It’s not as if Jackson was a stranger to success when he and Jones stepped into the studio in April, 1982. The Jackson 5’s first four singles topped the charts, part of a run of 21 Top 20 hits over ten years. Jackson had eight more such hits over that period, four off his first team-up with Jones — 1979’s Off The Wall.

Michael Jackson Thriller, Epic Records 1982

Jones was coming even more into his own as a producer before he met Jackson working on the tracks for the 1979 movie musical The Wiz. His work with the Brothers Johnson showed the sonic template Jackson would fill in later. Even before he entered the picture, Brothers Johnson classics like “I’ll Be Good To You”, “Get the Funk Out Ma Face” “Strawberry Letter 23” showed Jones was on to something with his production sound.

All told, the two worked on 30 songs, using a number of writers, before whittling it down to nine.

Four songs were written by Jackson. Three more came from Rod Temperton, who parlayed his success as lead songwriter for disco band Heatwave (who he’d played keyboards for) into a career as an outside songwriter. Singer James Ingram, who’d sung the hits “Just Once” and “One Hundred Ways” on Jones’ 1981 album The Dude, teamed up with Jones for another. The other song came from Toto’s Steve Porcaro and John Bettis, most known at that point for his part in writing a number of Carpenters hits. 

Thriller’s first hit was its weakest. Despite the presence of Paul McCartney, “The Girl Is Mine” is saccharine enough to cause unpleasant physical reactions. It’s not as sappy as McCartney’s misfire with Stevie Wonder the same year (“Ebony and Ivory”), but it’s never more than an a well-performed trifle designed for inoffensive Lite FM playlists, complete with the unbelievable spoken-word dialogue that’s supposed to be the pair “fighting” over a woman.

 

VIDEO: Michael Jackson “Billie Jean”

Second single “Billie Jean” upped the ante considerably. The darker paranoia began to seep in, inspired by a woman who’d slapped Jackson and his brothers with various paternity suits. The celebrity-vs.-stalker vibes carry their own menace, but it’s the music that lifted it to the stratosphere. Built off a strutting bass, it’s full of hooks, to the point where musical accents become memorable (like those strings in the chorus). Its tense funk remains one of the best singles he ever cut, boosted by its classic video and by Jackson’s iconic performance of the song, full of tight, fluid dancing, on the Motown 25 special.

As another aspect to Thriller’s goal of mass appeal,  Jones suggested Jackson write a rock song, a “Black My Sharona”, in his words. Jackson came back with the anti-gang, anti-violence “Beat It”, having the idea for the chorus and its harmonies first. Toto’s Steve Lukather handled the lead guitar riff, but a solo was needed.

Jones had the idea to give Eddie Van Halen a call. It took him three tries to convince Van Halen that it wasn’t a prank and he actually was Quincy Jones.

The guitarist did the solo as a favor (no fee or anything royalty-related). 

Van Halen was game, but also not thrilled with the section where he was asked to do the solo. He asked the engineer to rearrange the section so that he could start the solo in the key of E.

 

VIDEO: Michael Jackson “Beat It”

Van Halen came up with a pair of solos in 30 minutes. As he finished the second, Jackson arrived at the studio.

” I didn’t know how he would react to what I was doing. So I warned him before he listened. I said, ‘Look, I changed the middle section of your song,'” Van Halen told CNN in 2012. “Now in my mind, he’s either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he’s going to like it. And so he gave it a listen, and he turned to me and went, ‘Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song, and make it better.'”

Paving the way for future crossovers, it became one of the biggest-selling singles ever (over 11 million copies). As “Billie Jean” stood at No. 1, “Beat It” came in hot on its heels. The two songs were in the Top 10 together for a month in the spring of 1983, with only a one-week stint by Dexys Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen” keeping a run of 10 weeks for Jackson atop the singles chart from happening.

Michael Jackson on the cover of Interview Magazine (Image: Interview)

That success spurred Jackson’s label, CBS, to throw some justified muscle at MTV, which had been painfully and obviously slow to add Black artists into rotation. CBS head Walter Yetnikoff threatened to pull all CBS artists from the channel if they would continue refusing to play “Billie Jean”. 

Not that CBS was always all-in. Jackson paid for the “Beat It” video himself, shot around L.A’s Skid Row with both dancers and local gang members as extras. Any MTV reluctance over the video’s subject matter (MJ stops gang violence through dance! Gasp!) was quelled by “Billie Jean”‘s success and a desire not to have to find videos to fill the gaps left behind if they couldn’t use CBS-affiliated artists.

Starting the album with eventual fourth single “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was a canny choice, as it most closely resembles the material on Off The Wall.

 

VIDEO: Michael Jackson “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” 

It’s built off a percussive groove that resembles the one from People’s Choice’s 1975 hit “Do It Any Way You Wanna”, only sped up. It’s not the only cribbing Jacakson did, as the latter chant of “mama-say mama-sa ma-ma-coo-sa” is a virtual lift from Manu Dbango’s 1972 “Soul Makossa”.

There was later litigation. Jackson settled with Dbango, who received no songwriting credit, later receiving liner notes credit on Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music”, which sampled the Jackson hit.

In the hands of Jackson and his studio musicians, the influences get turned into in irresistable reminder that, all the “disco sucks” blather of the preceding years aside, dance music wasn’t going away in the ’80s, either.

“Human Nature” is the lushly intimate love ballad that appeared by happenstance. Steve Porcaro had stopped by his way to see his five-year-old daughter on the way to the mixing of Toto IV. His daughter had been hurt by a boy that day at school and asked her father why. As he tried to explain the boy’s actions as “human nature”, it hit him that there was a song there. That night, as the rest of the band mixed “Africa”, Porcaro went to the piano and recorded a demo version.

Michael Jackson bubblegum cards (Image: eBay)

Jones heard the demo by accident. He’d been asking David Paich, Toto’s other keyboard player, for songs. One day, Paich asked Porcaro, who was living with him at the time, to dub a couple of song ideas he’d been working on to a cassette tape.The only tape handy was the one Porcaro recorded  “Human Nature” on. So he quickly dubbed Paich’s demos on the other side, marking that side of the tape as the one to listen to.

But as fate would have it,he was listening to the demos on a player that would automatically play the other side without flipping the cassette over. There was “Human Nature”.  Jones immediately thought it had hit potential and brought in Bettis to rewrite the verses, keeping the song’s musical structure and chorus intact.

Jones had the title for “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”, but not the song. Various writers took a crack at it. Jackson and Greg Phillinganes came up with one that was nice enough, but not the tempo Jones wanted. Ingram’s demo was more to his liking. Jones suggested some changes, including the chant section (the “Na Na Na Na Na” parts coming from Jackson’s sisters Janet and LaToya).

 

AUDIO: Michael Jackson “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”

Whatever one thinks of the insecurities of an artist believing their multi-platinum (9 times over in the U.S. alone at this writing) album somehow wasn’t “respected” enough, it’s clear Jackson channeled that into his vocals, whether it’s the passion and anger elsewhere or the sheer fun he seems to be having on “P.Y.T.”

The title song’s placement in the middle of the album is an oddity, as it would have been a perfect closer.

A Temperton song, it had different working titles and none of the horror movie imagery. A version called “Starlight”, which appears on the recently released Thriller 40 along with other demos and remixes, likewise could have been a hit as a single on Off The Wall, which featured Temperton-penned hits “Rock With You” and “Off The Wall”, or the Jacksons’ 1980 album Triumph.

After considering other titles, including “Midnight Man”, Temperton came up with “Thriller”. After hearing Jackson sing the word a few times, Temperton, worried it was a bad title, realized otherwise. He came up with the lyrics in a few hours. He felt the song needed a speech of some kind at the end, but didn’t have an idea of what it would be, other than it would be cool to have an actor known for horror do it. 

Jones’ wife at the time, Peggy Lipton, knew Vincent Price, who was glad to do it. The idea was to have Price improvise his speech. The night before Jones called Temperton late, nervous that Price, who wasn’t used to appearing on pop music records, could have trouble with improv.

Temperton wasn’t able to start writing it until early the next afternoon, writing one verse waiting for a cab and two more on a taxi ride to the studio. His cab, arriving the same time as Price, went to the back.Temperton ran the words for the speech to a secretary to get them quickly photocopied. Price, who had to keep the speech in the required timing, needed only two takes to nail it. He seemed to be taking definite glee in helping Jackson go all-in on the theme, delivering lines like “the funk of 40,000 years” with particular relish.

The groove of the song is a reminder that Temperton had a knack for such things going back to Heatwave’s “Boogie Nights” and “The Groove Line.” Here, aided by Jackson’s committed performance, it avoids novelty territory. Instead, it was readymade for the dancefloor and, decades later, for flash mobs. The extended video’s premiere was an MTV event in the days before the network surgically removed music and became known for what feels like constant Ridiculousness marathons. 

It’s understandable that the two remaining songs, both Temperton compositions, were the non-singles. “Baby Be Mine” is serviceable enough with its bubbling bass, but frankly would have been better served as a song for someone else, say a woman to flip the lyrical pickup artist vibe on its head.

Instead of the title track, we get the slow “The Lady In My Life” as the closer. As great and fully committed as Jackson’s vocals are throughout Thriller, including here, this is a track that would have been better served being sung by someone like Teddy Pendergrass.

The non-singles could have been replaced some of the material that was cut. “Carousel”, written by Michael Sembello, was cut for “Human Nature”. It’s a nice slice of adult contemporary that could have fit, albeit with another pass at the lyrics. Jackson’s “Sunset Driver” might have been thought of as one disco song too many (complete with hi-hat), but it definitely makes the body move.

 

VIDEO: Michael Jackson “Thriller”

Thriller sold 70 million copies, its production style set to be copied throughout the decade. It may not have had the stereotypical booming ’80s drums, but its DNA was in so much R&B, pop and adult contemporary for years to come, sadly to sterile effect in lesser hands. For even longer, singers clearly viewed the album as a template for their whole aesthetic.

The massive success of Thriller turned out to be a case of “Be careful what you wish for” for the artist himself. Jackson’s 1987 Bad and 1991 Dangerous were both massive hits by any other standard. He almost tied his own record with six top 10 singles off the former with “Another Part of Me” stopping at 11. But even selling over 30 million copies of those two albums, they sold less combined than the once-in-a-lifetime level of Thriller.

And more to the point, the success created a level of celebrity that was trouble for Jackson. He’d been performing since he was six and in the spotlight since he was 11, but this was something else entirely.

That earlier insecurity manifested into ego as Jackson insisted on being called “The King of Pop”. It was a moniker of unintended irony when he was hospitalized after pyro caught his hair on fire during filming of a Pepsi commercial in 1984.

Jackson chased that “touch all bases” concept of Thriller to lesser success as his personal world became more hermetically sealed, a land where every move became tabloid fodder fed by predatory “journalists” and aided by bad decisions (thinking a chimpanzee should be a pet, dangerously dangling a baby off a balcony, the lyrics of “They Don’t Care About Us” being anti-semitic enough that it’s a surprise Ye hasn’t covered it yet). More and more, Jackson needed some other adults in charge to tell him “No” both in the studio and at Neverland Ranch.

Alternate Thriller artwork (Image: Legacy Recordings)

Jackson only recorded four studio albums in the 27 years after Thriller, before his 2009 death during preparations for a comeback series of concert residencies. He was killed by an overdose of the surgical anesthetic propofol given as a sleep aid by Jackson’s personal doctor, who had no training in how to administer it and ignored that it was never intended for such use in the first place.

Thriller stands, alongside Off The Wall, as capturing Jackson at his peak. They’re where he came into his own as an adult artist, full of an enthusiasm and command that, for the highlights yet to be heard, wouldn’t be the same again. Thriller’s spirit and chutzpah were enough to override its obvious sense of calculation, to the point where, 40 years later, it’s obvious why it was such a hit.

Mission accomplished.

 

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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love -- music . She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

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