Classic Album: Michael Jackson - Thriller

Defined Jackson’s growth from childhood prodigy to adult genius
Michael Jackson - Thriller
In 1982, the eyes of the world rested upon the Falklands War; Aston Villa won the European Cup; Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a live bat; The Jam disbanded; and Sony launched the first CD player. But in musical circles, the year will be remembered because of a 24 year-old Michael Jackson who was set to change the industry forever with the release of ‘Thriller’ – the follow up to ‘Off The Wall’ – that would define Jackson’s growth from childhood prodigy to adult genius and cement his place in the record books.

Despite Jackson’s aspirations for the album to be the biggest of all, no-one could have predicted that ‘Thriller’ was set to become the blueprint of the modern pop/R&B record and an album that would turn the recording industry on its head commercially (album sales were only about 2 million at best). It would consequently catapult the partnership of Jackson and legendary producer Quincy Jones alongside the successes of Lennon and McCartney. Jones wasn’t wrong when he said, “the ‘80’s were ours!”

Twenty-five years later, Thriller, according to Sony it has now sold 104 million copies worldwide (statistically that is the population of the UK and Spain each owning a copy), making it the world’s biggest-selling album of all time. Its intricately crafted blend of pop, rock and R&B/funk has surfaced in every corner of the world, and infiltrated every demographic; to quote Jackson himself, it epitomises a universal music that reaches “the lady who scrubs the toilets in Harlem to the farmer in Ireland.”

Thankfully, Jackson and Sony seem to have put reported differences on hold (he is no longer signed to the label) to celebrate the release of the landmark album with a re-issue that has seen the ‘Gloved One’ team up with some of today’s superstar producer’s including Black Eyed Peas’ Will I Am, Kanye West, Akon and Ne-Yo for a selection of remixes.

This timeless masterpiece combined everything we know of Michael Jackson the artist – the graceful and aggressive vocals, the infectious melodies, trademark dance moves, and an unparalleled interpretation of song via the pop video for which he has never really been given due credit.

With what he would call his answer to Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’, Jackson (overseen by Jones) laid down a collection of killer tunes and put his unmistakable stamp on the music industry, following 20 years of hard work, dedication and desire to be the number one artist in the world. This prodigious raw talent that had been carefully honed amongst musical dignitaries such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Gamble and Huff at grade school had finally graduated.

As on ‘Off The Wall’, the songwriting prowess of Heatwave’s Rod Temperton was employed, joining Jackson as the record’s chief songwriter. These giants would have friendly duals in an effort to challenge each other and nail the knockout tracks to Quincy’s production desk. Temperton’s title track met Jackson’s love of fantasy head on in one giant collision of funk (not forgetting Vincent Price’s ghoulish rap) that proved to be the album’s signature track; and with John Landis’ 15-minute video, Jackson would again break new ground by creating a whole new dimension in how the pop video was used. In fact sales of the album would triple the day it was first broadcast.

With the sultry ‘Lady In My Life’ Jackson exhibited a soulful majesty not heard since his Motown days and alongside the exuberant ‘Baby Be Mine’, Temperton confirmed himself as one of the greatest writers of our time.

Jackson’s songwriting skills are often overlooked – perhaps his singing and dancing prowess are to blame. But whilst ‘Thriller’ became the signature track, it was Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ that was the gem and subsequent highlight of his career so far. The song’s autobiographical tale of an obsessed fan who claimed he was the father of “one of her twins”, is cleverly expressed through the dark basslines and orchestration that creates a feeling of apprehension and danger. It goes down in the history books as one of the greatest dance records of all. Whether the ‘super-producers’ of today should even begin to reproduce it is a debate for another day – but at least Mark Ronson was not involved.

Jackson expressed his versatility as a writer and vocalist with ‘Beat It’, surpassing the drama of ‘This Place Hotel’ recorded with his brothers two years previously. Its unmistakeable menacing foghorn opening, coupled with Eddie Van Halen’s guitar, brought in legions of the most arduous of white rock fans (another demographic off the Jones/Jackson checklist!). Thanks to ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Beat It’, Jackson went on to single-handedly break down the invisible ‘White Artists Only’ doors at MTV and became the first black artist to appear on the channel – paving the way for his ’80s rival Prince and many others.

On listening to the joyous Swahili chants behind the stabbing baselines of ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ the aggressive lyrics Jackson spits out offer early insights into the inner turmoil the singer would expand on in later efforts. Whilst the teaming of Paul McCartney on ‘The Girl is Mine’ doesn’t have the effect that one would expect from two musical giants – proving to be a sweet and sickly affair – it is a taste soon forgotten thanks to the imaginative ‘Human Nature’ that rose to further heights in the early ’90s thanks to the heavily sampled ‘Right Here’ by SWV.

Reportedly currently in the studio creating a new album, his influence 25 years after ‘Thriller’ is unsurpassed in today’s pop/R&B climate. There can be no doubt that he has influenced Justin Timberlake, R Kelly, Beyonce and countless others. He did more than that; Michael Jackson redefined the meaning of the pop star and what a musician can accomplish. And ‘Thriller’ set the benchmark of what a pop album could achieve. With each listen of the album, the ear finds a new unheard dimension, even 25 years after its release. Indeed it is the nearest to perfection that the pop canon has to offer.

Perhaps blinded by questions over his private life, many people seem intent on writing Michael Jackson out of the history books.But no matter what you think, you cannot ignore what he and his album achieved – nothing less than world domination.

WORDS BY DAVID AARON

Tracklist

Released: 1st December 1982
Produced by: Quincy Jones

01. Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin
02. Baby Be Mine
03. The Girl Is Mine
04. Thriller
05. Beat It
06. Billie Jean
07. Human Nature
08. P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)
09. The Lady In My Life

1982: In The News
• The 1982 FIFA World Cup is held in Spain.
• Prince William is born.
• Knight Rider gets its debut screening.
• Channel 4 is launched.
• John Belushi dies aged 33 – the cause of death is 11 speedballs…

1982: The Albums
‘Avalon’ Roxy Music
‘Combat Rock’ The Clash
‘The Gift’ The Jam
‘The Hunter’ Blondie
‘Nebraska’ Bruce Springsteen

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