Thriller remains one of those generational milestones in my life. Its an album that millions upon millions of people around the world from the 60’s and 70’s generation can agree upon. Even people such as myself who experienced new while in the crib. And a day after its 35th anniversary, which my boyfriend reminded me of, still have a lot of questions to ask. Was its success based on its record breaking sales and marketing? And was it truly music that was so universal, everyone could love it? Now approaching its early middle years, Thriller probably stands somewhere in the middle of both questions.
One thing to understand was that Thriller came at a major crossroads of black music in America. There had of course been the post disco backlash/radio freeze out. And that also went along with a recession. Into that mix came MTV in 1981. With what turned out to be an anti black “just rock n’ roll” dog whistle policy to boot. Just over a month after Thriller came out, the trajectory of Michael Jackson’s career changed. And it took MTV right with it due to the insistence of Jackson’s record label. What’s most important is that as disco “died”, Michael Jackson himself faced a prospect that impacted Thriller deeply.
Michael Jackson was always encouraged to aim high career wise. And he pushed himself to do the same-eventually at the cost of his own life. His Epic label solo debut Off The Wall was a massive success in 1979 and 1980. At the same time, it was caught up in the segregated music chart system America still deals with. Jackson even boycotted the 1980 Grammy Awards due to the racialist pigeon holing. He was used to near instant crossover. And he wanted to make measures to have that happen. The story of Thriller therefore becomes the story of a songwriter and a band: Rod Temperton and Toto.
Toto were a band that epitomized the west coast AOR sound in the late 70’s/early 80’s. And after the release of their hugely successful Toto V (also in 1982), many of its members came into great demand as session musicians. Toto’s keyboardist Steve Porcoro, his drumming brother Jeff and its guitarist Steve Lukather were part of the Thriller sessions. In fact, Lukather played the lead melodic guitar on “Beat It”- itself an AOR number that became the first rock song on a Michael Jackson album. Of course, the song is best known for its solo from Eddie Van Halen on the bridge.
The most important element to Thriller’s sound was the late composer Rod Temperton. He was a member and creative mastermind of the disco era funk band Heatwave. His compositions were contemporary. And generally utilized musicians who worked with Thriller’s producer Quincy Jones. People such as Greg Phillinganes, Paulinho Da Costa and Jerry Hey. At the same time, Temperton compositions always included jazz/big band style melodic licks within the disco/funk/soul rhythmic settings of his sound. This gave Temperton’s sound a multi generational appeal.
Between Quincy Jones’s production acumen and the musicianship of the members of Toto and Rod Temperton’s crew, the stage for Thriller’s musicality was set. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” opens the album on a theatrically rhythmic note-with its round bass hook, hand claps and Manu Di Bango-like Ebonic chant on the bridge. “Baby Be Mine” has similar instrumentation. And is a classic, shiny Rod Temperton poppy funk number. It mixes swinging bass and guitar lick with both orchestral and grooving synthesizer riffs. And its one of my personal favorites on the album.
“The Girl Is Mine” is a slow swinging contemporary pop number. Its a duet with Paul McCartney-with him and Michael playfully vying for the attentions of one woman. The title song of the album originated as “Starlight Sun”. The lyrics to this song are a big ambiguous. But from what I came to understand, it had to do with an interracial romance. The lyrics were alter to focus more on a horror film performance send up. Musically, its actually a more polished variation on the sound of a jazzy funk Heatwave song called “The Big Guns” from the bands Current album, also from 1982.
“Billie Jean” is another strong performance send up, probably Jackson’s most iconic. And funky. The keyboards, the guitar and of course Louis Johnson’s iconic bass line all revolve around the beat of the song. My friend Henrique and I have had discussions about this song being so strong identified with MJ on the club scene, many dancers default to Michael Jackson dance moves when this song plays on the dance floor. The fact that the songs originally long intro almost hampered Thriller’s overall sound quality showcases to just what degree Jackson was in love with the song.
“Human Nature” is another of my favorites on the album. The rhythm is unusually hollow and reverbed. And the instrumentation is more electronic than what’s on most of Thriller. Best way to describe it would be a slightly jazzy boogie/electro ballad. “P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing)” started life as a beautiful Stevie Wonder like demo. Complete with completely different lyrics, melodies and another whole rhythmic approach. The released version is a lean boogie funk style number with a solid rhythm section, squiggly synth riffs and a hard rocking guitar from Steve Lukather on the bridge.
“The Lady In My Life” closes the album with one of two numbers on here that didn’t chart commercially. But it remains a Michael Jackson standard. Its the slowest ballad on the album. And everything from the Fender Rhodes piano, lead synth and bass line emphasize the melody. Its a showcase for Michael Jackson the singer. He’s doing call and response backups to himself here-with comes into play on the outro where he’s echoing his lead with his bass voice. The song truly showcases what as elastic vocal range MJ had. Its melody even inspired jazz musician Stanley Jordan to cover it several years later.
The writer Rickey Vincent described albums like Thriller as modern day pop standards. To a number of musicians and dance music/hip-hop DJ’s today, these songs have the same type of resonance that the music of Lerner & Lowe, Johnny Mercer, Nat King Cole and Irving Berlin did on past generations of musical artists. Thriller lives on both in physical media and in the online world. Its streamed and downloaded across every major internet platform available today. And the music of the album has gone beyond massive sales success to became part of late 20th/early 21st century Americana.
Through looking back on Thriller now, I think there’s an answer to at least one of my earlier questions about it. And again Henrique already helped verbalize it. None of the songs on Thriller were totally new musically-coming right out of the blue. What it did do was bring together the different strains of black American music (even the racially co-opted rock style) from pop, jazz, soul and pop together in one album. And do so with the best musicians, producers, engineers and an amazing performer at the mic. And in the end, that’s probably why Thriller continues to be an iconic musical work of art.