On Dec. 1, 1982, Michael Jackson‘s Thriller arrived in stores, and it would prove to be a commercial and cultural juggernaut that very few artists have ever produced. Staffers Chris M. Junior, Michael Corby and Joe Belock revisit the album to commemorate its 25th anniversary.
Chris M. Junior: Nobody could have predicted Thriller‘s huge success, but by the early 1980s, Michael Jackson was poised to make a really good and potentially career-defining album. Off the Wall (1979) had set the stage and marked a new chapter in his career. Jackson was 24 at the time Thriller was released, but he was wise beyond his years, literally having grown up in the Motown family and learning a thing or two from the company’s ace musicians and songwriters. The same thing happened a decade earlier for Stevie Wonder.
Michael Corby: Your first thoughts when you reflect on Jackson’s Thriller tend to sway toward the frenzy that was created by the groundbreaking videos, the amazing television performances, the fashion trends, etc. But behind that wall of hysteria were the achievements: Seven of the album’s nine tracks became Top 10 pop singles. There are artists who cannot match that success on a greatest hits/best of compilation.
Joe Belock: Well, the first single from Thriller certainly didn’t signal to the world that a historic album was about to be released. The ultra-schmaltzy “The Girl Is Mine,” Jackson’s first duet with Paul McCartney, entered the Billboard Hot 100 in early November 1982 and was a huge smash, spending three weeks at No. 2, but artistically, not close to the level of what was soon to follow. Fortunately, this piece of easy-listening dreck quickly became an afterthought, dwarfed by the towering achievements on the rest of the album. With “The Girl Is Mine” still polluting the upper reaches of the charts, things changed rapidly with the “Billie Jean” single and — more importantly — video. Thriller-mania was on.
Junior: Like two other legendary, pop-culture defining albums, The Beatles‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Nirvana‘s Nevermind, Jackson’s Thriller isn’t clunker-free. “The Girl Is Mine” is an undeniable dud. But in “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” both of which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Jackson had two of the defining songs of the 1980s. And back in the day, kids of all ages honed their air-guitar chops to Eddie Van Halen‘s solo on “Beat It.”
Corby: Since its release, Thriller has become a cultural-defining albums. It was as much a racial cross-over album as it was musically. Before it became this blockbuster, it started off as just another Jackson album. “P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing)” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” are very solid tracks. While they are understandably overshadowed by the albums big three (“Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Thriller”), these two are as fresh-sounding now as they were then.
Belock: Good point about many tracks still sounding fresh today. I think a key reason for that is Jackson and co-producer Quincy Jones kept the synthesizers under control, balancing them with real instruments. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” has to be the funkiest song ever without real drums. But the horns on that track do not have that dated ’80s sound. In scanning the credits on the album sleeve for the first time in more than 20 years, there is one on several cuts that I don’t recall seeing on any other record: Synthesizer Arrangement. On some tracks, it goes to Rod Temperton (the composer of the title track); on other cuts it is Jackson himself. While just about every other established artist at that time was getting swallowed up by the new technology, Jackson embraced it but didn’t go overboard. It was a seamless transition. To pick up the discussion from High Fidelity, I’ll nominate “Wanna Be…” for the all-time Side 1, Track 1 list.
Junior: Thriller is both an album of its time and an album for all-time. The use of synthesizers was very much a contemporary move, but as Joe accurately pointed out, Jackson didn’t go crazy with them, and as a result they don’t dominate or make the album sound dated. And when you examine the rhythm components to a key song such as “Billie Jean” — a straight 4/4 drumbeat, with no fancy fills or excessive cymbal crashes, teamed with a movin’, groovin’ bass line — you’re talking about page one from the Motown playbook. Thriller ended up being a fantastic blend of fresh and familiar elements. Many artists have tried to do this, but only a handful have succeeded in terms of cultural impact and commercial success.
Corby: Chris is right in the fact that few have had the same degree of success following Jackson’s approach. The record industry has tried to copy the success of Thriller, whether it was banking that Jackson could make another classic or even trying to create another Michael Jackson. From Rockwell to Bobby Brown to Justin Timberlake to Chris Brown, they’ve all tried, but nothing will able to top its overall success and achievement. Maybe it’s no wonder MTV hasn’t been able to climb anywhere near as high as it did during Thriller-mania.
Belock: Of course, that list of Michael Jackson copycats eventually included Jackson himself when he got around to making the follow-up, Bad, which unintentionally lived up to its title by consisting of slicker, watered-down versions of the Thriller material. The only innovations Jackson had in him by 1987 were paranoia and self-indulgence (see: “Man in the Mirror,” “Bad” and “Dirty Diana”). It’s hard to imagine an across-the-board blockbuster like Thriller happening today with fragmented audiences, no record stores and MTV turning itself into a nonentity, but listening back 25 years later, Thriller easily earned its ubiquitous place in pop culture in 1982-84. Thriller‘s only failure appears to be losing out to Alice Cooper‘s Welcome to My Nightmare as the best album featuring Vincent Price.
* A new edition of Thriller — featuring remixes by Kanye West, Akon and will.i.am, plus rare/unreleased material and a bonus DVD — is due Feb. 12 via Epic/Legacy.