I’ve decided that I want to tackle the monster of all albums: Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I cannot emphasize enough to my younger readers how significant this album was and continues to be to this day. There’s really pre-Thriller days, and the post-Thriller days that we continue to be in.
In 1978, Michael had planted the seeds in fertile ground for his solo career, when he and his brothers, minus Jermaine who remained at Motown for marital reasons, released their dance classic album, Destiny. The big song was the dance floor workout “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground”. That song, as well as the rest of the strongest songs on that album were written by Michael.
Toward the end of 1979, Michael unleashed what we all thought was masterpiece, Off the Wall. That album had FOUR Top 10 songs: “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, “Rock with You”, “She’s Out of My Life” (“Tito get me a tissue.”) and “Off the Wall”. The man proved that disco was never going out of style, but let’s call it dance music now. Whatever you call it, the stuff was primo!
Once Michael had his first brush with mega-stardom during the Off the Wall-period, the brothers decided, or was it their father Joe, they wanted a little Michael magic a full Jacksons album. So, in 1980, the brothers released what was thought to be their last album with Michael called Triumph. Though the album was successful, it was not solo Michael successful. Everyone knew that Michael had saved his best stuff for his solo album. But, that album did spawn a couple of hits: “Lovely One”, “Can You Feel It” and “This Place Hotel”.
By the time Thriller was released in the Fall of 1982, Michael’s place on the mantle of rock, soul and pop was starting to be challenged by a purple-clad whiz kid from Minneapolis named Prince. Prince was able to play anything, in addition to sing and dance like Michael. Michael obviously took notes to what his Purple Highness was creating between the years of 1979 and 1981, because Thriller definitely reflected that influence.
Thriller got off to a very inauspicious start, as a very high profile duet yet very saccharine-sounding single was released first. Michael teamed up with Paul McCartney for the silly “The Girl Is Mine”. Oh boy, not another “Ebony and Ivory” Paul! Geez! What’s happened man?!?! When I heard that song, I thought that there’s NO WAY I was going to buy that album.
Then, you started hearing rumors about the album. First, there’s some pretty tough dance numbers. Second, someone said Eddie Van Halen plays on a song (Take that Prince!). Finally, MTV began playing Prince’s and Michael’s videos. And, while Prince went the performance route, Michael decided to blow our minds.
On the radio, “Billie Jean” was a revelation. But, when you saw the video, it was a game-changer. Now, my generation actually had its own “I Want to Hand Your Hand”. Plus, Michael’s lyrics were his most personal to date. Gone was the awkward kid singing to a rat in “Ben”. Now, we are hearing about a young man being stalked by a young woman with a baby who claims its Michael’s kid! Wait sec! I thought Michael was asexual! Did I miss something? (I might have been on the right track, just the wrong lane). And, man, could you dance to it.But nothing prepared us for what he unveiled on that silly Dick Clark-produced TV show honoring the history of Motown music (Sure, Clark could pick the hits, but man, his shows about music sure were hokey! Case in point: all of his Rockin’ New Year’s Eve shows.). Still, when Micheal whipped out that Moonwalk move during his performance of “Billie Jean”, we had just witnessed the coronation of a new King. Little did we realize that it was the King of Pop.
The next single solidified Thriller’s importance in culture. “Beat It” took the dance beat with a rocking guitar solo that Prince had been perfecting in near oblivion to the public behind Eddie Van Halen’s blazing guitar solo. Now, metalheads, including Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth knew Eddie had whipped up greater solos in his sleep, but this one was attached to a great pop/dance song with yet another transcendent video. Now, Michael was in rarefied air that only Elvis Presley and The Beatles understood. From this point on, everything that was released from Thriller was guaranteed to be a Top 10 hit song.
Over the Summer of 1983, with The Police enjoying their greatest success of their career with Synchronicity, Thriller was still jumping off the shelves enough to eventually go back to number one after The Police album ran its course, as well as a quickie stay at #1 by the Flashdance soundtrack. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”, “P.Y.T.” and “Human Nature” carried the album’s momentum until the last earth-moving event came.
And, it came in the form of a half-hour masterpiece of a mini-musical film of the title song of the album, “Thriller”. That video is easily the greatest video of all-time. I literally witnessed frat parties and dance clubs stop to watch the playing of that video on MTV. MTV would have a countdown to the next time that video would be played. I could not believe what I was witnessing. People were taking a break from festive fellowship to watch this video. And, it was released during the time leading up to Halloween, which only increased its effectiveness.
Once, people were buying Thriller like no album before it. Or since. It happened at the right time, that no one, not even Michael could duplicate. And, he sure tried with his Bad album.
Unfortunately, this was the last time period during which Michael still looked human. Afterward, drug-addiction, skin-color disease and what appeared to be an addiction to plastic surgery all conspired to change his appearance for every successive album. The man was tortured by some demons to someone from afar. I find it a shame that his talent was extinguished so early in his life.
In conclusion, Thriller was a cultural milestone in time that will NEVER be repeated again, much like the success of Elvis and The Beatles. It was heady times. I only wish someone could do this nowadays. But, music just is not that important to young people today. So, raise a glass to Thriller. I just want it to outsell the Eagles’ first Greatest Hits album long term, but I doubt it will.