Michael Jackson’s Thriller album celebrates its 40th anniversary this week. It gave Jackson a cultural significance never before attained by a black American. The biggest selling album of both 1983 and 1984, 32 times Platinum and eight Grammys. it was, they said, the “beating pulse” of 1980s America.
It gets its re-issue as further stories of another singer’s bad behaviour continue to surface in the music press. The ‘can you separate the art from the artist?’ debate continues unabated. So much has happened in music in those forty years, and so much of that concerned Jackson himself.
In 1979, Jackson, by virtue of having been musically active and commercially successful prior to Johnny Rotten, should have been a shoe-in for a seat on the Bus to Oblivion. On top of that he had disco associations. He should have been doubly damned.
But he wasn’t. The shear magic of Off The Wall saw him issued with a lifelong Get Out of Jail card. Young punks proclaimed to like Sham 69, The Outcasts, Stiff Little Fingers and, then, as if to prove wide ranging tastes, Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall. The fact that Jackson, at 21, was younger than most of them, probably helped.
Jackson was as conflicted as they were. He was entering a period of extreme change. He was hungry for success, angry that established music papers wouldn’t put a black artist on its cover and determined to make them eat humble pie.
He was also the loneliest boy on the planet. He had only ever known fame and his fame had now vastly eclipsed that of his siblings. He was like an extreme version of Elvis. There was no one else on this earth had known a life like his.
By day he was hounded by obsessive fans, a fact that would inspire his hit Billie Jean. But by night he would walk the streets hoping to find someone to talk to. “It’s so hard to make friends,” he told people.
With Thriller he wanted to make an album where every song was a potential hit. He also wanted to be the biggest star on earth. His new manager achieved a $2 royalty on each album sold to assist him with this.
Four of the tracks, including Billie Jean, were written by Jackson by just singing them unaccompanied into a Dictaphone. Slightly later versions of these are presented on the 40th anniversary box set. The magic, the talent, drips from the speakers.
Producer Quincy Jones’s main problem with his protegee during the recording was trying to get him to stop practicing dance steps and concentrate on singing. Jackson was inventing his soon-to-be unveiled Moon Walk at this point.
Rod Temperton, who had written songs for Off The Wall, was also asked to write songs for this. One of those was called ‘Starlight’. It’s chorus goes, “It’s the starlight, the starlight, sun,” which, sadly, sounds more like he’s saying “it’s the starlight, son,” in a vaguely cockney way.
Quincy and Jackson weren’t Chas and Dave fans and said, “Rework that”. So he did. He changed it to Thriller. Quincy liked this and invited a friend of his wife, a man called Vincent Price to ham it up a bit with a spoken piece. This suggested a great video. The rest, as they say… The ‘Thriller’ video, released in December, 1983, became the most famous music video of all time and heralded in the age of the music video as a serious art form. The die was cast. Jackson would get what he wanted. He would become the most famous entertainer on earth.
That $2 a copy royalty on an album that would sell 72 million copies gave Jackson the kind of riches that made his earnings to date look like an hors d’oeuvre. The world of pet chimps, Neverland, vitiligo, children bandied over balconies and dreadful accusations of abuse awaited.
In the midst of all this a copy of Thriller found its way to our car stereo during long drives to the west of Ireland, The children were six and eight. Over a four-hour drive the music beguiled and becalmed. It seemed to cast a spell. They adored it.
I could hear where the charm lay. Jackson was a blindingly gifted vocalist. There is magic in that voice, a vulnerability, a keening emotion, childlike charm and wonder. It is Christmas morning in song.
There is light and there is shade here. It is complicated. But then, isn’t everything?
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