My mother loved Michael from his Motown days, and his Off The Wall hit when she was working in a hip Philly dance club, where I’m sure it was unavoidable. She passed that love to me via many, many spins of Thriller and its videos, which I obsessed over for years after its release.
I’ve always assumed that my love for MJ was a habit I learned from my mother, but having watched EV obsess over him for over a year now with no special coaching on my part I’m beginning to think it’s a genetic predisposition. Either that, or his voice was truly so magical that it can enrapture any child’s imagination, no matter when they first hear it.
For the second year in a row, I tried to teach EV the “Thriller” dance for Halloween. Last year it was more that I was trying to finally learn it and EV liked to shuffle around like a zombie. This year we both tried, but the appeal of a glowing rectangle held too much sway and EV spent more time watching the dance instructors than doing the dance. She only got as far as the head nods.
Now that I’m older and a musician, I can’t help but dissect “Thriller” in a different way.
There’s no possible way to overstate just how truly and deeply weird it was as a song on a Michael Jackson album, let alone as the title track. There’s really not anything else remotely campy on the LP, aside from perhaps “Beat It.”
In fact, the song started out its life not as “Thriller,” but as a Rod Temperton demo called “Starlight.” You can even listen to a completed version of the track with virtually the same production. Free of the creepy lyrics and the Vincent Price cameo, there’s nothing remotely ooky about the song. It sounds like more of the same disco/funk blend from Off the Wall. It’s a near neighbor to “Turn This Disco Out.”
Here’s Temperton and engineer Bruce Swedien discussing it for a truly great Telegraph oral history of the album (which will quickly disabuse you of any romantic notions about the song being an ode to classic horror or something like that):
Temperton: Originally, when I did my Thriller demo, I called it Starlight. Quincy said to me, ‘You managed to come up with a title for the last album, see what you can do for this album.’ I said, ‘Oh great,’ so I went back to the hotel, wrote two or three hundred titles, and came up with the title ‘Midnight Man’. The next morning, I woke up, and I just said this word… Something in my head just said, this is the title. You could visualise it on the top of the Billboard charts. You could see the merchandising for this one word, how it jumped off the page as ‘Thriller’.
Swedien: [Temperton is] more like a classical composer than a pop composer – when he arrives, nothing is left to chance, and it’s the same with his demos… When we were recording, Michael went home, stayed up all night, and memorised every one of [Rod Temperton’s] demos, never had a piece of paper in front of him. Can you believe that?
Yep, that’s the origin of one of the great dance tunes and music videos of all time – merchandising.
The other thing you might not know about “Thriller” is that it was the last of seven singles (out of only nine songs) released from Thriller. It wasn’t necessarily meant to be a single, but it was another way to give the album more legs after an entire year on the charts. (See, more merchandising.) Of course, Michael Jackson probably didn’t need to make a 14-minute music video and an hour-long documentary to flog a few more hundred thousand sales out of his album. Who knew both of which would become their own phenomenon almost as big as the album itself?!
(Probably Michael Jackson.)
The final thing that personally fascinates me about “Thriller” is that they missed releasing it for Halloween. It was first screened in November, and didn’t arrive into instant ubiquity on MTV until December 2nd – Christmastime! The actual record single wasn’t available until January.
Think about that for a moment. One of the biggest singles of all time with one of the best music videos of all time that became the most signature Halloween song of all time missed its ideal release window. Sure, Michael Jackson was the most popular musician in America at the time, but given that everything else in the history of this song was about merchandising, I’m sure there were some marketing folks losing their freaking minds over not releasing at Halloween.
My takeaway from all this? If you make the art good enough, it makes its own synergy.
And now, without further ado: “Thriller!”