Jackson and Jones continued tinkering through the fall of 1982, which meant that Epic had to move back the album's release date a number of times. The day before Jones finally turned in "Thriller," after he and Jackson had spent all night working, he realized that there was too much music on each side. "You need big, fat grooves to make it happen on vinyl," he says. "We had 24-27 minutes, which makes the sound smaller. We had to get it down to 19-20 minutes."
So Jones and Jackson pared down the intro to "Billie Jean," removed a verse from "The Lady in My Life" and finished the project. Or so Epic thought. At the very last minute, still unhappy with some aspects of the album's sound, they remixed the entire album over a marathon weekend, says Ron McCarrell, VP of marketing for Epic/Portrait/CBS Associated Labels.
Epic executives were eager to release "Thriller" in time for Christmas 1982. As Jones and Jackson fiddled, they decided to wait until January 1983. Then the label's hand was forced when the album leaked to radio and stations began playing multiple cuts.
"We knew we had a huge seller on our hands because 'Off the Wall' had sold 6 or 7 million copies and we wanted to handle it carefully," McCarrell says. But once stations put songs in heavy rotation, Epic senior VP/GM Don Dempsey decided to rush-release it on Nov. 30, 1982.
Dempsey held a meeting with several department heads, including international executives. Following the global success of "Off the Wall," CBS' international offices were clamoring for the company to give "Thriller" a simultaneous worldwide launch instead of staggering the release as usual. The traditional way meant "the [exporters] could buy an album at U.S. prices, ship it over [to Europe] and our local offices in those markets would really get hurt badly on an international hit," Beck says. Since the dollar was weak at the time, the album would have been especially easy prey for exporters.
"Imports and exports were an issue before but never to the degree it was with Michael," McCarrell says. "He was the first international superstar on that level."
After making sure that CBS could get manufacturing plants around the world the materials they needed, Epic decided to give "Thriller" a simultaneous worldwide launch. "After 'Thriller,' it became standard practice," Beck says.
"Thriller" entered the Billboard 200 at No. 11 during the week ending Dec. 25, 1982. After 10 weeks on the chart, it knocked Men at Work's "Business as Usual" out of the top spot and stayed at No. 1 for 37 nonconsecutive weeks. The first single, "The Girl Is Mine," reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, but didn't even hint at the hit Epic had on its hands. Then the fun began.
Epic's head of promotion, Frank Dileo (who grew so close to Jackson during "Thriller" that he later became his manager), decided to release two singles concurrently in order to broaden the album's audience. As the second single, "Billie Jean," climbed the pop chart, Epic released "Beat It," a driving rock track anchored by a searing Eddie Van Halen guitar solo.
"Frank said, 'Let's release another single; we'll blow their minds,' " McCarrell says. It did. During the week of Dec. 18, 1982, "Beat It" was one of Billboard's top three adds at rock radio alongside cuts by Sammy Hagar and Bob Seger. The song peaked at No. 14 on Billboard's nascent rock tracks chart.
Former rock radio consultant Lee Abrams-now chief innovation officer at Tribune Co.-describes the period as "kind of a confusing time" for album-oriented rock. The format was at a crossroads, caught between AOR stalwarts like Led Zeppelin and new groups like the Police and U2.
"AOR had to start thinking more," Abrams says, in order to remain relevant. "A few stations tried 'Beat It' and the reaction was fantastic. It generated requests and opened a lot of programmers' eyes. AOR was accepting someone not in the traditional club, but the timeless, universal quality of the song couldn't be avoided."