Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' At 30: Classic Track-By-Track Review
Thirty years ago, Michael Jackson unleashed nine tracks that thrilled the world. Here's our look back at each song on his iconic 1982 album, "Thriller."
• How 'Thriller' Changed Music
• PHOTOS: Michael Jackson's Life
• MJ's Biggest Chart Thrills
Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was an album born of outsized ambitions. Having come into his own with the multiplatinum-selling "Off the Wall," Jackson wanted to make a record that would turn him into the biggest star in the world. That's not asking for too much, is it? But here's the incredible part: That's exactly what happened. And it began with the album's release on November 30, 1982 -- 30 years ago.
Helmed by producer Quincy Jones, Thriller was an album built for across-the-board acceptance. The tracks appealed variously to nearly every radio format - pop, R&B, adult-contemporary, and even rock. More importantly, its remarkable video clips - for "Billie Jean," "Beat It" and "Thriller" - helped break down racial and genre-based barriers at MTV, transforming the channel into a juggernaut of not just music video, but of fashion and marketing; and transforming the music industry as well.
The album's sales figures and performance on the Billboard charts are staggering.
"Thriller" is the best-selling studio album in U.S. history with 29 million sold, according to the RIAA. It is locked in a tie with the Eagles' collection "Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 for the overall domestic title. [Worldwide, estimates range as high as 110 million albums sold.] On the Billboard charts, the album became the first to generate seven Hot 100 top 10s -- with "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" going to No. 1. The album spent the most weeks (37) atop the Billboard 200 of any album by a single artist.
At the Grammys in 1984, the album won seven awards, including album and record of the year ("Beat It"). Jackson and Jones actually won an eighth award, best recording for children, for "E.T. the Extra Terrestrial."
And the superlatives go on and on.
Sadly, the stunning success of "Thriller" may have laid the groundwork for Jackson's own long and very public undoing. Having topped everyone else's accomplishments, Jackson -- who was driven in ways unlike almost any other artist -- was unable to top his own, though he never really stopped trying. A psychological examination of Jackson is not the agenda for today, however. We're just here to revel in the amazing sights and sounds of the pop era's most truly popular work: "Thriller."
"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'"
"Thriller" may lean less on dance anthems than does its predecessor, 1979's "Off the Wall," but you'd never know it from the album's opening salvo, which is led by relentless, machine-driven rhythms, an elastic bassline and Jackson's insistent, almost angry, vocal performance. His self-penned lyrics about harmful gossip reveal a paranoid streak that would resurface on future albums, but here include the unique if bizarre self-assessment, "You're a vegetable/You're a buffet/They'll eat off you." The song's genius move, though, is the closing chant of "Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah," borrowed directly from Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa" (for which the parties later settled out of court). "Thriller"'s fourth single, "Wanna Be Startin' Somthin'" made it to No. 5 on the Hot 100.
"Baby Be Mine"
The album's second track is only one of two songs that was not released as a single. Written by Rod Temperton, it's a pleasant enough pop/R&B come-on, promising everlasting, magical love; but what's more at issue is getting the girl to whom it's addressed to "stay with me until the morning sun." Who hasn't heard that one before? Musically, "Baby Be Mine" is upbeat, danceable and punctuated by twittering keyboards and punchy horn fills.
"The Girl Is Mine"
The record's first single, "The Girl Is Mine" climbed to No. 2 on the Hot 100. Even though the song found Jackson squaring off lyrically with fellow pop titan Paul McCartney - the two were previously paired on "Say, Say, Say" and "The Man" (recorded before, but released after "Thriller," on Macca's "Pipes of Peace" album), their battle over the "doggone girl" is saccharine. No way these two buds are gonna let a babe get between them. Now, music publishing. . . that's another story.
Even before it became music video's defining moment, the audio track for "Thriller" was already a classic horror flick that played between your ears. A vivid monster-mash-up penned by Rod Temperton, the song features gruesome (but fun) lyrics, sound effects of creepy footsteps, wolf howls and slamming doors, plus actor Vincent Price's indelible recitation. (Hearing him say "the funk of 40,000 years" is by itself worth the price of admission.) "Thriller" peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100, but its real legacy lies in its groundbreaking 14-minute mini-movie, directed by John Landis. It showed the scope of what music videos could be, inspiring a host of musical artists, directors and choreographers to blow their budgets sky-high - to say nothing of, years later, inspiring a prison yard full of Filipino jailbirds to dance like the zombie apocalypse had arrived.
What brings murderous rival gangs together more than dancing? Nothing, if we're to believe the famed video for "Thriller"'s third single (and second No. 1 on the Hot 100.) "Beat It" is notable not just for its attempt at Crip vs. Blood detente (real gang members appeared in the video), but for following "Billie Jean" into the breach and further breaking down MTV's near-total lack of African-American artists. Unlike "Billie Jean," "Beat It" spoke MTV's language. It boasted a rock vibe and featured Eddie Van Halen's dazzling guitar solo (reportedly performed gratis, much to the regret of EVH's accountant). Such compelling fusions of R&B to rock and music to video were not just good news (and good business) for Jackson and for MTV, but also for clothing designer J. Parks, who sold one of those red, multi-zippered leather jackets to every Jackson wannabe on the planet.
Quick: name another song by one of pop music's iconic artists that insists he/she is NOT getting laid. You can't. Theories abound about the origins of the Jackson-penned lyric: Either it's about a crazed fan whose delusion that Jackson was the father of her child went so deep she eventually threatened to harm herself and the baby, or it was at the very least a cautionary tale about groupies in general. The track itself is a sonic marvel, with its stark, driving snare and hi-hat figure, throbbing bass, sparse keyboards and Jackson's extraordinary vocal hiccups and wordless exclamations. The song's video is every bit as stunning, but supposedly required threats by CBS Records chief Walter Yetnikoff before MTV would play it. "Billie Jean" was Thriller's second single, but its first Hot 100 No. 1, and the song that drove the album to the top of the charts as well.
"Human Nature," which peaked at No. 7 on the Hot 100, is one of Jackson's best ballads, and one of the few songs to capture the wide-eyed, childlike wonder that is part and parcel of his personality. He didn't write it - Steve Porcaro of Toto and John Bettis did - but Jackson's breathy vocals and the gossamer harmonies perfectly capture the mood and spirit of the song. In retrospect, it can be viewed as a sad song, however: The anticipation that Jackson sings about with such relish - of breaking out, hitting the streets, connecting with strangers - was a pleasure that was denied him for at least the last quarter century of his life, in large degree because of the unprecedented fame and fanfare generated by the success of "Thriller."
"P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)"
Having already scored its major points, "Thriller" begins to wind down with "P.Y.T.," an bit of pop that reflects the superficial aspects of Jackson's artistry from years past. Compelling enough to make it to No. 10 on the Hot 100, the song - a co-write from Jackson and James Ingram - is lighthearted stuff, evidenced by the chipmunk-style vocals tacked on near the end. Fun fact: Jackson's sisters Janet and LaToya sing backup on the track, portraying the pretty young things instructed to "repeat after me" and sing "na na na." Which is exactly what they do.
"The Lady In My Life"
The other Thriller track (besides "Baby Be Mine") that was not released as a single, "The Lady in My Life" is an quiet album closer, considering everything that preceded it. Written by Rod Temperton and Quincy Jones, it's a serviceable R&B seduction ballad, but not the sort of song that is likely to shake the echoes of "Thriller," Beat It" and "Billie Jean" out of your head.